The recent revelation that J.K. Rowling is the author of the critically acclaimed and - until now - commercially unsuccessful crime novel "The Cuckoo's Calling" has electrified the book world and solidified Rowling's reputation. After all, if she can impress the critics without the benefit of her towering reputation, then surely her success is deserved.
And yet this episode actually reveals the opposite: that Rowling's spectacular career is likely more a fluke than a consequence of her unique genius.
Whenever someone is phenomenally successful, we can't help but conclude that there is something uniquely qualifying about them, something akin to "genius," that makes their successes all but inevitable.
Even when we learn about setbacks - Rowling's manuscript for "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" was rejected by 12 publishers - we interpret them as oversights that were subsequently corrected rather than evidence that success may be a product of luck.
Several years ago, my colleagues Matthew Salganik and Peter Dodds at Columbia University and I challenged this conventional wisdom with an experiment. We set out to prove that market success is driven less by intrinsic talent than by "cumulative advantage," a rich-get-richer process in which early, possibly even random events are amplified by social feedback and produce large differences in future outcomes.
To test our hypothesis, we recruited almost 30,000 participants to listen, rate and download songs by bands they had never heard of. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups: an "independent" group, which saw only the names of the bands and the songs, and a "social influence" group, which could see how many times songs had been downloaded by others.
If quality determined success, the same songs should have won every time by a margin that was independent of what people knew about the choices of others. By contrast, if success was driven disproportionately by a few early downloads, subsequently amplified by social influence, the outcomes would be largely random and would also become more unequal as the social feedback became stronger.
What we found was highly consistent with the cumulative-advantage hypothesis. First, when people could see what other people liked, the inequality of success increased, meaning that popular songs became more popular and unpopular songs became more unpopular. Second and more surprising, each song's popularity was incredibly unpredictable.
By writing under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith, 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.
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. 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.
Had things turned out only slightly differently, the real Rowling might have met with the same success as the fake Robert Galbraith. As hard as it is to imagine in the Potter-obsessed world that we now inhabit, it is entirely plausible that in this parallel universe, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" would be just a perfectly good book that never sold more than a handful of copies; Rowling would still be a struggling single mother, 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." He wrote this for Bloomberg News.