What’$ in J.K. Rowling’$ name?


Robert Galbraith’s The Silkworm publishes this summer and will sell a bazillion copies—not because Robert Galbraith wrote it, but because J.K. Rowling did.

Rowling revealed Galbraith was a pseudonym—nom de plume, for those of you in New York City—she used when writing The Cuckoo’s Calling, the first in her series of non-wizard thrillers.

The book sold poorly until the media unmasked Rowling, and then the crime novel made more money in a year than the United States did collecting taxes.

I have no problem with J.K. Rowling churning out bestsellers. God bless her. But why keep up the Galbraith charade after her cover’s blown?

There are a myriad of different reasons writers employ pennames:

  1. They have serious jobs (e.g., university provost, four-star Army general, vice president of the United States) and write titillating vampire sex adventures on the side and don’t want to be discovered and embarrass their bosses.
  2. Their lives are threatened by nefarious or moronic people (e.g., Iranian mullahs, Mexican drug cartels, vice president of the United States) and must protect their identities.
  3. Their publishers request it to prevent over-saturating the market with too many titles under the same name. This is apparently the reason Stephen King wrote under the penname Richard Bachman. (That over-saturation theory is bunk because James Patterson doesn’t use a penname and will have released two new instant best-sellers by the time you finish reading this sentence.)
  4. There’s the school of thought that female authors aren’t taken as seriously as crime fiction authors as male writers, and assume pennames to fight this notion.

Rowling’s reason at the time of the discovery, according to published reports:

“Being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience. It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation, and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name.”

Okay, I get that. Rowling realized (correctly) that she could slap her name on a book titled Restoring Norwegian Garbage Scows and it would top The New York Times bestseller list without anyone reading one word. And chances are there’d be some butt-kissing reviews to follow because she’s J.K. Rowling. She wanted honest feedback, something she thought impossible under her real name. The penname worked for a time, and while The Cuckoo’s Calling garnered some positive reviews, it didn’t sell. (I thought the whole point of becoming a commercially successful author was to write something that catches on, build up your brand, and make a career out of it.)

Rowling was reminded that it’s difficult starting out. You write what you feel is a good book, it gets praise, but few people buy it. But Rowling has a unique way to turn her sales around: admit she wrote the book. That’s not the case for the vast majority of authors.

Now she’s back to releasing a book with Robert Galbraith on the cover. But why? The jig is up! You’re not fooling anyone. Please, drop the Galbraith. If J.K. really wants to extend this experiment, she’d assume a new penname and write another mystery unrelated to The Cuckoo’s Calling. Otherwise, what’s the point? It’s not like the vice president’s hot on her trail.

Although knowing Joe …


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