The recent news that Robert Galbraith, author of the suspense thriller, Cuckoo's Calling, is in actuality a pen name of J. K. Rowling, took a lot of people by surprise. I'm an admirer of Rowling myself and can't wait to read the book. But in this post I want to examine the roles that high-profile author names--combined with the money and power of traditional publishing houses--play in the success of pseudonyms. Let's go back a couple of decades.
In the mid 1970s, a young and virtually unpublished author named Chuck Ross wondered whether his first novel was being rejected because it was bad or because he was an unknown, untried author. So he typed out, word for word, the text of Jerzy Kosinski's Steps, which had won the National Book Award a few years before. He then sent the manuscript, under his own name and without a title, to 14 publishers, including three who had published at least one of Kosinski's books. All rejected it; Random House, which had published the original work, used a form rejection. This experiment went a long way towards convincing him that the name was more important than the work.
But what about writers with big names--like Rowling--who write under pseudonyms? Let's look at a few. One of the most famous writers of this generation, Stephen King, used the pseudonym Richard Bachman for a series of novels. The reason for this was that his publisher felt that for an author to publish more than one book a year would saturate the market and decrease the anticipation. The Bachman books sold quite a few copies, but nowhere near the amount that King sold under his own name. And, of course, when it was revealed that Bachman was King, the Bachman sales skyrocketed.
But over thirty years before, another famous author had done something similar. Erle Stanley Gardner, author of the Perry Mason mysteries, decided to write another series--this time featuring the characters of Donald Lam and Bertha Cool. He used the pen name a.a. fair. Trouble is, he didn't bother to disguise who he really was. Look at some of the old covers and you'll see "By ERLE STANLEY GARDNER (in gigantic type) writing under the name of a.a. fair" (in small type). What Gardner's reason for this was we can only guess, but certainly his publishing company was not going to wait for several years--before someone leaked the information--to start making the big bucks off his name.
Skip forward again a couple of decades. In 1984, future Nobel laureate Doris Lessing sent a novel to her agent with the instructions to shop it out to various publishers as if it were written by a first-timer named Jane Somers. He did so and it was rejected by several of them. It was, however, enthusiastically picked up by a young editor at Michael Joseph, and it was published to little acclaim and few sales--until, of course, Lessing's name was linked with it.
So what do these books by Lessing, Gardner, King, and Rowling have in common? Did any of them become popular under the pseudonym? No. In fact, it is worth discussing whether any of them would even have been published if the author had not been first plugged into the big-time-author-and-publisher network. The Cuckoo's Calling was selling poorly--despite the fact that her publishers knew that Rowing was the author all the time and had put money and effort into promoting the Galbraith title. King and his publishers were in it together from the beginning, as were Gardner and his. The only one who really tried to keep anonymous was Lessing, but even she instructed her long-time agent to shop the book around for her. What if she had tried to shop it herself, under the name Jane Somers? Would any publisher even have looked at it or would they have tossed it, unopened, back out the transom through which it came?
This is not to denigrate any of these authors. All of them paid a lot of dues and richly deserved their popularity and success. As young authors, they went through the same thing that their alter egos went through later--many rejections before finally acceptance. It is the question of what would have happened if any of them had decided to go indie and published their work through CreateSpace or Smashwords or Kindle Direct. Like we do. And without spending thousands and thousands of dollars in advertising.
Even better, what would happen if one of them took one of our unpublished novels and given it to their publisher, saying that they were experimenting with a new style. Would we be famous too? Even if no one knew it?