The Cuckoo’s Calling | A Carcass or Crown For Rowling?

There is no doubt that the biggest publishing story this summer has been the inadvertent or deliberate disclosure that Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling, penned and published a crime novel under the pseudonym, Robert Galbraith. Ever since The Sunday Times ran an investigative piece on the real author of ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’ more than a week ago, it has been rarely too far from the main headlines of newspaper and online media outlets. This is one of those arts and culture stories that can manage to muscle its way into the mainstream media during the quite hazy summer months full of haze and heat. At a time when the publishing world is gearing up for its few weeks of summer recess, and booksellers are mopping their brows and frantically wondering how they can get more avid readers off the sun beds and beaches and onto the high street, this story was an absolute godsend.

If you have been living under the proverbial rock this past week, then let’s quickly back up a bit.
Last weekend, The Sunday Times ran a story that it had received a tip-off on Twitter that a debut crime novel written by Scottish author Robert Galraith had in fact been written by J.K. Rowling. Subsequently, we have learned from countless news headlines that the Twitter account belonged to Judith Callegari, a close friend of the wife of Chris Gossage. Gossage is a partner at UK legal law firm, Russells, a company specializing in entertainment law. It seems Mr. Gossage inadvertently ‘let it slip’ and Mrs. Callegari simply couldn’t contain herself and reached for the ‘send tweet’ button. Not surprisingly, Sphere, an imprint of Little, Brown and publisher of Galbraith’s novel, Rowling’s agent, and Rowling herself, have all insisted profusely that this was not some sort of dastardly marketing plot to jettison ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’ up the bestseller lists.
To be fair to Rowling, the book was not published by Bloomsbury, publishing home for her series of Harry Potter novels, and the book was also rejected by several editors before finding its home at Little, Brown’s Sphere imprint, though, it was shopped to publishers by Rowling’s own agent. Since the inadvertent disclosure, Rowling has insisted that ‘only a tiny number of people knew my pseudonym and it has not been pleasant to wonder for days how a woman whom I had never heard of prior to Sunday night could have found out something that many of my oldest friends did not know. To say that I am disappointed is an understatement.’ Rowling added, ‘I feel very angry that my trust turned out to be misplaced.’
Rowling may be angry at the outcome of this, but she certainly won’t be disappointed to see her crime novel at the top of many bestseller lists. Last week Sphere claimed ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’ had sold 1500 copies in hardback, but a check on Nielsen Bookscan revealed that the real sales figures for the book were actually 449 copies and that many high street shops had chosen not to stock the book, with remaining stocks of the print run sitting at the wholesalers. It is unlikely that Sphere printed anything more than three to five thousand copies at most, and some will argue that this lends credence to the argument that the disclosure was not a planned marketing plot; at least it wasn’t when the book was originally published back in April. The new print run in hardback has been estimated at anything between 150,000 and 300,000, not a figure Mr. Galbraith could have ever dreamed of for his debut novel. With the new print run just arriving in shops this week, sales already reached a half million within two days of this story breaking.
Whether all this was a clumsy ruse by the Rowling machine to rescue a book or reinvent its author for mass sales and consumption, it does reveal the realities for many dedicated novelist, whatever genre they write in, or however many books they have written and published. Selling 449 copies in hardback over three months in the UK is not too shabby for a debut author, and it is worth noting that Rowling’s crime novel had reasonably good reviews and came on the back of some heavyweight endorsements from writers like Mark Billingham, Alex Gray, Peter James and Val McDermid. Whether these authors really knew the true author of ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’ is a point for debate when they originally penned their endorsements, but this kind of backing is certainly not the norm for many debut novelists, even withstanding that Billingham, Gray and McDermid have contracts with Little, Brown. Established and bestselling authors don’t easily and quickly lend their name and brand to an unknown author.
It is also a cautionary tale for self-published authors, unfamiliar with the realities and sales of books in the UK, and just how many copies they should invest in upfront. I can also hear the voices of many self-published authors screaming the numbers of books they have sold in the first three months of publication and chuckling with contentment. But do remember, this was a hardback, not heavily discounted, and not widely available across many big book chains. Yes, even books published by the big five publishers struggle to attain shelf space in bookshops. It does suggest, though, that there is merit in the argument that a savvy author with a well written book and a competent marketing plan can do just as well as a big five publisher.
I would add two final points to this news story that I haven’t seen too much mention of elsewhere. This story broke three months after publication of the book, and that is right about the time publishers tend to begin winding down the book’s marketing programme if sales targets are not being reached. It is also the time decisions are taken about second print runs, paperback editions, and the success of secondary rights programmes.
The final point I will make is the news that the French translated edition of this book had its publication date brought forward to October, 2013. That’s not a surprise of itself, just a sound commercial decision, but what is a surprise to me is that the book already had a foreign edition in the pipeline based on its current sales.
We can either conclude that Sphere was being somewhat optimistic about this book, prior to its publication (but then aren’t all publishers!), or we have witnessed a rather clumsy but timely marketing plan executed. Rowling has also learned a hard lesson about what sells books, and I’m not sure this has necessarily helped in her long term plan to be considered a ‘literary’ author of great merit. If it was nothing more than a grand scheme to polish the ego and play let’s pretend, then all it has done is tell her who her real friends are. As an author examining his/her abilities, something many authors reflect on during their writing careers, it also exposes a deeper question about Rowling as an author.
Is Rowling more fixated on how she is perceived as an author by peers and readers, than her abilities as an author?
The annals of literature are filled with the carcasses and crowns of authors who wrestled with the same question for much of their careers. For some, the battle was worth it; for others, it proved to be a pointless waste of time at the expense of a vast amount of creative energy.

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