By: Deirdre Donahue and Craig Wilson
- USA TODAY
Once upon a time, J.K. Rowling set children's imaginations on fire. Can the creator of Harry Potter
ignite a similar conflagration for a grown-up audience?
The British author will find out on Sept. 27, when more than 2 million hardcover copies of her first novel for adults hit U.S. bookstores, along with the digital edition. It will be simultaneously released in the U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Germany.
Set in the little English town of Pagford, The Casual Vacancy
(Little, Brown, $35) revolves around an election held after a member of the parish council unexpectedly dies. Despite the Miss Marple terrain, press materials describe the novel as "blackly comic … Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty facade is a town at war."
"I expect the world to be ecstatic at the range of her imaginative reach," predicts Rowling's American publisher, Michael Pietsch. One of the few to have read the embargoed book, he calls Rowling "a genius, one of the great writers of all time." Reading the 512-page novel, he says, "reminded me of Dickens because of the humanity, the humor, the social concerns, the intensely real characters."
No wands, apparently: "This book isn't Harry Potter
," says Pietsch. "It is a completely different concern."
But the secrecy surrounding The Casual Vacancy
isn't. As with Harry Potter, there are no advance copies for the media, no early reviews. In the case of Harry Potter
, this public-relations blackout only fed the frenzy. To date, the seven-book series about a boy wizard has sold more than 450 million copies worldwide, and it became one of the most successful movie franchises in history.
Rowling's own story added to the magic. She went from being a struggling single mom scribbling in an Edinburgh coffee shop to one of the richest women in the world.
And one of the most admired. Parents, teachers and librarians around the world revere her for hooking children on reading. She published the first Harry Potter
book in 1997, just around the time when computers joined TVs as must-have family electronics.
The big question today: Will those little Potter
addicts who waited so breathlessly in line at bookstores to buy the new Potter at 12:01 a.m. now rush out to purchase (or download) The Casual Vacancy
"Fans who read Harry Potter
as children will be one of the core audiences for this book, without a doubt," says Diane Roback, children's book editor at Publishers Weekly
. "I cannot think of an author who is more beloved by her readers."
For Melissa Anelli, there is no "maybe" about The Casual Vacancy
. "J.K. Rowling is a master of storytelling, and I'm going to read any story she writes," says Anelli, 32.
Anelli qualifies as an über-fan. She's calling from the annual Harry Potter Fan Club get-together in Chicago where more than 4,000 Potter faithful gathered earlier this month. Anelli, webmistress of the Harry Potter
wrote the 2008 book Harry, A History
, for which Rowling penned the foreword.
Bookseller Cathy Langer, lead buyer for Denver's The Tattered Cover bookstores, anticipates "very robust sales." She points out that in addition to her young fans, "J.K Rowling had hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of adult fans for her Harry Potter
series. … We already have pre-orders and will have lots of books on hand for the release date."
The book world has changed dramatically since the seventh Harry Potter
was released on July 21, 2007, with a first printing of 12 million copies.
Back then, fans could buy books at midnight parties hosted by Borders, as well as other stores. The Borders chain shut down last year, shuttering hundreds of brick-and-mortar stores.
People are still buying books, indeed more books than in 2007, according to figures released by the Association of American Publishers. But they are reading them in a new format — the e-book.
The Harry Potter
books just became available digitally for the first time in April, after Rowling and Sony collaborated on the website Pottermore. It will be different from the outset for The Casual Vacancy,
with Little, Brown simultaneously releasing a $19.99 e-book.
For Rowling fans who once queued up for Harry Potter, this means that instant gratification is now a click away. "Considering that those who waited online at midnight can get this book by tapping a device … (The Casual Vacancy
) will be arriving in a different environment," says Carol Fitzgerald, founder of The Book Report Network, a group of websites about books.
These changes in bookselling will help Rowling, says Sara Nelson
, Amazon.com's editorial director for books and Kindle. "The more platforms, the more opportunities there are" for readers to buy books, Nelson says.
Nelson, who has not read the new book because of the embargo, believes Casual Vacancy
is the fall's most anticipated novel for adults.
But asked if she thinks it will go to No. 1 on Amazon and dislodge E.L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey
, Nelson says, "Let me look in my crystal ball. … Oops, it's on the fritz."
