Monday, July 29, 2013

What "The Cuckoo's Calling" Means for Writers, Readers, and Rowling Herself

By now, almost everyone has heard of JK Rowling's 'new' book, a crime novel called "The Cuckoo's Calling" which was written under the name Robert Galbraith who just recently got revealed to be JK Rowling herself. I did a post denouncing all those who thought the 'reveal' of the name was a publicity stunt by either the author or the publisher. Look at the post here.

But now we'll go into the impact of it. Because of this big reveal, what has changed?

For Writers

Nothing has changed at all.

And I mean that. Other than the fact that now there'll be a mania behind "Oh gosh this debut might be Rowling in disguise!" (that might even help debut novelists!) nothing is different for us writers.

I respectfully disagree with the idea behind Nathan Bransford's post on the subject. (He, by the way, is a man I respect to a GREAT degree - such amazing knowledge of the publishing world.) Honestly, little has changed. It is not hopeless for debut novelists at all because that's not the fact. The facts are these:

  1. Due to obvious reasons, JK Rowling did very little (and probably, no) publicity for this book, "The Cuckoo's Calling." No Twitter account or website was set up before the reveal, and only a few hundred books were signed (and that too, by a bookseller's request, not by Rowling's desire).

    And, most importantly:
  2. Crime fiction, especially nowadays, is not a 'hot' genre at ALL, no matter how well-written the books may be.
Everyone is crying about the fact that the only reason this book shot up so high in sales is because of JK Rowling's name. Well. Yes. Exactly. No crap.

This is not doom for aspiring writers. 

According to Rowling herself (whose numbers I'll trust before any other's), the book sold about 8,000 copies across all formats in three months and received two film deals, before the book got revealed to be written by Rowling herself. That is INCREDIBLE for a debut, nothing to laugh at. 

Also, very little publicity was done for this book in the first place. The above numbers, coupled with this fact, should have writers rejoicing, especially because almost all writers nowadays are expected to do massive publicity for their own work to boost sales. Rowling didn't do that. It's almost obvious that the book wouldn't have sold hundreds of thousands of copies  (and it wasn't meant too, straight off the bat).

Even more so, very few people ever expect a crime novel to reach massive sales. It's all about the commercial draw of the novel, we know that. Crime fiction is a tough genre and a small one. Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy ("The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo") is the only crime series I can think of, in recent times, to hit massive numbers. If the book never had a huge selling angle, I don't understand why everyone's crying that it didn't sell much. It was never expected to, not until the reveal happened and gave the book a selling angle - it was freaking JK Rowling. It's all about how commercial the novel is, and it's just logic that if the book is not commercial, it won't sell a lot. It's plain logic.

And as for all the great reviews it got, I'd wager to bet that I'd only be reading debuts for the rest of my life if I had to read every single book that got a review to the extent of "A scintillating debut," (a quote which so many articles are harping about, saying that "Look, this book was so good, but few people read it!"). 

It's a great review to get, sure; but not unique. Let's not over exaggerate here. "The Cuckoo's Calling" is no Millennium Trilogy (I know; I've started to read Cuckoo). It got great reviews. So did so many other debuts for many years, and yet now we're starting to complain about it. 

Books can be good or well-written and not sell. By definition, to sell, it must have a selling angle. It's all about the commercial aspect and, artistically speaking, it's not horrendous to leave out a roaring commercial aspect.

It is what we already knew.

For Readers

This is an interesting subsection.

Hands up. How many of us were avid crime-fiction enthusiasts before we bought a copy of "The Cuckoo's Calling"?  Unless you were, count me out of that group. I haven't even read the Millennium Trilogy. I'm no crime enthusiast unless you count CSI: NY and Monk (those shows are awesome).

But I bought the book. And I'm reading it now (I'm around page 180 as I write this now). And sure, I like it. But do I love it yet? No. Why not? Maybe because it's too early in the book, but maybe because crime-fiction isn't my thing.

JK Rowling might have adopted the name Robert Galbraith in an attempt to target her true audience - crime fiction lovers. (I think it'd have been AMAZING if Rowling had adopted a pseudonym for "The Casual Vacancy." I loved that book, like seriously I'm in love with it, and the main reason other people didn't like it is because they wanted a "JK Rowling/Harry Potter" novel.) 

Now the whole world is buying her crime novel. The only 1-star reviews on Amazon have popped up after the big reveal, and people who've never read a crime book in their lives are now reading this and expecting witches or something.

What does this say about readers? They should only read what they truly enjoy? Never embark on a new genre? Probably not.

But what it is saying is this: Know what to expect as a reader.  Read something because you love it, because you're interested in it. And if it's not something you'd usually pick up (like in my case with Cuckoo) exercise strong caution in determining whether you like or dislike the novel because of your own prejudices and/or expectations.

For JK Rowling Herself

Now HERE is where the big deal really is.

Instead of a doomed market for debuts, its a doomed market for "type-casted" authors. Ever wonder, truly, as to why Rowling wanted a pseudonym in the first place? Think about it. She would have gotten more money (and less backlash and hassle) if she published this book 'normally'. Why did she want to hide?

