Monday, July 15, 2013

The Great Crash

Sadly, the only time literature makes the news these days is when the story is about the marketing. A book is not news, the marketing of a book is. J.K. Rowling (a writer I've never read more than a few pages of, but of whom I probably know more about than most writers) has written a crime novel under a pseudonym, Robert Galbraith. We've not been given chapter and verse on this - other than that she wanted to have a book out without any of the usual hoopla of a new novel - but of course, now that its known that she is the writer, it has moved from selling a few copies to being top of the sales list.

I've a few thoughts: though more about the response to this than the idea itself. First of all, that name: the other famous J.K. is the left-wing economist Galbraith, writer of "The Great Crash." I've not seen anyone else mention this, but I can't imagine that the left-leaning Rowling did this accidentally. It's a nice touch.

Secondly, I'm confused a little by what the gameplan was here - surely as soon as the book's real author was known, it was going to sell - after all, Rowling is not just another author, but almost uniquely famous. (Dan Brown and a few others may be almost as successful, but they remain relatively anonymous - whereas Rowling has used her public profile for many different purposes.) I have a vision of a warehouse of copies of the new Galbraith book ready to be let out into the shops. The book is listed as "in stock" on Amazon - yet the "unveiling" of Galbraith only happened at the weekend - and I would imagine sales would be in the hundreds of thousands, not the tens. I know that with digital printing this is possible - but this seems a little surprising. (I think the real signifier will be when the book appears in the Supermarket and at what price.) Apparently the book WAS sent out anonymously; with at least one publisher admitting to her Dick James moment (the Decca executive who rejected the Beatles), and having turned the book down as being nothing exceptional. Yet, somehow Rowling's existing publisher took it on (so questions there), and also, its blurb features endorsements by top crime writers. Hard to know what's going on here - was everyone in the dark?

Thirdly, there's something important here about Rowling's future plans. "The Casual Vacancy", her first adult novel received a respectful response from critics and audience alike. Yet a local government/small town fiction hardly seems likely to be a "genre" or a future cash-cow. Crime fiction on the other hands is almost predicated on the idea of "series." When articles have been making the point that "The Cuckoo's Calling" (her titles remain dreadful!) had only sold a few hundred copies I'm hardly surprised: crime fiction is about building a reputation; first books in an overcrowded genre, I'm assuming, are often only as successful as what comes next. The poet Sophie Hannah and the novelists Kate Atkinson and John Banville both moved into the genre and started sequences of books rather than one-offs. I'm thinking that "The Casual Vacancy" was probably an important book for her to get out of her system - a bit like Grisham's non-crime novel "A Painted House" - a story she wanted to tell but which was not going to be what she continues writing. Notably, predictably, the new Rowling has a lead character, Cormoran Strike (!) who has presumably another book or more in him.

I'm not someone who reads much crime fiction, but its a massive market, and readers are incredibly loyal. They love particular writers - and read them faster than their authors' can write them. Is this really the world that Rowling has now entered? She's clearly a prolific storyteller, and any story teller will tell you that its never a problem to find new ideas. The phenomenal sales of previous books would have followed her around for a while (with the possible frustration of disappointed readers missing the magic of the Harry Potters) so I'm wondering if the cleverest thing about this is that the ruse may actually help to puncture the phenomenon of Rowling: unlike her first adult novel or the last Potter, the release of the book hasn't been a major media event - though the unveiling of the true identity is a classic 21st century media story. Whether her millions of readers will follow her into the pragmatic problem solving of the contemporary detective story is anotther matter: any writer who can keep an audience is unlikely to disappoint her readers for long. Whether or not future Cormoran Strike stories will come out under the Galbraith name or some convolution ("J.K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith") we'll have to see - for now, its a nice summer story. I can't blame readers for choosing a familiar name rather than an unknown; but the publishing industry's reliance on these mega-writers is more worrying.

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