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Monday, 14 November 2016 22:00

How do unknown authors achieve success with their first books?

If you’re a million dollar author like J.K. Rowling, creator of the Harry Potter series, it’s easy to achieve success with subsequent books. After all, you’re known, and loyal followers can't wait to pluck them off the shelf. The problem lies with your first book, and Rowling had massive problems with that one. Harry Potter spiraled through various rejections, before Joanne K. Rowling hit it. Rowling wrote fiction, but both fiction and nonfiction authors struggle to market that first book. Let’s see how two famous authors of each category succeeded.

Joanne K. Rowling and Harry Potter

Joanne Rowling scrawled her fantasy life of Harry Potter in longhand on a restaurant table in Edinburg, typed them out in her moldy, mice-crawling apartment, and dispatched them to three agents, before Bloomsbury accepted, but warned her "You do realize, you will never make a fortune out of writing children's books?"  Scholastic spun it into the record-breaking bestseller in 1997, and from there Rowling's fame (or more specifically Harry’s fame) was made.

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It took a few brilliant methods to get there.

Firstly, the company realized that adults would like to read the series, too, but would not want to be seen toting a kid’s book. They changed the books covers, made them less colorful and more ‘boring’, and provided slips so that adults could leave the covers at home.

Later, midnight releases and glitzy promotions tugged the Potter series to the top, and fans spread the word through sites such as MuggleNet.com and The Leaky Cauldron.org, so Potter achieved a strong brand presence.

The Harry Potter series, too, was controversial; there were whiffs of witchcraft. Controversy sells.

Above all, readers could relate to the story. There was the unfortunate young geek who wizarded in disguise and toppled his enemies. It was a twist on a mold that delighted contemporary readers, and, according to Psychology Today, owes a lot of its appeal to magic. We humans are innately drawn to mystery. The Potter series fulfilled that in troves. Rowling, intentionally or otherwise, struck a fount of “Muggle” appeal when she wrote her book. Today, she’s richer than her British Queen.

Betty Friedan and the Feminine Mystique

Betty Friedan wrote one of the classics of the 20th century; a book that changed the history of the women’s movement as well as modern society. Biographies and her autobiography (“Life so far” (2000)) say her book flew off the shelf. A closer look shows that Friedan had been preparing for the promotion of her first book her whole writing life.

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Friedan worked as a freelance writer for 29 years, writing for college magazines before turning to newspapers and popular media.

Daniel Horowitz, in “Betty Friedan and the making of The feminine mystique” writes how Friedan published for top magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Housekeeping, and similar so her writings reached a wide market. Then, too, she narrowed in one specific market - middle-class suburban women - and gained her fame in that. Thirdly, Friedan’s posts reflected topics that dogged her market. Her readers were occupied with children, they wanted to please their husbands, they sought ways to cut their housekeeping burdens, and to make their homes more domestic, polished, and tasteful. Friedan addressed these issues and more. By the time the ‘50s rolled around and Friedan wrote her first book, which happened to be “the Feminine Mystique’, she had gained a name as a first-class writer who knew her stuff and who could provide well-selling, satisfying articles. Friedan had built her platform.

Even without that, Friedan may have sold. She hit on a smarting topic that evaded solutions. Masses of females were pouting and none knew why. Horowitz writes that some other authors had come close to Friedan’s solution, but Friedan wrote her book in a punchy, intimate way. Scientific verbosity was at a minimum; she drew on personal experiences boosted by her survey and firsthand narratives. Her topic was urgent, fascinating and controversial. Controversy sells.

5 Takeaways for promoting your first book

  • Fill a need or interest - Both Rowling and Friedan zoned in on unaddressed, urgent needs and interests and addressed them in original, relevant ways.
  • Controversy - For good or for bad, controversy sells. Rowling unintentionally drew controversy through her theme of magic. Friedan spurred controversy through her appeal that women turn to interests other than domesticity.
  • PR - Friedan's publishers gave her far less publicity than Rowling received. A nonfiction book can sell on its own merit. Rowling’s publishers filled the media with one glamorous event after another. Soon enough, the book spread on the best marketing yet: word-of-mouth.
  • Platform - Friedan at least, spent years priming herself for publicity by writing for popular magazines on relevant topics. She carefully selected her market, too.
  • Your writing style - It should be extremely, extraordinarily and literally outstanding if you want a bestseller. It should be good if you merely want success.


It is the rare person who achieves success with their first book. You may be able to do so by following some of those techniques.

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Jaime Nacach

Marketing Strategist

I love helping small businesses with their digital marketing and business strategy. I'm a young man with a passion in entrepreneurship and international experience in business development, marketing, sales, and web/graphic design. 

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