There are not that many novelists who would be delighted with selling 500 copies of a book in four months. J.K. Rowling is one of them.
Right now everyone is taking a peek at the writing of "Rowlbraith:"
"The buzz in the street was like the humming of flies. Photographers stood massed behind barriers patrolled by police, their long-snouted cameras poised, their breath rising like steam. Snow fell steadily on to hats and shoulders; gloved fingers wiped lenses clear. From time to time there came outbreaks of desultory clicking, as the watchers filled the waiting time by snapping the white canvas tent in the middle of the road, the entrance to the tall red-brick apartment block behind it, and the balcony on the top floor from which the body had fallen."
I think that's a damn good opening paragraph--and I'm not alone. The crime novel earned good reviews and glowing recommendations from authors while, all insist, they thought they were reading the work of Robert Galbraith, vaguely defined as "ex military." That is surprising. It's extremely difficult for a debut author without a "platform" to garner this attention. Galbraith couldn't be interviewed or show up for a photo op at a bookstore launch, since I assume drag isn't Rowling's thing. Although this sounds fishy, I am determined to be generous and attribute the critical success to Little, Brown being a very good publisher.
said, "I hoped to keep this secret a little longer, because being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience. It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation, and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name."
Right now everyone is focusing on Rowling's being able to pull off this magician trick, while pointing fingers at the commissioning book editors who last year didn't want to buy the novel when they thought they were assessing Galbraith. The game of gotcha is afoot.
But I keep thinking of those 500 sold copies. (According to The Guardian, 450 were sold in England.) The book was well reviewed, with a smart cover. Yet that was the best it could do.
Which brings me to last weekend's Thrillerfest, the annual conference in New York City bringing together hundreds of published authors, aspiring writers, agents, editors, and reporters. I had a fantastic time, happily serving on the panel "Who Killed Jack the Ripper? Putting the Mystery in History," moderated by bestseller Steve Berry and populated by fellow historical writers C.W. Gortner, David Liss, William Dietrich, David Morrell, and M.J. Rose.
It was M.J. Rose, author of the enthralling Seduction: A Novel and founder of Author Buzz, who first told me about the "discovery problem" in fiction. Novels by debut authors keep hitting the shelves, but some are having a hard time finding readers, no matter how well written. Newspapers and magazines have eliminated their review sections; bookstores are struggling; fiction fights for people's attention as twitter, Facebook and cable TV series beckon.
M.J. said that according to research conducted by the Codex Group, new thriller authors have the greatest challenge of all in finding readers, when compared to other genres.
Wait a minute, you're thinking. Don't thrillers (or "crime fiction," as the category is called in the UK) have a lock on the top of the bestseller lists? Yes, they do--the ones written by established authors, often called the franchise or brand name writers. The newbies have a rough time getting attention in the shadow of these brands.
I reached out to Peter Hildick-Smith of the Codex Group to go deeper.
"Among fiction fans, thriller and suspense fans are the most obsessed of all--telling us they primarily read authors they know and love most, to the exclusion of trying new writers," Peter emailed me. The debuts "have the greatest challenge trying to reach a new audience that simply isn't interested in reading unknown authors."
Romance readers are "more open to new voices," Peter explains. Of the number of books bought last year by fans of the thriller genre, 19 percent were written by unfamiliar authors--but when looking at fans' purchases of erotic romance, a whopping 45 percent were penned by new authors.
"Fans read their favorite category to satisfy different needs," Peter says. "My personal view: thriller fans want guaranteed, consistent entertainment with minimal risk of disappointment--romance readers want new experiences, to experiment and take risks."
At first I had a hard time relating to these statistics. I've always been open to new voices. I love to discover an author, and years before publishing my first novel I would make a purchase based on the cover design, the jacket copy and a scan of the first paragraph. But then, I don't confine myself to thrillers. I read historical fiction, literary fiction, young adult, nonfiction. You name it. I'm also a newsstand-magazine editor living in New York City, and so am part of a tribe that loves to discover: the new independent film, restaurant, rooftop bar, weekend bed-and-breakfast, shoe store. I'm not obsessed with minimizing risk.
|Masterpiece Mystery's "Endeavour"|
I'm beginning to see why Robert Galbraith didn't stand a chance.
Nancy Bilyeau's historical thriller The Chalice is on sale in North American and the United Kingdom. The first book in the series, The Crown, reached No. 1 on amazon's bestseller list and was on the short list of the Crime Writers' Association's Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Awards for 2012. The Chalice received a "Top Pick" review in March 2013 from Romantic Times and was praised by the Historical Novel Society: "The Chalice is writ large across England and the Continent as history and supernatural mysticism combine in this compelling thriller." For more information, go to www.nancybilyeau.com.