Cuckoo’s Calling

The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Matthew Effect.

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Let’s talk about this new JK Rowling book, shall we? Quick summary of events thus far: A new mystery novel is published in April, by “Robert Galbraith”, called The Cuckoo’s Calling. There’s no excitement at its release – according to the nytimes.com the book sells about 500 copies in the US.  And then, last week, the big reveal, in a tweet: Robert Galbraith is JK Rowling. This is leaked to the friend of the wife of someone at JK Rowling’s law firm, who tweeted a hint to a Sunday Times reporter. He investigated, confronted the Rowling camp, and they confirmed. This is the stuff epic films are made of.

And now we’re here, all caught up in this present moment. The secret is out, and it is big news. Bloggers, blogging.  Reporters, madly covering the story.  Readers, reading. And suddenly, this book is hot. I’m reading it – but I’m not alone, because everyone else is reading it. As I’m writing this, The Cuckoo’s Calling is #1 on Amazon.com both Kindle store and book store; it is #1 on Audible.com; bookstores are ordering more copies as they can’t keep it in stock.

And yet – we’re looking at the same book, the exact same work of mystery fiction, that has been in existence since April.  It was there, and none of us took note or cared to read it.

This is an amazing real life illustration of what sociologists call the Matthew effect, name from this Bible passage:  “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath.”  – Matthew 25:29, King James Version

The idea here is that success breeds success – the most renowned scientist gets all the credit for the discovery, although the others working under him or her may put in more work.  Researchers have shown that bestseller or top ranking lists influence what we think we like and what we decide to purchase.  If you are already famous, we want to make you more famous.  If you aren’t famous?  We might be a little less interested in what you’re selling, and it might be a little bit harder to break through.

JK Rowling illustrated this for us in a glaringly obvious way.  She made The Cuckoo’s Calling an overnight success, thanks to her existing fame.  The quality of her novel did not change. She is reportedly sad that she was outed so soon, and I am too.  It is now impossible to listen to The Cuckoo’s Calling on my delightful little wireless headphones without some sort of bias in mind.  As I’ve read most of the Potter books quite a while ago, and I read a ton of mystery fiction, I keep thinking of the writing as somehow cartoonish or fanciful.  But is that really there, in the book?  Or is it just in my mind, an association with a children’s author?  I can understand why JK Rowling would want to break away from all the baggage her other tales bring, as they are so stylized.

I think keeping her identity hidden would have been a wonderful sort of social experiment.  What would we all really say, if we never knew it was her?  More importantly, what would everyone not say as we were all too busy reading the other things we were planning to read, before this secret was revealed?  Would the book just fade away, a sequel never published?  The Matthew effect and book sales before the big reveal say yes, it’d be difficult for The Cuckoo’s Calling to gain success without that Rowling glimmer, shimmer, and shine that we all want to touch.

Further reading:

Robert Galbraith’s official page

nytimes review of Cuckoo’s Calling

Robert Merton’s ‘The Matthew Effect in Science”

The Matthew Effect: How Advantage Begets Further Advantage by Daniel Rigley on Amazon

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell on Amazon