Will JK Rowling’s controversial trans tweets hurt the sales of her new Robert Galbraith book?

Article by Gary Nunn /
ABC /
September 13, 2020 /
Click here to view original /

She’s one of the world’s most famous living authors — and recently, she’s been using her platform to speak out on a highly sensitive area: sex, gender and trans issues.

Some have accused JK Rowling of transphobia, others have commended her “bravery” for discussing an issue they say is rooted in misogyny. One thing’s clear: what she’s said has sparked controversy and caused some pain.

What remains unclear, though, is how much the furore will impact sales of her upcoming book, Troubled Blood, released this week under her nom de plume, Robert Galbraith.

Publishing insiders say her brand as a talented and versatile writer — even under her now well-recognised pseudonym — may supersede her controversial opinions.

But a growing number of LGBTQI people and their allies are turning their backs on an author who was thought to have theirs.

What has JK Rowling said?

It started as many modern fights do — on Twitter.

In December, Rowling tweeted support for a researcher who lost her job for expressing her opposition to a British Government reform that would make it easier for trans people to change their legal sex.

Then, on June 6 this year, Rowling retweeted an op-ed which used the term “people who menstruate” instead of “women”.

She later said “the ‘inclusive’ language that calls female people ‘menstruators’ and ‘people with vulvas’ strikes many women as dehumanising and demeaning”.

As the temperature of the debate rose, she tweeted: “I respect every trans person’s right to live any way that feels authentic … I’d march with you if you were discriminated against on the basis of being trans. At the same time, my life has been shaped by being female. I do not believe it’s hateful to say so.”

But Rowling quickly became embroiled in a debate that has been framed as the trans lobby vs the TERFs (trans exclusionary radical feminists).

On June 10, she published a blog addressing the criticism and abuse she was receiving.

Proposed changes to the British Gender Recognition Act (still out for consultation) would allow individuals to self-declare their gender and Rowling claimed this could endanger vulnerable women in female-only spaces.

She also claimed that “we are watching a new kind of conversion therapy for young gay people”.

What has been the reaction?

In short: varied, heated and largely confined to Twitter.

Actors in film adaptations of her books including Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and Eddie Redmayne publicly distanced themselves from her comments about trans women, and actively expressed support for trans people and organisations.

Harry Potter fan sites released a joint statement saying her views on “marginalised people [were] out of step with the message of acceptance and empowerment we find in her books”.

But many also expressed support for her comments.

Feminist blogger Claire Heuchan said she had “a whole new level of respect for her courage and compassion”.

Dr Kathleen Stock, professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex, said Rowling was “right to want to protect women-only spaces”.

Many outside of the Twitter bubble probably remained largely unaware of the ideological storm, which has divided traditional bedfellows on the left: feminists and the LGBTQI community.

Rowling’s Australian publisher, Hachette Australia, has stood by their client but did not respond to repeated requests for comment on whether it has concerns about book sales, and whether it has an equality and diversity policy to protect LGBTQI staff.

Hachette’s UK arm, which will also publish her children’s book The Ickabog in November, has said it aims to “become better allies”.

In response to the controversy surrounding Rowling’s comments, three weeks ago it announced a partnership with All About Trans, an organisation promoting a deeper understanding of trans issues, and made a £10,000 donation to British LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall to help “support and empower trans communities”

Will her new book’s success be dented?

Probably not, according to literary professionals.

Julia Ferracane has been a book publicist for 20 years, including for Penguin Random House. She predicts success, despite the backlash.

“In July, her [UK] publisher Bloomsbury said the controversy didn’t dent the popularity of Harry Potter books; in fact, sales increased in lockdown,” Ferracane says.

“Harry Potter is the biggest-selling book series of all time. There’s a strong fanbase ready to purchase anything she releases.”

The conflict could actually help sales, Ferracane says.

“It may motivate others to buy the book to further pull apart or scrutinise her work for further hints on her views,” she says. “Sometimes controversy can be good for a book.”

The male pen name, she believes, may also be a shield for Troubled Blood.

“Just look at the various fan pages devoted to this series — you can feel the anticipation for the September 15 release,” she says. “I don’t believe sales will be affected at all.”

Publisher Jessica Stewart co-runs a small Australian press and has a trans daughter.

“If she were in my publishing house, I’d have no problem severing her contract,” she says.

“She’s got such a powerful voice and extraordinary platform, yet talks like this about an extremely vulnerable cohort: trans people going through puberty.”

What are trans people saying?

Performer Jordan Raskopoulos says she doesn’t care about Rowling’s book, but does care about “the enormous amount of space” she’s taking up by speaking on a topic Raskopoulos argues Rowling is “not qualified to speak on”.

Sally Goldner from Transgender Victoria says JK Rowling’s platform comes with rights and responsibilities.

She says Rowling has a right to express her opinions, but relinquishes responsibility by regurgitating “totally unproven and tired tropes with no factual basis”.

“All the fears she whips up — the bathroom debate, the sports debate — can be rebutted with open-mindedness,” Goldner says. “There’s never been an increase of assaults of people in bathrooms because trans people get equality under law.”

On balance, Goldner believes some trans people will still buy her book because they like her writing.

But she says she has heard trans and gender diverse people and their allies say they’re “heartbroken” by her comments.

Will the wider public care?

Dr Lauren Rosewarne, a senior lecturer in gender studies at Melbourne University, says it’s important to realise debates on Twitter are not necessarily representative of the broader public’s views.

While some people will consider Rowling “cancelled”, she says, others won’t even be aware of trans issues or care about the controversy.

There will be others still who “simply like her writing and are able to read it without giving thought to her politics”.

Being able to separate an artist from their art is important, Rosewarne adds, because “no artist can pass the purity test with flying colours when the internet has a very long memory”.