Pseudonyms: A “Casual” Case Study

Who woulda thunk it would be J.K. Rowling, of all people, to test the power of the pseudonym?

Rowling, of course, is the gazillion-selling author of the Harry Potter series. Upon hearing that she’d bought herself a Scottish castle, I wondered whether we would ever hear from her again. Hadn’t she already hoovered up all the loose change in the publishing world? Couldn’t she retire from writing and, I don’t know, administer charities or something?

Apparently not. Last fall, amid much fanfare (although lacking the squealing tweens and the giveaways of round-framed glasses that greeted the launch of the later Harry Potter books), Rowling released her first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, to tepid reviews. Right now, it’s got a 3-star average from some 3,600 reviews on Amazon; one called-out review says the book is “like a bad movie that you just want to end so you can say you know how it ends.”

But if you thought Rowling’s literary career was over, you’d be wrong.

In April, amid no fanfare whatsoever, unknown newbie Robert Galbraith released his first book – a mystery called The Cuckoo’s Calling. It has just 85 reviews on Amazon as I’m writing this, but it’s averaging 4.2 stars and the called-out comments are quite positive. One reviewer even says she “can’t wait for the next installment in what I hope will be a series.”

This week, Rowling was outed as the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling. I expect that any minute now, the number of reviews for the book will increase exponentially.

But will its rating drop? That’s an intriguing question.

Disclaimer: I haven’t read either The Casual Vacancy or The Cuckoo’s Calling. But it doesn’t take a marketing guru to wonder whether a lot of the 1- and 2-star reviews for The Casual Vacancy might have been from Rowling haters – people who didn’t think she deserved her success and who were prepared to trash anything else she wrote.

This is not the first time, of course, that J.K. Rowling has used a pseudonym. The use of initials was standard practice for women authors a century ago, because otherwise the publishing world wouldn’t take them seriously. Apparently, when she adopted the Galbraith moniker, her thinking ran along similar lines; she’s quoted as saying, “It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name.”

Indies sometimes struggle with the question of whether to adopt a pen name when they write in a different genre from their usual books. On one hand, it feels like a holdover from traditional publishing, in which writers were routinely advised to use pen names for works outside their wheelhouse. And it means starting over – building a new social media platform, and gaining new likes and new fans. But clearly, in some situations, using a pen name can be a smart move.

But why is Rowling putting herself through this? Why not just retire to that Scottish castle? Think of it this way: If you won the lottery (which is essentially what Rowling did with Harry Potter) and never had to work for a living again, would you keep writing? For me, the answer is obvious.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

28 thoughts on “Pseudonyms: A “Casual” Case Study”

  1. JK is a writer – she can’t not write!
    It will be interesting to see if the ratings drop from when the book was by a ‘new and unknown’ author. I also wonder how she feels about being outed as Robert Galbraith – was it her decision or her publishers? She certainly doesn’t need the money and seemed quite happy about the book being out there, gathering decent reviews if not mega sales. I imagine her publishers were champing at the bit knowing how sales would rocket once the truth was out. Maybe she’ll chose another pseudonym and publish her next book as an Indie!

    1. I don’t think it was the publishers — I think there was some scuttlebutt around the intarwebz that the author was famous, and there were a guessing game going on, and somebody figured out the right answer.

      Wouldn’t it be cool if she went indie? 🙂

  2. I agree with Mary. She’s a writer. It’s hard to imagine her quitting. I will give her the benefit of the doubt that the pseudonym (and even the fake bio) was all her, just wanting to try something new without “JK Rowlings” hanging over her head.

    I haven’t read either book, but I’m wondering if those one-stars for The Casual Vacancy came from Harry Potter fans annoyed that the series ended.

    1. I dunno. For the folks who wanted Harry’s world to go on and on (and on and on and…), there’s a ton of fanfiction out there.

      I do think some of the 1-stars came from people who don’t think her writing is up to snuff, but I suspect at least some of them came from people who don’t think a children’s author has any business trying to write a “real” adult novel. Or, hey, maybe the book isn’t that great.

  3. Maybe those one stars came from writers that might be a little p****d she is striking out again? It is always interesting to see how eager people are to shred someone that has found great success. JK has founded multiple charities for women and children after her own ordeal as a poor single mom.

    Perhaps she wants to test her own metal, and see from what she’s made. Once “Potter” fever began there really was no stopping it.

    There are reasons writers use pseudonyms, one could be a protective shield. I know she doesn’t need the money, I wish her luck anyway.

    As always Lynne a great and thought out post.

  4. I think some deliberately bad reviews actually increase sales because readers want to see whether they agree—particularly in the case of an author with such previous success. I also received a ridiculous review from someone who obviously never read my book and placed the action in a totally different country.
    I don’t think JK will ever stop writing—it’s in her blood! Don’t we all know about that? There’s a story I want to write, but fear even a pseudonym won’t hide my true identity. Nothing is a secret any more!

  5. ‘Writers write.’ I can’t count how many times I’ve seen it, heard it or quoted it. Not one of us, who are serious writers, are motivated by the ‘riches’ one might possibly amass (as in the case of J.K. Rowling) from such endeavours.

    As far as pseudonyms are concerned, I believe different people use them for many different reasons. I think that J.K. Rowling had her own, that we might never know, and I believe it would have been the publisher, or more likely the agent, who would have leaked the truth for their own ends.

    Excellent post, Lynne.

    1. Thanks, T.D. Maybe you’re right — maybe somebody involved with the book got the guessing game rolling to gin up sales. Sometimes I’m not cynical enough — lol!

  6. I love this: Hadn’t she already hoovered up all the loose change in the publishing world?


  7. The choices of using a pseudonym are many, and I think that they will always be used by writers. This is the second time that Rowling has used one, so obviously it is something she is comfortable with, and I don’t think she has underhanded or anti-feminist reasons to use one*.

