J.K. Rowling and the Death of the Long Tail

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Joel Ryan/ DAPD / AP

J.K. Rowling arrives at the World Premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 in London, on Nov. 11, 2010.

By now you’re no doubt aware that Robert Galbraith, the unknown author of a new detective novel called The Cuckoo’s Calling, is actually J.K. Rowling, gazillion-selling Harry Potter creator and epoch-making publishing phenom. Almost as soon as word got out, sales of the novel went from extremely modest (as of last week, it had sold about 500 copies in the US after its April release) to stratospheric (it is now the number-one bestseller at Amazon, the publisher is raising the print run from 10,000 copies to 300,000, first editions are going for $300 on eBay, and a signed first edition got a bid of $3,000).

Business Insider states, with some justification, that “every aspiring author should be depressed” by this story. Rowling’s experiment with pseudonymity constitutes:

a truly illuminating example of the fundamental unfairness and absurdity that lies at the heart of the book publishing industry.

It’s long been known that the publishing industry works through sheer numbers. Publishers throw everything at the wall and see what sticks, and the mega-hits, of which there are few, pay for the flops, of which there are many. What Rowling’s experiment reveals, however, is that even a great book by an unknown author can simply get lost.

As bad as that is, the full picture is probably worse.

The Financial Times observes that roughly concurrently with the Rowling/Galbraith publishing earthquake, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke quit the Spotify streaming service in protest that its royalty model puts smaller musicians at a disadvantage. As the producer Nigel Godrich put it, “Small labels and artists can’t even keep their lights on” from the pittances they receive. The big guys still make all the money, and the little guys have an even worse time than they used to.

But hold on a second. Wasn’t the democratization of the digital era supposed to take power away from the behemoths and deliver it to the small artist? Wasn’t it supposed to mark the rebirth of the midlist author, once shunted into obscurity by blockbuster-hungry agents and publishers? Chris Anderson thought so. Seven years ago, he wrote a book, The Long Tail, heralding the dawn of a new era in which the long tail of “lesser-selling works of commerce and art could come to rival big hits in profitability, if not sales.”

The opposite has happened. Except for the occasional outlier, it’s the existing superstars — people who are already a brand — who continue to reap the big profits, with even less room for unknowns to enter.  “We used to operate on the 80-20 rule,” Jonny Geller, joint chief executive of UK literary and talent agency Curtis Brown, told the Financial Times, citing the Pareto principle that 80% of sales came from 20% of contributors. “Now, it’s more like 96 to four.”

Judith Levy graduated from Duke with degrees in English and History and holds a master’s in International Relations from Oxford. She was the Soref Research Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a managing editor for equity research at ABN Amro in New York, and the author of Wall Street-based mystery novel, A Falling Knife. The views expressed are solely her own. This article was published in partnership with Ricochet, a site that provides right-of-center podcasts, content and conversation for conservatives and libertarians.