What’s in a Name?

The recent news that J.K. Rowling was outed as the author of Robert Galbraith’s novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, has me thinking about the importance of having A Name as a writer. I know Ms. Rowling isn’t the first author to have written under a pseudonym, either before or after becoming successful as a writer.  Stephen King comes to mind immediately (Richard Bachman). Nora Roberts (J.D. Robb) is another example that comes to mind. Theodor Geisel is possibly my favorite to have written under multiple names (Dr. Seuss and Theo LeSieg). But why do they do it?

I’ve never in my life seriously considered writing under a pen name.  Partly this is because I mostly like my name and partly I just never came up with a good alternative.  Tucker Spencer? Too southern. Moonblossom Beladosia?  Too hippie.  Vito Lucchesie?  Too 1970’s mobster.  Indigo Maroon?  Too colorful.

I have often wondered why authors would choose to write under more than one name.  I understand the need to write under a pen name when there’s issues of freedom of speech or repression.  I specifically mean situations like J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, where they are already successful and choose to write secretly under a different name.  Anecdotally, I’d heard that King wrote as Richard Bachman as a means of trying to figure out if his success was due to talent or to luck, though I’ve never actually seen this statement attributed to him directly. On his webpage, King answers the question pretty clearly:

I did that because back in the early days of my career there was a feeling in the publishing business that one book a year was all the public would accept…

Dr. Seuss wrote as Dr. Seuss when he also illustrated his books, and has Theo LeSieg when someone else did the illustrating. I have always known he was both authors and read his works under both names.

I’ve never read any of Nora Roberts’s works but I understand that she writes under the name J.D. Robb for a specific series (“In Death”) and then at other times as Jill March and as Sarah Hardesty…

J.K. Rowling, now that she’s been found out, said that she wrote as Robert Galbraith because she:

I wanted to see how it would feel to write a crime novel without the pressure that goes along with my name.

I can actually see and have an understanding for this concept of writing under a different name to try something else.  If fans come to expect a certain style or genre from an author, would they accept something different that doesn’t fit into the expected mold?  I can easily see that there might be riots and peaceful sit-ins if I were to suddenly write a story which didn’t include any coffee in it… I mean, it’s what I do, right?

In any event, I’ve mentioned four (or is it ten?) different authors, each with their own reason to write under different names.  But I’m still left to wonder what their real reasons are, specifically Rowling’s reasons.

The media frenzy around Rowling’s Big Secret and the subsequent skyrocketing of sales for The Cuckoo’s Calling have me wondering if it was really all just a marketing ploy, wherein it was always intended that the information would be leaked. Ms. Rowling and her publisher are, of course, denying it and perhaps they are telling the truth.  But still, the numbers certainly tell a story:  The BBC reported that around 1,500 copies of the book had been sold before the announcement and that within hours sales had increased by 507,000%. Another report mentioned that 43 copies of the book were sold in the UK in the week prior to the announcement and then 17,662 copies in the week following the announcement.  Either way, the announcement turned the critically acclaimed book from a commercial also-ran into a best seller, seemingly overnight.

I have attempted to find marketing for The Cuckoo’s Calling from before the announcement of the author’s true identity and I have failed. I, of course, had not looked for anything before the announcement because, well, I’d never heard of the book.  Now – after the fact – all I find is material with Rowling’s name on it.  I also am aware that there were some favorable reviews and that the book was praised by Val McDermid… but again, I had no idea the book existed, and apparently I was not alone in this state of ignorance.  So I’m left with questions:  was the book underperforming in terms of sales because of a lack of marketing?  Is the new-found success it is having due to the “free” publicity it is getting in the media? Does the name on the book really have that much impact on the performance of the book?  Would Rowling’s other book, The Casual Vacancy, have suffered poor initial sales if it had, the name of an unknown, say, Rob Diaz, on the cover?

Fans of an author, or an actor or a musical act will typically buy new material from that author, actor or musical act just because of the name on the cover or in the credits.  I’ve done it myself and I really don’t think there’s anything wrong with supporting the artists whose work you enjoy. So I’m not really upset that this book is selling well now that the name is out there… yet I am still unsettled about it.

Frankly, I can feel my thoughts on this whole situation flying all over the place. I don’t like feeling duped and I don’t like feeling like it’s impossible to find success if you don’t already have success. The whole situation with this book which, in all honesty, I never would have read before but now feel compelled to read because of who wrote it is just making me more confused than ever about what we, as emerging writers, should expect to be able to accomplish in or around this industry.

