c.2013 New York Times News Service
c.2013 New York Times News Service
“The Cuckoo’s Calling” became the publishing sensation of the summer when word leaked that its first-time author, Robert Galbraith, was none other than J.K. Rowling, the mega-best-selling creator of Harry Potter.
Mystery solved? Maybe not. It’s no surprise that “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” a detective story set in a London populated by supermodels and rock stars, shot to the top of best-seller lists once the identity of the author was revealed. But if the book is as good as critics are now saying it is, why didn’t it sell more copies before, especially since the rise of online publishing has supposedly made it easier than ever for first-time authors?
“It makes me sad,” Roxanne Coady, founder of R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Conn., and the online retailer JustTheRightBook.com, told me last week from Maine, where she said she was sitting near a stack of unread new books. “Because not everyone turns out to be a J.K. Rowling. It reminds me how difficult it is for even good books to succeed.”
It’s not entirely clear why Rowling decided she wanted “to fly under the radar,” as she put it on the Robert Galbraith website, other than to say that “being Robert Galbraith has been all about the work, which is my favorite part of being a writer.” Writing under a pseudonym obviously ruled out any tedious book signings or publicity appearances, but Rowling doesn’t have to do anything she doesn’t want to.
And it wasn’t about money, since Rowling is donating all royalties to charity.
“If sales were what mattered to me most, I would have written under my own name, and with the greatest fanfare,” she said. (A spokeswoman in London for Rowling responded to my questions by directing me to the Galbraith website, and said Rowling would have no further comment.)
Rowling’s last book, “The Casual Vacancy,” an adult comedy of manners published under her name and the first since the end of the Potter series, was met with high expectations and withering reviews from prominent critics. Michiko Kakutani wrote in The New York Times, “the real-life world she has limned in these pages is so willfully banal, so depressingly clichéd that ‘The Casual Vacancy’ is not only disappointing — it’s dull.” The Los Angeles Times faulted “Rowling’s inability to engage us, to invest us sufficiently in her characters.”
Still, with hardcover sales of just more than 1.3 million copies, it was the No. 1 hardcover fiction title of 2012, according to Publishers Weekly’s annual ranking, outselling John Grisham, James Patterson and Danielle Steel.
Rowling may well have felt that the reaction, both critical and commercial, was distorted by her fame, and hence decided on a pseudonym for “The Cuckoo’s Calling.” It’s not clear exactly who was in on the secret: her agent, of course, and at least someone at Little, Brown & Co., her publisher, including her editor, who also edited “The Casual Vacancy.” (“The Cuckoo’s Calling” was published by Mulholland Books, a Little, Brown imprint.) “Few people within the publishing house knew the true identity of Robert at the time,” Nicole Dewey, a Little, Brown spokeswoman, told me, declining to be more specific about who knew.
But that already distorted the experiment to some extent. Given how difficult it is for first-time fiction authors, especially in a crowded genre like mystery, to find both an agent and publisher, it’s not clear “The Cuckoo’s Calling” would have made it off the slush piles. At least one other publisher, Orion Books, which like Little, Brown, is a subsidiary of the Hachette Book Group, rejected the manuscript. An editor there told The Telegraph in London that the book “didn’t stand out.”
In any event, a publishing contract is hardly a guarantee of critical or commercial success. Much depends on how a new manuscript is treated by the publisher. Morgan Entrekin, the president and publisher of Grove Atlantic, is widely viewed as a master at introducing new literary talent to the marketplace. He published “Cold Mountain” by then first-time novelist Charles Frazier, which went on to win the National Book Award and sell more than 11 million copies.
“There’s no question, if a publisher decides to get behind a book, to invest its publishing capital, to use its traction with the chains, with Amazon, fight for the promotion money to get the book into the front of stores, you can do a lot to bring attention to a worthy first novel,” he said.
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Entrekin cited “Matterhorn,” by first-time novelist Karl Marlantes, which he published in 2010. The author “worked on the book for over 20 years and couldn’t find a publisher,” Entrekin said. Then, as the book was about to be published in a tiny first edition, Entrekin got a copy from a buyer at Barnes & Noble, loved it and bought out the first printing.
