J.K. Rowling, Success and Benchmarks

Q: How do you get a 507,000% increase in book sales overnight.

A: Be outed as J.K. Rowling.

The truth is that the whole situation with Rowling being revealed as the author behind the pseudonym Robert Galbraith has been blowing my mind the whole week. And I’m not alone. Sylvia Moreno Garcia (who is an awesome author, you should go out and buy her books) recently wrote a really interesting little piece about success in the writing profession.

And she’s totally right – when everybody thought that the book had been written by some random veteran, despite highly favorable reviews and despite being in a popular genre, she sold somewhere beween 500 and 1,500 copies.

In the UK, the second largest English language book market in the world.

Of course, once it was revealed that this, by all accounts good, mystery novel was written by one of the most famous authors in the world it sold a lot more copies.

Now one thing I’d like to do is, as a marketer, salute Rowling’s marketing prowess somewhat. Because what really hurt her first post-potter novel, the Casual Vacancy, was mostly that it wasn’t Harry Potter.

It got reviews, by people hoping for and expecting Potter saying that it presented “a numbing understanding of the difficulty of turning a dozen or so people’s tales into a story with genuine emotional resonance.”


These sorts of reviews probably hurt her sales. So she avoided that problem this time around by not letting anybody know, when reviewing, that the book was hers at all!

Then, after the reviews are in and favourable, Rowling is able to confirm she is in fact Galbraith and get the sort of sales an author with her profile can expect. It was a very clever marketing strategy, albeit one that depended upon being J.K. Rowling to begin with.

Most people won’t ever achieve her level of fame.

I joke about the day that my “young-adult kung-fu rebellion in dystopian Canada” novel makes me Bill Gates rich but, let’s be honest, I’m not in this game for the money. In fact authors who have careers in writing and who are just in it for the money are rare to the point of essential nonexistence.

You’re probably less likely striking it rich as a writer than you are as a musician. So if your benchmark for basic success is to strike it rich you’re probably never going to get there.

In order to be successful in a career it’s important to set performance goals. If you wanted to, for instance, be a web designer, you might set goals like:

  1. Learn basic HTML this year
  2. Design a website over the course of a month
  3. Produce blog content each day for a year
  4. Learn best practices in website design by taking a month-long online course
  5. Get a job where working with the website is part of your duties within three months
  6. Demonstrate facility working with the website over the course of employment
  7. Use that experience to push toward a job where that was the primary responsibility over the course of a year
  8. and so on…

Notice that these goals are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-targeted. Whereas the goal of “becoming a millionaire author like J.K. Rowling” is neither particularly realistic or time-targeted, and probably isn’t achievable either.

So we set the goals we can meet.

These goals might look like this:

  1. Write and sell some magazine articles because it seems like fun.
  2. Write 50,000 words in that November thing.
  3. Write a complete novel draft in a quarter.
  4. Write another novel that somebody might actually want to read over a year.
  5. Revise that novel and do rewrites over the course of a year.
  6. Take trilogy that came out of rewrites, shove it under a bed, and start again by writing short stories for a quarter to sharpen skills.
  7. Get feedback on short stories and improve writing accordingly, practicing daily for another quarter.
  8. Start yet another novel and finish a draft within two months.
  9. Edit novel over two more months to produce workable second draft.
  10. Form a workshopping group and workshop novel for a year.
  11. Start submitting workshopped novel and secure a first novel contract within a year.
  12. Sign first publishing contract.
  13. Get book to print and actually make money, any money, from fiction!!!
  14. Start from 8 and repeat until you have enough royalties coming in to make writing your own full-time job.

(Items 1-12 are actually the benchmarks I set for myself and subsequently passed. 13 and 14 are my current objectives.)

Notice that’s a hell of a lot of work for very little money. That’s because, as I said before, I’m not really in it for the money. I’ve had enough various day jobs (website designer, marketer, sales person, English teacher) that I know I can do some sort of work-work to make paying-bills money.

If, sometime in the future, I can abandon the day job and be a full-time author that’s the ultimate picture of success for me. And then I’ll worry about setting sales targets and such to make myself into a big name author or about getting the movie deal or whatever.

But that’s just what success looks like for me. With something as personal as art, any type of art, there are as many ways to succeed as there are people creating. What does success look like for you?

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