x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Keeping hot property leak-free: blockbuster launch of The Casual Vacancy

Amid intense security, the publishers of J K Rowling's new novel are making sure that not a word leaks out out until launch day.

The Casual Vacancy will bethe first Rowling release since Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows in 2007.
The Casual Vacancy will bethe first Rowling release since Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows in 2007.

Tomorrow's hugely anticipated publication of JK Rowling's first novel for adult readers is a classic example of how to keep the heat under an already hot property - globally co-ordinated planning.

It was always a vain hope. In the past few days JK Rowling has been doing what JK Rowling has very deliberately not been doing to this point. She has been talking about her forthcoming novel and admitting that she had wanted its release to be just "a normal book publication".

The Casual Vacancy goes on sale tomorrow at 11am. It is the author's first novel aimed at an adult readership and its release is a global publishing event.

While Rowling may have been aiming for "low key", the intense secrecy surrounding the prepublication preparations has converted any softy, softly approach into something decidedly more cloak and dagger.

The publication date was announced in February. The title was released in April - that alone was enough to make international news, given that this would be the first Rowling release since Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows in 2007. In July we got a glimpse of the cover. But very, very few have seen even one of the novel's 512 pages before its official launch.

One suspects that suits Rowling just fine. In one of her few interviews given by the author in the lead-up to the book's publication she confessed to feeling "quite disconnected" from expectations in terms of sales, and similarly unmoved by any concerns over its critical reception. "I'm not being snotty about that," she explained, "I truly didn't sit down and think, right, now it's time to prove I can … I don't think I physically could write a novel for that reason."

But if Rowling herself feels, for once, cocooned from the pressing, hysterical reality that screeched around every new Harry Potter (queues at midnight, release parties, city centres given over in homage to Harry, Ron and Hermione) it seems safe to assume that her publishers and literary agents do not.

Global launches do not just happen. They happen for a reason and they happen with consummate planning, eye-wateringly tight security and layer upon layer of legal contract.

Once, blockbuster books, films and television shows would launch first in the United States, then in the United Kingdom and carry on eastwards. Today, if a property is hot, the concept of Day and Date launching is streamlined accordingly. One day; one date: one time worldwide and a big sigh of relief once that moment has passed with no need to police a ripple of launches across different territories or smother spoilers online and in print.

The lawyer Ken Dearsley, senior counsel at DLA Piper in Dubai and a specialist in copyright in film, television and publishing, has been involved in many global launches. "In many ways the issues at the heart of any launch are contradictory," he says. "You want as much hype as possible, which often depends on prepublication knowledge, but you don't want that to spill over into footage or extracts getting out that will detract from the launch.

"A key benefit of having a global launch as opposed to a series of launches across different territories is that the effect is massive while you're minimising the risks of piracy by simply ensuring that everybody gets the real thing at the same time."

Much of the rigmarole surrounding global launches is now relatively common practice. Journalists have grown used to signing Non Disclosure Agreements before being handed particularly anticipated or sensitive books to preview or read in preparation for an author interview. Reviews, serialisations, trailers and film clips have long been the subject of embargoes.

In fact, it would be easy to forget just what a recent phenomenon all this is or the role that JK Rowling and the Potter books have played in it. They are the benchmark for global "event" publishing and for marketing campaigns that have security and secrecy built in.

According to Graham Rand, former general manager for books at Total Home Entertainment: "It wasn't until book four that everything started; there were proofs for the first three. And then it got bigger from there. Although we had a secure caged area within the warehouse for things like PlayStations, for Harry we always took a separate unit on the estate we were on. My biggest challenge was always trying to convince my own management that it really was worth spending the money."

The hype surrounding A Casual Vacancy is not in the same league as Harry Potter, or indeed the Dan Brown novels - Angels and Demons, The Da Vinci Code and The Lost Symbol - or Stephanie Meyers' Twilight series. But there is the same intense security.

