To Buy or Not To Buy: J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy

J.K. Rowling expects critics to pan her new novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy, which will be available to the public on Thursday.  Even if Rowling is a lousy augur and her book receives universal acclaim, it would do little to change my decision to hold off on purchasing it.

When deciding whether to purchase a book, I weigh many pieces of information, including the reviews, the blurb (or better yet, a sample chapter), the cover art, the price, and my opinion of the author.  I have touched on this subject before in previous posts,  Negative Book Reviews: Is There Such a Thing as Bad Publicity? and Cover Art: What Does it Say About the Book?

The Casual Vacancy’s dull cover design is underwhelming, but the blurb sounds interesting enough:

When Barry Fairweather dies unexpectedly in his early forties, the little town of Pagford is left in shock.  Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war.  Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils…Pagford is not what it first seems.  And the empty seat left by Barry on the town’s council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?

I like idyllic English towns, which was one of the reasons behind my positive reaction to Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.

What I do not like about Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy is the price, which is $17.99 for the ebook and $20.90 (marked down from the list price of $35) for the hardcover on Amazon.  This price supposedly reflects the author’s time and artistry, the efforts of publishing house in preparing the manuscript for the marketplace, the marketing campaign to promote it, and a cut to the vendors for making it accessible to the public.  In my opinion, though, it’s hard to justify such a price in tough economic times, when a reader can find numerous entertaining options — many of which may be far more enjoyable — under $10 and often under $5.

One way of maximizing profit is to increase demand by having a lower, more affordable price.  Clearly, that’s not the strategy here.  Here, the assumption is that the author’s celebrity and prowess will convince people to put their money down on this novel instead of their grocery tab or a toy for their kids. If any author can get away with charging an arm and a leg for an ebook — which requires readers to spend eighteen dollars without even receiving a physical copy of the book — it’s J.K. Rowling.  No author is better known than she is.  No one has written a book as widely appealing as she has, with her Harry Potter series charming readers of all ages around the globe.

But The Casual Vacancy is not the next Harry Potter book.  It is a completely different genre, one that is likely to appeal only to a fraction of the legions of Harry Potter fans.  Recently, bestselling author Jodi Picoult made a deviation from her typical macabre take on women’s fiction to publish a “tween” fairy tale-based novel, Between the Lines, with her seventeen-year-old daughter, Samantha Van Leer.  While the book has received some positive reviews (my review was mixed), the numerous one-star Amazon reviews from Picoult fans show that many are annoyed that the novel is so different from the tales of death and disease that made Picoult famous.

Managing her own and the public’s expectations, Rowling predicts that readers may have a similar negative reaction to her newest work, saying in an interview with The Guardian:

The worst that can happen is that everyone says, ‘Well, that was dreadful, she should have stuck to writing for kids’ and I can take that.  So, yeah, I’ll put it out there, and if everyone says, ‘Well, that’s shockingly bad—back to wizards with you’, then obviously I won’t be throwing a party.  But I will live.  I will live.

Yes, she will live.  She will continue to live quite well, actually, as creator of one of the most beloved series in literature and as one of the richest people in the world.  I imagine The Casual Vacancy will be a bestseller, too, simply because people will buy it out of curiosity, but I will not be one of those people.  I will wait for the library copy or a major discount on this one.

What about you?  Have you pre-ordered the novel?  Do you think $17.99 for the ebook is justified?

About A.M.B.

I am an attorney, the mother of three, and the author of Two Lovely Berries (by A. M. Blair), a novel exploring the struggle for individuality between identical twins. Check out my "About Me" page for more information.
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38 Responses to To Buy or Not To Buy: J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy

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  4. There are a couple of books talking about the “right” prices for stuff that I’ve been meaning to check out and I think maybe you will like? One is Edcuardo Porter’s
    “The Price of Everything: Solving the Mystery of Why We Pay What We Do” (an expensive $12.99 on the Kindle), and the other, Michael Sandel’s “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?”. Please let me know if you’ve looked at either & what you think about them.

    • A.M.B. says:

      Those sound quite interesting, though I am unwilling to pay $12.99 for the Porter book (I guess I’m still a “mystery” to them!). I haven’t read either, but I might add it to the list.

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  6. I do find Rowling an exceptionally-talented author, and I am intrigued at finding out what she’s written for a decidedly adult audience. But I do agree completely that the $17.99 e-book price is absurd. I just put a hold on the book at my local library and became 415th on the waiting list. I am sure I can wait 6 months to read this book.

