I haven’t yet read the book, so this blog isn’t about the book itself but about the extraordinary reaction to it. It was inevitable that after the phenomenal success of the Harry Potter series whatever JKR published next would be subject to intense scrutiny. If the book itself provides me with half of the entertainment I’ve enjoyed from witnessing the reaction to it, then it will be a very good read indeed.
The publisher and the author drip fed tantalising snippets over the months leading up to publication. In February JKR revealed the title and that it would be an adult book. At the beginning of July the cover was revealed; its merits and weaknesses were debated in the press and on forums.
The full text was closely guarded until well into September, but the publishers let an American journalist read it in their offices and the true extent of the ‘adult’ nature of ‘The Casual Vacancy’ was becoming clear. Long television interviews fuelled pre-publication interest to a frenzy. Pre-release sales had topped one million and now jumped to two million. As all this was in connection with a writer who had sold nearly half a billion children’s books that led to the massively successful series of films, there was bound to be an interesting reaction when the public got their hands on it.
Very few review copies were released to the press. Those copies were delivered directly to the reviewers and were subject to a strict embargo forbidding any comment on the content until the book was published on 27th September. This is very different to the usual situation where press reviews are sought before publication to create interest. In this case all of those pre-publication orders were placed without the benefit of any independent comment.
When they finally appeared the press reviews were mixed, to say the least.
Melvyn Bragg, The Observer: ‘hugely impressive’;
Philip Hensher, The Spectator: ‘slapdash style and limited sense of observation’;
David Sexton, Evening Standard: ‘clunkily over descriptive and repetitiously structured’;
Michiko Kakutani, New York Times: ‘not only disappointing – it’s dull’;
Theo Tait, The Guardian: ‘no masterpiece, but not bad at all’.
Jan Moir, Daily Mail: ‘more than 500 pages of relentless socialist manifesto masquerading as literature’.
So the press weren’t exactly jumping up and down, but what about the general reading public? Well, watching the situation develop with the Amazon reviews has been hugely entertaining. Within hours of publication reviews were pouring onto the site. They were split roughly equally between 5* raves from the JKR fans determined to love it and 1* haters. Bearing in mind that this is a 500-page book it’s hard to believe that any of those early reviewers had actually read it.
The 1* reviews are fascinating. Very few are from people who have actually read the whole book; many gave up part way through, but some have reviewed purely on the strength of the ‘Look Inside’ facility, which, if nothing else, shows the intensity of public interest. Of the remainder many do not actually review the book at all, but complain about the pricing structure.
That structure doesn’t seem surprising. The cover price of the hardback is £20 and the Kindle ebook £11.99. When the paperback is released I expect that the ebook price will be reduced. But Amazon deliberately set the cat among the pigeons by using its freedom as retailer to discount the hardback to £9, making it £2.99 cheaper than the Kindle edition, that price being set by the publisher. No doubt it’s part of Amazon’s campaign to take control of all pricing, but the move has really fired up Kindle users.
Some of those who posted 5* reviews have taken it upon themselves to trawl through the 1* reviews using the Comment facility to attack both those who reviewed without having read the whole book and those who gave a 1* rating because of the pricing issue. This latter point has developed into debates about the meaning of Amazon’s review rules. These state that comments on pricing are inappropriate, but such comments are commonplace in reviews of other items sold by Amazon where value for money is seen by consumers as important. Those complaining about the price in this instance interpret the rules as meaning that Amazon would not accept reviews that quote cheaper prices available elsewhere. That interpretation seems to be correct as Amazon has not removed these reviews. Why should it when its whole point has been to undermine the ebook price charged by the publisher?
The situation then moved into a phase where some of the ‘haters’ trawled through the 5* reviews voting ‘No’ to the ‘Was this review helpful?’ question and the ‘lovers’ did the same to the 1* reviews. All this was happening in the first few days after publication.
Quite a few reviews have now been removed, either by Amazon or by the reviewers themselves, some of whom (who posted under their real names) have been complaining of receiving abusive emails.
I have never seen anything like this in connection with any other book. Neither have I ever seen a famous author join in the Amazon reviews of a book, but Simon Scarrow joined the fray. He hadn’t read the book, but gave it 5*. He was complaining about reviewers debating the pricing issue and giving a book 1* over something out of the author’s control and entirely of Amazon’s making. He attacked those who ‘bleat’ about Kindle prices and probably hasn’t endeared himself to indie authors (for whom free book offers are a marketing tool) with the following: ‘Since when has a book buying (not to mention book reviewing) decision been governed by price alone? If that’s really what lights the fire of those posting the negative ‘reviews’ then there’s plenty of free stuff out there on the internet crying out for their attention. It may be complete rubbish, but hey, it’s free. That way they can be happy and the rest of us, the people who actually buy books for the pleasure of their contents, will be well shot of them.’ 78 people out of 179 have voted it an ‘unhelpful’ review.
After that initial flurry of excitement things have calmed down, but the division of opinion remains. The book currently has 209 reviews including 73 5* and 77 1*. Only 12 people have written a balanced review and awarded 3*.
It’s reported that the publishers initially printed two million copies for the US market alone. With the hardback being heavily discounted and sold on Amazon and in supermarkets for only £9, I can’t help wondering if the paperback will ever appear.
Meanwhile, the JKR bandwagon rolls on. With publicity about her at its maximum intensity she has announced her next book. It will be a return to the children’s market. An astute move – and with impeccable timing.