She wanted a fresh experience. A clean slate. Something to distance herself from the hoopla surrounding her name and get back to what she loves: writing. But she's so famous, so well-known, that it took just three months for the secret to be leaked.

Can an artist not work for herself? Is she always doomed to being the "Harry Potter" author? It's disgusting and revolting that she must always be compared in that light because she has so much more to offer. And a pseudonym would have helped her. But the fame that surrounded her name was just too much.

It's too hard to please everyone. I say, Ms. Rowling, that you go for another pseudonym and tell us all about it a year or so later, enough time for you to get a clean slate, and then time for us (please!) to read more of your amazing work. But it's all in your hands, as it should be (and sometimes, sadly isn't).

The world hasn't fallen for us writers at all, but what this whole experience has taught us is that we must be more careful as readers, and also that we must let artists be artists: experiment, be free, and not hassled.

Hope you enjoyed! Keep your heads up, writers, it's not hopeless for us.


  1. I've read some crime fiction, but it's not my normal genre.
    And I do keep that in mind when I'm reading something completely different - it might be the genre rather than the book that I don't like.

  2. Are you sure crime fiction isn't a big seller? It's not what I write or read so I may not be in the know. I mean maybe it's just a hard one for debut authors, but some of the most prolific and best selling authors alive today write crime/ legal thrillers. John Grisham, Michael Connelly, Dan Brown (I admittedly have only ever read the Da Vinci Code by him and it seemed pretty centered around a crime to me) James Patterson.
    And looking right now at the NYT print and e-book combined bestseller list for today it doesn't list genres but reading the tiny blurb 6 of the 15 look like some variant of crime fiction to me, either centered around a crime from a civilian standpoint, or about detectives or FBI agents investigating some crime.
    So I was just curious where you heard crime fiction was out right now, because I was super surprised when I read that.

    And I agree it's certainly not a doomed world for debuts, JK Rowling herself is proof that debuts can make a huge impact, she was the biggest publishing phenomenon ever with her debut project. There will always be debut authors (until we start living forever, because no matter how reluctant publishers ever become to take on new writers they will always have to because no one lives and writes forever) and so long as there are new writers there will always be the few who have something that catches the public at large by storm.

    I wouldn't say it's really a doomed market for type-cast authors either, people can whine and moan all they want on twitter about how they wish Rowling was writing magic again, but the public is still buying her crime fiction it's the top seller in the country right now, and the Casual Vacancy wasn't a slouch with sales either.

    The thing I think we can all learn from this is that the one constant is people spend money on what they know (more like what they think they know) they will like. Which is a much more complex thing to look at then the simple: big name = big success and why publishers have such trouble getting it right about what will sell (Hollywood is seemingly having an even harder time with this right now).
    The Cuckoo's Calling sold what it did initially based on quality alone it appears (since it had no big name attached to it and pretty much zero marketing, but the reviews I saw from before the reveal all praised what high level it was for a debut, and as you said it's pretty awesome that something could sell the numbers it did on quality alone) selling on quality alone is a slow build, it has to seep into the public consciousness on the word of a small number to start with and then hits a point of exponential growth, it's really a huge shame we didn't get a chance to see how that would have played out for this book, I think it would have been a fascinating case study. That lawyer and his friend who blabbed are real douches. I can't think of many other cases where a debut of that quality is going to do so little marketing so it would have been a real test of what kind of sales pattern and growth rate it would have seen.
    When people are assured by friends they think have good taste that something is worth their time, that on a large scale across lots of people is the most powerful seller in the world for any product. The trick for authors, especially debuts is how to get there. People like Rowling can get there with her name, (but at the end of the day even for someone like her to reach the upper upper echelon of sales is to have a product people like [I say like as opposed to one of quality not because I don't think her book is quality, but because though quality can drive sales, things don't have to be "quality" to be liked, guilty pleasures sell really well.]

    Sorry my comment was practically it's own blog post.... maybe that's what I should do for the pineapple lightning blog, a response blog segment, that is just all posts responding to other people's posts.

    1. I love your comments; don't apologize at all!! Long discussions on interesting topics are almost my favorite thing to have.

      And "The Cuckoo's Calling" isn't really a thriller as is most of the best-selling "crime fiction" nowadays; it's a real, honest-to-goodness private detective who got a client.

      But I agree with you 100% - I wanted to see how this would have played out. 3 months was not nearly enough, and JK Rowling even said that the amount of sales this book got in its first 3 months was comparable to the amount of sales Harry Potter got!!! Would word of mouth take over? Sigh. I don't know. People really need to keep secrets because finding out how this played out would have given us a rare chance (and I mean RARE). Think about it: Best-selling series of ALL TIME, richest author of ALL TIME (yes!), and she writes this crime fiction. How would it have played out? I doubt if we'll have this opportunity ever again, and it's been ruined. Hopefully she goes with another pseudonym soon :)

  3. I wonder if crime with be the next hot genre, like MG was after Harry Potter emerged.

    It must be hard to write a new novel when there are so many expectations placed on you because of your past books. You're no longer writing because you love doing it. And when you're already the richest woman in England, it's no like you need big sales to make you happy. But that sure would make your agent and publisher happy.

  4. I do not envy her if crime writers really nitpick :)