In the real world, of course, it’s impossible to travel back in time and start over, so it’s much harder to argue that someone who is incredibly successful may owe their success to a combination of luck and cumulative advantage rather than superior talent. But by writing under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith, an otherwise anonymous name, Rowling came pretty close to re-creating our experiment, starting over again as an unknown author and publishing a book that would have to succeed or fail on its own merits, just as Harry Potter had to 16 years ago — before anyone knew who Rowling was.
Rowling made a bold move and, no doubt, is feeling vindicated by the critical acclaim the book has received. But there’s a catch: Until the news leaked about the author’s real identity, this critically acclaimed book had sold only 500 to 1,500 copies, depending on which report you read. What’s more, had the author actually been Robert Galbraith, the book would almost certainly have continued to languish in obscurity, probably forever.
“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.”
Ironically, that’s probably how those 12 editors felt about the original “Harry Potter” manuscript. Now, of course, they look like idiots, but what both our experiment and Rowling’s suggest is that they might have been right all along.
Had things turned out only slightly different, the real Rowling might have met with the same success as the fake Robert Galbraith, not the other way around. As hard as it is to imagine in the Harry Potter-obsessed world that we now inhabit, it’s entirely plausible that in this parallel universe, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” would just be a “perfectly good” book that never sold more than a handful of copies; Rowling would still be a struggling single mother in Manchester, England; and the rest of us would be none the wiser.
Duncan J. Watts is a principal researcher at Microsoft Research and author of “Everything Is Obvious (Once You Know the Answer): How Common Sense Fails Us.”