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Quick bestseller underscores writers’ struggles

“The Cuckoo’s Calling” became a runaway bestseller when it was revealed that J.K. Rowling wrote the book.EPA/file

Jodi Picoult has written 22 books that have sold over 22 million copies. She is a literary superstar.

From her writing post in Hanover, N.H., she often uses her status to help unknown authors find their toeholds — tweeting their maiden book launches and writing blurbs for their book jackets. But then along comes news like this week's: A critically acclaimed but paltry-selling book by an unknown, first-time author was actually written by Harry Potter's creator, J.K. Rowling. It immediately became a runaway bestseller.

Rowling's pseudonymous maneuver has reignited a debate in the writing community: In this age of e-books, self-publishing, and increasingly consolidated publishing houses, how does an unknown writer, even one with clear talent, break through?


"The message is that it's very hard to publish in this market as an unknown — which is a crying shame," Picoult said.

Publishing experts say the issue has long dogged new writers. It was tough to shine in the shadow of Charles Dickens, whose "The Old Curiosity Shop" fanned near riots in 1841 in New York Harbor as fans awaited a British ship carrying the next installment that would tell them the fate of Little Nell.

Yet the problem now — or the challenge, as some euphemistically phrase it — can feel much more pronounced in a digital universe that has opened publishing to everyone.

"The marketplace is so crowded now, so loud, that there's even more reluctance by readers to reach for something new," said Eve Bridburg, a literary agent and founder of Grub Street Inc., a Boston center for writers that teaches business and marketing skills.

Just ask Abi Maxwell.She grew up in New Hampshire and studied fiction at the University of Montana. Last year, she was working as an assistant at the library in Gilford,in central New Hampshire, when she got great news. Her book, "Lake People," had been selected for publication by Random House.


The book garnered good reviews — Jane Smiley, writing in Harper's, called its main character "beautifully precise."

Yet, it did not reach bestseller lists. (It is 115,026 on Amazon's print books bestseller list.)

Now, Maxwell, her husband, and their son have relocated to the Isle au Haut off Maine, lured by the island's offer of affordable housing.

"We were looking for a place where we could afford to keep me writing," she said.

For Maxwell, who is 33, the initially meager commercial success of "The Cuckoo's Calling" when it was published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith reinforced a fact she has come to understand about publishing. "There are a lot of books out there that are very good and they're not bestsellers," she said.

But she said she takes heart, too, from the frenzy for the book after Rowling was outed. "I fall on the side of thinking that it's excellent news that people are buying books and that they are reading," Maxwell said.

"It might have been disheartening if her book had gotten bad reviews and then it sold," she said.

Rowling is such an exception in the publishing world, some say, that anything involving her seems only remotely connected to the realities other writers live with. Rowling, they say, is in a stratosphere all her own.

"It's a fine thing," said Arthur Golden, of Brookline, the best-selling author of "Memoirs of a Geisha." "It's only natural that people would want to read a book from an author like Rowling. It's astonishing how popular she is. It would worry me if it didn't happen."


Golden is at work on his second book. He tries not to think about its trajectory. For a book's success, he said, is figured by an alchemy all its own.

"I wish I could explain" the secret to writing a bestseller, he said. "I wish I could say I did a good job. But I can't delude myself. That's not the way it works. A lot of good books aren't successful, and a lot of not-so-good books are."

David Cameron, an aspiring writer and spokesman for Harvard Medical School, has tested the vagaries of the current publishing world. Last year, he copied a short story that had been published in The New Yorker and sent it to literary magazines across the country for consideration. Every magazine rejected the story, not because it had already been published but because it did not meet their criteria.

His takeaway from that experiment is the same he gleaned from the J.K. Rowling unveiling.

"We judge books by their covers all the time. When we pick up a book, we like to know who wrote it. If there is a buzz about who wrote it, we like to be a part of the buzz. The context is just as important as the words," he said. "Rowling is not just a writer, she's an institution, an ethos. She's a magnet. That's just the way the world works. It's just a reminder that personality is so essential."


Still, some said there need not be teeth gnashing over the vaulting success of celebrity. With time, Robert Galbraith might have found success on his own, said Colleen Mohyde, a literary agent in Winchester.

"If anything, it shows that a brand new author with really good writing got good reviews and was put out there to the public. And that's where it has to start for any author," Mohyde said.

She noted that a number of authors started slowly and built an audience over time, such as Gillian Flynn, whose third novel, "Gone Girl," was called her breakthrough by The New York Times, and James Patterson, whose first novel barely made a ripple. He continued working in advertising, writing on the side, until he wrote "Along Came a Spider," which made him a household name, she said.

Rowling's first Harry Potter book suffered multiple rejections before finding a publisher.

But Picoult, whose own success came with the publishing of her tenth book when it hit the Times' bestseller list, said despite the critical praise Galbraith received, he would have hit a commercial-success wall.

"I call it the American Idolization of the publishing world,'' she said. "You have to be fun on tour, connect with readers, be able to invite them into your life."

And therein lies the modern-day insurmountable hurdle for a Galbraith.

"She wouldn't have been able to go out and promote the book," Picoult said.


Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at sschweitzer@ globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @SarahSchweitzer.