    I’ll admit straight up that I am not a fan of Rowling’s technical style or genre/s, but admire her drive to keep writing. I have read all of the HP books, and whilst they are well written for the targeted audience, they didn’t appeal to me. However, I acknowledge that that she is a good children’s writer and has done a lot to encourage children to pick up a book.

    For her achievements, she has earned a double-edged sword, where everything she writes, does and says is now scrutinised – often unfairly*.

    What I owe to her as a reader is learning that it’s ok not to finish a book; as before ‘The Casual Vacancy’ I was determined to get to the end of everything – even if I was not enjoying the experience. What I owe to her as a writer is to scrutinise my own work, and edit more ruthlessly.

    I think its fair to say that some of those 1 and 2 stars were from people who had actually read that last book and who actually considered their responses; and did not let Rowley’s past successes sway their judgement. Putting it down to jealousy or loss (of HP series) doesn’t respect those readers rights to have an differing and informed opinion of the actual book*.

    One of the things that fame has inflicted on Rowley is others’ need to put on her shoulders the burden of diverse causes: feminism, emerging writers, Indies vs Trads*. Lets not forget that she kept on writing despite receiving many rejection slips, and has had to overcome her own socio-economic barriers to get to where she is. So rather than accusing her of making it hard for others*, she should be acknowledged for paving a road for many of us.

    While I have no interest in reading any more of Rowley’s work, I truly hope that she can continue to explore her creativity – as writers need to write.

    *Lynne – not saying you are doing the above; referring to some of the other commentary out there (i.e. not on this post).

    1. Thanks, Karen. 🙂 I think you’re right that one downside of fame — that many people don’t truly realize until they become famous — is that they become lightning rods for everyone’s personal agenda.

  8. I too think she took on a new persona just to see if she ‘could’ write without the bells and whistles. Apparently she can. 🙂

    This whole thing is a bit like what happens to child stars when they grow up. I hope J.K. Rowling becomes a Jodi Foster rather than a Brooke Shields. Time will tell.

  9. Here is a snippet in case anyone is interested posted in The Independent.

    Russells said it had contacted Rowling’s agent as soon as the story emerged: “We, Russells Solicitors, apologise unreservedly for the disclosure caused by one of our partners, Chris Gossage, in revealing to his wife’s best friend, Judith Callegari, during a private conversation that the true identity of Robert Galbraith was in fact JK Rowling. Whilst accepting his own culpability, the disclosure was made in confidence to someone he trusted implicitly.”

    It added: “We can confirm that this leak was not part of any marketing plan and that neither JK Rowling, her agent nor publishers were in any way involved.”

  10. Lynne, it wasn’t the agent but her law firm. A senior partner blabbed to his wife’s best friend. I would think if she was writing this book for the moola she would have used her name right out of the gate.

    1. People use pseudonyms for many reasons, Caron, and yours is as valid as any other. Although I suspect your situation isn’t as bad as that of the lawyer I once knew whose last name was Crook. 😀 (And no, he didn’t work for Dewey Cheetum and Howe…)

  11. I was chuckling last night over an article about how Rowling was “outed” by “literary forensic analysis”…when the law firm has publicly apologized for snitching her off. Sounds better than “anonymous tip”, huh?
    Cherchez l’avocate.

    I have a bit of experience with writing under secret pseudonyms. If anybody is interested, I’ll repost some stuff I put up on the Souther Calirornia Writers Conference FB group.

    I’ve done a bit of anonymous and perudonymous writing over the years and a major factor is knowing whom to trust. And I wouldn’t consider lawyers high on the list. In the words of William Gibson, “If you have to trust somebody, trust your agent.”

    If you’ll indulge me in a discussion of the use of noms du plume… It’s completely legitimate to do so, some of the greatest writers ever, yada, yada… And there are practical reasons for doing so–some of which require secrecy. To keep your YA people from finding out about your S&M smut. To conceal a sensitive position–an insider in politics or industry wirh reason to fear for job or safety, for instance. To beat a blacklist. Everybody thinks it was cool for Trumbo and other reds to do it to beat the McCarthy witch-hunts: I got mixed reviews for doing to beat witch-hunts at the San Diego Reader.

    It’s important to sort out the levels of security/privacy. The first would be, “open secret”… like Twain and Saki and Boz and Sands and all those famous sobriquets. The next would be that your agent knows, but your publisher doesn’t. This is easy and smooth, I’d say. Your agent is the last person who would want to mess things up. Next secuirity level would be that your agent doesn’t know. Total secret. Some major problems at that point. And not just “how to make appearances” sort of problems. Think about how you’d cash the check. And notice that at each ascending level there’s an increase in the need for secrecy, as well as difficulty in maintaining it.

    If you can stand another personal anecdote on pen names… the first story I sold Hustler. And, by the way, an excellent mag to write for from a business/pro standpoint. Honest, crisp, no BS, pay well. Took everything I every sent them. But anyway, my first sale there, the editor was clearing up a few points on my rewrite then said, “Oh, yeah, what name should we use on the byline?” I said, “What’s it say on the MS?” There was this pause and in a quiet tone he asked, “You’re want to write for US under your REAL NAME?” So what I guess I’m saying, fake name stuff cuts both ways.

  12. I spent many happy hours reading the Harry Potter books and have watched the movies more times than I care to admit. I believe she wanted to see what the public’s reaction was.
    There is an author named Lois Lewandowski who lives in Nebraska. I should track her down–maybe we could write something together. That is why I’m L. A. Lewandowski.
    Great post. I want to write some fan fiction about the sensitive side of Severus Snape.

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