To Those Saying The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith Tanked: Please Stop.

The news broke over the weekend and so this is breaking to no one: The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith was really written by none other than J.K. Rowling. She punked the publishing industry, and everyone’s talking about it. It’s been picked up by most news outlets, and overnight it hit number 1 on Amazon and its sales went up 158,000%.

I’ve seen several people/sources expressing shock and horror that only 1500 copies were shipped from the warehouse and of those 1500 hardbacks, only 400odd had sold (and maybe 1000 ebooks, though I don’t think any of these numbers are substantiated, either–the 400odd number probably came from Nielsen bookscan, and those numbers can be pretty off). But this was in the UK only. In 3 months. On an unknown debut. In a saturated market. In a recession. That’s not tanking. It’s healthy.

The Cuckoo’s Calling had a normal publishing experience. Not a lot of fanfare, not in every bookstore window, no big blog tour, no events (she couldn’t very well show up, could she? Though that would have been SO fun if she did waltz out at a low-key launch somewhere). Now the book quite obviously doesn’t have a normal experience, because it was written by a woman richer than the Queen of England, writer of a book series pretty much everyone knows. This shows several things:

1. Good books stand on their own. Robert Galbraith’s career wasn’t over. “He’d” probably sold enough for them to continue with the series, but they’d have decided more based on the paperback sales, if this hadn’t come to light. We’ll never know what the paperback sales would have been, now.

2. Word of mouth usually takes longer than 3 months. I personally wish it had stayed under wraps longer, to see what the paperback sales would have been, if momentum would have grown with each book in the series. That’s what happened with Harry Potter–it wasn’t until the 3rd book that it hit the stratosphere. How amazing would it have been for Rowling to do it not once, but twice? Things take time. Da Vinci Code was Dan Brown’s 4th book. Daughter of Smoke and Bone was Laini Taylor’s 3rd, I think.

3. Unless very heavily marketed, it’s hard for people to take a chance on debuts. Or to find out about debuts. Even very good books–and The Cuckoo’s Calling had awesome blurbs and great reviews. 1 star reviews on Amazon only appeared after the news broke. People like to reach for books where they know what they’re going to get. I know I’m like that. If I’m lazy and know I want to read something I’ll enjoy, I grab one of the Margaret Atwood books I haven’t read yet.

So please don’t say it tanked. It didn’t, and now it’s doing phenomenally. Which is great. I’m sure I’ll read it. The Cuckoo’s Calling performed like many books in those 3 months. It performed better than many books.

There’s speculation that this was a planned stunt–that the news broke in a timely manner before the paperback release. That may be, but that still doesn’t stop the fact that it seems like the secret was kept pretty well, at least for a few months.

I hope J.K. Rowling does this again with more pseudonyms. She seemed to enjoy not having the expectation–I can’t imagine how scary it must have been launching The Casual Vacancy, as such a successful author. Plus it’d be fun–which debut next year could secretly have been written by her?

So maybe pick up a debut, and don’t do so because it might secretly have been written by J.K. Rowling (unlikely she’s doing it twice this year, after all!). Do it because if debut authors are well-supported, maybe they’ll have chances to put out more books, some of which might become your next favourites.

16 thoughts on “To Those Saying The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith Tanked: Please Stop.

  1. I think the book might have sold more with a title and cover that stood out better. Neither is exactly bland or bad, but not super exciting either. Of course now it will make no difference.

  2. Good points – and I must admit I was someone who commented on Twitter about 400 copies sounding too low.

    But I haven’t actually seen any comparative sales data. Several people have also said, like yourself, that 400 copies is fine for a UK-only hardback with limited/no marketing. On the other hand, others have said this figure is low.

    But without some comparative sales data, we can’t make either assumption.

    And I’m not saying that just to disguise some snobbery over JK Rowling – I love her books, and I’ve ordered The Cuckoo’s Calling because it sounds good (and a couple of my crime writer friends actually blurbed it!).

    1. Most of the people I’ve seen commented on the number being low were in the US, where the population is 5x bigger. I did ask a few editors/agents and they said 400odd hardback through retailers was fine. It’s crazymaking. I don’t think it surpassed expectations from the publishers (if they really didn’t know it was Rowling), but it probably didn’t fall short, either.

      I wish we could have comparable sales data too, but I doubt that’ll be released. All I have is a figure I got from a Waterstones bookseller of how many copies of Pantomime sold at the 2 month mark. It was lower than what Cuckoo’s Calling sold. That’s only one retailer, but there you go.

      I’ll probably give it a read, too.

  3. Good article . I think people are too used to hearing her usual sales figures and the likes of Dan Brown that they forget most authors would be happy with these figures starting out

  4. Ooh! You haven’t read it yet? You’re in for a treat. It’s a whole universe away from her past books, but there are some hallmarks of craft excellence in there to treasure.

    1. Yeah, I read Casual Vacancy and while I found the story quite dark, I still enjoyed the writing/characterization. I’m looking forward to reading it.

  5. Yes, yes, yes, and a very good point about the one star reviews only appearing *after* Rowling’s identity had been revealed. It would have been an interesting experiment had it remained a secret for one or two years and a couple of books – now, we haven’t learnt anything bar the obvious truth that publishers (a business like any other) play safe. (As for the planned stunt idea – I thought it was absolute rubbish till I realised how quickly they’d managed to print and distribute hundreds of thousands of paper copies :p)

    1. Yeah, rather suspicious, like they had 300k lying around just in case 😛 Evidently it was a law firm that leaked it, but that doesn’t make me think it’s not a stunt–surely they signed about a billion confidentiality agreements?

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