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How to Be Creative in Hard Times: What Writers Can Learn From J.K. Rowling

The landscape is changing — you and I both know that. We have an opportunity; the world is hungry for more content. We are in desperate need of positive, joyful entertainment.


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Brooke Harrison

5 months ago | 4 min read
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Rowling’s serialized children’s novel is a lesson in providing value to our audience

In a time when our creativity is challenged, author J.K. Rowling did something out of the box: she released a serialized novel online, for free. Check out the website for the children’s story The Ickabog.

There’s a lot going on in the world right now (that’s the understatement of the century), and I won’t pretend it’s “easy” for creatives to feel motivated or inspired in this climate. It’s challenging, sure. But isn’t that what “creativity” is all about?

Here’s the Dictionary.com definition:

“…the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.; originality, progressiveness, or imagination.”

Sometimes we have to open our eyes and take a new approach. The pandemic has forced us to make changes, whether we like it or not. So many industries have adapted, and the publishing industry is no different.

It’s kind of exciting — after all, what are people turning to in these times of lockdown and quarantine? Well, entertainment: TV, movies, books.

I believe people like J.K. Rowling are successful because they have a unique ability to understand what needs to change. And I’m not talking about change for the sake of change, but innovating to meet needs (before anyone else has caught on!).

Rowling’s decision to release her children’s novel online, in a serial format, is inspiring. As a creative, I’m reminded that there is no “one way” to do something. Publishing your work? The traditional path is not your only option.

Let’s take a closer look at Rowling’s choice, and what we can learn from her:

Why the Serial Novel?

Rowling wrote The Ickabog between Harry Potter novels. While it should have been published after the last Harry Potter book (Deathly Hallows), Rowling decided to take a break and then returned from her “break” with an adult novel and a mystery instead. So, yeah, she was a little busy.

Her children’s book was put on the backburner.

“Then the lockdown happened. It’s been very hard on children, in particular, so I brought The Ickabog down from the attic, read it for the first time in years, rewrote bits of it and then read it to my children again.” ~ J.K. Rowling

Rowling decided to share the book online as a gift for her readers, too. A serial novel is “a work of fiction that is published in sequential pieces called installments.” The Ickabog was released in installments (a few chapters each week) over 7 weeks, between May 26th and July 10th.

The novel will be published in print, and here’s the other half of the equation: Rowling has invited children to illustrate the book. The chosen artwork will be featured in the printed book when it’s published in November.

…Talk about a brilliant marketing strategy.

Serialization was a pretty popular form of publishing in the 1800s. Authors like Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, and Agatha Christie (just to name a few!) published in the serial format.

The concept is not completely foreign to us. It’s like watching a TV show; you come back each week for a new episode, a continuation of the story.

“I think The Ickabog lends itself well to serialisation because it was written as a read-aloud book (unconsciously shaped, I think, by the way I read it to my own children), but it’s suitable for 7–9 year olds to read to themselves.” ~ J.K. Rowling

While it isn’t common for bestselling authors like Rowling, serialization is still very much alive. With online sites like Wattpad and Goodreads, writers have the opportunity to share their creative writing in installments for readers.

Here’s Why It Worked for J.K. Rowling

Timing is everything, as they say. Rowling’s decision to embrace serialization was not a preconceived idea; rather, she chose to release The Ickabog online (for free!) in response to the pandemic.

She saw a need for entertaining content, especially for kids stuck at home with nothing to do, and she met that need.

Her book gave kids something to look forward to each week. The serial novel created excitement around a story, excitement for reading. “Form follows function,” and in this case, traditional publishing wasn’t the answer.

The platform or distribution channel may change, but content is key.

Let’s say she released the story as an eBook or a free PDF, rather than in weekly installments… would it have made the same impact? I don’t think so. Kids would finish the book in one sitting and then be bored all over again.

As Rowling intended, The Ickabog emphasized an appreciation for “story time” and reading aloud. If I had kids (I don’t), I would have loved to read this book aloud to them.

In fact, that’s the way I read Harry Potter. My dad read the books aloud to me, even though I was perfectly capable of reading them on my own, because I was in third grade and my parents weren’t sure whether the content was appropriate.

Then, of course, we fell in love with the books, and reading them aloud was a special tradition my dad and I shared.

Ultimately, Rowling increased accessibility. In releasing the book for free online (in 8 languages!), she made it available to more children. I think anything that inspires kids to read is a big “win.”

Not to mention, Rowling has pledged all author royalties from the published book to “groups who’ve been particularly impacted by the pandemic.”

Takeaway

The landscape is changing — you and I both know that. We have an opportunity; the world is hungry for more content. We are in desperate need of positive, joyful entertainment.

As a writer — as a creative — how can you provide value to your audience?

J.K. Rowling, with children of her own, knew that her audience was bored and stuck at home. Meet your audience where they’re at, and keep them coming back for more.

We need to “get creative” about being creative again. How will you adapt?

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