By John Warner
July 29, 2013
As is now widely known, J.K. Rowling, aka she who sells many books, published a detective novel, "The Cuckoo's Calling," under a male pseudonym, Robert Galbraith.
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As is the Biblioracle way, I've been thinking about what this says about the world of reading and writing.
The novel was well reviewed. Publishers Weekly called it "a stellar debut." Booklist labeled the novel "Instantly absorbing."
And after those stellar reviews, the book went pffft. According to reports, it sold a total of 1,500 copies in Great Britain between its April 30 release and the revealing of Rowling as the author. Those are John Warner numbers, not J.K. Rowling ones.
Stephen King tried something similar years ago in creating the persona Richard Bachman and releasing multiple books under the name. King wanted to know if his books could succeed without being attached to the name of a best-selling author. Bachman had some solid successes, but never sold as well as King.
It's hard not to respect Rowling's motivation. She wanted to publish in a way that dialed down the hype surrounding the release of a "J.K. Rowling novel." Judged on its merits, apparently, she wrote a quality mystery. I bet she feels pretty good about that.
The reader reaction is interesting. All of the one-star Amazon reviews appeared after Rowling was revealed as the author. Most of them seem to be anger over what these reviewers believe is undeserved attention for Rowling's work as a whole. It makes me understand why J.K. Rowling might wish to divorce her name from her books.
However, this increasingly has some suggestions of a "cake and eat it too" scenario. The initial tip on Richard Galbraith's real identity came from an "anonymous tweet" from a since-deleted account to an employee at The Sunday Times in London who had tweeted admiration for the book. On the scent, The Times quickly discovered that "The Cuckoo's Calling" had the same agent, publisher and editor as Rowling. A computer-aided comparison of the writing to Rowling's other work spurred Times editor Richard Brooks to confront Rowling with a direct question about her authorship, which was quickly answered in the affirmative.
Digging out Rowling as the person behind Galbraith was a heck of a lot easier than chasing down the golden snitch on the Quidditch field.
Rowling reportedly wanted the deception to continue through the release of Galbraith's next novel in the series, but someone, somewhere, must've gotten spooked by the poor sales and knew that a quick blast into the Twitter-sphere would be sufficient to turn things around. Rowling doesn't need the money, but publishers love sure things.
That a J.K. Rowling book couldn't succeed commercially without her name attached says nothing good, but also nothing new. Hype has been the currency of our culture since forever, and the simple math is that there are too many books published to create hype around all of them. Most books are released on a hope and a wish, as was the case with "The Cuckoo's Calling."
J.K. Rowling had experienced this before. The initial print run for the first "Harry Potter" novel was a mere 500 copies.
As of now, more than 400 million copies of the series have been sold worldwide.
Biblioracle John Warner is the author of "The Funny Man." Follow him on Twitter @Biblioracle.
The Biblioracle offers his recommendations
1. "The Hare With Amber Eyes" by Edmund de Waal
2. "The Dinner" by Herman Koch
3. "The Sense of an Ending" by Julian Barnes
4. "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald
5. "Little Bee" by Chris Cleave
— Christine D., Chicago
Looking at this list, I think Christine will enjoy Kurt Andersen's "True Believers," a sly take on the politics of the '60s meeting the politics of today.
1. "The Interestings" by Meg Wolitzer
2. "The Secret History" by Donna Tartt
3. "The Woman Upstairs" by Claire Messud
4. "A House for Mr. Biswas" by V.S. Naipaul
5. "Desert Solitaire" by Edward Abbey
— Lorna S., East Troy, Wis.
For Lorna, a book that has a more complicated literary mystery at its center than the current Rowling kerfuffle: A.S. Byatt's "Possession."
1. "Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza" by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole
2. "When the Emperor was Divine" by Julie Otsuka
3. "Sweet Tooth" by Ian McEwan
4. "Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel
5. "Bring Up the Bodies" by Hilary Mantel
— Lisa K., Chicago
We've got another couple months to wait for her new novel, which looks very promising, but in the meantime, Lisa can find pleasure in Jhumpa Lahiri's "Interpreter of Maladies."
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