The Cuckoo’s Calling: A Commentary , or What This *Doesn’t* Say About Rowling Or The Publishing Industry


‘Volume of production is damned important in writing [as] if you produce enough stuff regularly you’re going to wear down opposition sooner or later.’

Helen McCloy, Two-Thirds of a Ghost

The news that the millionaire, best-selling author J. K. Rowling had had a book (under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith) disappear without trace after being rejected by several publishers has caused quite a stir, during these long summer months of slow news. Talent disappearing so completely under the radar demands an explanation, and so far people seem to have come up with two: that Rowling lacks talent, or that the publishing industry is incapable of recognising it. And both these impressions are wrong.

Let’s start with the former. Whatever you may think of Rowling’s prose style, it’s undeniable that she’s a good and engaging writer. The Casual Vacancy proved this even for those cynics that thought the appeal of Harry Potter was not the plot but the world it was set in. And the reviews for The Cuckoo’s Calling seem to bear this out: as well as the now oft-quoted praise from Val McDermid and Mark Billingham, the general consensus was that the book was good. Note the reaction from Kate Mills, who turned down the book on behalf of Orion: ‘perfectly decent, but quiet…it didn’t stand out’. So, it does seem surprising that something so well-reviewed by such an accomplished author sold under 2,000 copies without any further notice. Presumably, such a work should be an immediate success, and that it wasn’t does seem to demand an explanation. But, when we compare it to the biggest names in detective fiction and their notable characteristics, perhaps it doesn’t seem like such an anomaly after all.

A Selection of Detective Novelists And Their Work

  • Margery Allingham (36 novels and short-story collections)
  • Andrea Camelleri (12 novels featuring Montalbano)
  • Raymond Chandler (eight novels, 23 short stories)
  • G K Chesterton (51 Father Brown stories)
  • Agatha Christie (80 novels and short story collections)
  • Wilkie Collins (two works of debatable detective fiction, a couple of short stories)
  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes: four novels, 56 stories)
  • Edmund Crispin (eleven novels and short story collections)
  • Lindsey Davis (20 Falco novels)
  • Micheal Dibdin (11 Zen novels)
  • John Dickson Carr (80 novels and short story collections)
  • Dashiell Hammett (five novels, 19 short stories)
  • Micheal Innes (50 novels and short story collections under his penname alone)
  • P D James (19 novels), Ngaio Marsh (36 novels, 12 short stories)
  • Edgar Allen Poe (three Auguste Dupin stories)
  • Geoges Simeonen (over 200 novels and short story collections)
  • Ruth Rendell (60 novels and short story collections)

The astounding thing here, in so many cases, is volume*. The sheer number of works by most of the greats exceed anything you’d find in literary fiction or even fantasy: only science fiction, children’s fiction or romance novels would have a chance of coming close. The exceptions to this rule (Poe, Collins, Doyle) are intruiging in their own right: the ones with the relatively low counts are well-known because they wrote the books that defined the genre of detective fiction, and even the creator of Harry Potter can’t compete with that. Those with the large number of short stories, for the most part, began with serialisations, a painstaking but through way to crawl into the public eye. Nowadays, an author writing just one detective novel and becoming successful is very much a rarity: if you can think of an example, please leave it in the comments, because there are barely any.
For the rest, when you think of commercially successful detective authors, you don’t think of a single novel but their whole, massive, oeuvre of work – this is why Christie in particular is so easy to parody. And, despite their success, very few of the writers above, especially the ones we now think of as the most ingenious / famous, were immediately ‘spotted’ in the way people seem to assume that Rowling should have been.

The Mysterious Affair At Styles had similar reviews and similar speed in publication, yet Christie didn’t hit the big time until The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, six books and years later. Ruth Rendell was first published on her third attempt, with her novel bought for £75. The reason first editions of Lindsey Davis’ The Silver Pigs (actually her second novel) go for thousands is because the original print run was somewhere between 2,000 and 2, 500 copies. Nor did this immediately catapult her to fame: the reason why a first edition of A Dying Light in Corduba can go for hundreds. Rowling herself didn’t hit the big time immediately even after The Philosopher’s Stone was published. The number of authors who have made the jump from good reviews to good sales are very small indeed, and it takes graft. Yes, Rowling as an experienced writer is presumably more accomplished than Davies or Christie were then. But her name was unknown and so it genuinely isn’t surprising that, though those who read it liked it, word-of-mouth hadn’t had time to spread.

Because for a novel simply to be good  is not enough: success comes as much with quantity as it does with quality. The most prolific author on the list, Georges Simeonen, creater of Maigret, is perhaps the least critically acclaimed of all. The book flying off the shelves now is exactly the same as the one that Kate Mills found uninteresting. But the most important thing to note is that neither she nor Val McDermid were wrong. McDermid saw potential while Mills simply didn’t see an immediately marketable success. They were both entirely correct.

You can argue that, as the novel was critically acclaimed by those as much in the know as McDermid and Billingham  that Little, Brown should have advertised its find. But then, writing isn’t really all that difficult: sufficiently advertised, most people could (probably) make a decent amount of sales, just not enough to make it worth the while of the publishers. If a writer is good, or if a bad writer perseveres, they will probably eventually succeed. The one great pity is that Galbraith didn’t remain undercover for long enough to make a name on his own. The one consolation is that the book, unlike The Casual Vacancy, was therefore reviewed on its own terms rather than being continually judged against Harry Potter.
As for the comments saying that this proves that Rowling is mediocre, lacking enough talent to stand up to anonymous scrutiny, or that the publishing industry is so blind it can’t or won’t recognise and market talent when it sees it…they say far more about the inadequacies of the supposedly critical public than about anyone else.

*Aside from the (hopefully) irrelevant observation that that, if you want a career in detective fiction, it helps to have a name beginning with ‘c’.


One comment on “The Cuckoo’s Calling: A Commentary , or What This *Doesn’t* Say About Rowling Or The Publishing Industry

  1. […] fate of its author (and the best possible counter-argument to the idea previously expounded here). We are told (by Professor Barrie Haynes of Toronto, recounted in the introduction by H. R. F. […]

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