And so, this was it, the publishing event of the century: J K Rowling and the Publisher's Hype. The story had everything. The one million pre-orders. The profile in The New Yorker. The adulation! The vilification! You'd never guess that all Rowling did was write a book.
Reviews of The Casual Vacancy were strictly embargoed until its publication on Thursday, and, in the absence of a book, much of the criticism focused on Rowling's politics, her refusal to give interviews, her giving too many interviews, and the embargo itself. One newspaper accused her of hypocrisy, and her PR campaign of gagging the media (although not The Independent on Sunday, of course, which said no thanks to signing the embargo).
At the Waterstones store I went to on Thursday morning, there were no eager readers queuing up to buy Rowling's new novel. In this, it did not resemble a Harry Potter publication day. This may be because dressing as a wizard and camping outside a bookshop until midnight is more fun than stopping at a bookshop on the way to work dressed up as a town planner; or it may be because this is not a children's book. One million adults chose to pre-order The Casual Vacancy, even though they were not allowed to know in advance if it was any good. For all they knew, the book may have had just the words "Fooled you!" stamped through it like a stick of rock, but it was their £20 and their choice – not the moral equivalent of selling drugs to children.
Of course, Rowling could have published under a nom de plume, given that she has nothing to prove as a writer and is not short of a bob or two. It's not unheard of for successful writers use pseudonyms to avoid all the potential hype: Agatha Christie wrote romances as Mary Westmacott; C S Lewis published A Grief Observed as N W Clerk; the sons of the writers Stephen King and John le Carré publish under the names Joe Hill and Nick Harkaway; and Romain Gary was able to win the Prix Goncourt a second time because he published The Life Before Us under a different name. I've always thought a "blind" book prize would be a fascinating experiment…
Given the flak that Rowling has received, maybe she wishes she had published under another name. It's a hard sell for a publisher, though. Strip away the hype, and a writer's job is to write the best book that she can. A publisher's job is to sell it – and sell it they have. The Casual Vacancy may not be many reviewers' book of the month (there are better novels published this week), but if it makes Little, Brown a mint, then maybe a struggling new writer on its list will benefit. Just as Bloomsbury, in the late 1990s, funded by the success of big names such as Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, paid a small advance for a book by an unheard-of author called J K Rowling...
Wouldn't that be a happy ending? Particularly if the next J K Rowling can avoid the Curse of the Publisher's Hype.
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