Let Me Have My Turn!

Today I stumbled across this article by Lynn Shepherd.  Claiming that J.K Rowling should stop writing if she cares about the craft, it accuses her of hogging the market and keeping genuinely underappreciated authors like herself from gaining any readership.

The article is ridiculous, her arguments laughable.  Despite Shepherd’s assertion that her piece is about more than sour grapes, all that she’s saying really boils down to that.

Believe it or not, the book market is big.  There is plenty of room for more than one author to find success.  For every person looking for the next book by Rowling, Meyer, or Martin, there is another looking for new authors like their favorites.  Can you name every author on the New York Times Bestseller List?  Every author who has a book sold at Barnes & Noble?  

And failing the mainstream, you have niche markets and independent author markets.  The audience is there for your book, but Ms. Shepherd is merely suffering from tunnel vision.  She wants the spot that Rowling currently occupies, and nothing else will do.

If fame and fortune is what you’re really after, you’re in the wrong business.  You don’t “need” fame and fortune, nor do you “need” shelf space.  If you’re not writing for yourself, you shouldn’t be writing at all.  Rowling was a fluke.  An explosive fluke, but a fluke nonetheless.  There are more books in existence than the average reader can even hope to read in their lifetimes, and just as many authors behind them.  Only the smallest fraction of them gain any notoriety, and it’s been that way since the dawn of the printing press, far before Rowling’s time.  It’s not Rowling’s fault that Ms. Shepherd, or I, or anyone else can’t make our big break.  It’s the fault of the market:

And then there was the whole Cuckoo’s Calling saga. I know she used a pseudonym, and no doubt strenuous efforts were indeed made to conceal her identity, but there is no spell strong enough to keep that concealed for long. Her boy hero may be able to resort to an invisibility cloak, but in the real world, they just don’t exist. With a secret as sensational as that, it was only a matter of time until the inevitable happened, and then, of course, this apparently well-written and well-received crime novel which seems to have sold no more than 1,500 copies under its own steam, suddenly went stratospheric. And as with The Casual Vacancy, so with this. The book dominated crime lists, and crime reviews in newspapers, and crime sections in bookshops, making it even more difficult than it already was for other books – just as well-written, and just as well-received – to get a look in.

(Shepherd, HuffPo)

Shepherd notes the phenomenon that an otherwise well written and received book didn’t gain a lot of attention until a famous name became attached to it.  After it was known that Rowling actually wrote the book, fans scrambled over each other to get their hands on a copy.  But why did Rowling choose to write under a pseudonym?  Nobody cared about the book until her identity was revealed.  She even saw rejections from prominent agents who were ignorant of the author’s true credentials.  This phenomenon points out that the quality of a piece in the modern market matters less than the name of the person presenting it.  That’s not Rowling’s fault, that’s the fault of a fickle marketplace.  Ms. Shepherd is angry at the wrong person, but it just wouldn’t do to lash out at your potential fans while begging them to buy your book, would it?

So why don’t we stop pretending that it’s unfair how Rowling won’t step down so someone else can have a turn?  Book markets don’t work that way.  “OK, Rowling, we’ll let you retire.  Now we’ll move on to the next author to reward with fame and fortune!”  Attitudes like this, that are rooted in jealousy and the arrogant idea that you, too, could be there if that famous person wasn’t in your way, disrespect the reason why many writers do what they do in the first place.  There are other ways to pursue fame, and none of them are reliable.  Not everyone gets a “turn.”  You’re dealing with public opinion, which is largely influenced by a media machine aimed only at making more money for themselves.  It’s not the fault of media darlings like J.K. Rowling, and to claim otherwise is the definition of sour grapes.

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