So, by now we’ve all heard the story about how JK Rowling pretended to be Robert Galbraith and released The Cuckoo’s Calling with zero fanfare. Except that may not actually be the case. Yes, The Cuckoo’s Calling was published under a pseudonym; lets not get into the fact that Rowling is yet again hiding behind a male persona (‘JK’ was used because it was feared ‘Joanne’ wouldn’t be well-received by little wizard-loving boys)–but the fact remains that just because you use a nom de plume does not, in any way, give you anonymity among those who know better.
“But nobody knew JK Rowling was Robert Galbraith,” you say. True, if by nobody you mean readers. But if by nobody you mean absolutely anyone, that’s where you’re wrong. The most important people did know it was JK in disguise, and quite frankly, those are the only people–at least at the start of the publishing journey–that mean a damn thing. Rowling’s agent was privy to the information. Hell, Rowling’s agent probably had something to do with the pseudonym in the first place; after all, poor Rowling got absolutely hammered on A Casual Vacancy–my heart still goes out to her on that front. I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be to have entertained millions for so long via Harry Potter only to have that audience turn rabid when you dare suggest there’s more to you than a boy wizard.
But it wasn’t only her agent. It was also the publisher. Yes, they agreed to be quite about it (for a while), but they were practically guaranteed sales as soon as JK Rowling dropped the act and announced that she’s Robert Galbraith in disguise. I’d go so far as to say that the publisher secured some sort of contractual clause that obligated JK to come forward if the book sold under a certain amount of copies.
All-in-all, this Cuckoo thing can only be looked at as an experiment in morbid curiosity. After A Casual Vacancy, which got some of the harshest reviews I’ve ever read–seriously, my heart goes out to JK in that regard; readers can be incredibly rabid, especially regarding authors they hold up on a pedestal as can-do-no-wrong–one can’t blame JK for wanting some honest perspective on her work. Hell, if that had been me, I’d have more than likely done the same thing. “Screw releasing this under my name, I actually want people to read my stuff rather than hate it because there’s no Hogwarts.” Getting honest reviews after such staggering success is more than likely next to impossible. You throw in a pseudonym and all is fixed.
Except that A Cuckoo’s Calling sold miserably despite it having pretty good reviews. Gasp! How could that be? (To this, I raise my eyebrows at you and give you a look: you’re kidding, right?) All-in-all, all this experiment resulted in was a few months-worth of reader reactions to the actual story rather than the person who wrote it. But the alias thing? It’s akin to putting on a funny nose and glasses while attending a party where everyone already knows you. They’ll laugh and wink and give you a thumbs up from across the room, pretend they have no idea who you are, and giggle over their champagne because they’re in on the joke… because the inevitable reveal is coming up and coming soon, and that reveal will result in monster sales not because the book is good or the story is interesting or the thing is well-written, but because it’s JK effing Rowling.
If JK wanted a genuine After Harry publishing experience, she should have been sending out queries and crossing her fingers–at least that’s what all the naysayers are screaming. Personally, I don’t think that’s fair. JK did go through a genuine publishing experience with Harry; only truly bitter authors and readers who don’t know any better would ever wish that on her (or any author) again. I’m not a Potter fan, but I know enough about JK and her work to know that she’s a fantastic writer who has created an entire universe out of the floss of her own imagination. That in itself grants her a lifelong publishing ticket. Is A Cuckoo’s Calling good? I have no idea. And I’m not intrigued by A Casual Vacancy either. I do find it sad that such a beloved writer has been pushed into using an alias to publish her work because, beyond Harry, she can’t catch a break. Personally, I can’t imagine how disheartening something like that could be. But at least it makes for damn good conversation, much like the case of Chuck Ross in the 1970’s.
But what if Robert Galbraith really had been Robert Galbraith? What if an unknown author by that name had tried to sell “The Cuckoo’s Calling” to a publisher?
As good as the book is, would a publisher have taken a chance on it?
Before you answer “Of course,” consider the case of Chuck Ross — the protagonist of the most instructive, the most damning, and the most hilarious true story about publishing there ever has been.
-Bob Greene, CNN