Today marks the occasion of a Very Big Thing in the publishing world, this being the rare one-day laydown for J.K. Rowling’s first novel written for adults, The Casual Vacancy. For those not in the business, the laydown is an expensive, complicated process to put a book on sale worldwide simultaneously, and it’s reserved for Very Big Things such as, let’s say, any of the latter Harry Potter novels.
With its publication, Rowling joins a collection of authors that may not be exclusive but is exceedingly rare. These are the writers who have made millions by writing for children and adolescents, but make the occasional foray into writing for adults. While most children’s authors know where their bread is buttered, Rowling is an unusual case. Having earned a net worth north of nine million dollars off the Potter series, we know she’s not in it for the money. She once told Stephen Fry that she would publish other works under a pseudonym if she didn’t think the press would ferret her out.
In honor of Rowling's literary legacy, check out today's list for other popular magical titles.
Goodness knows she’s good at keeping secrets. There have been a few tiny clues but very little firm information is available about The Casual Vacancy until it hits the shelves today. We know it runs 512 pages and concerns an election for town council in the English hamlet of Pagford, following the untimely death of a chap named Barry Fairbrother. Little, Brown and Company describes it as “blackly comic,” and Rowling’s American publisher, Michael Pietsch, told USA Today that the book is “a completely different concern” than Harry Potter. A few more tidbits trickled out last weekend when The Guardian published its interview with Rowling.
I personally hope that The Casual Vacancy is a smashing success but not, as we’ve stated above, because Rowling necessarily needs the accolades. I just love it when writers are able to succeed when they’re out of their element. This is especially true in the case of “children’s authors,” with their rich imaginations and generally exuberant attitudes towards writing. And it goes both ways.
Think of Ian Fleming, full of machismo and martinis, composing the zany Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang: The Magical Car as a gift to his son Caspar, or Roald Dahl switching seamlessly between macabre short stories and children’s classics like James and the Giant Peach. In more recent years, we’ve seen wildly successful novelists turning to young adult literature for fun and profit. The prolific Ridley Pearson struck gold by revisiting Peter Pan, while the irreverent Carl Hiaasen gets to indulge his passion for environmental issues in novels like Hoot and Scat. Prior to releasing his splendid novel Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon had a blast last year with The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man.
On the other side of the crossover line, you have writers like Eoin Colfer, best known as the wildly popular author of the Artemis Fowl series. Colfer has dabbled in several genres, penning an authorized sequel to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker series, and more recently releasing Plugged, a violent, hard-boiled novel for adults. When we spoke with Colfer last year, he said that writing for different audiences definitely requires a different mindset.
“Both sets of readers grant different freedoms,” Colfer says. “With the younger readers you can really let loose with fantastic plots and explore mythological themes and enjoy a certain amount of scatological silliness. With the adults you can totally be yourself if you wish, the plots can be darker and moodier.”
It should be fascinating to hear what challenges writing The Casual Vacancy presented to J.K. Rowling, who has never before published a word that wasn’t set in the world of Harry Potter. Author Colleen Mondor (The Map of my Dead Pilots, 2011), who writes the YA column at Bookslut, believes the crossover issue will be a minor issue for Rowling.
“I think J.K. Rowling will have more trouble as the creator of an iconic character then as an author writing for both adults and children,” Mondor says. “Harry Potter has been enjoyed by tons of adults as well, so I don't think that jump will be nearly as difficult as trying to establish herself as someone other than the creator of Hogwarts, etc.”
The author gave her first televised interview the day before publication to ABC News, while BBC 2 aired its documentary, “JK Rowling—Writing For Grown-Ups,” which includes a talk with Rowling at her Edinburgh home. Rowling is also scheduled to make select appearances at New York’s Lincoln Center and the Southbank Centre in London to promote the novel.
Naturally, Little Brown and Company is hoping for an out-of-the-park hit, and is betting heavily on The Casual Vacancy by laying down more than two million copies of the book today, without even taking into account digital sales. It’s certainly a sign that the atmosphere in the market has changed, largely thanks to the success of writers like Rowling.
Mondor believes that marketing has dramatically changed the field. “What intrigues me about the idea of authors switching back and forth between adults and children/YA is that a lot of the reason we notice this so much now is because children's books—most especially young adult book—are such a huge marketing niche themselves,” she says. “We see books marketed as YA that in the past would not have. For example, Ray Bradbury wrote a lot of books that, if released today, would be in children's or teen. It's hard to see why Something Wicked This Way Comes is in adult science fiction while Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book is for children.”
In fact, when bestselling novelist Neil Gaiman first showed his award-winning 2002 novel Coraline to an editor, he was told that any book written to appeal to both adults and children was unpublishable. Today, he’s grateful that the world is accepting of all sorts of books, by all sorts of authors, without having to levy each one into a different segment.
“I gave the Zena Sutherland speech in Chicago earlier this year, and tried to tackle this subject—what makes a children's book? What's the difference between writing a children's book and an adult book? What happens in that odd grey area where not even the author knows? And I don't think there is any difference. The same stories come out of the same head, after all. You take each story and you do your best,” Gaiman says.
“I'm just glad I have a picture book for little kids about a baby panda who sneezes, a goofy book for older kids about a dad who goes out to get the milk and has adventures, and a novel that's definitely for adults about a seven-year-old boy and the ocean (which may be a small pond) at the end of the lane he lives on coming out next year, and no one really seems to mind.”
Here’s hoping that J.K. Rowling gets to enjoy the same freedom as she weaves between writing for adults and a highly anticipated “political fairy tale for children,” which is expected to be her next release.