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Cuckoo's Calling, and She Wants Her Money Back

By Ethan Marxhausen

I was at work today, near the phone, during a time of day that, while rowdy, was not too much rowdier than usual. People often call about books they've heard about on NPR, the local news, etc. It doesn't take much more than a namedrop on an hour of programming attended by a thousand or so localish viewers for us (i.e., me and my fellow booksellers in St. Louis Park) to see a rapid, and consequently unfulfillable, rise in demand, to the tune of, say, a dozen calls a day.

So this woman calls, asks if I've got “That book that J. K. Rowling is supposed to have written but didn't write.” Then she says, “You know.” I do not know. I say this is “news to me,” and she says “they figured out it was her like twenty-four hours ago.” She says the name of the book is The Cuckoo's Calling. I key this into The System. The System in its infinite wisdom gives me the shelf by number. But where the book should be—in current pubs, between Gabaldon and Hosseini—there sits instead a hardcover's worth of empty space. I brief the woman. She thanks me kindly and we hang up. She's not overly bummed. She understands.

No one had ever heard of Robert Galbraith two days ago. Now, the only time you'll ever hear about Bob is alongside his more household-friendly friend, J. K. Rowling.

Not too long ago, David Cameron wrote a fun article on TheReviewReview.net, self-explanatorally entitled “The New Yorker Rejects Itself: A Quasi-Scientific Analysis of Slush Piles.” Cameron stole a New Yorker story off the web, pasted it into Word, invented a new title and author name/bio, and sent it off to a representative swatch of O. Henry/Pushcart-type literary journals. And, actually, he probably could have ended the article right there. You don't have to be too jaded to figure it out.

So this is nummy, meatloaf-quality food for the egos of us aspiring fiction writers. But we're also not exactly treading new ground here.

Back to Cuckoo. Bestselling, critically acclaimed mystery writer Ian Rankin tweeted depressingly: “So a debut novelist, garnering good quotes from famed authors for the cover plus good reviews, can expect to sell only a few hundred copies.” Well, yes. We buy books because we've heard about them either a) via our preferred media outlets, or b) via some human whose taste has been shown to not suck. A debut novelist, by definition, has only earned these endorsements in scant portions. Before being outed, Cuckoo's Calling (I have to scroll back up to my title to remind myself, it's still so unfamiliar to me) sold five. Hundred. Copies. You don't need me to tell you where it now sits on Amazon/NYT's respective bestseller lists.

At least one publisher (thus far) has confessed to the rare disgrace of turning down “J. K. Rowling.” Is her credibility still intact? Probably. Does she deserve to get laughed at? Hell no.

Big Publishing consists of lots and lots of uppity, but undeniably qualified, people. The problem with Big Publishing is not in its human monads. The problem is all those monads are busy as hell! Try describing a book you like during, say, a meeting of the Taiwanese Parliament. Now try it in a coffee shop with someone you like. Isn't this what books are about? Intimately communicating important things, true or otherwise, from one human (known) to another (anybody). Perhaps this does not go without saying anymore. Maybe it needs riskier terminology. In On Writing, Stephen King describes the act of writing as an “act of telepathy. No mythy-mountain shit; real telepathy.” Writing is not picking the most efficient/interesting set of words, just as it is not the ability to codify what an editor wants to hear (or a zeitgeist for that matter. I'm looking at you, Tao Lin). But we write anyway, we can't hardly help it, because writing is not either of these things. Publishers and editors, all are equally human. The best way to reach them still is, and always has been, to write for people as a whole, and, shotgun-style, hope you hit someone.

The most interesting thing about this whole Cuckoo's Calling thing is when it occurs to you to check the Amazon reviews of three months prior. Of those who read Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith.

Keep in mind, now, it's tough to know if any of these folks were in the know, somehow planted by Little, Brown/Mulholland Books (because hey, it's Big Publishing, those guys are assholes). But, for the sake of the moment, let's assume at least a few of them were not.

Here's one from Top-500 reviewer Keris Nine: “It's hard to put your finger on exactly what it is that makes The Cuckoo's Calling such a terrific new Private Investigator crime fiction debut.” Here's another from Hady Wenham: “Really enjoyed this book despite the cover! Had a touch of humour [sic] and good suspense that kept me wanting to solve the mystery.” There are currently a few negative reviews (and rising now, after the reveal), but even so, Bob seems to have come out ahead in the first round with a ratio of thirty-two 5-star reviews to three 1-star. (It may also be worth noting that a review written today by Keith Arroyo, “Robert Galbraith is really J.K. Rowling!!!! I just found this out on CNN. No wonder this is so well written!”, was voted helpful by zero out of ten)

But the one at the top of the list, at time of writing voted “helpful” by 534 of 561 people, is by “Karen.” Karen has wisely chosen to provide little information on her Amazon profile. We only know that she lives in San Jose, CA, and that she previously gave When the Bough Breaks by Jonathan Kellerman five stars (“Couldn't put it down!”), though she could only spare three for Lady of the English by Elizabeth Chadwick (“Historically interesting, but dragged”). Karen wrote on July 7, “This book is so well written that I suspect that some years down the road we will hear the author's name is a pseudonym of some famous writer. Lots of description made one feel like another occupant in the scene...” And so on.

So, now the dust has begun to dissipate, who are our losers? Certainly not Rowling. Big Publishing can only be blamed in a sort of limp-dicked abstract sense. Maybe Bob's the one who got screwed big time.

And the winners? Financially speaking, the unintentionally precognitive folks who bought signed first editions of “Robert Galbraith's” “debut” novel (the price of which has, in the unfortunate case of London's Goldsburo Books—who are currently sold out of the copies they were selling exclusively before the reveal for 16.99GBP—jumped to 1,650GBP + 12GBP shipping on Abebooks.co.uk).

 

And the winner otherwise speaking? Karen, although I somehow doubt she'll be touting it to her unspecified number of literary friends.

 

 

Interview: Derrick Brown

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