JK Rowling, The Cuckoo's Calling, and Regression to the Mean

You've probably heard by now that JK Rowling published a crime novel in April 2013 under the secret pen name Robert Galbraith. There's been a huge amount of buzz about the novel, titled The Cuckoo’s Calling, since the news was broken. The press has focused mainly on two details. First, the novel came out to a very good critical reception, including a starred review from Publisher's Weekly. And second, the book sold quite poorly in its first three months -- 1500 copies in Britain. (Since Galbraith’s real identity was revealed, of course, the book has rocketed up the bestseller charts.)  (Edit:  Shad has pointed out a source saying that the book sold  comparably to similar debuts, and sales numbers were actually similar to Harry Potter in its first few months.  So "poorly" might be too strong of a word.)

I was really excited to hear the news. I loved the Harry Potter series. Though I didn't read The Casual Vacancy since it seemed too literary for my tastes, The Cuckoo’s Calling is definitely something I'll be adding to my to-read list.

I've also enjoyed reading online reactions as the news broke. In some ways, they’ve been a litmus test of peoples’ underlying views on the publishing industry. Some people, like author Nathan Bransford, have written about how the book's poor sales illustrate the fleeting nature of publishing success. Others commentators took this as more evidence that publishers no longer have anything to offer writers.

And what’s my reaction to the Rowling story? It’s to recall a statistical principle known as regression to the mean.