J.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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.