In one of the great baller moves in recent literary history, news leaked out this week that J.K. Rowling published a crime novel called The Cuckoo’s Calling under the pen name Robert Galbriath.
Rowling apparently didn’t just make secret arrangements with a publisher as herself, the novel was actually submitted to editors under the pen name (though it ended up with Rowling’s editor for The Casual Vacancy, David Shelley). At least one editor has now confessed to passing on it:
So, I can now say that I turned down JK Rowling. I did read and say no to Cuckoo’s Calling. Anyone else going to confess?
— Kate Mills (@Kate7Mills) July 14, 2013
Most of the news reports have focused on the fact that The Cuckoo’s Calling received pretty glowing reviews, with Publishers Weekly calling it a “stellar debut” in a starred review. Especially after getting Michiko Kakutani’d with The Casual Vacancy, that had to have been particularly gratifying, and it’s interesting to ponder whether The Casual Vacancy itself would have been reviewed differently had Rowling not been the name on the jacket.
At the same time, I think people are missing one of the other important illustrative elements of this story, which is that The Cuckoo’s Calling was not a great commercial success. It had sold only 1,500 copies in Britain. Despite all those glowing reviews and being published in a commercial genre, it didn’t catch on.
Some of this may have had to do with the fact that it was by most accounts, a quiet novel:
@14NC I thought this was well-written but quiet. And how do you get momentum for that? Oh wait…
— Kate Mills (@Kate7Mills) July 14, 2013
It’s equally possible, even probable, that commercial success wasn’t Rowling’s intent and that she wanted the thrill of receiving an honest appraisal of her work unencumbered from her reputation.
Still, it was a book written by J.K. Rowling. It received terrific reviews. It was published by great publishers. And it didn’t take off.
I find it interesting that up until Rowling revealed she was the author the book didn't have one single one star review.
It's very defining of the entire Amazon review process.
I don't think it's fair to say that this wasn't a commercial success. It was released as a debut, it was only out for three months — it takes longer than just three months to have word of mouth help out sales — and it was only released in the UK. There wasn't any promotional events for the book either. Can you really judge how a book does only on the first three months? Of a debut? I don't think so.
I think we'd be able to say whether it was or wasn't based on what happened when it went to paperback.
Norma Beishir says
Oh, I love that!
I recall my editor telling me, years ago, that Jerzy Kosinski submitted a manuscript under a pseudonym to see what would happen…and everyone turned it down!
Well said, Mr. Bransford. I blogged about my take-away from this (similar conclusion to yours) using a chronology of media quotes. Here's the link if you're interested: https://www.swardkehoe.blogspot.com/2013/07/yknow-its-hard-out
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"If that's the case, why did they trash "The Casual Vacancy" when it was written under her real name?"
Because they can, because they gain pleasure from it, and because they also get attention.
Casual Vacancy is a really great book, and I think it's along the lines of Franzen's style with a UK POV. But if you read some of the Amazon reviews they make it sound dark and depressing, which is far from what it's really like.
Another interesting article about this very topic that came out in London today. https://www.cityam.com/article/long-view-jk-rowling-s-pseudonymous-success-triumph-democratic-publishing
Thanks for all of your great work, Nathan!
mehul desai says
If this was not an orchestrated sham, encompassing “fake” rejections, and from what I read she made a false bio for Galbraith, then it displays you that even she is a mortal. So, scribe friends take it to hart, if she can go wrong, so can we, and if she can succeed, so can we.
Karen Clayton says
I wonder if "leaking" that JK Rowling was the author of the book wasn't a way to help out the book's final sells. Now if I can only get her to do that for my book!
sort of unrelated–the kid and I are reading The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde. Wondering if you read it. I ask because it reminds me a lot of your style (which pleases us). Imaginative, but very funny.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch has written a blog post noting that,
"What I’m seeing on many publishing blogs I read … is that they all blame the author. …
"Traditional publishing is now claiming that the editors who rejected the book were right, and the author—in her insistence on anonymity and in writing a “quiet” book—is the one who ruined the sales of this novel.
"Welcome to traditional publishing in the 21st century.
"Their job isn’t to nurture books. It’s not to publish books that readers want to read. Their job is to publish blockbusters, and any book that isn’t a blockbuster is the fault of the author …
"Read what the industry bloggers are saying, think about the kind of cynicism it takes to believe that Rowling would do this as a publicity stunt, and realize that these people are the gatekeepers.
