What if J. K. Rowling had used a Pseudonym? Should Authors Use Different Names for Different Genres?

Update: July 14, 2013.

It seems the critically acclaimed detective novel,
The Cuckoo's Calling was written by J.K. Rowling under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Here's an article in the Telegraph with details about the new revelation.  It got great reviews, but didn't sell much. But since the revelation, it's zoomed to #1 on the bestseller lists. Here's what Nathan Bransford said.

"...people are missing one of the other important illustrative elements of this story, which is that The Cuckoo's Calling was not a great commercial success. It had sold only 1,500 copies in Britain. Despite all those glowing reviews and being published in a commercial genre, it didn't catch on."

So the pen name got her kudos, but she needed to be J.K. Rowling to make the sales. Branding is all. Looks as if I was right when I wrote this last fall. 

J.K. Rowling, the richest, most successful author on the planet, has been getting some pretty terrible reviews for her new novel, The Casual Vacancy. I won't quote them here. I think the Guardian's dismissal of it as "Mugglemarch" is probably one of the kinder ones.

A number of readers weighed in on The Passive Voice blog about it, and author Mary Sisson left this comment " If I were her I would have released this under a different name. All anyone is going to do is compare the book to Harry Potter, and then get upset because it’s not Harry Potter."

Other commenters agreed, saying things like,"The trouble with writing a series of such staggering success right off the bat is that inevitably everyone will be saying, 'It wasn’t as good as Harry Potter'."

But in the first three weeks, The Casual Vacancy has sold over one million copies.

So what if she had published it under another name, and kept the publishers from leaking her real identity? Would anybody be buying a pricey book with a ho-hum cover, bad formatting, and an unenticing title--from first-time author, Jo Nobody?

Or what if she'd started from scratch with a new identity, querying agents and editors like the rest of us? I haven't read the book, but I did look at the "peek inside" chapters on Amazon. I don't think the opener would have made it past most of those interns who read agents' slush piles these days. She breaks almost every one of the standard rules for novel openers: She's got a "Robinson Crusoe" opener with a lone character getting up in the morning, musing and flashbacking on page one. Then she kills off the P.O.V. character on page two.

Does that mean I won't read it?

Nope. I can't wait to get my hands on it.


Because she's J. K. Rowling, one of the world's greatest storytellers.

But if I heard the same stuff about Jo Nobody's book? I probably wouldn't bother.

So for me, the J.K. Rowling brand is the reason I'm going to read the book. And I'm pretty sure it's what motivated most of the million-plus buyers.

A pseudonym might have kept Ms. Rowling from getting those scathing reviews, but would it have got her any sales? Would it have kept her from being published at all?

It certainly would have kept The Casual Vacancy from that central spot in my local supermarket--usually reserved for exciting specials on seasonal Oreos and sugary cereal--instead of the back corner where they put their sad little shelf of books, along with the day-old bread and giant bags of dog food.

So what does this all mean for us mere Muggles? Should we use pseudonyms or not?

Lots of popular authors have done it. Stephen King sometimes wrote as Richard Bachman (complete with a phony book jacket photo reputed to be his agent's insurance agent.); Romance goddess Nora Roberts writes thrillers as J.D. Robb, and Dean Wesley Smith and his wife Katheryn K. Rusch write under dozens of pen names between them.

In fact, D.W.S. thinks authors who DON'T use pseudonyms are lazy and egotistical. He gives "not using a pen name" as his seventh way of "Killing Your Sales One Shot at a Time".

In another post, he gives the following reasons for using a pseudonym:  (I've paraphrased here.)

1) You write "too fast" for traditional publishing and you're only allowed one book a year under your current contract.

2) You want your readers know exactly what to expect from your brand (s).

3) Your writing might adversely affect your day job. (You're a youth minister who writes hard-core erotica.)

4) Your sales didn't live up to your publisher's sales expectations. (You've been told you'll never write in this town again.) 

5) You have family issues (You're telling the thinly disguised story of your Uncle Charlie's secret life as a cabaret singer named Chardonnay.)

6) Your real name is Stephen King.

7) You think this book isn't "good enough" for your brand.

8) You're writing work-for-hire in a branded series (Such as a Star Trek novel.)

Reasons #3, #5 and #6 are excellent arguments for writing under a name other than your own, but not for using MULTIPLE pen names.

Reasons #1, #4 and #8 only affect authors who are bound by old-school publishing contracts. These days, if you want to write fast, or don't fulfill your publisher's outsized expectations, you can simply self-publish. You can build on the brand name that you established as a traditionally-published author instead of going back to square one with a new name.

