Boxes of J.K. Rowling's first novel for adults, Casual Vacancy, being unpacked at a bookstoreJ.K. Rowling’s first adult novel hit stores (and e-book readers) today, and almost immediately, the lukewarm reviews trickled in—not for the content of the book itself, but for the Kindle formatting: a glitch on the tech end (which this article attributes to an unspecified ‘issue’ on the end of Hachette, the publisher) made it impossible for Kindle readers to adjust the font size to their preference. You had to read it in either Really Big or Teeny Tiny, with no in between.

Curiously mixed in with these complaints was an outcry over the e-book price: $17.99, based on a discount off the $35 hardcover retail sticker. The book is coming out in that strange little window where agency pricing has been discontinued, but new contracts with the retailers haven’t yet been worked out, so Amazon and all the other usual suspects can’t discount this title as steeply as they might want to.

But what is especially interesting about these reviews, to me, is that in the minds of these early customers, the two issues seem firmly linked. None of the reviews I saw regarding the e-edition mentioned just one of the two complaints. They were both mixed together. It wasn’t just the poor formatting (which, for what it’s worth, Hachette has promised to correct forthwith) or just the price (which, if one waits a couple weeks until the new deals are signed, will likely fall). Rather, it was the inexcusable combination of the two. It seemed especially unfair to have to pay so steeply for a book that wasn’t even done right. Even those who may have tolerated the occasional typo in the past were beating the drum of complaint, and the song seemed to be this: For $17.99, publishers, you’d better get it right …

And that, I think, is the real lesson to be learned from Rowling’s little cross-genre experiment. It’s not about whether the lines between YA and adult have blurred enough to give Rowling an automatic market share for this vastly different book; it’s not about how this commercially published venture will stack up, profit-wise, against her self-run Pottermore e-store. The true takeaway here is this: If publishers are so bent on pushing up prices, on promoting e-books as purchases (not rentals!) of equal (or greater!) value than physical printed objects, then they need to offer a product that merits this value. Ninety-nice cents a copy, and you can get away with the odd typo or editing glitch. But when you’re heading past the impulse-buy line and into real money? You’d better do a real money good job.

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UPDATE: Boy is this story blowing up. Digital Book World and Mediabistro’s Galleycat have both posted the official statement released by Hachette, regarding the formatting issues of The Casual Vacancy‘s e-version.

Here’s the takeaway, from Galleycat:

Did you buy a $17.99 eBook copy of J.K. Rowling‘s A Casual Vacancy before 3 p.m. ET on September 27? You are entitled to a new digital copy of the book.

And here’s the official statement from Hachette:

Yesterday the eBook file for The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling was released to all U.S. eBook retailers. There were issues with that file, including the adjustability of font color and size and adjustability of margins. As soon as Hachette was made aware of these issues, a replacement file was uploaded to all eBook retailers. Hachette has requested that each retailer contact their customers directly about reloading their eBook. Any consumer who purchased the eBook on Thursday, September 27, before approximately 3:00pm ET, who has not heard from their retailer, should contact them and request that their eBook be reloaded. No consumer should have to repurchase the eBook.

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UPDATE: Journalist Lev Grossman somehow got his hands on a copy of The Casual Vacancy last Saturday, September 22 (review copies were not made available to members of the media), and his 1,600-word review of the book was posted to TIME magazine’s website earlier today.

The short version: He liked it. Here’s a particularly telling excerpt from the review:

But The Casual Vacancy is a different beast entirely. It was not what I was expecting. It’s a big, ambitious, brilliant, profane, funny, deeply upsetting and magnificently eloquent novel of contemporary England, rich with literary intelligence and entirely bereft of bullshit, and if it weren’t for Rowling’s stringent security measures, it would or at least should have contended for the Booker Prize. This is a deeply moving book by somebody who understands both human beings and novels very, very deeply. It’s as if Rowling were an animagus, except that instead of turning into a stag or a dog or whatever, she transformed into Ian McEwan.


