Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The cuckoo’s example

with 5 comments

The Cuckoo's Calling

By now, you’ve probably already heard that J.K. Rowling has been outed as the author of the mystery novel The Cuckoo’s Calling, which was published without fanfare in April under the name Robert Galbraith. Although the book was eventually released by Little, Brown, which published Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, it was evidently shopped around to other houses without success. As one editor said to the Telegraph:

When the book came in, I thought it was perfectly good—it was certainly well written—but it didn’t stand out. Strange as it might seem, that’s not quite enough. Editors have to fall in love with debuts. It’s very hard to launch new authors and crime is a very crowded market.

Of course, now that its author’s true identity has been revealed, the book has shot to the top of the Amazon bestseller list, and for fans who didn’t know when—if ever—to expect a new book from Rowling, it comes as a delightful surprise.

Buried within the hype, however, there’s a fact that deserves a little more attention. According to Little, Brown, The Cuckoo’s Calling has sold about 1,500 copies in hardcover since its release in April. Other sources pin the true number as slightly lower: the Telegraph, citing Nielsen Bookscan, claims that actual sales may have been closer to 500. My own experience is that Bookscan tends to undercount sales significantly, especially outside the major chain bookstores, and it doesn’t include copies bought for Kindle or other electronic readers, so it’s reasonable to assume that the official figure is substantially correct. Sales in the book industry are notoriously opaque, especially for debut authors, so it’s always instructive to see a hard number attached to any book. And I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that its sales were soberingly low—low enough, in fact, to serve as a reality check for aspiring authors who don’t have a clear sense of what the market is really like.

J.K. Rowling

In some ways, this is the most useful case study of a debut novel we’ll ever see, to the point where it deserves to stand as a baseline for calibrating expectations. This is a book by an author who is, by any measure, an exceptionally capable novelist. It was released in hardcover by a major publisher, and it earned good notices, including a starred review in Publishers Weekly. The push it was given wasn’t tremendous, but it’s more than comparable to what most debuts receive. Reader response seems to have been highly positive. Yet despite all these points in its favor, it still had trouble breaking through. And while it’s possible that the book would have continued to sell steadily based on good word of mouth, it’s more likely that sales would have tapered off after an initial month or two in stores, as other titles took its place. (Modern bookselling is something of a cuckoo’s nest itself: the eggs on the shelf are always being pushed out by more recent, larger arrivals.)

Still, there’s no telling what might have happened, and as much as I enjoy this story, I can’t help but wish that Rowling had been allowed to continue operating under the radar for at least one more book. Until now, the most interesting case of a bestselling writer testing the waters under a pseudonym has been that of Stephen King and Richard Bachman. King published four novels in paperback and one in hardcover under the Bachman name, and he seems to have been seriously committed to seeing if lightning could strike twice: by the time the author’s identity was revealed, Bachman was slowly acquiring what King calls “a dim cult following,” and Thinner had sold a respectable 28,000 copies in hardcover. In his introduction to The Bachman Books, King writes:

I had intended Bachman to follow Thinner with a rather gruesome suspense novel called Misery, and I think that one might have taken “Dicky” onto the best-seller lists. Of course we’ll never know now, will we?

No, we’ll never know, and we won’t know what might have happened if Robert Galbraith had been allowed to survive. But I’d like to believe that he could have.

Written by nevalalee

July 15, 2013 at 8:50 am

5 Responses

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  1. Sobering to know that someone as obviously talented as Rowling sold so few when she didn’t trade on her existing name. Still, I will not give up hope!!


    July 15, 2013 at 8:54 am

  2. Then there’s the famous experiment by Doris Lessing: It’s been proven time and again that publishing success is pretty much a crapshoot…

    Kevin Brennan

    July 15, 2013 at 11:22 am

  3. Yeah, I can’t help but suspect that someone from Little, Brown must have planned the leak in order to boost sales and make up for whatever advance she was paid (I wonder how much it was? I’d love to know)… Do Nielsen and Pubtrack factor in Amazon sales at all?


    July 15, 2013 at 4:32 pm

  4. I appreciate the insight, but ouch.

    Jet Eliot

    July 15, 2013 at 4:59 pm

  5. @lilycarmichael: We all need to start somewhere!

    @Kevin: Wow—I hadn’t seen that story before. Thanks for sharing.

    @Siobhan: Yeah, I suspect that someone at Little, Brown was the source, although we don’t know who it was yet. And yes, Bookscan includes Amazon sales.

    @Jet Eliot: I just report the facts as I see them…


    July 15, 2013 at 5:58 pm

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