On the other hand, the acknowledgement that Robert Galbraith’s novel was rejected leaves me feeling a bit less hopeless.  Sure, Robert Galbraith is an unknown, debut author but ultimately he – I mean she – was still J.K. Rowling, an author whose work I admire and enjoy.  If her work could be rejected before it was eventually accepted, then there’s still hope for me, perhaps, at some point down the road.

At this point, a part of me feels like I should send out my initial queries for my next two novels – The Intergalactic Coffee Pot of Rage and Discontent  and Fifty Roasts of Coffee – with the author name of Slade Steele stenciled onto the cover.  Then, after a short time, I can announce that Slade Steele is actually Rob Diaz, the guy who writes about coffee.  Slade Steele may be a strong, highly marketable name, but clearly the public will only trust one author when it comes to fictional tales about superhero lattes.

In all seriousness, I’d like to hear if you have written, or considered writing, under a pen name?  Why or why not and what circumstances might make you change your mind? And what is your opinion – was the whole Robert Galbraith/J.K. Rowling thing a genius marketing ploy or was it truly an attempt to allow an established author to just try something new and different?

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28 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. I have enough faith in the world to believe that Joanne Rowling (JK is a false name) wanted to try writing ‘from scratch’ under another name. Publicity stunt? Why on Earth would they need to? Anything with Rowling’s name on the cover is practically guranteed to be a fast-seller, so why bother?
    No, having Galbraith’s name on the cover lent credibility to the author’s alleged ‘experience in the military field’ – something which would not have been possible for a children’s writer to pull off.

    • Hi 🙂 just wanted to point out that JK are her initials: Joanne Kathleen, and not a pseudonym. 🙂

      • Ooo…just shows you that not everything in the rumour mill is true. I read that she was merely Joanne Rowling and Bloomsbury advised her to ‘de-sex’ her name by using her first initial and adding the ‘K’ to make it read better.
        Thanks for putting me right! 🙂

    • If the publishing industry could somehow publish every book with JK Rowling’s name, or Neil Gaiman’s name or perhaps one or two others on it… the industry would be doing much better right now.

  2. I believe the experiment started out as an honest attempt to gauge her success at something new (especially after the critical, if not mixed, reviews of the casual vacancy) but that she didn’t exactly struggle against her unmasking, knowing the huge side benefits of doing so.

  3. Pseudonyms are good for authors who want to write in different genres. Can you see Tom Clancy writing a fantasy? Because each genre requires a different characteristic set (thrillers are action and literary are character-driven), I could see an author keeping those identities separate.

    At least, that’s a reason that makes sense to me.

    • LOL yep, I can just see Jack Ryan casting spells and fighting dragons – or perhaps riding a dragon 🙂

    • Right. I can see that I suppose. In the music industry, fans cry foul when a band “grows” and writes songs which are not their normal style. Perhaps fans of a particular author would react similarly if the styles or genres were vastly different.

  4. I thought about using a different name to write horror. I even picked one: Valois Yafood. As it turned out, I didn’t write (or publish) enough horror to be worth the effort. The name is still in my notebooks, though, just in case I ever need it.

  5. I’ve considered using a pseudonym, but only because my own name, Lyn Churchyard, is so…ho-hum. Can you imagine a book called “Gravestones of Dust” by Lyn Churchyard. I have thought of using my maiden name Lyn Lauren, but that too Lilly-Lolly sounding. My favourite is Anna Lauren, which is a combination of my father’s grandmother and my maiden name. Anna is also a part of my middle name: Lou-Anna, which, incidentally, my Dad got wrong when he registered my birth. It should have been Louarna. It’s weird, because I’m not really sure why I feel this way.

    • Lyn, that’s an interesting thought… does having a “ho-hum” name make it harder to be successful as an author? I hadn’t really thought about it like that. Though, to be honest, I’d read a book called “Gravestones of Dust” by Lyn Churchyard. I don’t think that’s ho-hum at all.

      • LOL thanks Rob. I chose that book title as a link to my name, because when I was working, people wouldn’t believe my name was Churchyard, so I gave up would tell them it was Graveyard, Diggagrave or Holyground. Some people actually believed those names rather than Churchyard…go figure!

  6. This is just too delicious for me to ignore, Rob. From now on I will have to call you Moonblossom Beladosia, but I might be persuaded to reduce it to the uber friendly Moonie.

