Publishing Gamemakers Desperate to Conjure up Another Rowling

A recent Wall Street Journal article profiles newcomer author Erin Morgenstern, whose debut novel The Night Circus is due out next month. The article posits the question of how far publishers are willing to go to find something to replace the Harry Potter cash train they have been riding . Yet, in profiling Morgenstern, the WSJ (inadvertently, perhaps) reveals much about the way the machinery of the publishing industry resembles the Gamemakers of The Hunger Games, but without ever really noticing that the most popular books, like Hunger Games and Twilight are those which are not so much Harry copy-cats as those which draw on the “bag of tricks” used so adroitly by Rowling. Follow me after the jump for more observations on these paradoxes and more.

Alexandra Alter, author of the Wall Street Journal article, clearly enjoyed pointing out the ways in which the publishing industry is trying to find the “next” J.K. Rowling, while also drawing a fun image of Morgenstern. Ironically, publishers initially had no idea what a jewel they had with Harry Potter, but now, having seen what a juggernaut a magical “young adult” novel can be, they are willing to pour a huge investment into a gamble on Morgenstern and perhaps others like her. Here is a first-time author, whose book has not even been released yet, getting the kind of treatment we saw with the latter Harry Potter novels. The publishing mavens, like a Hunger Games prep team, are clearly shaping Morgenstern into the kind of author they think will sell millions of books for them. Already, as we can see from the article, these author stylists are pushing Morgenstern to crank out sequels, even though she sees her work as a stand-alone. They are so eager to make money from her ideas that they’ll toss her into the arena as often as it takes.

That treatment of the author as a commodity comes through most clearly in the article through the off-hand mention of Morgenstern’s marriage as a casualty of her sudden, manufactured success (really, the book isn’t even out yet). Though her husband was obviously a major force is getting the book completed and published, Morgenstern has separated from him. One has to wonder if the marriage was damaged not by the story Morgenstern created, but by the author the book industry is trying to create.

Morgenstern does seem to have plenty of her own personality (and there is a childish streak in me that actually hopes her Ouija boards and Tarot cards, tools of invocational magic, will give the Harry Haters something to really knot their knickers), but, in many ways, she already shows clear signs of being a product of the industry, like so many other popular entertainers today. This is not to say she is un-talented. She may be very gifted and the author of an amazing book (just as some of those nice kids on the Disney Channel, or that darling Taylor Swift are really quite talented and hardworking), but she is also being propelled along by the industry that sees its future in manipulating her image and her creativity to its advantage. Does this desperation indicate the industry’s precarious position? Are these stylists less our young, brilliant Cinna and more the aging, grotesque Tigris, desperate to stay in the Game, no matter the cost or the alterations that become necessary?

As The Night Circus finally does debut, it will be fascinating to see how it does, both as art and as commodity for the publishing industry, and we hope that Morgenstern, the star of her own bizarre circus, will soar though the air with the greatest of ease instead of getting fed to the lions if she does not please her handlers.

Thoughts? Comments? Peanuts?
Thanks so much to James for the link!


  1. Arabella Figg says

    Just nuts. This makes me absolutely not want to read it, apart from the occultic elements being a turn-off. It’s all too manufactured and slick-shiny.

  2. It’s a shame you and the others are so convinced she’s going the route of Harry Potter & Twilight. Take a look on her blog and see the statement she wrote back about the WSJ.

  3. Arabella Figg says

    Julie, sure, this wasn’t her intention as a writer. But it’s certainly the intention of publishers and filmmakers everywhere–get (or create) that hot cash cow everyone wants to read and see, and that’s what the WSJ article is about–deliberately orchestrating an unknown author into a Rowling or Meyer from the top down instead of from the bottom up. The whole marketing campaign, right down to games and tchotchkes…I bet this has Morgenstern’s head spinning. I wish her the best as she navigates the pressures.

  4. Indeed, Julie, we aren’t bashing Morgenstern or her book at all (heck, how could we bash a book that we haven’t even read! Oh, wait, there are people who do that all the time, but, we are not among them. I do plan to give it a read.). Rather, we are interested in the way the publishing industry mirrors the malicious Gamemakers in their desire to have the next cash cow, as Arabella points out.
    I certainly do wish this promising author (who indeed has an interesting blog) all the best, and I hope she pleases those who expect her to make fortunes for them, or she will be the one they punish, just as the same machinery punishes actors, musicians, and other authors who have not lived up to the machinery’s expectations after being “sensations” before anyone saw the movie, heard the album, or read the book.

  5. I’m not very clear on all the why’s and wherefore’s, but perhaps this would be a good time to discuss the general way in which a consumer model and the demands of the market manipulate art. Is art for consumption, or does purposing art for consumption degrade it in some way?

  6. Tinuvielas says

    “Is art for consumption, or does purposing art for consumption degrade it in some way?”
    If the latter, then Shakespeare’s art would of necessity be degraded… I’m not with the “l’art pour l’art”-faction, and I guess that without the market(ing)-machinery, neither of us would have read Harry, Twilight or The Hunger Games. In that respect, I tend to see art as part of a cultural discourse, regardless of the PR-machinery (in fact, I usually wait that out before reading the latest craze, see if it has got any substance. See Shakespeare… P). Kat & Co. went their way regardless, too, didn’t they…? As did the spectators. Whether we like the stuff the market offers us or not is entirely another question, one that depends rather more on the author’s skill, and one the PR-guys have to get their heads around.
    On the other hand, how many good stuff in letters is out there that we’ll never get to see…? The market does act as a lens to concentrate the creative rays, so to speak. But then, how much of the world do we never get to see… Does it matter? After all, it’s really all in our heads, isn’t it?

  7. I’m hoping it’s not just all in our heads.

  8. Of course it is happening inside your head, but why on earth should that mean that it isn’t real?

  9. I’ve been zinged by Deathly Hallows wisdom. Thanks, Rochelle. 😉

    Heh heh, so do universals have an ontological reality of their own, especially beauty? Maybe now I’m just pushing the envelope.

  10. Just ran across this review on the net which seems pertinent to the “reality in your head”-question (though rather less the original one about art and consumption…):

    Is this just New-Age-nonsense, given the website? Does it mean the same thing as the Rowling-quote? I’d be very curious what you think!

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