That leaves #2 and #7. Quite frankly, I don't get #7. Going to all the trouble of building a separate brand for a book you aren't proud of makes no sense to me. If the book isn't working, get an editor or collaborator or put the thing in a drawer and mine it for characters and short stories. I have at least a half dozen of them.

So the only compelling reason for MULTIPLE pen names is:

#2: You want to let readers know exactly what to expect when they pick up a book with that name on it.

But I feel you can show genre in other ways, like cover design. And you can put helpful text on there like, "Romantic Suspense by ..." or "A [Sleuth's Name Here] Mystery by..." in your metadata and cover text.

Even Dean Wesley Smith himself admits "sometimes readers will follow across genre lines. Give them the chance on a main website under a main name."

Certainly readers are crossing genre lines with J. K. Rowling. And other successful contemporary authors are luring their readers to cross those boundaries, too. Neil Gaiman writes everything from social satire to MG fantasy—and penned the screen adaptation of Beowulf--all under his own name. Literary prize-winner and Iowa M.F.A. Justin Cronin has recently moved from literary to horror with great success with The Passage.

Writing in multiple genres under one name is not a new idea.
And it may be that the digital era is changing things back to the way they were in earlier days. J.K. Rowling's success seems to show that brand trumps genre in today's world.

(And it also apparently trumps bad reviews.)

Plus the new publishing paradigm is blurring genre lines. And these days, position in a brick and mortar bookstore isn't the primary factor in selling books--name recognition is.

Writing in The Passive Voice comments on August 6th, epic fantasy author Tom Simon said:

"I’m highly suspicious of that advice about using pseudonyms for different genres; it may only be an artifact of the circumstances in which it originated. All data older than about three years is basically irrelevant to the new publishing model. It may be that the old advice still holds good — but if it does, it will have nothing to do with the original reason behind it. I would be very wary of assuming that the old practice is applicable in the new circumstances."

And: (my bolding.)

"I have not heard that anybody ever got mad because they bought Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare and thought it was a science fiction novel. But a lot of people bought Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare who would never have heard of it if it hadn’t been for Asimov’s SF. Note that Asimov built his reputation in the days before chain bookshops and computerized ordering — in other words, before multiple pseudonyms became useful as a way of gaming the system. It may be that the situation nowadays is more like the situation in 1965 than that in 2005."

Echoing his sentiments, author D.G. Sandru said in the same thread:

"Once you’ve got an author brand built, you can take it anywhere….Nowadays in the virtual book store at Amazon, with millions of titles, with millions of author names, for unlimited time, having a different pen name will diffuse your brand name. I’m in the process of writing a paranormal thriller and a true story. What are the chances that people that read my YA Fantasy under D.G. Sandru will find my other two books under two different names? Very slim. I would have to make three marketing efforts for three different names. Or instead of dedicating 100% to one brand name I would dedicate 33% to each pseudo name."

But another successful self-published author is very much in the Dean Wesley Smith camp. Regency romance author Anne Gallagher has recently published her contemporary women's fiction under a new name: Robynne Rand.

I understand her reasoning: her Regency brand is strongly traditional. She might lose readership if Anne Gallagher readers pick up a racy Robynne Rand novel and get offended. The same is true for most authors who write erotica as well as another genre.

Because pseudonyms are working for her, I asked Anne to weigh in on this discussion.

Why I Use Multiple Pen Names
by Anne Gallagher/Robynne Rand

ARA: Why did you decide to write your novels under different names?

AG: I built my "brand" writing Regency romance under Anne Gallagher. I write sweet historicals (no hanky-panky). My romantic women's fiction under Robynne Rand is contemporary with swearing and adult issues. There's a marked difference between the two and I didn't want to offend anyone (my Aunt Elsie comes to mind) if they picked up Remembering You and thought it was going to be a light read like The Lady's Fate.

ARA: Are you finding that marketing yourself as two different people takes more time from your writing than you'd like? Is one name taking more time than the other?

AG: Marketing under either name has always been a problem for me. I don't like tooting my own horn and any kind of promotion/marketing does take away from writing time. Robynne Rand is definitely harder to market. Even though it's still me, Robynne Rand is a newbie author. She doesn't have a huge fan base, (although my reviews are excellent) and I can't bang out books one right after the other like I do with my historicals. In writing historicals, there's a formula (more or less) I can follow. With my contemporaries, they're more complex, involving a deeper character arc. And truthfully, that's really the #1 marketing skill, just keep writing, keep publishing. A fan base will follow.