He re-edited it, cut 300 pages, got advance quotes from prominent authors, introduced the author to booksellers and hosted a media lunch in New York. Amazon.com gave the book a glowing review, chose it as a best book of the month, and got an exclusive review from Mark Bowden, author of “Black Hawk Down.” “‘Matterhorn’ is a great novel,” his review began. It sold more than 400,000 copies.
“I invested tens of thousands of dollars and a lot of publishing capital over nine months because I believed in that book,” Entrekin said. “This is what publishers can do to add value. It’s not slapping on a name like J.K. Rowling.”
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Of course, most new books don’t get that kind of support. Suffice it to say that “The Cuckoo’s Calling” didn’t, even though Dewey told me it “was treated like any new novel by a first-time writer. Little, Brown sent out bound galleys and talked it up to retailers, as they do with all new titles. We aim for all of our books to reach the widest possible audience and make every effort to market and publicize each title in a way that connects it with that audience.”
I spoke to several book retailers, at both large chains and independent stores, and not one could recall seeing an advance reading copy, or hearing anything from the Little, Brown sales representatives.
“There was absolutely no buzz,” Coady said. “There was no direct correspondence from the editor or a publicist. We didn’t hear anything from the sales representatives. They’ll usually tell us that there are five to 10 books on their list that we want to make sure you read. They know our customers and what they like, so we trust them. This book wasn’t one of them. I don’t know if we bought any copies. Maybe one.”
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The publisher procured two quotes, or blurbs, for its news release, one from the Scottish crime writer Val McDermid, the other from the English novelist and actor Mark Billingham, who said, perhaps all too presciently, that the book was “so instantly compelling it’s hard to believe this is a debut novel.” Booksellers said Little, Brown could have rustled up more prominent authors, including at least one American.
Nor did “The Cuckoo’s Calling” get much critical attention. I asked Little, Brown for reviews that appeared before the identity of the author was known, and the only examples it provided were from Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Booklist, all trade publications. Several newspapers reviewed it in London, but no mainstream American book critic did. The early reviews were positive — far more so than those for “Casual Vacancy” — which must have been heartening to Rowling. But those in Publishers Weekly and Booklist were a single paragraph, and they failed to generate much buzz or help it stand out from the masses of genre fiction published each year.
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It’s not clear how many copies had sold by the time Galbraith’s identity was revealed in July by The Times of London. The BBC reported that it had sold just 1,500 printed copies. Rowling, on the Galbraith website, maintains that the book had sold 8,500 copies across all formats and received two offers from TV producers.
“Robert was doing rather better than we expected him to,” she wrote. Dewey said it had sold an additional 5,000 copies in the United States, for a total of 13,500, which is “a great achievement for any unknown author.” Still, from Coady’s perspective as a bookseller, “It would have stayed on the path it was on, which is towards oblivion.”
If Rowling had been paid the traditional 15 percent of the $26 hardcover price in royalties, and less on e-books, that would amount to less than $50,000.
The experiment, of course, was over. It’s safe to say that “The Cuckoo’s Calling” has gotten more media attention than any other book this year, thanks to Rowling’s celebrity and her unmasking. “The Cuckoo’s Calling” was immediately reviewed pretty much everywhere. Kakutani called it “a highly entertaining book that’s way more fun and way more involving” than “The Casual Vacancy.”
“I read it,” Coady said. “It’s pretty good. Is it brilliant? No. It’s a classic detective story, better written than most.”
Little, Brown told me this week that “The Cuckoo’s Calling” has sold 1.1 million copies in all formats, and is still on best-seller lists. “It’s the power of the author brand,” Entrekin said. “It transformed the exact same text into a far more salable book. It got media attention all over the world. That’s a level of attention you can’t buy at any price.”
What’s clear is that without the aura of celebrity, “The Cuckoos’ Calling” would have been just another work of debut crime fiction. Its author might have gotten a modest TV deal, and maybe another book contract, while working another job to make ends meet. “Most books come out and do nothing,” Coady said. “There are still too many books being published. We can only get behind so any books, and then hope they take off on their own. It worries me that so many slip through the cracks.”
New authors can still make the best-seller lists, as Rowling herself did with the Potter books, or E.L. James with the erotic “Fifty Shades of Grey.” But they are extreme exceptions. Entrekin agreed that many good books don’t achieve the success they deserve. “There’s no formula,” he said. “A publisher can only do so much. A book’s fate is ultimately in the hands of the book gods.”