"These gatekeepers just attacked JK Rowling … JK Rowling, who has made billions for the industry."
I think the sucess of this book is being misrepresented. I have heard that it sold less than 500 copies from one source and around 1500 copies from another; I have also heard varying opinions on whether this constitutes sucess or failure.
But there seems to be information from Rowling herself that actually "it sold 8500 English language copies across all formats (hardback, eBook, library and audiobook) and received two offers from television production companies".
Well, this is encouraging. Very encouraging. Especially since I'm pondering giving up on publishing altogether.
frau wyler says
It's good to know that there is still hope that books sell on merit, not based on the name of the author- or the cover…
Carmen DeSousa says
Love this post because it reminds us all… I don't have to go into detail…as writers, we know.
One thing I will say, though, I was appalled when I went to look at the reviews and saw that three one-star reviews popped up the same day as the announcement.
I never read 'Harry Potter', as it didn't appeal to me, but I admit that the moment I found out Rowling wrote a mystery, I wanted to read it. I want to know why it wasn't popular until her true identity became known.
Whether this was purposeful or not, this was an interesting experiment in today's book publishing market. In my humble opinion, HYPE, not great writing or even marketing sometimes, is what sells.
Dosti SMS says
I wasn't very thrilled about The Casual Vacancy, JKR's entree into adult fiction. In fact, it wasn't my thing at all. I couldn't even finish it.
But with The Cuckoo's Calling JKR's done it again. She's brought back the warmth I always associated with Hogwarts in this solid muggle detective story! The writing is BRILLIANT- with lines I found myself highlighting and smiling at. I love the quirkiness in her descriptions and how well fleshed out the characters were. Their accents, their airs, the mannerisms- all so beautifully captured, just like she did in Potter!
The main character is this stand-up guy whose back story reminded me a lot of Dr. Watson from Sherlock Holmes! His secretary, Robin, made a great partner-in-crime-solving(?)! I do hope we see more and more of her. YES, there is more. This is only the first book in a series and I'm already waiting for the next book! It's also a pretty good mystery. I couldn't solve this whodunnit till the very end of the book when I was surprised to find out who the murderer was.
I guess the bottomline is this:
The Cuckoo's Calling, plot-wise, is NOTHING like Harry Potter. It's an adult detective novel, for godssake. BUT it comes closest to being as warm, as amazing, as engrossing and as much of a treat as a Potter novel! The characters leap out of the page! Even better, since it's an adult novel, the characters don't hold back at all! The mystery is tightly knit, hard to solve! Descriptions of food- even if it's Pot Noodle and sticky toffee pudding rather than pumpkin juice, chocolate frogs and treacle tart- will make your mouth water. When you near the end, you will feel yourself slowing down, not because you're bored but because you don't want it to end.
An all too familiar feeling, isn't it?
Jacqueline Seewald says
I don't think the question here is whether or not this is a quality novel. The fact is until it was leaked that Rowling was the actual author of this mystery novel, it had few readers despite excellent reviews. To me this demonstrates the significance of brand name building. As soon as it was disclosed that this novel was written by Rowling, it rose to the top of the bestseller list.
I've written a more complete discussion of this myself if anyone is interested: https://authorexpressions.blogspot.com/2013/08/jk-rowling-and-mystery-fiction-by.html
"In the event that that is the situation, why did they waste "The Casual Vacancy" when it was composed under her genuine name?"
Since they can, on the grounds that they pick up joy from it, and in light of the fact that they additionally get consideration.
Cool Vacancy is a truly extraordinary book, and I think its along the lines of Franzen's style with a UK POV. Yet in the event that you read a portion of the Amazon audits they make it sound dull and discouraging, which is a long way from what its truly like.
One thing I will say, however, I was horrified when I went to take a gander at the audits and saw that three one-star surveys popped up that day as the declaration.
I never read 'Harry Potter', as it didn't speak to me, however I concede that the minute I discovered Rowling composed a secret, I needed to peruse it. I need to know why it wasn't mainstream until her actual character got to be known.
Whether this was deliberate or not, this was a fascinating test in today's book distributed business. As I would see it, HYPE, not extraordinary written work or actually advertising once in a while, is what offers.
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