March 28, 2016

J.K. Rowling tweets “inspirational” rejection letters of limited inspirational value


Last Friday, the bestselling novelist, philanthropist, and David Cameron critic J.K. Rowling bestowed upon the world a glorious piece of content.

The context for this tweet isn’t really that important. If you want the play by play of how J.K. Rowling came to tweet these letters, you can turn to USA Today (7.2k shares), the Guardian (22,168 shares), Business Insider (2,012 shares), Quartz (amount of shares unknown), or one of many other websites eager to inspire the world with Rowlingiana.

But what do these rejection letters actually prove? Less than one would think, as the letters from Constable & Robinson and Crème de la Crime are form rejection letters.

In other words, The Cuckoo’s Calling, which Rowling wrote as Robert Galbraith, wasn’t rejected by these two British publishers because the novel didn’t measure up; it was rejected because these publishers, like many others, don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts—i.e., manuscripts that are sent directly by writers, rather than via literary agents.

Galbraith did receive some genuine rejections (Orion editor Kate Mills turned The Cuckoo’s Calling down because it was “well-written but quiet”), but what Rowling tweeted on Friday weren’t really rejections at all. They are, instead, variations on letters that get sent out to thousands of writers every year: an inevitable (and unfortunate) result of too many books, yes, but not an inherent indicator of a publisher’s foolishness or shortsightedness.

This isn’t to say that great books aren’t rejected all the time—they are!—but much of the writing about those rejections tends to flatten and elide in order to tell a story of persistence and perseverance. Persistence and perseverance are important, of course, but sending unsolicited manuscripts to a publishing house that doesn’t accept them isn’t necessarily a good lesson in either quality.

What makes the existence of the Constable and Crème letters especially odd—and their inspirational value that much more dubious—is that Rowling has an agent. And so does Galbraith. As the Independent reported when Galbraith was unmasked in 2013:

Clues they were the same person included Ms Rowling and Galbraith sharing an agent and a publisher, and The Sunday Times commissioned computer linguistic experts to compare the texts of her books with The Cuckoo’s Calling.

So if Rowling and Galbraith share an agent, why were these letters (and manuscripts) sent in the first place? Did Rowling send a few copies of the book out herself, to see if someone would discover it in a slush pile? Was this a social experiment? Did Rowling think that all of this would make for a good tweet four years later?

We’ll be looking out for a follow-up explanatory tweet—and the many articles that will surely follow.



Mark Krotov was a senior editor at Melville House.