By now you've heard that J.K. Rowling published Cuckoo's Calling, a pulpy crime novel, under the pen name "Robert Galbraith". It was a fascinating experiment that I can't blame her for trying after how her A Casual Vacancy was received. There were unreasonable hopes that the novel would be like Harry Potter, and a clear critical glee whenever it was weak. There was a feeling of a ripe target, of somebody so widely beloved who was now vulnerable and could be sniped at.
The Cuckoo's Calling experiment is interesting to most because she wowed critics. Reviewers who thought she was Robert Galbraith likened her novel to the bestsellers of the field. It's only now that she's been outed that critics are putting the knuckles to it.
It's more interesting to me because of its mediocre sales. Released by Little Brown, the New York Times reported it moved barely 1,500 copies. Rowling has since taken to the web claiming sales were a little higher, but like the depressing reports about how Pulitzer Prize nominees sold, this again reveals how little critical praise can mean to the book-buying public. It feels like someone in the law firm or publishing house outed her to sell more copies, and indeed, they're now printing 140,000 copies to catch up with sudden demand.
That it sold so meekly makes some immediate sense: this is another crime story, not a revolutionary YA phenomenon. And the author could only promote it so much while hiding her identity. But it's still a sales performance many self-published authors have trumped from the woman who has unparalleled experience in the publishing industry. She's been privy to information from publishers, distributors, and even transmedia corporations. While the success of Harry Potter got much bigger than her grasp, she likely knows how to get books into the hands of critics and mavens (or knows the people who know how to).
There are two comforts in this story. One is that Rowling's writing is at least a little vindicated by hoodwinking critics into giving her a fresh analysis. Her trick reveals, once again, that expectations can rig the game, and that that our baggage distorts.
It's also comforting to know that one of the richest authors in human history can fall on her face when only quality of the work determines its place in the market. Cuckoo's Calling has been a critical success in crime fiction, but as a commercial mid-lister, it reminds that all those struggling debut and self-publishing authors are up against high adversity. It's easy to be chilled thinking our best work will be ignored, but if you've spent any time in the industry, you already knew there were severe odds. This affirms that every new face has to roll with those. You're not alone.
When the current wave of joke and back-patting articles subside, I imagine another wave of hindsighted visionaries explaining how Rowling could have done this all better. What I'm really looking forward to, though, is someone to write under a pen name and prove a theory of how a beginning author can win. Rowling did it once, though it took quite a long time for the spell to work.