JK Rowling and how to sell books

I just recently finished reading “A Casual Vacancy” by J.K. Rowling (if you want to read the review check out my goodreads page:

and it got me to thinking about why certain things become famous and have a huge following and others do not.

Throughout my writing career I have always thought (and fought against) that if you wanted to be successful you needed to create a cookie cutter plot with predictable characters.  One of those novels that appeals to the masses (think James Patterson, Dean Koontz, or anything in the romance section of Barnes and Noble), because they can get into a familiar mode and have a nice escape from the strain of their lives, but yet something that they don’t have to work to hard at.

“The Casual Vacancy” opened my eyes to a new reality.

In general the book was panned.  People flocked to it, but not because it was critically received, more so because it was the next novel of the phenom who created Harry Potter.  I experienced a wonderful, realistic novel.  A novel where there was sex and violence and rape and drugs and expletives around every corner.  A novel seeming so innocent (much like its characters), but with a sinister undertone which threatens the status quo and propriety.

What jumped out at me was the depth of character and place.

What made Harry Potter popular?  Was it the fact that it was a young reader novel about a wizarding school?  Was it because it followed the archetype of the Joseph Campbell hero?  Was it timing?  Did Rowling sell her soul to the devil for fame and fortune?


It was her incredible ability to tell a story.  It is her depth of character.  It’s her ability to make the characters three dimensional, with quirks, flaws, and complexes.  It’s her ability to make her characters just like your friend or neighbor, your mother or brother.

It’s also her use of language.  She and another author, Stephen King, have the ability to tell a story.  Not write a novel, not to tell a story of place, not to tell a story of a person, but to tell a tale.  These two are the epitome of readability, because while your reading the books you can nearly see yourself sitting around a camp fire while they stood before a group and told their story.  It’s the readability that they share and that makes them so popular.

This is a hard thing to pin point, because it’s not about how to place a verb, it’s not about how to construct a sentence.  It’s about how everything flows off the page, and lights up in your mind like the TV screen.

It’s these two things that create popularity.  Readability and realistic characters.  And luck, a whole lotta luck.  If you can get it into the hands of the right people and you have these characteristics you have that international bestseller.


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