You Always Need Luck (the lesson of JK Rowling & Robert Galbraith)

Harry Potter author JK Rowling provided an excellent illustration of why you always need luck with her most recent book, “The Cuckoo’s Calling.”  Here’s a succinct Bloomberg article by Duncan Watts that explains the tale:

After finishing with the Potterverse, Rowling turned to adult fiction with her first non-Potter book, “The Casual Vacancy,” which met with mixed reviews, though it still became a bestseller.  Tired of seeing her work compared to her Harry Potter novels, she published her next book, “The Cuckoo’s Calling” under the pseudonym “Robert Galbraith.”

This new book met with rave reviews…and sold 1,000 copies.  And that’s where things might have stayed, if not for a very modern leak–the wife of a partner of Rowling’s law firm told her best friend, who then accidentally tweeted the secret while intending to DM it.

Instantly, the book leaped to the top of the bestseller lists–a boon for the publisher, though Rowling mourned the loss of her secret identity.

Duncan Watts cuts to the heart of the issue in his article:

“The Cuckoo’s Calling” will now have a happy ending, and its success will only perpetuate the myth that talent is ultimately rewarded with success. What Rowling’s little experiment has actually demonstrated, however, is that quality and success are even more unrelated than we found in our experiment. It might be hard for a book to become a runaway bestseller if it’s unreadably bad (although one might argue that the Twilight series and “Fifty Shades of Grey” challenge this constraint), but it is also clear that being good, or even excellent, isn’t enough. As one of the hapless editors who turned down the Galbraith manuscript put it, “When the book came in, I thought it was perfectly good — it was certainly well-written — but it didn’t stand out.”

We like to believe in the inevitability of success, especially in the startup world, where we often say that we “bet on the entrepreneur.”  But even a great entrepreneur needs luck.

The amazing thing is, this isn’t even the first time this has happened.  In the 1970s and 80s, Stephen King (perhaps the only author in the world more successful than Rowling) wrote a series of books under the pseudonym Richard Bachman:

As with Galbraith, Bachman’s books met with critical, but not commercial success.  “Thinner” sold 28,000 copies before Bachman’s outing as King–and 10X as many afterwards.

To maximize your chances of success, the key is to keep trying, since every startup gives an entrepreneur an opportunity to benefit from luck.

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