J. K. Rowling: on the importance of knowing authorship

Most of you probably know that J. K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame (I can’t say I’m a fan) recently published a book under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith: a detective novel called The Cuckoo’s Calling. Although the reviews were generally good (here’s one in the NY Times), the book barely sold: something on the order of only 500 copies were purchased in the U.S. since the book came out in April.

Then someone in a law firm who knew Galbraith’s real identity leaked her name and authorship to a friend, and the secret was out. The result, as the New York Times reports, was pandemonium: book sales skyrocketed and publishers are rushing to print hundreds of thousands of new copies:

. . . J. K. 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 Ms. Rowling’s impatient fans.

The publisher has also had to contend with the suspicion that Ms. 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 Ms. 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 e-mail on Tuesday. “We are not commenting any further.”

. . . Since then, Little, Brown & Company, her publisher, appears to have been scrambling to meet demand. Nicole Dewey, a spokeswoman for Little, Brown, said that on Monday the publisher began to print an additional 300,000 copies, a huge undertaking that takes several days. Ms. Dewey said the books are expected to start shipping some time 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.)

Although another recent novel Rowling wrote under her own name, The Casual Vacancy, was not a critical success, I do believe her claim that this was a real, unintended leak,not a publicity stunt. I’m not sure why she’d use a pseudonym, unless to see how well her writing was judged by critics who didn’t know her name. Yet if that were the case, why wasn’t her earlier novel published pseudonymously? But at any rate, I have no reason to doubt that she and her spokeswoman are telling the truth.

But this does raise questions about sales versus merit, and the role of authorship.  The book was judged good by the critics, but didn’t sell—until the author’s name was revealed.  Clearly, intrinsic merit of a book isn’t perfectly correlated with how well it does.  Well, that isn’t a surprise: history is full of good books that were initially rejected, or didn’t sell well, only to become classics or best sellers later. Recent examples are The End of Faith by Sam Harris (rejected by more than a dozen publishers) and, of course, Rowling herself, who survived many rejections of the first Harry Potter book. The Great Gatsby, now seen as a classic (and one of my favorite novels) also sold poorly, as did the early books of John Cheever.

But I still feel slightly puzzled—and, to be honest, a bit contemptuous—at the phenomenon of people buying books based solely on who wrote them. The book got good reviews, and so should have sold well initially. But it didn’t until the author was revealed as J. K. Rowling. Now people are buying it in droves, for no reason other than their knowledge of the real author.  But that name is no guarantee of success, as judged by her earlier failed novel.

Perhaps I’m being uncharitable, but the novel is exactly as good as it is regardless of who writes it. But the power of a name trumps all.  I have to add that I, too, am victim of the “name” phenomenon, though more for nonfiction than for fiction. I’d pretty much buy anything written by Sam Harris or (if he were still alive) Christopher Hitchens, not to mention Robert Caro, just because they always have something interesting to say, and Caro has never failed to produce a masterpiece.

So here’s a conundrum for you, one that I’ve asked some of my artistic friends.  Imagine that Beethoven had never written his Fifth Symphony. But then, a few years ago, someone finds the score of that piece in a stack of old papers—written by someone other than Beethoven, say, one Gustav Biederstücker.  What would happen?

Well, that symphony would be exactly as good as Beethoven’s Fifth, because it is Beethoven’s Fifth!  It would, in theory, conjure up all the expressive romanticism of the original. It should be recognized as a lost masterpiece.

But it wouldn’t, because it was written by Biederstücker and not Beethoven. It would be ignored. Exactly the same thing would happen if some unknown nebbish wrote that symphony today. The critics would say “it is irrelevant because it was written out of the proper historical period.”

But does this make sense at all? People still flock to the concert halls to hear Beethoven’s Fifth, and get great satisfaction thereby, but the same people wouldn’t cross the street to hear the identical piece by Biederstücker. Why should that be?

Is the intrinsic (as opposed to the dollar) value of a work of art so dependent on who writes it, rather than on what it expresses? Apparently so. But to me that seems irrational.


  1. Neunder
    Posted July 22, 2013 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, CNN has a pertinent story on the topic of your post here: the story of Chuck Ross:


  2. Posted July 23, 2013 at 5:16 am | Permalink

    The first book I read by David Baldacci was, for me personally, a shot in the dark. As it turned out, I really enjoyed the novel. So, of course, when I was in the store next looking for another novel to purchase his name was now on my mental list of “authors’ books to look out for”. (Lee Child is another one on my list, as is Linwood Barclay, etc.) There are also authors that I deliberately avoid, because I’ve given them a chance in the past and just didn’t like a book of theirs that I’ve tried out. And then, of course, there are the “unknowns”. (Unknown to me personally.) Of course, there are other factors, such as story types, and even types of story lines within types. So when I’m looking for a book to get, to spend money on, and then to spend time reading, clearly I’m looking to enhance the prospects that I will enjoy the book I get. Authorship is clearly an important factor in this process. In general economics, these same principles are apparent in regard to quality and preference facts. Reputation is important.

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  1. […] In commenting on the above, the biologist Jerry Coyne raises an interesting question on his blog: […]

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