    So, Moonie, you raise all the questions I’ve also considered about Rowling’s book. As the reveal happened so soon after initial publication, I tend to believe, oh untrusting skeptic that I am, that it was planned the whole time. And let us not forget that she didn’t shop her book around with her pretend name. Her agent-editor-publisher knew, so the pain of all the rejections that lesser known writers suffer is not something she had to endure. Why did Rowling do it? Look at the numbers now – that’s why.

    Jacqui makes creditable comments about why other authors use different names for different genres. The one who could always pull off his own name no matter what the genre was Shakespeare but there’s lots of controversy about who that guy really was.

    As for me, my writing name will be Sharon Bonin-Pratt, combo of maiden name and married name. It lets me honor two significant relationships in my life. It also lets me be uniquely me because while there are several other Sharon Pratts, there is no other Sharon Bonin-Pratt. But my friends may call me Shari.

    So, Moonie, please call me Shari, and just let me know which name you prefer I use to autograph my book for you – ahem – should that ever happen! May I be so lucky.

  7. You’re spot on Rob – marketing is a clever plot Rowling and her marketing guys used very successfully before. She has a team of really market-savvy professionals. They know how to tease the market. And top secret guarding of her books [prior to publication] and accidental ‘leaking’ is nothing new to this pursuit. What we need to understand is that even a world-class writer can suffer from mild nervousness in writing in a different genre. Casual Vacancy is the prime example. I agree with Jacqui M. that pseudonyms are used for different genres. But I felt somehow ‘forced’ to buy Cuckoo’s Calling after all those publicity storm blowing in the UK market place. Arun.

    • Well, no one should force you to read any book (well, don’t get me started on required readings in school… trust me, I’ll go on for hours). If you’re a fan of Ms. Rowling’s work, get the book and give it a shot. If you are not, don’t.

      I don’t know if this was planned to go down the way it has or not. But if it was planned, it worked. I have enough respect for Ms. Rowling’s work to believe what she has said, that she did this to be able to enjoy writing in a different style. I believe that this is how it started, at least.

  8. I think it’s odd that people feel “forced” to read Rowling’s new book just because all of a sudden it has her name on it. Maybe that’s what she was trying to avoid – fans reading her novel just because she wrote it and then getting upset because it’s not like Harry Potter (which I know happened a bit with ‘The Casual Vacancy’). Knowing ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’ is written by Rowling certainly makes me more curious about it, but I wouldn’t say I feel obliged to read it… hmmm.

    • Well, I don’t so much feel “forced” to read the book. No one is twisting my arm into thinking about it. I am a fan of her other books, though, so now that I know it is her book, I feel like I should read it… because I’ve liked her other books. I don’t typically read crime thrillers, and if this announcement hadn’t occurred I’d have never heard about this book. But now that I know about it and know it is J.K. Rowling’s work, I feel like I should read it, just as I would feel if suddenly a previously unpublished book by Isaac Asimov or Douglas Adams were to come out or much like I’ll do when the next Chicago or REO Speedwagon or Styx albums come out.

      • I know exactly what you mean. I just meant I find it quite interesting that people who don’t typically read crime thrillers read her newest work just because it’s written by J.K Rowling, especially when they then compare it to her earlier works and criticise it on that basis. 🙂

        • Ah, well, sure. That’s the downside of all of this I suppose. It’s hard enough when you’re analyzed, compared and criticized against other authors. When it’s against your own body of work, that’s even tougher.

  9. I have long considered using another name for certain writing. My line of thinking is that when you write in various genres (from memoir to science fiction to fantasy) it may help distinguish the differences you hope to highlight yourself in those varied genres. Is that silly?

    • I don’t think it’s silly at all. Perhaps its as simple as just using different forms of your name within each genre: “Susie Smith” when writing a memoir, “Sue Smith” when writing a fantasy, “Suzanne Smith” when writing sci-fi. Mix in middle initials and suffixes (Jr., Sr., III, etc) and you’ve got lots of different names all built into one! Hmm. Perhaps I’m the one getting silly now.

  10. I love the idea of using different forms of your own name to distinguish genres. I use my full name for academic publishing and “AR Neal” for my fiction writing. It also helps to de-gender my work; people tend to always think Andree’ is a guy, despite the fact that the two ee’s and accent at the end is the French female spelling. But that’s another story for another time…

  11. I like my name and I’ve always enjoyed the fact that there’s not many of us around. However, I am unsure whether or not to use it as my writing name. I question whether from a marketing point of view it is off-putting to see an unusual and/or foreign name – or even before that stage, does my name affect the reaction of potential agents?
    Anyway, thanks for the blog post, very interesting subject and enjoying reading everyone’s responses.

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