Cuckoos’s Calling: Success Not from Quality but JKR Fame?

Joanne Rowling published Cuckoo’s Calling under a pseudonym, Robert Galbraith, and also beneath a contrived identity; Galbraith was supposedly a veteran now working in security services. The book was turned down by more than one publisher but was picked up eventually by the same house, different imprint, that published Casual Vacancy. Did they know that Galbraith was Rowling? They deny it.

Ms. Rowling is open about her decption and what motivated her; she wanted to write, be published, and be accepted or rejected outside the Harry Potter critical bubble. I can imagine, if I doubt anyone can really appreciate (as no one living has gone through the crucible of Potter Mania as the author), how liberating and exciting this kind of gamesmanship must have been for her.

There are two or three questions about this approach that are worth exploring, most obviously the ethics of posing as a combat veteran. Today I want to discuss briefly — in hopes of opening the question and hearing what you think — the idea that Cuckoo’s Calling was published under a pseudonym because the author wondered if she would ever really know whether her new books were good or if publishers fell all over themselves to publish her because her fiction has a guaranteed global audience in the millions. Calling, if the Little, Brown imprint did not know Galbraith was Rowling under wraps, seems to have satisfied the first part of that question and the largely favorable reviews the second.

Or does it? Rochelle Deans sent me an article by Duncan J. Watts, J. K. Rowling and the Chamber of Literary Fame, that argues, no, the fact that Rowling’s effort at disguise was published and received kind notices proves nothing. What matters is that the book sold less than 500 copies to actual readers before her cover was blown. Their argument is based on the tests they have put to the theory they call the ‘Cumulative Advantage Hypothesis.’ The experiment went like this:

Several years ago, my colleagues Matthew Salganik and Peter Dodds at Columbia University and I challenged this conventional wisdom with an unusual experiment. We set out to prove that market success is driven less by intrinsic talent than by “cumulative advantage,” a rich-get-richer process in which early, possibly even random events are amplified by social feedback and produce large differences in future outcomes.

To test our cumulative-advantage hypothesis, we recruited almost 30,000 participants to listen, rate and download songs by bands they had never heard of. Unbeknownst to the participants, they were randomly assigned to one of two groups: an “independent” group, which saw only the names of the bands and the songs, and a “social influence” group, whose participants could see how many times songs had been downloaded by others in the group. In addition, those in the social-influence group were assigned to one of eight different “worlds” that were created concurrently, allowing us to effectively “run” history many times.

If quality determined success, the same songs should have won every time by a margin that was independent of what people knew about the choices of others. By contrast, if success was driven disproportionately by a few early downloads, subsequently amplified by social influence, the outcomes would be largely random and would also become more unequal as the social feedback became stronger.

What we found was highly consistent with the cumulative-advantage hypothesis. First, when people could see what other people liked, the inequality of success increased, meaning that popular songs became more popular and unpopular songs become less so. Second and more surprisingly, each song’s popularity was incredibly unpredictable: One song, for example, came in first out of 48 we sampled in one “world,” but it came in 40th in another.

In the real world, of course, it’s impossible to travel back in time and start over, so it’s much harder to argue that someone who is incredibly successful may owe their success to a combination of luck and cumulative advantage rather than superior talent. But by writing under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith, an otherwise anonymous name, Rowling came pretty close to recreating our experiment, starting over again as an unknown author and publishing a book that would have to succeed or fail on its own merits, just as Harry Potter had to 16 years ago — before anyone knew who Rowling was.

The authors believe that Ms. Rowling’s recreation of their experiment confirms their findings in spectacular fashion:

“The Cuckoo’s Calling” will now have a happy ending, and its success will only perpetuate the myth that talent is ultimately rewarded with success. What Rowling’s little experiment has actually demonstrated, however, is that quality and success are even more unrelated than we found in our experiment. It might be hard for a book to become a runaway bestseller if it’s unreadably bad (although one might argue that the Twilight series and “Fifty Shades of Grey” challenge this constraint), but it is also clear that being good, or even excellent, isn’t enough. As one of the hapless editors who turned down the Galbraith manuscript put it, “When the book came in, I thought it was perfectly good — it was certainly well-written — but it didn’t stand out.”

Watts then makes a leap that I think, following Ms Deans lead, shows the fault in his reasoning. He argues that Harry Potter, too, was only a success and a mania because of Cumulative Advantage or social-snowballing effect.

Had things turned out only slightly different, the real Rowling might have met with the same success as the fake Robert Galbraith, not the other way around. As hard as it is to imagine in the Harry Potter-obsessed world that we now inhabit, it’s entirely plausible that in this parallel universe, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” would just be a “perfectly good” book that never sold more than a handful of copies; Rowling would still be a struggling single mother in Manchester, England; and the rest of us would be none the wiser.

Watts, is, in effect, arguing that artistic success, musical or literary, is arbitrary (or based on shifting standards and public perception which comes to the same thing) rather than dependent on or reflective of the objective quality of any work. His error here, I think, is extrapolation from one book type to another. Instead of Cumulative Advantage theory, Ms Rowling’s lack of sales as Robert Galbraith, mystery writer, are better understood as an instance of Michael Jordan Syndrome.

