Next week, J K Rowling will be publishing her first novel, “The Casual Vacancy,” for adults. The Harry Potter Author will be attempting to test success of writing in a new genre. There is no doubt that with sheer name value alone, Rowling will sell a hefty volume of books, at least in the early weeks. Over the long haul, however, the “Harry Potter” author’s newest work will surly have to meet the test of public scrutiny for her to enjoy continued success beyond the first edition. It’s anyone’s guess if she will attract the phenomenal sales enjoyed by her Harry Potter series. But if early orders are any indication, the author may be in for a magical ride.
Waterstones, the country’s biggest book-chain store, revealed that the comic novel, The Casual Vacancy, has received the largest number of pre-order sales this year. This number is believed to be five figured, although online pre-orders have reportedly reached well over a million already.
The secrecy, as well as the excitement, around Rowling’s latest offering, has guaranteed its status as the biggest publishing event of the year.
Waterstones is opening its doors an hour earlier than usual, at 8 a.m., on its official publication date next Thursday. Until then, Rowling’s publisher Little, Brown has stipulated that the books should not even appear on display. Staff will come in early to put out display copies and prepare for the crowds.
Jon Howells, a spokesman for Waterstones, described it as one of the first “Super Thursdays” leading up to Christmas, not least because Jamie Oliver was also publishing his book, 15-Minute Meals, on the same day.
Mr Howells said that while he anticipated a big rush at the outset, the book would, in all likelihood, not inspire the equivalent of Pottermania.
“Certainly, the anticipation for JK Rowling’s book has been great because it’s the first non-Harry Potter book and it is for a purely adult audience. I think it will see a fantastic level of first day and first weekend sales and after that people will come to it more steadily.
“We are treating it as a very different thing from the Harry Potter books. The way readers will approach this will be different.
“A lot of the readers will be curious and interested in what this book can do for them. There was a huge sense of urgency with the Harry Potter books, and people wanted to read them quickly so that they would not find out the plot through other mediums, while this is a standalone story,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Tesco, which will also be stocking the book, said: “If the hits on the Tesco Books blog are anything to go by, we think it could be one of our bestselling books in the run-up to Christmas.”
The plot of the book, which revolves around the inhabitants of a small English town, has been fiercely guarded, and newspaper reviewers have been asked to sign the kind of long and stiffly worded pre-publication confidentiality contracts that a celebrity footballer might use to protect his darkest secrets. A limited number of copies will be delivered by hand to reviewers’ homes today.
Rowling is due to attend her only question-and-answer session in front of a live audience in London on the day of publication. The event, at the 900-seat Queen Elizabeth Hall in the Southbank Centre, sold out within 48 hours and will also be attended by the world’s media. The Southbank Centre condemned the selling of single £12 tickets on eBay for £65 each. The event, which will last just under two hours including a 30-minute Q&A with the audience, will be transmitted in a live feed on YouTube.
Rowling will sign books afterwards, and audience members are limited to a one copy per person. Next month she will appear at the Cheltenham Literary Festival and sign copies there.
Little, Brown refused to reveal the numbers of copies that have been printed so far – but the book is expected to sell millions.
What make Rowling more unique in this endeavor is the fact that she has switched genres as authors, and especially successful authors are expected to keep producing more of the same. After all, when you’ve done the hard work to build yourself a fan base or readership it doesn’t quite make since to feed them something they have no appetite for.
No doubt her new publishers, Little, Brown, accomplished though they are at publishing novelists as varied as Alexander McCall Smith and Jane Gardam, experienced a twinge of regret that they didn’t get hold of the further adventures of Harry & Co. Why couldn’t they, too, find an oil well gushing in their backyard?
Yet many hugely successful authors have switched between genres. Ian Fleming not only invented one of the world’s most enduring brands in James Bond, but also wrote Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang, whose magical adventures have charmed children on page, stage and film for decades. Roald Dahl’s bestselling adult black comedies in Kiss Kiss and Someone Like You give little inkling of his genius for such classics as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda and The BFG – though his mordant sense of humour regarding greed and dishonesty remain the same throughout. More recently, Anthony Horowitz, who wrote thrilling tales for the young in his Alex Rider and Power of Five series, last year published one of the most acclaimed of all Sherlock Holmes “sequels”, The House of Silk. He has even turned his hand deftly to screenwriting, with Foyle’s War, which is to return for an eighth series next year.
Nor does this only apply to genre writers. Some of our finest literary novelists, like Penelope Lively, Helen Dunmore and Philip Pullman, have all written wonderfully for both adults and children. So (less successfully, as far as children are concerned) have Salman Rushdie, Jeanette Winterson and Margaret Atwood. The kind of sensibility that engages an intelligent adult reader tends to be quite different from that which delights a child – unless, like C S Lewis, it belongs to storytellers who possess a sense of humour or a sense of wonder that embraces both readerships. Even so, C S Lewis’s adult science fiction novels Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra feature the planets Mars and Venus as being uncommonly like Narnia.
Yet switching genre can also produce exciting results. Susan Hill followed much-lauded realist novels by brilliantly reviving the ghost story with The Woman in Black. Hill’s imagination, always drawn to tales of sorrow and cruelty in small masterpieces such as Strange Meeting and I’m the King of the Castle, segued quite naturally into gothic tales of supernatural revenge, which is perhaps why it proved so enduringly successful, not only as a novel but as a long-running stage production and, more recently, a film (starring the Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe). Whether Rowling will have played to her own strengths is what we are all waiting to see. Will she once again have created a small community, a plot powered by mystery, murder and very British characters whose comical eccentricities overlie serious moral dilemmas? Bereft of overt magic, will she continue to cast a spell over millions of readers as they prepare to read “The Casual Vacancy” before bedtime? Who knows, but we can all hope for a little touch of Harry in the night.