JK Rowling's failure after Harry Potter can teach us something

Lessons we can learn form JK Rowling success and failure the Harry Potter way

JK Rowling (she of Harry Potter fame if that needs saying) published an ‘ordinary’ crime fiction novel “The Cuckoo’s Calling” under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. It got nice reviews from publishing-industry magazines but was virtually ignored by the mainstream press – and the public. It sold 1,500 hardcover copies in the U.K. and fewer in the U.S.; but let’s be generous and call it another 1500.

Then someone (ahem) tipped off London’s Sunday Times that Rowling was the book’s author, and suddenly 300,000 more copies had to be printed. I will save you doing the maths;

THAT IS ONE HUNDRED TIMES MORE SALES – Instantly. (Read more here.)

I wrote recently about the discovery of a quote (see image) that describes best the apparently fickle – even random - nature of success.


The implications are harsh and comforting at the same time. Harsh if your gifts are not in harmony with the taste of the times (which explains why many great artists achieve fame posthumously) and it is comforting to know that isn’t anything that you can necessarily control.

1. Be in tune with the taste of your times

This is actually Marketing 101. Find out what the customers wants. You can luck into it because you followed your passion – or you can just ask people… Marketing is simple (but hard) because it is in essence about finding out what people want – and providing them with that. Fortunately there are a few ways to assess needs that don’t rely on sheer luck.

THEN – when you have figured that out, there are a few more lessons you can take from JKR.

2. Do the work

Nothing would have happened if she never wrote the books. She arguably suffered through some tough times to deliver the books and by all accounts it was a tough slug for a single mum. But she did it. Job #1: Just do it.

3. Learn your craft

In JK Rowling’s case, we have an able writer. Few call here a literary genius, but at least very competent.  She wasn’t first, and she wasn’t the greatest but she was good enough to eventually be noticed. No matter what it is you do, there is an element of craft. (Including being a retail assistant…) Learn your craft – heaven knows a bit of training would not go amiss in most shops.

4. Persistence

JKR was famously rejected twelve times for her Harry Potter novels. Her stories about wizards and witches just happened to tap into the zeitgeist of the time. Arguably it may even have created a wave of vampire-lit that followed. But none of that would have happened if she quit after the first, second or even 12th rejection.

And that is pretty much it. The rest, as they say, is Deo Volente.


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