In The Bookseller trade magazine this month Larry Finlay, managing director of Transworld, recalled the extraordinary measures taken to prevent any compromising leak of Dan Brown's third manuscript, The Lost Symbol.

"We had to set up a special, off-line, non-company email address to which it was sent electronically, but very, very tightly encrypted. There was nothing that could be traced through a server back to us, so if any journalist was trying to hack into our systems - and I don't think they are hackable, but they might be - they wouldn't have found anything."

Certainly the few journalists who have seen The Casual Vacancy have done so under close scrutiny. Decca Aitkenhead, whose interview with JK Rowling was published in The National yesterday, described a convoluted process during which she had to "sign more legal documents than would typically be involved in buying a house" before being allowed to read the manuscript under tight security in the London offices of the publishers Little Brown. "Even the publishers," she says, "have been forbidden to read it." Staff at bookshops have had to sign draconian documents vowing not to open the cover of a copy until after the official launch time.

And while publishers in France and Germany received early copies to enable them to release translations, Un place a prendre and Ein plotzlicher Todesfall, alongside the UK and US editions, Rowling's literary agency, the Blair Partnership, withheld advance copies from its publishers in territories including Italy, Finland and Slovenia because they are viewed as high risk for piracy. In Finland, according to Jill Timbers, a translator of Finnish books into English who blogged on the subject: "The translator has to agree, sight unseen, to turn in the finished copy in three weeks, by October 18, in time for release for Christmas sales. That's 23 pages of polished final text every day for 21 days without time to read the book beforehand!"

All this secrecy means it is almost as hard to get a handle on the true level of interest in this novel's release as it is to get a hold of a copy itself before tomorrow. Rowling has spoken quite openly about the plot. Set in a fictional English village, a pretty West Country affair called Pagford, the story is set in motion by the death of a parish councillor. He had grown up on a nearby council estate, the Fields, a squalid ghetto that the middle-class inhabitants of Pagford would dearly like to offload on to a neighbouring council, an ambition they might just achieve by electing one of their own to the council. It is a black comedy - even bleak, according to Rowling - and it is very English.

Perhaps part of the difficulty in knowing just how quickly the sales will add up comes down to the fact that, unlike her previous works, this is neither an instalment in a franchise in which readers are already emotionally - and financially - invested, nor is it a hybrid book appealing to children and young adults alike. It is determinedly grown up and, while readers who have themselves grown up with Harry Potter are likely to be intrigued enough to buy The Casual Vacancy, others are equally likely to bide their time.

This isn't a book that the majority of readers simply "must have" the moment the tills are open and adults tend to buy books less excitably than children - though the fans of Fifty Shades of Grey bucked the trend on that one. Such was the frenzy surrounding the trilogy that presses could barely keep up with demand as copy after copy was devoured by housewives the world over.

But The Casual Vacancy is a very different prospect - a "first novel" from an author who has already sold 450 million copies of her titles worldwide.

As the Waterstones spokesman,Jon Howells explains: "People like to queue because they want to be a part of something, to identify themselves as a fan among other fans, in a way it makes it about them, not just the book/movie/gadget."

A global launch encourages this sense of being part of something bigger, but will the fans of Harry be equally engaged in the lives of the residents of Pagford? Rowling herself has said: "I don't think everyone will like the book." Part of any pre-release publicity clampdown is, of course, a desire to avoid negative advance comments.

Yet, for all that, what preview opinions there are have been promising and though precise numbers are not available pre-orders are reportedly already the highest for any title this year.

As Ken Dearsley puts it: "JK Rowling was a game changer in terms of children's and hybrid publishing and global launches. Inevitably this is a big moment for her."

JK Rowling may have hankered after that distant memory, "normality." But the truth is that tomorrow the ultimate game changer will change her game and all across the world the nature of that shift will be revealed to readers in unison.

So it is hard to disagree with Mr Dearsley's conclusion: "This is about as high profile as it gets."

lcollins@thenational.ae