I refer, of course, to the basketball legend’s serious foray into the world of professional baseball when at the height of his basketball prowess. At which venture, he failed, supposedly because of an inability to hit a Major League curve ball.

MJ’s failure on the baseball diamond did not mean that he was not a great athlete or that his success on the basketball court was more a function of marketing, public perception, and chance than his abilities to put ball in hop and lead a five man team. Far from it. It meant only that, having devoted himself from an early age to mastering the many physical skills and mental aspects to play basketball at the highest level, he could not convert those skills into the completely different skill set of hitting a professionally pitched baseball in a single season, a skill more than one observer has said is the single hardest task in team sports. You’ll recall that Jordan returned to the Chicago Bulls and won three more NBA championships.

The analogy? Ms Rowling is sui generis as a writer of imaginative fiction, ‘fantasy’ if you like. The Hogwarts Saga masterful blend of more than ten genres, its host of deftly drawn characters, the humor of it all and its alchemical genius in engaging and transforming readers puts her into a class by herself. We have learned since Deathly Hallows that the author is good writer of socially critical parables and of detective fiction. Good, even very good, but not genre-creating-and-defining great. Which tells us what?

The poor sales of Cuckoo’s Calling and the positive if not exuberant reviews certainly tell us nothing about why Harry Potter, with its initial 500 book print run, became the great success it did. watts’ theory may tel us why Harry Potter became a mania after it became a great success but ‘Cumulative Advantage’ does not explain the Cinderella story of how this book first became a phenomenon when it had no no advantage accumulated. The growth of the Potter books’ success was by word of mouth, hence the mania wasn’t arbitrary — and I believe (and have argued for a decade) that the cause of the mania was the work’s artistry, meaning, and consequent reader experience (the Eliade Thesis).

I’m obliged to wonder, consequently, if Watts’ research is not akin to dietary studies in which the variables and immeasurables are much greater than the control group and parameters can contain — and hence all but worthless in demonstrating anything conclusively.

That being said, I doubt as well that it says much about Cuckoo’s Calling‘s sales before the revelation of William Galbraith’s real identity. Yes, it could be that, without Ms Rowling’s name on the cover, the book would never had sold very well. That is as easily explained by Ms Rowling only being a ‘good enough to be published but not great’ writer of detective fiction as by Mr Watts’ denial of cause-effect relation in a book’s merits and its reception.

I covet your comments and correction, as always. Thank you, Rochelle, for the link and guiding thoughts!


  1. A nice summary, John. Like I think I said, his article makes sense for me until the part where he says that different circumstances would lead to HP being less popular. From what I understand, that 500-book first run was distributed mainly to libraries and the books got no advertisement whatsoever. Word of mouth made them popular enough in Britain to cause a huge auction for American rights, but even then, I don’t think Pottermania truly existed until 2000, when the fourth book came out.

    And isn’t GoF the one Rowling considers ‘crucial’?

  2. waynestauffer says

    Stephen King did the same kind of thing with his Bachman stories after 13 SK novels, to see if he still had the chops. He did.

  3. Steve Martin once said that success wasn’t all luck or all talent, but that luck usually only arrived at the door of those who were prepared. He was referring to the necessity of working hard and developing your talent and at the same time acknowledging that plenty of talented people did not get lucky. His conclusion is that, in the arts at least, you need both.

    I assume the world is full of good writers with unpublished manuscripts sadly unread. That’s life. JKR’s first novel was charming and well-written, but it was also in the right place at the right time. There hadn’t been any new kids books for the 10-14’s that was well written and substantial in a while. It filled a need. It enjoyed modest success, but only her subsequent books revealed a level of planning and artistry that would skyrocket the series to previously unimagined fame . If the books hadn’t continued to become larger, better, deeper, the phenom likely wouldn’t have occurred. There was exponential momentum, but deserved. Her timing was perfect, but so was the product. Is timing the same thing as luck? I suppose the more modest person would call it luck while someone else might assume credit for timing. Seems to me an artist needs preparation (talent or skill), timing or luck, and tenacity or perseverance. I believe Jo had all that and more.

  4. Dolores Gordon-Smith says

    That was a really interesting take on a really interesting article, John. I. I must say I agree with Nana that HP was such a huge success because it was in the right place at the right time (children’s fiction had been in the doldrums for ages) and, what’s more, was mercifully free of the cynical winks to an adult audience that plagued junior fiction. However, overarching all of that, was that HP is just so very, very good.
    Cuckoo, on the other hand, is fine. Perfectly good, absolutely OK and with some very nice touches, but not a world I want to go on living in after I’ve finished the book. It’s not just a question of genres – I’d happily move into all sorts of fictional worlds. I can see why JKR gave herself the challenge of Cuckoo and it’s sequel, but she can, I my opinion, write fantasy better than anyone else alive. It might be greedy, but I wish she’d write more!

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