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J.K. Rowling is 'Casual,' yet not

Her first post-Harry Potter book is a work of adult fiction, but its release follows an earlier playbook: It's been kept from prying eyes. Mystery ensues.

September 26, 2012|By Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times
  • Visitors receive information on Brithish novelist J.K. Rowling's new book during the International Book Fair in Sao Paulo, Brazil in August.
Visitors receive information on Brithish novelist J.K. Rowling's… (Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP/Getty…)

J.K. Rowling wrote "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" as a single mum on the dole. Seven books, 4,100 pages and a blockbuster film series later, she's one of the wealthiest authors on the planet — worth more than $900 million. That's about as close as any author ever gets to a sure thing.

Yet Rowling has walked away from Harry Potter into uncharted territory. On Thursday, her novel "The Casual Vacancy" hits shelves and e-bookstores. Little is known about it beyond the basics: It's a contemporary, realistic novel written for adults.

"This is something that's very different from Harry Potter," says Heather Fain, marketing vice president at the book's American publisher, Little, Brown. "Our security around this book is fairly tight, but I can say there are no wizards."

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"Midnight parties with lightning tattoos, that doesn't make sense for this book," Fain says. Instead, the marketing plans include reaching out to adult readers by advertising in book reviews and underwriting NPR programming.

Despite the efforts to position "The Casual Vacancy" as literary fiction, Little, Brown has taken one major page from the Harry Potter playbook: It's keeping copies of Rowling's new novel under wraps. Embargoes are common with newsworthy nonfiction books, movies and, thanks to Steve Jobs, electronics, but novels are usually heavily promoted to booksellers and critics months in advance.

"I can't think of any work of literary fiction that's been held back from critics," says Eric Banks, president of the National Book Critics Circle. This year, he says, major authors' books have been arriving even earlier than usual.

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Little, Brown has taken pains to ensure that readers meet Rowling's new work unmediated. "We want people to be able to encounter this wonderful new world that she's created fresh, and come to it as readers excited for a great story," Fain says.

As Banks points out, all the secrecy around Rowling's book might be overkill. "It's more likely to be critic-proof than any other title this year," he says.

Southern California booksellers have been taking a wait-and-see approach since the book was announced this summer. Skylight Books in Los Feliz will have no midnight on-sale party, as it did for "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows." Vroman's in Pasadena and West Hollywood's Book Soup, which share ownership, have a total of 39 pre-orders — that's slightly more than the 30 they got for "Fifty Shades of Grey" but far fewer than the hundreds they received for Rowling's last novel.

Maryelizabeth Hart of the Mysterious Galaxy bookstore, which has locations in Redondo Beach and San Diego, says that awareness of the book has ticked up in recent weeks. "It's raised interest," she says, "but not yet a desire to acquire."

The Harry Potter books broke sales record after sales record; the seven-volume series has sold more than 450 million copies worldwide and launched countless devoted fans.

While that legacy is solid, Rowling is taking a significant artistic risk; few children's book authors have nailed the transition to adult books. Usually, says the New York Public Library's H. Jack Martin, director of Young Adult Library Services Assn., the nationwide organization of young adult librarians, authors "have made the switch from adult to YA, like James Patterson." The same goes for readers; a September Bowker Market Research study reported that 55% of young adult books are purchased by grown-ups — and 78% of those buyers admit they're reading the books themselves.

The small club of authors who've successfully moved from young adult to grown-up novels includes Roald Dahl, author of "James and the Giant Peach" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," as well as dark-humored books for adults that include "My Uncle Oswald." And Judy Blume, whose early books included the now-iconic "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret" and "Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing," first hit bestseller lists with her racy adult novel "Wifey."

Martin notes that Ann Brashares ("Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants") is one contemporary YA author who's been able to transition to writing for adults. Cecily von Ziegesar ("Gossip Girl") has tried, but not met with much critical success. It's a small field, he admits.

The challenge to a writer making the change isn't just the need for deeper characterization and more nuanced plots — the prose itself has to evolve.

James Thomas is one of many academics who have turned attention to the boy wizard. "There's no doubt in my mind that she can write fiction that will be compelling for adults," said the professor of English at Pepperdine, a scholar of both Rowling and William Faulkner whose academic publications include "Repotting Harry Potter: Popular Lit Made Legit" and "Rowling Revisited."

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