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?