Rowling book skyrockets to an instant hit

Rowling book skyrockets to an instant hit
By the end of last week, "The Cuckoo's Calling," by the debut mystery novelist Robert Galbraith, was as good as dead.

Bookstores with unsold copies on hand were contemplating shipping them back to the publisher. Reviews, while generally positive, had tapered off. According to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 85 percent of print sales, only about 500 copies had sold in the United States since the book went on sale in April.

Then JK Rowling, easily one of the most bankable authors on the planet, admitted over the weekend to The Sunday Times of London that she - and not a male military veteran, as initial information from the publisher claimed - was the real author.

That has left the publisher and bookstores with an entirely different problem: getting copies of what has suddenly become the hottest book of the summer into the hands of Rowling's impatient fans.

The publisher has also had to contend with the suspicion that Rowling's camp was secretly responsible for leaking her identity. Speculation was rampant in the publishing world that the revelation was part of a big publicity ploy to help sell books - so much so that Rowling's spokeswoman, Nicky Stonehill, was compelled to release a tightly worded statement denying it.

"We can confirm the story in The Sunday Times was correct, and it was not a leak or elaborate marketing campaign to boost sales," she said in an email Tuesday. "We are not commenting any further."

The story of "The Cuckoo's Calling" began to unravel last week when The Sunday Times of London received a tip via Twitter that it was Rowling, the author of the hugely popular Harry Potter series, who had written the book, and not Robert Galbraith, who was identified in publicity materials as a military veteran writing about his own experiences. Rowling confirmed the paper's suspicion, saying that writing the book under a pseudonym was a "liberating" act.

"It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation, and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name," she said.

Since then, Little, Brown & Co., her publisher, appears to have been scrambling to meet demand. Nicole Dewey, a spokeswoman for Little, Brown, said that the publisher began to print an additional 300,000 copies Monday, a huge undertaking that takes several days. Dewey said the books were expected to start shipping sometime this week. That isn't soon enough for many bookstores, which are locked in a fierce competition with Amazon, and with the e-book, which, compared with hardcovers, is inexpensive and instantly available. (The hardcover list price of "The Cuckoo's Calling" is $26; a Kindle or Nook edition is $9.99.)

In Austin, Texas, customers have stopped by the BookPeople store asking for the title, only to be told that it is out of stock. Forty copies are on order, said a bookseller there, Carolyn Tracy, adding that at least eight people had asked to reserve copies.

"What I think will be interesting is whether this is going to be a flash in the pan," said Cathy Langer, the lead buyer at the Tattered Cover in Denver. "Are people going to want it now and then forget about it later?"

Gayle Shanks, an owner of Changing Hands bookstore in Tempe, Ariz., said that after learning that Rowling was the book's author, she quickly ordered 25 copies but was told not to expect them to arrive for at least 10 to 14 days.

"People who can't get it as a book are going to run and get it as an e-book," Shanks said. "By the time the books are back, two weeks from now, most people are going to have read it on some device. That really concerns me."

Amazon, which sells more books than any other retailer in the country, is also out of stock of print books, telling customers online that "The Cuckoo's Calling" will ship in one to three weeks.

In the meantime, the book has risen to No. 1 on Amazon's best-seller list. And copies of the first edition of "The Cuckoo's Calling" in hardcover are floating around eBay at considerable markups: On Tuesday afternoon one copy in Britain had risen to more than $2,300, with 67 bids. Another copy in the United States was available for a more modest $41, with shipping costing $3.99.

Robert McDonald, a bookseller at the Book Stall in Winnetka, Ill., said this act of literary deception was reminiscent of the days when Stephen King, yearning to step away temporarily from his own celebrity, wrote books pseudonymously as Richard Bachman.

Publishing executives harboring suspicions about the timing of the leak pointed to several bits of striking synchronicity. The paperback edition of "The Casual Vacancy," Rowling's first adult novel, which was published last year, is to be released next week and will benefit from the attention paid to Rowling's new book. ("The Casual Vacancy" was panned by some critics but emerged a commercial success, selling more than 2.5 million copies.)

In addition, the news that Rowling wrote "The Cuckoo's Calling" broke over the weekend, ensuring that the subsequent rush of sales would occur in the same calendar week - ideal for the purposes of best-seller lists, which typically collect numbers from Sunday through Saturday.

Exhibit A Books, a crime fiction imprint, tweeted Monday: "I wonder what evil spell was used to out JK Rowling at the real author behind The Cuckoo's Calling? Maybe publicitystuntiarmus?!"

Some people involved with the publicity windup for "The Cuckoo's Calling" said they saw nothing amiss.

Owen Laukkanen, an author asked to provide a blurb for the book, said he had no idea that Rowling was involved.

"The book was such an unflinching portrayal of British celebrity culture," he said in an interview. "It was clearly written by a talented writer. But I'm gobsmacked that it was JK Rowling."
© 2013, The New York Times News Service
Story First Published: July 17, 2013 09:44 IST

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