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The J.K. Rowling saga: How to lose friends and alienate critics

There is growing media anger toward their former darling, J.K. Rowling. Her carefully controlled publicity campaign may be about to backfire.

Rowling's first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, is on sale Thursday, and newspapers are eager to review it. Television shows and celebrity magazines are likewise eager for access to the author herself, for interviews and photographs that will help sell both their product and hers. Usually, publishers do everything they can to ease the media's job: They courier advance copies to anyone who expresses a casual interest and ferry the author around at their own expense to whatever locale a magazine's photographer chooses.

But because of the unparalleled success of Rowling's Harry Potter empire, she is able to dictate the terms of her media coverage, or simply deny access. She has long had a reputation for litigiousness over any attempts to spin off her boy wizard series, and her public image is now as carefully managed as that of any CEO. Not only is she limiting interviews to a few chosen outlets, her handlers have also appended demands that they be able to read anything that's written about her before it goes to press, so that she may rephrase anything she is quoted as saying (this is known as "quote approval").

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These are common practices with major Hollywood celebrities: The fashion and gossip mags acquiesce because they need access to the stars. But quote approval is generally not accepted by serious journalistic enterprises. The arts sections of those enterprises are sometimes caught between the two cultures – we're journalistic but we need to cover movie stars too.

In publishing, there is an accepted practice of "embargoing" a book before its official publication date. That is, you politely ask newspapers not to publish a review before the book is sure to be available for sale. The newspapers comply, simply in a spirit of collaboration. But in the case of Rowling's Potter books, there was the risk that a reviewer might reveal important plot turns, ignorance of which is apparently crucial to the books' appeal. Tabloids reportedly offered money for leaked advance copies. Rowling, along with many other blockbuster authors, began using a heavier weapon: the signed, legal non-disclosure agreement, with heavy penalties for breaking an embargo. Her publisher insisted, before the publication date, that every media outlet sign the agreement before being hand-delivered a precious advance copy of the new book. (The Globe was one of those outlets, and it is not the first time the paper has signed such as agreement: Other examples include Conrad Black's post-prison memoir and Arnold Schwarzenegger's autobiography Total Recall.)

The problem with Rowling's new book is that it's not Harry Potter. It's a quiet, middle-class melodrama set in a small English town. Of course it will be a huge bestseller, but critics and editors are not taking kindly to having to treat it like a nuclear-arms treaty. The Independent ran a withering attack on the publisher's demands by columnist Matthew Bell, claiming that the newspaper had been asked not just to hide details about the book but also the existence of the agreement. "This castration of literary editors is undignified and rude," roared Bell.

In a New Yorker profile of Rowling published this week, there is much discussion of her controlling publicity tactics. The magazine says it refused to give "quote approval," and depicts the author as someone who is sensitive to criticism to the point of paranoia. The media have generally been sympathetic to her rags-to-riches life story, but The New Yorker makes clear how the relationship has shifted: "If Rowling has become exasperated by the media, the feeling has been reciprocated."

The Independent put that shift in lens more bluntly: "Penniless author to publishing despot is not a happy arc."

Here the marketers' bid for control of the reception of a work is itself working against that reception. Already it is clouding the discussion of the book as a novel. It's a lesson for marketers everywhere: If you want the media to help you, you have to let them do their job.

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