Harry Potter, arguably the most popular literary character in history, is big. But J.K. Rowling, the woman who created him, may be bigger.
So big, in fact, that the mere announcement by Little, Brown that it will publish the first adult-oriented novel by the 46-year-old British author in September 2012 already has legions of fans clamoring for the book. The Casual Vacancy has climbed to the No. 7 spot on Amazon.com's bestseller list -- even though the book won't be released for five months.
In a sense, though, that's the sort of reception one might expect for a new book from Rowling, whose series of seven novels about Harry Potter and his student wizard pals, published between 1997 and 2007, reportedly have sold 450 million copies and have been translated into 73 languages. On Twitter, Rowling fans are so stoked about the book that even its non-wizard-like title doesn't bother them. "Publisher could call it Brown Paper Bag & use one for the cover and we'd still buy it," one fan, Roopa Farooki, tweeted.
The book: A teasingly terse description on Little, Brown's and Rowling's own website provides the first glimpse of the book, and how far the author is diverging from the magical fantasy world of Harry Potter. The Casual Vacancy is being billed as a black comedy about the intrigue surrounding a local council election in the quaint, idyllic fictional English town of Pagford, which begins after the unexpected death of a local politician named Barry Fairweather. "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," the synopsis explains.
The publisher: The Guardian, a British newspaper, reports that Rowling's choice of premise and genre for The Casual Vacancy "raised eyebrows" in the publishing world, where some had speculated that Rowling would make a radical turn into hard-boiled crime fiction. (That speculation arose in part because Rowling's editor, David Shelley, also works with a number of crime authors, such as Dennis Lahane and Carl Hiaasen.) But instead of being pushed into a pigeonhole, industry journalist Neill Denny observes that Rowling has come up with something that is "clearly not a traditional crime novel. It sounds quirky, it sounds interesting -- and ambitious."
Rowling emphasized her break with Harry Potter and adolescent fiction by choosing Little, Brown as her publisher, rather than Bloomsbury, which published the Potter series in the UK, or Scholastic, which marketed the books in the U.S. Little, Brown says it will publish The Casual Vacancy simultaneously in print and as an e-book.
The buzz: While The Casual Vacancy is in the unusual position of already being a bestseller months before release, the big questions remain: Will Rowling be as big of a success as an author for adults? And is the book any good?
Nobody outside of her publishing house seems to have seen the manuscript -- or if they have, they aren't saying.
But that hasn't stopped book critics from offering opinions. Slate writer Katy Waldman is among the naysayers. "I'm not getting my hopes up," she writes in this essay, observing that what made the Harry Potter series so appealing was the stories being enmeshed in a universe filled with magic that flowed from Greek myths, fairy tales, and Celtic and English folk stories. "On the other hand, the Harry Potter books didn't actually excel in many other ways that might predict a sterling novel for adults," she says. "They weren't strong on character development or subtle themes." Sameer Rahim, assistant book editor of the Telegraph, a London newspaper, says he's dreading The Casual Vacancy, even though he expects the book will be at least as well-written as the Harry Potter series. He's depressed by the very thought of "the amount of attention the Rowling juggernaut will get -- attention disproportionate to the quality of her work."
On the other hand, Rowling could just as easily embarrass her detractors. While the long-standing convention in the literary world is that children's book authors struggle to transition to adult novels, there have been exceptions; A.A. Milne, the creator of Winnie the Pooh, also wrote the immensely successful 1922 adult whodunit The Red House Mystery (which now is in the public domain and is available for free download, with help from Project Gutenberg).
As the Christian Science Monitor notes. Rowling already has demonstrated her ability to be a game-changer -- by showing that children's books could make big money and cross over to become popular among adults, as well. Rowling altered the publishing marketplace and cleared the way for authors such as Stephanie Meyers (the Twilight series) and Suzanne Collins (of Hunger Games fame), who appeal to both adolescent and adult readers.
The money: The success of the Harry Potter franchise catapulted Rowling, a onetime single mom living on public assistance, into the ranks of the world's billionaires. As this Huffington Post article details, Rowling is slightly less wealthy these days, in part because she has donated $160 million of her fortune to charity. In addition to supporting a variety of philanthropic organizations that help families who are impoverished as she once was, Rowling has started her own charity, Lumos. The charity's mission is to end the forced institutionalization of European orphans and children with disabilities.