    • A.M.B. says:

      Wow, that’s a long wait! I also think Rowling is a very talented writer, but other talented writers have published less expensive books that I can read while I wait until there is a discount on her novel. Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Roy McCarthy says:

    I’m less outraged, in fact not at all. Why cannot JKR, or indeed any author, put whatever price they wish on their product? The demand will dictate whether or not the pricing decision is a correct one.
    What is this ‘loyalty’ that she supposedly owes her fans? The woman is selling a product. If my car is worth $5,000 I don’t care how loyal my local dealer has been down the years I’m not going to offer some sort of ‘loyalty discount’.
    On the contrary, I feel lousy and guilty clicking on $1.99 for the work of an author who has put their heart and soul into the project for maybe a year or more. I wish there was discretion to pay a bit more :-)
    Good post as usual AMB, provoking useful debate.

    • A.M.B. says:

      Thanks for adding this perspective to the discussion. I see your point and in a way I agree with you, but it annoys me that anyone would think so highly of themselves that they would price an ebook so that fewer people will get to enjoy it. As I said in the post, if any author can demand that price, it’s JK Rowling, but that means that many of her fans will not get a chance to read it. It will be profitable, which is fine if making more money on top of what she already has is the goal. If the goal was to entertain as many people as possible while still making a reasonable profit, then she has failed. I don’t think she should price her work at zero or even $1.99, but $18 is ridiculous, particularly in today’s economy.

      • Roy McCarthy says:

        I don’t suppose that was her goal though – JKR probably has precious little say in the matter anyway. She’s a big business brand and the businessmen in charge will be making those hard-nosed decisions.
        There’s plenty of scope for slashing the price anyway, and I imagine that will certainly happen when the time is judged right.

        • A.M.B. says:

          Actually, I think she’s a big enough fish that she would have been able to dictate her terms. If the publishing house didn’t go with it, she could have gone anywhere or self-published with an enormous following. They will probably slash the price eventually, but for the bargain paperback books that the publishers over-order. The ebook often becomes more expensive than the bargain book. Eventually, readers will probably get an opportunity to read it, but it will take a long time and it depends on whether they actually reduce the price. If enough people buy it at $18-20, they might not reduce it to increase demand.

          • Roy McCarthy says:

            Hardback marked down by 50% in our local bookstore just now.

            • A.M.B. says:

              I’m glad to hear it! I haven’t seen a similar markdown here yet, but I’m wondering if that will happen soon. I’m also wondering why they’ve decided to do it and whether they will also reduce the ebook price. There has been quite a lot of discussion all over the internet about how expensive the book is/was, and maybe that type of backlash has an effect. Who knows!

  8. Jaclyn says:

    I ordered it – I’m one of those who pre-ordered purely out of curiosity. I wouldn’t have ordered it if the premise didn’t sound appealing to me, and with most authors I’d just reserve my copy at the library and buy it if it was good. But I’m a fan of her writing (even though I know it’s not Potter), so I figured – what the heck? I hope it justifies the price! (And yes, $18 for an ebook is indeed outrageous.)

  9. An interetsing post! Writers who deviate from their normal output face a tricky scenario, but I suppose a writer is writing principally fo rthemselves, to tell a tale that is in their heads and share it.
    I don’t rush and buy books on release – I never buy hardbacks, I just play the waiting game !

    • A.M.B. says:

      Yeah, it will be the waiting game for me too! It’s very interesting when writers deviate from their normal genres. It’s possible that Rowling is a fantastic writer of fiction for adults (I wouldn’t be surprised), but I wish she had insisted on a better price for her experiment.

  10. I loved the Harry Potter Series and might have a hard time envisioning her writing a different genre. I too think the price is a bit steep for an e-book.

    • A.M.B. says:

      I loved the Harry Potter series, too! I think JK Rowling is a wonderful writer, and I’m curious to see how she’ll transition to a new genre, but not for $18. That’s just too much to spend on one ebook, particularly when she hasn’t yet proven herself in the genre.

  11. Ash says:

    I do think 17.99 for an ebook is a little much. I love J.K. Rowling, but in the context of Harry Potter. I want to read her new book when it comes out, but at the same time I am afraid it will ruin this image I have of her. At some point I am sure curiousity will get the better of me.

    • A.M.B. says:

      Yeah, I am worried that “The Casual Vacancy” will tarnish my respect for JK Rowling, too. Quite frankly, I already think a little less of her because of how ridiculously expensive this ebook is. I hate to say it, but I wonder whether she has forgotten what $18 means to an average person. I can buy six indie books for the price of her novel!

