Publishers have been left red-faced after discovering that they rejected the latest novel by JK Rowling, one of the world’s best-selling writers.
The book, named The Cuckoo’s Calling, was critically acclaimed but had sold fewer than 500 copies before the Harry Potter creator was unamsked as its author at the weekend.
One leading editor bravely admitted that she had unwittingly turned down the crime novel, which was billed as the debut of a former soldier, because it failed to stand out from all the other manuscripts sent in by hopeful authors.
Kate Mills, publishing director of Orion, said she thought the work was “perfectly decent, but quiet” and confessed she could not find a unique selling-point with which to market it.
The editor added: “When the book came in, I thought it was perfectly good – it was certainly well written – but it didn’t stand out.
“Strange as it might seem, that’s not quite enough. Editors have to fall in love with debuts. It’s very hard to launch new authors and crime is a very crowded market.”
The Cuckoo’s Calling was published in April under the name of “Robert Galbraith”, who according to his biography was a former plainclothes military policeman who had left the Army in 2003 to work in the private security industry.
It achieved glowing reviews and laudatory quotations for the cover from well-known crime writers.
However, suspicions were aroused by the author’s assured writing style and skill at describing women’s clothes and people’s appearances, leading some readers to speculate that an established female novelist might be behind the book.
Further detective work by The Sunday Times uncovered the fact that Mr Galbraith and Miss Rowling shared the same publisher and editor, and on Sunday she confessed to the deception.
The 47-year-old Harry Potter author said: “I had hoped to keep this secret a little longer because being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience.
“It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation, and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name.”
The publishers said The Cuckoo’s Calling had sold some 1,500 copies in hardback, but figures compiled by Neilsen Bookscan suggest that the number bought from British retailers was actually 449.
This changed dramatically overnight with the revelation of the book’s actual author. Orders on Amazon.co.uk shot up, propelling the novel from 5,076th place to the top of the sales chart.
It was not clear why Miss Rowling offered the book to other publishers before it was accepted by Sphere, an imprint of Little, Brown, which last year published her first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy.
Her spokesman said: “I can confirm the book was treated like any new novel by a first-time writer. We are not going into any more detail than that or commenting further.”
This is not the first time that Miss Rowling has faced literary rejection. In 1996 the manuscript of her first Harry Potter book was turned down by 12 publishers before Bloomsbury picked it up for an advance of just £1,500. The series went on to sell more than 450 million copies worldwide.
Her decision to choose a male pen name raised a few eyebrows. She was forced to publish the Harry Potter books as “JK Rowling” because her publishers were worried that a woman’s name on the cover might put the target audience of young boys.
Miss Rowling’s spokesman said she could not comment on why the author chose a male pseudonym.