Wednesday, July 17, 2013

J.K. Rowling and the "Discovery Problem" in Crime Fiction

By Nancy Bilyeau

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.

The gig is up, and "Robert Galbraith," debut author of the detective story The Cuckoo's Calling, is proven to be J.K. Rowling, creator of the Harry Potter series and multi-millionaire. The novel hit No. 1 on amazon and shall soon rule the print bestseller lists with the vigor of a vengeful Snape.

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.

On her website, J.K. Rowling 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.

Still, The Cuckoo's Calling was well reviewed and it received bookstore placement. Something else is at work here, and it was M.J. Rose again who shared something interesting at last Friday's International Thriller Writers' membership meeting of Thrillerfest.

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"
But then I remembered Sunday night. A new mystery series was on "Masterpiece Mystery," called Endeavour. At the last minute, my husband and I, mystery fanatics, wavered between Endeavour and a classic episode of Columbo starring Ruth Gordon. Endeavour won--and I'm happy it did. I'm enjoying the series'  acting, deft layering of clues, and 1960s-era detail. But then, Endeavour isn't even totally new, it's an "origins story" of Inspector Morse, written so well by Colin Dexter and portrayed so memorably by John Thaw. What if the "Masterpiece Mystery" had been a completely new character and story? Might Columbo have won, even though I've seen that episode at least three times? I was tired Sunday night, and perhaps on some level I craved "guaranteed" entertainment.

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

Touchstone Books/U.S.



  1. What sells is, well, a mystery--I guess it would be thrilling to discover the secret of great sales. But I think it's very cool to think of JKR striking out on the basis of her work, not her name--kudos to her! Great piece.

  2. Lovely post, Nancy. And I'd love to add that I just raced through The Crown, and ran out yesterday to pick up The Chalice! I'm sorry we didn't have a chance to meet for more than a split-second at HNS.

  3. Thank you Anne. I do admire JK Rowling for wanting to write and keep pushing herself to try different sorts of stories. She's definitely not pulling a Jerry Seinfeld here.

  4. Kate, Thank you for for telling me that!! It is so nice of you, and yes, I wish we'd had longer at HNS. It was my first one, and I was trying to figure it all out. I do plan to go to the next one, hope you will too.

  5. Great post, Nancy. I think the coolest part about Rowling's story is that it reveals what keeps us all going: the journey of writing and discovery. Needing to put sentences on the page and spin a story is the passion that drives most successful writers, not the worries about publication or the tireless drumbeat of self promotion we all seem to have to march to these days. My hat's off to Rowling for just doing what she loves best, any way she can, even if it means hiding from the spotlights for a while.

  6. I'm definitely coming to the next HNS, Nancy - I look forward to seeing you there!

  7. So romance readers are the risk-takers and thriller readers play it safe?

  8. Great post. And I can certainly attest to how difficult it is for a new crime fiction/thriller writer to break in.

  9. Holly: I agree! It is great that JK wants to keep writing, she set herself to master a new genre, the detective story. She clearly loves the craft.

    Patricia: Yes. It seems that romance is the easiest genre to break into

  10. Great post Nancy. I wasn't tempted to read JK's first book after Harry Potter, didn't appeal to me at all. But, I am thinking of reading this one. And, I must have a look at your novels!

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