  1. The New York Times review by Michiko Kakutani did not agree with Lev Grossman, but rather says:

    There is no magic in this book — in terms of wizarding or in terms of narrative sorcery. Instead, this novel for adults is filled with a variety of people like Harry’s aunt and uncle, Petunia and Vernon Dursley: self-absorbed, small-minded, snobbish and judgmental folks, whose stories neither engage nor transport us.

    And the review concludes:
    In fact, there is a vacancy deep in the heart of this novel.

    We do not come away feeling that we know the back stories of the “Vacancy” characters in intimate detail the way we did with Harry and his friends and enemies, nor do we finish the novel with a visceral knowledge of how their pasts — and their families’ pasts — have informed their present lives. Of course, Ms. Rowling had seven volumes to map out the intricacies of the wizarding world in Harry Potter. The reader can only hope she doesn’t try to flesh out the Muggle world of Pagford in any further volumes, but instead moves on to something more compelling and deeply felt in the future.

  2. It appears to me that book publishing companies have decided not to have quality control systems and not to ensure that their products are defect free before they are released. Instead, the publishers have chosen to rely on their customers, book purchasers and readers, to find and report any problems.

    The publisher may then “fix” the problem, and release an updated book; or they may not.

    This decision allows the publisher to save money by eliminating the quality control department.

    Unfortuanately for readers, the publishers can get away with this policy because they are not going to be sued.

    EBook quality (and paper book quality as well) is not going to improve untill and unless someone figures out how to punish a publisher for having poor quality products.

  3. @Mary: Meh. I don’t know. I haven’t read the book myself, so I certainly can’t give any sort of opinion on it, but Kakutani’s always been sort of a grouch, you know? I realize that the entire industry kowtows to her and her opinions, and I totally respect her complete mastery of literature – American and otherwise. But the truth, I think, is that even those of us who consider ourselves to be intelligent, ‘close’ readers don’t necessarily want to sit around reading Don DeLillo novels all day. Sometimes a simple, fun book is a wonderful thing, even if it doesn’t cause a psychological paradigm shift in the mind of the reader.

  4. @Dan, I absolutely know what you mean. I read a lot of simple, fun books and some which are heavier. My ideal reviewer would be someone who likes the same books I do, but so far have not found the perfect match and largely rely on Publisher’s Weekly. They have no review of The Casual Vacancy for the simple reason that they did not receive advance copies. It will be interesting to follow other reviews of this book as they come available.

  5. Hey Mary, I hear you on that. Now that I think of it, I don’t believe I’ve ever tried to find my ‘ideal reviewer,’ but that’s probably only because there are so many book reviewers out there. I guess I tend to think of ideal ‘reviewing outlets,’ and I definitely read more book reviews in the NY Times than anywhere else. Of course, on Sundays, most of the reviews are written by freelancers, so I guess what I’m really looking for is a section editor who picks titles to review that are at least somewhat similar to the sorts of books I’d potentially be interested in. (And whoever edits the Sunday Times Book Review does a wonderful job, as far as I’m concerned.)

    As for reviews of TCV, you’re right—it’s going to be really interesting to read those as they come in. I think the Guardian (UK) just published a review, if I’m not mistaken.

  6. Amazon emailed me this morning with a 51% off price for the physical book making the digital copy more expensive. I hate it when that happens. If I had paid that much for the ebook and it was delivered in such a poor shape I would be pretty upset too, regardless of how good or bad the book is meant to be.

  7. It’s ultimately a dull, dreary, rather preachy book, full of spite, anger and barely concealed attacks against the current government in the UK. What Rowling fails to mention is the fact that she didn’t suffer half as much as everyone is led to believe, and she is also not that bothered in helping the area where she grew up. She has totally failed to make the transition, and perhaps she will now be outed as the one trick pony she obviously is.

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