Monday, July 15, 2013

JK Rowling, Robert Galbraith and the trouble with blind tasting.

The way it was...

Robert Galbraith - or JK Rowling as we should now call "him" - wrote a very good thriller. The sleuth, Cormoran Strike, was, according to critic Mark Billingham, "one of the most unique and compelling detectives I’ve come across in years".  Another reader - Val McDermid, author of  The Wire In The Blood, said the book reminded her why she "fell in love with crime writing in the first place". Online reader reviews were very laudatory too. All of which contributed to sales of 1,500 copies in the three months since publication. Quite respectable for a - supposed - first novel, but hardly spectacular. Today, since the unmasking of Ms Rowling as the author, the same book has become an instant best-seller.

The news story that made the difference between
modest sales and genuine best-sellerdom

I'll bet that the people who buy it today - and even the ones who read it last week, will all be more excited by the experience than when the novel was apparently penned by a "former plain-clothes Royal Military Police investigator".

And that's the flaw of blind tasting, I'm afraid. However delicious the Cru Bourgeois that outscores Chateau Lafite in a blind line-up, and however much cheaper it is, and however likeable the winemaker, most normal people will still be a lot more excited to have a glass of the first growth in their hand than the great-value humbler effort. Maybe Rowling's boy wizard could cook up a way to remedy that human character trait, but I certainly never had much success in doing so in all my years as a competition chairman and critic.

Afterthought: just put yourself in the shoes of a real life Robert Galbraith who's reading about this story today in the certain knowledge that, unless he does something that will gain him Rowling-level celebrity, the chances of improving much on a sale of 2-3,000 copies of his book are not looking very good...

You may care to read a separate recent post which I think has a bearing on this story.

Below: the blind tasting notes - which helped to sell those 1,500 copies...

The Cuckoo's Calling reminds me why I fell in love with crime fiction in the first place (Val McDermid)

One of the most unique and compelling detectives I've come across in years (Mark Billingham)

One of the best crime novels I have ever read (Alex Gray)

Everytime I put this book down, I looked forward to reading more. Gabraith writes at a gentle pace, the pages rich with description and with characters that leap out of them. I loved it. He is a major new talent (Peter James)

Just once in a while a private detective emerges who captures the public imagination in a flash. And here is one who might well do that . . . There is no sign that this is Galbraith's first novel, only that he has a delightful touch for evoking London and capturing a new hero. An auspicious debut (Daily Mail)

In a rare feat, Galbraith combines a complex and compelling sleuth and an equally well-formed and unlikely assistant with a baffling crime in his stellar debut . . . Readers will hope to see a lot more of this memorable sleuthing team (Publishers Weekly, starred review)

Laden with plenty of twists and distractions, this debut ensures that readers will be puzzled and totally engrossed for quite a spell (Library Journal)

A scintillating debut novel . . . Galbraith delivers sparkling dialogue and a convincing portrayal of the emptiness of wealth and glamour (The Times, Saturday Review)

Utterly compelling . . . a team made in heaven and I can't wait for the next in the series (Saga Magazine)

The detective and his temp-agency assistant are both full and original characters and their debut case is a good, solid mystery (Morning Star)

The plot could have come from an Agatha Christie novel and yet The Cuckoo's Calling is absolutely of today, colourfully written and great fun (Bookoxygen.com)

Galbraith demonstrates superb flair as a mystery writer (Birmingham Post)

This debut is instantly absorbing, featuring a detective facing crumbling circumstances with resolve instead of clich├ęd self-destruction and a lovable sidekick with contagious enthusiasm for detection . . . Kate Atkinson's fans will appreciate his reliance on deduction and observation along with Galbraith's skilled storytelling (Booklist)

The most engaging British detective to emerge so far this year . . . An astonishingly mature debut from Galbraith, it marks the start of a fine crime career (Daily Mail online)



4 comments:

  1. Earlier today I read a comment on a wine blog which was a quote from a young female sommelier: "Wine is nothing without it's story"

    I think the same applies here - people enjoy a book (or a wine) more when they either know and respect the author (winery), or there is a good story behind where the story came from (hope this makes sense)

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    1. I kind of agree Matthew. I'm not sure what story Pinot Grigio needs - any more than basic lager, but it is true of pricier fare. And yes, people like a story, but celebrity stories trump humbler fare...

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  2. The critical comments only serve to show how an excellent author's talent shines through even when read "blind". For wine the differences between individual palates makes this more problematic but let's not overlook that brand image certainly changes perception for fashion items, watches and many other items as well.

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    1. I think we're agreeing on this, Philip. I'll set the "individual palates" question to one side (how does that differ from the individual tastes of literary critics?), but yes, brand image is supreme in most sectors. (Wine being something of an exception)

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