The story of J. K. Rowling's pseudonymous publishing of The Cuckoo's Calling is a devious one. It is a story that pretends to be illustrative, illuminating, and depressing, and I suppose it is, but like so many stories in our sloppy public discourse, The Cuckoo's Calling story conveys one set of meanings to us casually, while the real meaning tends to have to be dug up a little. I brought a shovel. The handy thing about the shovel is if none of this works out we can just toss dirt back over it all and plant some hostas, which will do well in this shady location.
You probably know the story, but I'll outline it for you as briefly as possible. Billionaire world famous bestselling author J. K. Rowling published a Mystery under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith. It was a secret known only to a small group of people that J. K. Rowling was the real author of this book, The Cuckoo's Calling. The book got some good reviews and sold very modestly. I read that it sold somewhere between "fewer than 500" and "8,500 English-language copies across all formats", enough to, at best, supposedly, make a hypothetical author $5,000, though in this case the author's money is being donated or something. Then the secret leaked out, and the book became the biggest selling book of the year, or in the top ten, or choose your own placing from a variety of sources, but all of them are pretty sure it sold a lot.
The lessons supposedly conveyed by this episode were as follows:
1. J. K. Rowling is a top notch writer and critics are more apt to recognize that when not blinded by issues of fame and preconception.
2. If you're a really terrific writer you will be published. But it's so crazy out there that you will also be rejected by publishers too.
3. Nevertheless, publishing is hell, and there's a very good chance you won't make enough money to live on even when you get published and get glowing reviews.
4. Fame trumps everything in our current world.
Before we list the real lessons of this episode we must do a little digging on these original supposed lessons. The four of them are based off of the press doing its usual thin reading of the events involved. Reporting is the process of generalizing while pretending not to. I'm doing it right now! The media set up an echo that just keeps bouncing around, drowning out real consideration. So first we better apply the bit of what truth I was able to suss out to the presumed lessons above.
1. The first lesson about J. K. Rowling being a terrific writer slighted by critics due to her fame is, curiously, J. K. Rowling's whole apparent point in this grand episode. She said she just likes the work part of writing, and this freed her from all the publicity responsibilities that were now irrelevant since she didn't care about the money and was being anonymous. But the way a key group of very important other people were involved and the bits about sending it to other rejecting publishers seems to speak to her wanting to make a point about unfair reception. Yet it is unclear how much she was hedging her bets on making this point about unfair reception, what with her publisher, lawyers, and agent all in on the secret. That the book was pseudonymous was apparently known to some, and at least one early reviewer (not knowing who the real author was) speculated on what power was behind the roll out of this unusually released book.
2. One publisher at least appears to have rejected The Cuckoo's Calling describing it as "Perfectly decent" and saying basically that that is nowhere near enough to publish a new mystery author. The book was ultimately published by Rowling's own publisher though, and the head of that publishing house (at least) was aware of the ruse. Whether all this means that J. K. Rowling sent her book around and no one wanted to publish it except her own publisher, at which point the ruse was carefully revealed, or the whole thing was a bit of a game to begin with, is not clear to me.
3. Yes, yes, publishing is hell, though curiously, not for any of the people actually involved in this story, J. K. Rowling, her publisher, and her agent, for whom publishing is all fantastic dreams come true. And while it's true that the library I work at has shelves full of shipwrecked and forgotten books sporting some glamorous and glowing starred reviews, mystery series almost never start fast. When they are successful they tend to gather steam for several books and hit it big, if they do, later in the series.
4. And yes again, this is a story about fame, but with my handy shovel, doing my digging, I keep finding not fame so much underneath as I try to figure it out, but rather power. Who publishes? Who is the agent sending the book around? How does the Publisher support the book. Who reviews the book and why?
That done I will now list for you what I take to be the four real lessons of this murky tale of the vastly famous author, the critics, and the pseudonym that kills book sales until it's lifted and the sales burst forth like desert flowers in the rain, or piranhas on a chicken carcass, depending on your perspective.
1. J. K. Rowling is one of the most beloved authors of all time. She is so fabulously wealthy that it is beyond counting. And she achieved all of this doing exactly what she loves doing. Yet she is also feeling very, very peevish about writing books. I would be inclined to severely fault her for this, but I have this super nice blog and yet I frequently feel peevish too.
2. If you make hundreds of millions of dollars for agents, lawyers, and giant publishers they will be happy to lie about you in pretty much any way you like.
3. Being a novelist is like anything else, playing the lottery, being born in Swaziland, working as a clerk, golfing, raising a pet, suffering from a horrible disease, or surfing the internet, you may or may not make a billion dollars doing it.
4. Yes, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes, but that's on average. Now think of J. K. Rowling, and you, and me, and everyone you know.