What's in a name?
Well, in Juliet’s case, the difference between her parents asking Romeo over for dinner or running him through with the nearest rapier.
But as everyone now knows Robert Galbraith is no longer Robert Galbraith. And the revelation that he is in fact Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling would suggest there’s an awful lot in a name, at least when it comes to book sales. A 507,000% rise in amazon sales to be precise.
Initial reports spoke of a journalist who just didn’t quite believe any debut novelist could be that good. Leaving aside that depressing statement for a moment, there was also Galbraith’s remarkable knowledge of women’s clothing. Always a giveaway. In the end, though, it came down to a good, old-fashioned inability to keep a secret: Rowling’s lawyer told his wife’s best friend who told a journalist.
Admittedly, the rumours had been flying for a while, after it was announced in 2012 that David Shelley – who counts crime writers Val McDermid and Mark Billingham among his authors – would be the editor of Rowling’s next adult novel. Back in February of that year, Alison Flood addressed the rumours head on via The Guardian book blog declaring she would bet a ‘Harry Potter proof that I'm right [about the book being a detective story]. And if I'm wrong, I will, erm, eat my sorting hat.’
It turns out Flood was both right and not right. Rowling’s first adult novel turned out to be The Casual Vacancy but as we now know Rowling was thinking further ahead. The crime writing pseudonym was a surprise touch.
What’s interesting about this public unmasking is how quickly the initial story about the dogged journalist looking for clues turned into rumours that it was all a publicity stunt. Rowling had set it all up after all to boost her sales. Quick! Rush out and buy her book but damn her wily ways while you’re flipping those pages. Some claws were quick to come out scratching and only a public statement from her lawyers confirming they were the source of the information squashed this line of inquiry.
Of course, those who love a conspiracy theory might argue that this could all still be part of the machine, a devilishly cunning plan worthy of Blackadder.* I'm going with the public statement and besides there are more important, I think, questions behind all this: where does all this leave real debut novelists and those still working on what they dream might be their debut? Where does it leave all the other excellent crime writers out there who have been writing this stuff for years? And do either of these things matter?
Personally, I think they do. Why else would Rowling have gone for a pseudonym in the first place? The pressure on her must be enormous. She is synonymous with Harry Potter and The Casual Vacancy,with all its fanfare and ludicrous sales, received mixed reviews. Add to that the fact that she is breaking into what is already a rich and vital genre, how refreshing it must be to pretend to start again, to have no one questioning whether a children’s author can write a grown-up crime novel.
I think we have a lot to thank Rowling for. Whatever you think of her writing style, she inspired a generation of children to care about reading and, who knows, maybe her Galbraith alter-ego will introduce another audience to the joys of well-written crime. What a pity, though, if people only read that one crime novel because of the Harry Potter effect.
The true legacy of someone of Rowling’s literary status would be if her work encouraged people to branch out and discover the delights that the Rankins, McDermids, Walters and Cornwells (among many others) of the crime fiction world also have to offer. I’m not suggesting Rowling has some sort of moral obligation, but perhaps our bookshops should take this as an opportunity to encourage their customers to try something new.
I don’t much like the ‘if you like this then try that’ sales patter – for one thing some of the comparisons people make are dubious (Ian Rankin seems to be suggesting a similar argument in his tweet 'Rowling's writing as Galbraith has been compared to Lee Child' (The Guardian). Not by anyone I know who has read both.'). Equally, I’m fairly sure crime writers who have been doing this for years wouldn’t necessarily thank me for suggesting they ride on Rowling’s coat tails. And why should they?
But there’s no getting away from the Rowling effect. Which brings me back to her use of the pseudonym in the first place. If there is any upside to being a debut novelist it is an almost total lack of expectation. No one was waiting with baited breath and sharpened knives for a book called The Cuckoo’s Calling by a bloke called Robert Galbraith. But you can bet the contents of your house that the hype over the second instalment will be mental.
It’s a double-edged sword. All novelists want readers; how lovely for Rowling that she has one or two more than the rest of us. Good luck to her.
And we all have our favourite authors, of course we do. I will buy any Margaret Atwood, Sarah Waters or David Mitchell without batting an eyelid at the blurb on the back. But I’ve also tripped over some fine novels written by first-time novelists. I actually thought Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone an excellent debut novel when I read it waaaaay back in 1997 when it was first published and no one knew who J.K Rowling was. The irony there is that she was encouraged to use initials so that it might entice more boys to read the book – the argument being they wouldn’t have read a book about a wizard written by a girl. Which begs another question: why a male pseudonym when there are plenty of excellent female crime writers out there?
The point is, the more Rowling wrote, the bigger her name and the more critical the media glare. I’ve not read either of her adult novels – not out of churlishness, I have just have other things I want to read first – but how much of the reviewing process in each case was affected by knowing/not knowing who the author was?
Rowling has worked hard to get where she has and like all writers has faced rejection - the first Harry Potter received multiple rejections and just last week Kate Mills at Orion tweeted 'So, I can now say that I turned down JK Rowling. I did read and say no to Cuckoo's Calling. Anyone else going to confess?' describing it as 'well-written but quiet.'
So what’s in a name? In this instance, rocketing book sales, yes, but perhaps renewed pressure on Rowling, who has said she ‘had hoped to keep this secret a little longer’.
But what if she had? What if the second novel had come out and didn’t do very well. What then? Ultimately, the publishers, and Rowling herself, always had an ace up their sleeve, even if someone else chose to reveal it a little earlier than planned.
Thousands of first-timers do not have that luxury and must hope that their debut literary accomplishments are indeed strong enough to keep the readers wanting more.
* 31/07/13 update: Rowling has since taken legal action against Chris Gossage, a partner at Russells Solicitors, and his
friend, Judith Callegari and now accepted a substantial charitable donation.