Rowling is not the first author to write for different age groups. Pietsch points to James Patterson
as well as Rowling's fellow Brits Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming (who created both James Bond
and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
Edward Nawotka, editor in chief of the online journal Publishing Perspectives
, notes that Rowling isn't quite moving from children's books to adult, more young-adult to adult.
"Rowling made something of this transition already within the full cycle of Harry Potter
novels," he says. "By the final book … she'd built in complex psychological and emotional themes and handled them adroitly, which should serve her well when catering to an adult audience."
One publisher is confident of her success. "If you read or re-read the Harry Potter
books, you can see that J.K. Rowling has all the strengths she needs for great success as a fiction writer — you have great characters, an involving plot, a sense of humor and great empathy," says Scholastic's Arthur Levine, the American co-editor of the Harry Potter
With all her money and philanthropy work, why would Rowling — a 47-year-old married mother of three who lives in Edinburgh — even bother publishing The Casual Vacancy?
"She's a writer," says Little, Brown's Pietsch. "She lives to write. Her way of engaging with the world is by writing."
Rowling's way of engaging with the world, however, has never included extensive publicity. To promote The Casual Vacancy
in the USA, Rowling is scheduled to appear on ABC's Nightline, World News
and Good Morning America,
as well as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
on Comedy Central. She will sit for two print interviews, one of which is with USA TODAY.
The buildup to the publication date has been low-key. "I think there is a curiosity about (the book), but I am not hearing from everyone that they are waiting for it," says Fitzgerald.
Some booksellers are puzzled by the approach being taken by Rowling's publisher.
"I've been in the dark," says bookseller Kathryn Fabiani, head buyer at R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Conn. "We had no posters … It hasn't been easy. People are curious, but they don't know what to expect." The upcoming release "seems almost invisible."
"We've been taking some pre-orders and we've got some activity, but nothing like Harry Potter
," she says. "Nothing." Although she has ordered 300 copies for the independent bookstore, she suspects they won't sell out.
Little, Brown marketing director Heather Fain says, "We wanted to be very careful in our marketing. This is a very different book and it is aimed at a truly different audience." With Harry Potter
, she says, booksellers became accustomed to promotional campaigns that included stickers and lightning-bolt tattoos. That approach "just doesn't fit the book."
Barnes & Noble vice president for marketing Patricia Bostelman says that Little, Brown's approach is what the author wants. "Apparently much of their behavior is at J.K. Rowling's wishes," says Bostelman. Rowling "has very strong opinions on how she wants publishing of the book handled. … She's trying not to live on the laurels of Harry Potter
and very much wants to have this book stand alone, on its own merit, just as if she were just any other author who was landing on the scene."
Rowling's name on the book is the only requirement, some insist. "She could write a manual for a lawn mower and it would sell 2 million copies," says Charles Finch, author of the Charles Lenox mystery series. Finch, 32, has been a Harry Potter
fan since he began reading the series as a college student.
"I think she's criminally underrated as a plotter. She sort of sets little fuses along the way and you're desperate for them to go off," says Finch, whose newest book, A Death in the Small Hours
, will be out in November from Minotaur. Rowling "will never write something I will not read, unless she starts doing Fifty Shades of Grey
A passionate fan since childhood, Sara Eckert, 23, now a marine biologist at California's Monterey Bay Aquarium, displays a remarkably adult grasp of the challenges facing Rowling.
"I just think that, just as actors have to overcome type-casting, J.K. is going to have to overcome the style and story that made her famous," Eckert says.
On the other hand, says Eckert, people who didn't get the whole Hogwarts gig might enjoy Rowling, the fantasy-free adult edition.
Of course, Eckert says, she will buy and read The Casual Vacancy
. "But I don't expect it to be the day it comes out, like I did with each of the Harry Potter
Perhaps it's not Rowling who has the problem, says Publishers Weekly
's Roback. "I don't think the transition was necessarily a difficult one for her. She's a writer, and a good one. I do think it may be difficult for the market and the media to adjust their expectations. Because given her phenomenal success, anything other than a book everyone loves that sells in the millions and millions may be deemed a disappointment, which is unfair to the book and to the author."
Back in 2007 in an interview with USA TODAY, at the time of the final Potter
book, Rowling said she was working on two writing projects, one for children and one not for children. She knew expectations for any new book would be enormous.
"I think that there will be some disappointment if I don't write another fantasy," she told USA TODAY. "But I must admit, I think I've done my fantasy."