Following her huge success with the Harry Potter series, and the publication of her first non-Potter novel The Casual Vacancy, author JK Rowling decided she wanted to try to get a book published “without hype or expectation”. So she created the pen name Robert Galbraith, wrote The Cuckoo’s Calling featuring private investigator Cormoran Strike, and sent it to publishers.
After several rejected the crime novel, publisher Little, Brown decided it had potential and launched it in April. Reviews were largely positive and up until the weekend it’d sold about 1500 hardback copies.
Over the weekend, a reporter on the Sunday Times began to suspect that this Robert Galbraith fella might, in fact, be someone slightly more well known – a certain JK Rowling, perhaps?
Aware of the existence of computer software capable of analyzing a writer’s style and use of words, the newspaper contacted its creator, Professor Peter Millican of Oxford University.
Using nine texts – The Cuckoo’s Calling, The Casual Vacancy, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, plus two each from Ruth Rendell, PD James, and Val McDermid – Millican turned sleuth in an effort to discover if Rowling was the writer.
“I wrote some software called Signature some years ago that provides various statistical tests,” Millican told BBC Radio 5 on Monday. “It can look at things like the length of the words, the length of the sentences, the lengths of the paragraphs, the patterns of punctuation, and it can search for words that are either particularly frequent, or words that are distinctive of particular authors.
“It’s not the sort of thing you can do without software because if you just look at the graphs of, for example, word lengths, you wouldn’t see anything very obvious, but if you do these powerful statistical tests on it, it can reveal things that are very far from obvious.”
Millican says he compiled a list of the most commonly used words in each of the Rowling books before eliminating the novel-specific ones (such as “Harry” from Deathly Hallows), leaving him with 317 “neutral” words. He then ran his statistical tests on the individual books, with The Cuckoo’s Calling turning up closest to The Casual Vacancy and second closest to Deathly Hallows. Confident that Rowling was indeed the author, he contacted the Times, which subsequently revealed Galbraith’s true identity on Sunday.
By lunchtime, yes, lunchtime, the book was top of the UK Amazon bestseller charts. Rowling took to her website to confess she was indeed the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling.
“I hoped to keep this secret a little longer, because being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience,” she said.
“It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation and pure pleasure to get feedback from publishers and readers under a different name. The upside of being rumbled is that I can publicly thank my editor David Shelley, who has been a true partner in crime, all those people at Little, Brown who have been working so hard on The Cuckoo’s Calling without realising that I wrote it, and the writers and reviewers, both in the newspapers and online, who have been so generous to the novel.”
Millican created Signature in 2003 and says on his website it’s sometimes used to assist with questions of disputed authorship. As for Rowling, perhaps she’s already thinking of a way to incorporate the remarkable software into her next Robert Galbraith crime novel.