ARA:What are the benefits of writing under a pseudonym?

AG: If branded correctly, people know what they're getting when they pick up your book. For instance, I love Nora Roberts. I know who she is, what she writes, and I'll read anything by her. I had no idea she was J.D. Robb for about a decade. And though I like her Robb books, I won't go out of my way to buy one. I'm just not into the genre.

When people pick up an Anne Gallagher book, they know it's a Regency with a predictable HEA (Happy Ever After ending--ed.)  I didn't want to confuse people thinking they were getting one thing when it was definitely another.

ARA: Do you have any advice for authors who are trying to decide whether to write under two or more names?

AG: Build your brands differently. Market yourself as two different people. If you look at my Anne Gallagher blog you'll see a lovely young lady reclining on a chaise under a blanket of blossoming trees. All very calming, looking very historical-ish. If you go to my Robynne Rand blog it's totally different, contemporary with a shot of the Mount Hope Bridge in Rhode Island.

And start as soon as you know you've chosen that route. My mistake was not starting the Robynne Rand blog sooner, before the book came out. Or getting on Twitter sooner. Not that Twitter spam sells books, but at least my presence there may have allowed people to get to know me a little better. They might not buy this book, but they might buy the next.

ARA: I guess I'm lucky to have a muse who pretty much writes in one genre. No matter what I've tried to write in the last three decades, everything turns out to involve murder and mayhem combined with fairly cerebral romantic comedy. When you pick up an Anne R. Allen mystery, you know there will be a screwball romance, some darker literary subtext, and probably at least one villain attacked with a designer shoe.

I suppose Dean Wesley Smith would say I'm just too lazy to write steampunk erotica, space westerns, and techno-thrillers in my spare time. However, this does mean I personally don't have to worry about pen names.

I do understand why Anne/Robynne made her choice. If I were in her shoes, I might have made the same one. But I recommend every author carefully weigh the pros and cons. It takes a crazy amount of work to establish even one brand these days and I'm all about writers keeping their sanity.

Book-buying habits are changing. I think the "different names for different genres" paradigm does belong to old-style publishing. Readers are beginning to "get" the new/old way of doing things.

I think if PEN/Hemingway Award winner Justin Cronin had published his horror novel under a pseudonym, he'd never have got the major ink in the New York Times that sets his work apart from every other vampire novel.

And if Jo Nobody had written The Casual Vacancy, I doubt Ann Patchett would have interviewed her in front of a crowd at Lincoln Center who got so excited that Ms. Patchett said she was "going to have to hand out sedatives."And certainly Jo Nobody wouldn't get to go on the Daily Show and convince Jon Stewart that the U.S. needs a monarch.

And I doubt she'd be working on her second million in sales in less than a month.

Personally, I'd rather tough out the bad reviews than give up the perks of an established brand. (Even if my brand doesn't quite have J. K. Rowling's clout.) But I'd love to hear from writers on both sides of the question in the comments.

Do you write under multiple names? Do you think it's worth multiplying your marketing work in order to keep from offending some readers? Have you written in different genres under the same name? What kind of results did you have? Do you know of other authors who have written in multiple genres with the same name?

BOOK NEWS: For some reason unknown to me or my publisher, Amazon AND Barnes and Noble have chosen to reduce the price of my first Camilla Randall mystery, THE BEST REVENGE, to 99 cents. Practically FREE! So if you've wanted to check out one of my rom-com mysteries and you like a bargain--here's a chance to grab one cheap. you can find it on Amazon US , Amazon UK, and Barnes and Noble. Somehow it seems to have disappeared from Kobo. The ways of the Webz are mysterious indeed. But we will be trying to raise the price back to $2.99, so grab it while you can.

I WILL BE ON THE RADIO on Thursday evening, October 25th, 8 PM Pacific Time, talking with award-winning author Elaine Raco Chase on Triangle Variety Radio. Just click on the Triangle link and listen on your computer. I'll be talking about the real-life Hollywood mystery behind my mystery novel, THE GATSBY GAME, which is supposed to finally be available in paper this week. It isn't yet, and nobody knows what the hold-up is, but I've seen the proof and it's very nicely done. But as I said, the ways of the Webz are a mystery to us all...

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Next week: Ruth Harris will give us 8 super-useful tips for improving your book. A must-read.

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