  12. cgiovanniwrites says:

    Honestly, I find it hard to spend more than 5 on an ebook. There’s no physical value to an ebook–so almost 18 is a complete no go for me. I just don’t know how one can charge that for an ebook!!

  13. Rick Wiedeman says:

    No ebook should be above $10. There’s no printing, only nominal warehousing and distribution fees, and you can’t give them away. After a year, cut the price in half (to mimic the hardcover-paperback transition).

    • A.M.B. says:

      I completely agree! On occasion, I’ll buy an ebook for $12.99, but I need a very good reason for it. It would be great if publishers cut the ebook price in half after a year, possibly interesting a new set of readers, but traditional publishers don’t seem to get it. Usually, after a year, the ebook becomes MORE expensive than the paperback (because they are trying to get rid of inventory). It’s just ridiculous.

  14. M says:

    It’s not like this book is a moving work of art that will change someone’s life. It is, at best, a funny romp through the machinations of a small town, another piece of mostly disposable entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with disposable entertainment — everyone needs their diversions — but at $18, she’s not competing with a bunch of other entertainment books, she’s competing with two movie tickets and some popcorn.

    But even a date night movie costs $5-$15 million to make, and has to be shown in a theater staffed by trained employees, hence the price. Did she have to spend $5 million to publish her book? Are there hordes of employees that need to be paid for assisting?

    Of course not. It’s her, an editor, a couple line editors, and then some marketing people who can’t even make a decent cover. It’s offensive enough when proven entertainment authors charge more than $10 for their books, and it’s doubly offensive when a billionaire does the same for an experiment. She should have released it 100% free with a note on her website saying how much she appreciates her fans, asking for their trust to follow her new ventures into completely different fields. Then, having proven herself, she could have started asking $5-$10 from millions of charmed-again readers.

    • A.M.B. says:

      I have no idea how much Rowling and her crew spent on this novel, but my guess is that they’re aiming for a ridiculously high margin on this book. What’s sad is that it’s at the expense of her fans. I don’t think she should have release it for free–her time and artistry is worth something and so is the time of the publishers–but under $10 would have been nice. She’s an established author, but not an established author in this genre, and so she is asking her fans to take a risk on her. I would rather take a risk on SIX indie books with good reviews and free sample chapters (so I know whether I like the writing or not), than risk wasting $18 on a SINGLE novel by a novice in the genre.

  15. E.S. Henry says:

    $17.99 for an e-book is absurd. I read almost exclusively on my nook now, and it seems pretty silly to spend 20.00 on something that you can only lend out once, and can’t actually hold in your hands. I have rules for how much I spend on e-books, and this is far above that price.

    • A.M.B. says:

      Exactly. I have rules for how much I’m wiling to spend on an ebook, too, and $17.99 is way too much. I even hesitate at $12.99, but I’ll make an exception if the book is particularly compelling.

  16. That price is inflated, especially for an ebook. Wow, thinks that much of herself, does she? The woman has BILLIONS. She could have made a point with this release by charging a reasonable price. Her publisher would have listened to her. It might have helped set a new standard in ebook pricing.

    But they went for the money. I’m disgusted. And I agree: that cover sucks.

    • A.M.B. says:

      It would have been wonderful if she had helped set a new standard in ebook pricing. It does seem like she went for the money, but who knows, maybe she doesn’t realize that $17.99 is expensive? Either way, that price is completely unreasonable, but I’ll probably be proven wrong when hordes of Rowling fans buy it anyway. If they don’t love the book, though, they’ll probably “repay” Rowling with terrible reviews. People judge books more harshly when they paid an arm and a leg for them, and negative reviews could limit future sales and tarnish Rowling’s reputation. We’ll see what happens.

      • Of course she knows how much $17.99 is. When she wrote the first Potter, she was struggling financially. I’m sorry to say this makes me think less of her.

        • A.M.B. says:

          Yeah. It would have been nice if she had insisted on a price that she could’ve afforded when she was on welfare pre-Harry Potter. While I am inclined to think negatively about an extremely wealthy person who overprices their book, I’m not sure she’s quite so greedy. I have read that one of the reasons she is no longer a billionaire is that she gave away a sizeable portion of her wealth to charity. I was very happy to read that.

  17. ThreeKingsBooks says:

    Not a chance. If I see it at the public library, I’ll snatch it up simply because I also find small English towns charming. However, there’s undoubtedly a waiting list for it there, so I’ll live without it until — years down the road — it starts appearing at used bookstores!

    • A.M.B. says:

      That’s my plan, too! I’m sure my public library has a waiting list. It’s a good thing there are plenty of worthwhile, less expensive books to read instead.

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