Criticism has dogged some of the tactics the publishers of J.K. Rowling and Salman Rushdie have used to create unprecedented hype around their new books
Last week, thousands of people queued up outside Apple stores across Britain to buy the latest iPhone while at bookshops there was a scramble for Salman Rushdie’s newly-launched and heavily-trailed memoirs, Joseph Anton.
This week, even longer queues are expected amid reports of people planning to sleep overnight outside leading bookstores to get hold of J.K. Rowling’s latest offering, The Casual Vacancy, her first novel for adults due out on Thursday.
It is a perfect image of a consumer society in which anything “latest” that arrives on the back of sufficient hype is regarded as a “must-have” item. That books have joined the list of such status symbols should be good news.
Akin to injunction
But purists say that there is something slightly crude about marketing authors as “brands.” There has been strong criticism of some of the tactics that Rowling and Rushdie’s publishers have used to create unprecedented hype around their new books.
These include not supplying copies to bookstores until just minutes before the launch; restricting the number of copies an individual can buy; forcing reviewers to sign legally enforceable “non-disclosure” agreements before being given review copies; and arbitrarily restricting interviews with authors to select media outlets.
One journalist who was granted an interview with Rowling wrote that she was “required to sign more legal documents than would typically be involved in buying a house” before she was allowed to read The Casual Vacancy under tight security in the publisher’s London offices.
Rushdie’s publishers insisted on “reserving” their right to demand as much as €200,000 for any breach of the agreement (“They generously reduced it to €175,000 when we asked,” wrote one literary critic) while Rowling’s included a clause banning even a mention of the existence of an agreement. It is akin to a legal device called “super injunction” used by celebrities to prevent tabloids from publishing stories about their private lives.
While embargoes on major books are standard practice, what critics find disturbing is the growing tendency to ban publication of reviews until after the release of a book thus effectively forcing readers to buy or order it without knowing whether it is really worth it.
“Two million orders are thought to have been placed worldwide for The Casual Vacancy before its release. Yet nobody knows if it’s any good. It would be nice to hold up the story of J.K. Rowling’s achievements as a lesson in what anyone with a typewriter and some talent can achieve. But penniless author to publishing despot is not a happy arc. How different it would be if there hadn’t been that much money in children’s book,” wrote Matthew Bell of The Independent on Sunday.
In the run-up to the launch, critics have been churning out so-called “preliminary” reviews “revealing what they think they will think about a book they have not yet even read,” as Decca Aitkenhead who interviewed Rowling for The Guardian wrote. It sounds almost Kafkaesque.
Marketing departments will do what they are trained and paid to do: i.e. market their “product.” Modern selling techniques are ruthless and make no distinction between a book and a mobile phone. But the question that is being asked is: why must writers who defend their own right to free speech so fiercely collude in gagging free speech of others?
The point critics make is that these are not struggling writers who cannot afford to offend their publishers.
“We’re talking about Rowling and Rushdie who command advances the size of telephone numbers and whose books are the stuff of bidding wars among publishers. They have enough clout to stand up to this sort of nonsense,” said Rob, an irate student of the London School of Economics browsing books at the School’s Waterstones store.
His classmate, Peter Clay, said he planned to “boycott” both books.
“Obviously, they don’t care for their readers, so why should I care?”
Questions are also being asked of the literary press. It has been accused of meekly submitting to what Matthew Bell calls the “ruthless, bullying side” of publishers. There is a sense that literary hacks have allowed themselves to be “used” too easily to promote books that they were not even shown. According to Arifa Akbar, deputy literary editor of The Independent, the unprecedented “secrecy” that Rowling’s publishers have been able to build around The Casual Vacancy (even its print order is a secret) has “guaranteed its status as the biggest publishing event of the year” even before it is published.
There has been greater openness around Rushdie’s book but that’s perhaps because it cannot be discussed without referring to its subject — his life under fatwa following the publication of The Satanic Verses. It is, of course, also the case that Rushdie himself is less secretive and stuffy. Rowling, on the other hand, is said to have form on trying to gag the very people to whom she owes her fame. Her lawyers famously ordered her fans to take down websites named after “Harry Potter.”
Yet such is the power of her success that there is no let-up in the excitement with online “pre-orders” for The Casual Vacancy topping the one-million mark. This does not include orders placed with bookstores. Waterstones has reported record “pre-order sales” for this year so far, while Tesco believes that it could be one of its “best-selling books in the run-up to Christmas.” Tickets for a post-launch Q&A session with Rowling at the South Bank Centre are reportedly being sold in the black market with a £12 ticket fetching up to £85 on eBay.
The hype (her publicists have compared The Casual Vacancy to works by Dickens) has started to grate with literary observers. Well-known literary agent David Godwin has warned that such heavy marketing could prove counterproductive.
“At the end of the day it is just a book. It’s great that she is doing something different, but all the palaver probably doesn’t do her or the book any good at all,” he said.
Anyone in marketing listening?