Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

The really interesting thing about that J K Rowling story

The unveiling of J K Rowling as a secret crime novelist confirms certain unhappy facts about the book business

Mon, Jul 15, 2013, 21:29


You will know about this already. It seems that, earlier this year, a crime novel written by Ms J K Rowling — ┬ábut published pseudonymously — emerged to very impressive reviews. “A scintillating debut novel,” Marcel Berlins said of Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling in the Times. “Galbraith delivers sparkling dialogue and a convincing portrayal of the emptiness of wealth and glamour.” Almost all the other notices were equally positive.

Obviously, there are quite a few interesting things going on here. The story confirms that Ms Rowling is pretty brave. If the reviews had been poor she certainly couldn’t claim that any backlash against her success was at work. She stood before the reviewers without any insulating celebrity.

But the really fascinating fact can be found at the top of the Telegraph’s take on the story. When the information first emerged, it was believed that the book had sold about 1,500 copies. The Telegraph poked around and discovered that the figure was, in fact, just a third of that number. Now, here’s the thing. A novel in a popular genre is published by a mainstream imprint and receives universally positive reviews, but still only manages to shift 500 copies. This is a very depressing statistic. What hope is there for anybody embarking on the trade of writing novels? Lord help you if you’re writing something a little less easily classifiable. Does anybody read bloody books anymore. What is wrong with the world?

Never mind the novelists. Spare a thought for the poor critics (he would say that, wouldn’t he?). What is the point of reading all these books and writing your blasted notice if virtually nobody pays any attention? Well, I suppose the point arrives in the form of your paycheque. But still. The crime reviewers on the major papers may as well shout their opinions into the nearest hole.

Of course, crime — like most genre fiction — sells in hugely greater numbers in paperback and the publishers were, in the case of “Robert Galbraith”, rather restricted in the number of publicity events they could arrange. I don’t suppose signings by unknown authors generate huge sales. But such arrangements must help a few copies sail off the shelves.

Let’s have fun putting this in perspective. By my reckoning, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows sold 88,000 times as many copies as Cuckoo’s Calling shifted before its true author was unveiled. To put it another way, the sales of Calling were .0000001 percent those of Hallows. If Rowling ever meets Galbraith she might like to josh him a little. Mind you, by then he too will be one of the bestselling authors in the world.

I’ll report on the film version in about three years or so.