In the Shadow of the Name

The recent dust up over J.K. Rowling being outed as Robert Galbraith the writer of a mystery novel, the Cuckoo’s Calling, says a lot about the power of branding as Don Draper might envy.  There was a made up bio of Galbraith on his website which used toshadow 2 read, “After several years with the Royal Military Police, Robert Galbraith was attached to the SIB (Special Investigative Branch), the plain-clothes branch of the RMP. He left the military in 2003 and has been working since then in the civilian security industry. The idea for Cormoran Strike grew directly out of his own experiences and those of his military friends who returned to the civilian world. ‘Robert Galbraith’ is a pseudonym.”  The site has been adjusted as Roger Sterling would say to reflect the reality.

When Mulholland first published the book in April, about the pulpishly named, one-legged Afghan war vet PI Cormoran Strike (who like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher is a big cat and an ex Military Policeman) investigating the suspicious suicide of a super model Lula Landry, generally received good reviews and sold around 1,500 copies on this side of the pond.  That’s pretty much par for the course for a debut novel from an unknown, despite solid reviews.  There wasn’t much buzz building for the Cuckoo’s Calling.  But once it was leaked in July that the book was by Rowling, the next day the volume was temporarily out of stock on both the Barnes and Noble and Amazon sites.  An additional 300,000 copies were rushed into print a husky voiced Joan Harris would convey.

Names are power or at least they like the black bird in the Maltese Falcon, are something that we attach great weight to depending on the context.  Some years ago to demonstrate the capricious nature of the movie business, Chuck Ross sent the re-typed screenplay of Casablanca around to more than 200 agents as a sample of “his work” to see what the reactions would be.

As he made not of on the Open Mic site in November ‘012, reprinting his article about this endeavor of 30 years ago, “Eighty-five agencies did read the screenplay, submitted under my favorite pseudonym, Erik Demos. Instead of calling it “Casablanca,” I used the title of the original (unproduced) play it was based on: “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.” I made only one alteration (in the script): Instead of calling Rick’s sidekick Sam, in the script I named him Dooley, after the actor who played the part, Dooley Wilson.”

Ross stated 33 of the agencies recognized the script.  Other agencies didn’t recognize the story and commented such as, “What I didn’t like about the screenplay, as I recall, is that it started out with almost a documentary feel…. I think the dialogue could have been sharper and I think the plot had a tendency to ramble.”

“I gave you five pages to grab me — didn’t do it.” “Too much dialogue, not enough exposition, the story line was weak, and in general didn’t hold my interest.”  “Story line is thin. Too much dialogue for amount of action.”   “I regret to say that we will not be able to help you with your script. I strongly recommend that you leaf through a book called “Screenplay” by Syd Field, especially the section pertaining to dialogue.”

Also back then, in the 1970s, Ross retyped the acclaimed novel Steps by Jerzy Kosinski which had won the National Book Award in 1969, and sent that around to 14 book publishers, including the house that had published Steps.  All 14 turned the book down.  He also sent the manuscript to 13 agents who all turned the book down too.

Arguably tastes change so the idea that the ancient by Hollywood standards script of Casablanca getting knocked, as no screenplay is critique proof, in 1982 is not so outrageous.  But the business with Kosinski’s book which occurred more recent to the actually book being published, does support the idea that who the writer is would have made a difference at some of the houses.  That if it were a new manuscript by Kosinski, even though an editor might have suggestions for making it better, it certainly would get a different reception that from an unknown.

Maybe it will be revealed that J.K. Rowling has been the beard for Chuck Ross all this time.  That he remains a wizened, gnarled hermit pounding out his next book on his manual Underwood typewriter, a team up of Harry Potter and Cormoran Strike, The Unearthly Calling.

I can’t wait.

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