On the 18th April a new writer, Robert Galbraith, finally got his great work into print, after going through the usual arduous round of submitting to publishers, gathering in the rejection slips, and then doing it all again.
The novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, was what is usually referred to as “generally well received,” not an instant best-seller but by no means a failure.
The title turned out to be oddly appropriate. Just as a cuckoo deceives its surrogate parents, so – as everyone now knows – Galbraith was not what he seemed. In mid-July the news broke that he was, in fact, JK Rowling, wildly successful author of the Harry Potter novels. Rowling’s previous non-Potter work under her own name, The Casual Vacancy had sold well but met with mixed reviews, overshadowed by her previous work. In fact it tops the list of books people started but didn’t finish precisely because people bought it expecting more of the same.
In going undercover, Rowling was living her false identity. Rather than turn up as herself but get the publisher to put the book out under another name (a ruse that would likely have been exposed almost immediately) she went back to the beginning, submitting as the unknown Galbraith, and being rejected by some publishers before Sphere took the new writer on. In this web of secrecy, there was one person who knew the truth: Rowling’s solicitor.
When the news of Galbraith’s true identity broke, there were a lot of people claiming they knew all along, and there was textual analysis and various other ways of looking clever about the whole thing, but at the heart of the revelation was a slip by that same solicitor, a private word to a close friend which leaked out and unmasked Galbraith.
The disastrous impact on Rowling at having her double identity revealed was… extremely lucrative, actually. As I write, the book is number 2 on Amazon’s books list, and in fact one could hardly have planned the whole business better. The Galbraith identity makes plain that the book isn’t going to be at all Potter-y, and the revelation of true authorship has drawn crowds of readers who might otherwise have passed the book by. So where’s the problem?
The problem is, of course, that Rowling gave information to her solicitor in confidence, on a matter of extreme personal importance to her. The duty of confidentiality placed on solicitors, when speaking with their clients, is extremely strong, and one of the core elements of their professional conduct. A solicitor’s client should feel comfortable disclosing any information to a solicitor without fear that it would go any further (although there are some exceptions regarding the disclosure of criminal activities such as money laundering).