Every writer who’s ever attended a conference has cringed at being told to build platform. It seems especially difficult for novelists. A platform is simply the people who are willing to listen to you. It is, as Seth Godin says, permission.
J.K. Rowling had permission from millions, and gave it up to see how she’d fare if she were anyone else. Her newest novel, a mystery, was released under a pseudonym. Despite excellent reviews, it failed to gain traction.
Until the media reported that “Robert Galbraith” was really J.K. Rowling. Suddenly the book sells, because all those people whom Rowling had permission to market to were now paying attention.
The experiment is revealing in two ways. First, writing a good book is not the only thing a writer must do to sell books. The writer must also reach readers.
Second, it blows the lid off a fallacy I have debated for years.
Conventional wisdom says an author who builds brand in one genre creates a promise. The promise implied by the “J.K. Rowling” brand is “fantasy for young people.” This theory then states that when writing in a different genre, one should use a different name to create a different brand.
I have always thought this advice bogus, and the Rowling Experiment confirms it. The promise implied by an author’s name is that they write good books. Once an author has shown she can write good books in one genre, one can guess that she’ll probably write well in another genre also.
My advice to writers has always been to build brand in one name, whether that name is a pseudonym or not. It’s hard enough for a novelist to build platform once. To do it over and over for each genre one chooses is a monumental task that has now been proved pointless.
At a conference years ago, I asked an agent who was teaching a query-writing class whether I should include my journalism experience in a novel query, because news writing is so different from fiction.
“Sure,” she said. “If you’re published as a journalist, that shows you can write. The agents you query will want to know that.”
The same holds true for novel-writing in different genres. We know J.K. Rowling can write. Robert Galbraith? We have no idea.
There are many good reasons for using a pseudonym, but starting from zero to build a new reputation in a different genre isn’t one of them.
Once you’ve made a name for yourself, stick with it.