What the Rowling Experiment tells us about author platform

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.

Platform 9 and 3/4 at Kings Cross Station in London. Photo by Jenny Rollo http://www.sxc.hu/profile/buzzybee
Platform 9 and 3/4 at Kings Cross Station in London. Photo by Jenny Rollo

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.

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10 Comments

  1. Thanks, Kristen. Great observations. I’ve also struggled with this question – should I use a different form of my name for writing vs. visual art? (L. Davis Carpenter vs. Lausanne Davis Carpenter). Part of me likes the idea of keeping them separate for PR and search engines’ sake. But the other part thinks, I am ME. What difference does it make? I’m still undecided.

    1. Yeah, it’s a difficult decision. But think about it this way. With one name, you’d have one website with an “Art” section and a “Books” section. With different names, you’d need different sites. It’s twice the work.

  2. Great article Kristen – and I love your website! It looks wonderful!

    1. Thanks, Taryn! 🙂

  3. I wondered about this too. My theory for her using a pseudo name is this. She’s like an actor who is type casted into one specific character and cannot break that mold. We associate her so tightly with Harry Potter that when she wrote an adult book, The Casual Vacancy, she wasn’t as warmly received. And I have to admit, it was a dark and sad story, but if you think about it, SO IS HARRY POTTER. And I have to admit, it was difficult to read foul language from a JK Rowling story. But that said. I wonder if that is why she changed to a false name?

    1. I don’t know if we’ll ever get the whole truth. Whether it was a branding ploy or a marketing experiment, it clearly didn’t work. It just showed that for an unknown author to sell books is really hard. Some sources say the book sold 500 copies and some say 1500 copies before the news broke. I know writers who would be thrilled with those numbers. But still, that was considered inadequate.

  4. Robin Hobb decided (or was advised to do) the same thing when she launched her Assassin Series. Now Hobb sells millions but she is quite happy to sell small numbers as Megan Lindholm, who writes a quite different type of story.
    It CAN work.
    How many people rushed out to buy Galbraith’s book simply because of Harry Potter – and were startled to find it was completely different?
    I think it was a useful experiment – although I agree about having more than one author platform. I can confirm that it IS a lot of work…

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Andrew.

  5. *IF* I ever manage to have a platform that sells books, I will probably drop pseudonyms and use that one name. But when you’re only Robert Galbraith anyway, and don’t have the luxury of being able to out yourself later as being a big brand that WILL sell books, I will continue to keep trying new names or new brands and new genres in the hopes that something, someday, will “take”. THEN I can out all the no-names to being THAT one.

    1. Yeah, if nothing else, this whole Galbraith thing torpedoes the idea that a good book sells itself. But what really annoys me is that 1500 in three months wasn’t good enough…

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