Pen Names

JK Rowling recently released a crime thriller novel under a pen name and was just outed this past week in the media, via Twitter no less. I wanted to talk about why authors use pen names, and share why I’m a little bit disappointed in Ms. Joanne “Jo” Rowling. I’m actually a big fan of hers, and will be buying her new book after I post this, but I have to get this off my chest.

First, authors use pen names for what boils down to just a few reasons.

1. To protect their real identities.

Gail Carriger (The Parasol Protectorate Series) is a pen name, and she uses it because she is also an academic and archaeologist and wanted to reserve her real name for her scholarly and professional work. I'm not sure her identity is so secret anymore, but it was in the beginning. An elementary teacher who writes about serial killers would similarly use a pen name to avoid upsetting parents and the community, and since many people choose to or have to keep their day jobs, this makes perfect sense.

2. To prove themselves and their talent.

Joe Hill (Locke & Key, Heart-Shaped Box) is Stephen King’s son, and he started secretly submitting his work under this pen name so he could forge his own path and not be under his father’s epic shadow. He has since shared his real identity, after solidly establishing his own career as an author.

3. To maximize income via marketing.

In the days of physical bookstores, many an author picked a pen name based on where they thought their books might be shelved (eye-level shelves rather than higher/lower, near the ‘greats’, etc). This system didn’t work perfectly, but it probably helped some people with improved sales. However, with e-bookstores this is less of a thing.

Some people have big or complicated names. Simplifying them can work wonders and make a name more memorable and manageable.

Some genre books statistically do better with certain kinds of names on the covers. In romance, books with author names typically for women sell better. In thrillers, books with what is normally considered a man’s name rank higher in sales. There are exceptions, but those two genres are clearly dominated by gender perceptions (sorry, no stats). Books where authors only use initials also tend to do better in some genres where readers might be prejudiced unfairly against a specific gender.

Also, when authors want to write in multiple genres, they choose different pen names. For example, Nora Roberts used a shortened version of her real name for her contemporary romances. When you read a Nora Roberts book, you know what you’re getting. So when she wanted to write romantic suspense and science fiction police procedurals, she used the name JD Robb. This reduces the risk of alienating readers who had specific expectations for an author.

These days, thanks to the small world of the internet, pen names are becoming harder to keep secret. The bigger a book becomes, and the more famous the author, the more impossible it is to maintain that secrecy. And some authors don’t bother to keep it a secret, they simply use the pen names to differentiate between the styles of books they are writing and their websites and media advertise both or all of their author names.

It’s really no surprise that the world learned that Robert Galbraith, debut author of The Cuckoo’s Calling, was actually JK Rowling. And I don’t blame Ms. Rowling for using a pen name under the circumstances. I totally understand why she did and would have done the same in her position, I think. I mean, with her first book post-Harry, she tried to use her infamous author name, but it didn’t go as well as she and her publisher might have hoped. And even the name “JK Rowling” was initially chosen by the publisher because they wanted to reach boys, and were afraid that boys wouldn’t be interested in a book written by a woman.

Her first adult book, The Casual Vacancy was met with reader baggage and expectations, hype, pressure, unfair attacks, and mixed reactions. Some people loved it, some didn’t, and others just ignored it. In short, the book wasn’t necessarily written for her previous audience of Harry Potter fans, and clearly wasn’t as successful financially as the books in that series. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; I personally measure the success of a book on if it finds its audience. And not all stories have ginormous audiences like Harry Potter. It’s debatable that she might have fared better using a pen name for the genre hop, but I’m glad she didn’t. Readers need to (re)learn that authors can write well in different styles and many want to write different things. It should be expected. It used to be accepted.

My disappointment in Ms. Rowling doesn’t stem from the fact that she used a pen name. Rather, it comes from her choosing what is accepted as a MAN’s name. Maybe this is unfair of me, but as a woman, as a writer, I can’t help feeling let down by her choice. I mentioned earlier that in thrillers, books marketed under a masculine name dominate the genre, and the same is true for crime fiction which is closely related and overlaps a bit. So on the one hand, she was trying to fit in the genre by choosing the name ‘Robert Galbraith’ and there was a chance she might not have gotten published at all if she had chosen a feminine name. She was rejected by at least one publisher with "The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith." Though from all the rave reviews, I doubt she would have been overlooked for long, but who can really know.

But what does it say, if even the incredibly well-known writer of arguably the biggest and most successful series of the past decade+ doesn’t feel comfortable using a woman’s name on her work? Is she giving into the discriminatory system/culture? I know a lot of struggling authors write in genres that aren’t as open to their gender so they use pen names. They do it because the difference in sales is that marked. For some, it can be the difference between needing a day job to support their families or being a comfortable full time writer. It's so unfortunate.

I’m not privy to JK Rowling’s finances, but I’d venture to say that she doesn’t need miraculous book sales to survive as a full time writer like most professional authors, or she never would have accepted a deal for a debut no-name author. She could have taken the potential risk, and maybe helped normalize women in crime fiction further. Because what a wasted opportunity to push against readers’ expectations about who can write what! Maybe it’s a moot issue since a large portion of book fans know the truth now. They know she’s a woman and they know she wrote The Cuckoo’s Calling, Harry Potter, and The Casual Vacancy. But there was a chance that her identity might not have been discovered so quickly.

I hope most people don't think that Joanna Rowling is the exception to the norm, that the average woman doesn’t belong writing in crime or thrillers. It’s not true. Just like it’s not true that men don’t belong in romance. Which is why I appreciate Myke Cole (The Shadow Ops Series), writer of hardcore military fantasy. He maintains that men can write romance novels, and should be able to do so successfully under their own names. I completely agree and I cannot tell you how much I want him to do this.

And these are the things I think about a great deal, because, I myself want to write crime fiction (among many other things). I want to write in whatever genre I please. And I don’t want to be discriminated against or prejudged, even if readers don’t even realize they’re doing it. Maybe if we talk about it more, we can break down these barriers for ourselves and others.

How many great books have you skipped because of the name on the cover?

JK Rowling or Robert Galbraith: How to pick a pen name

Edited to Add:
JK Rowling added a FAQ to the Robert Galbraith website where she discusses the use of a pen name and the book itself. The most relevant bits are excerpted below.

"Why did you choose to write a crime novel and why under a pseudonym?

I’ve always loved reading detective fiction. Most of the Harry Potter stories are whodunits at heart (‘Order of the Phoenix’ is more of a why-did-he), but I’ve wanted to try the real thing for a long time.
As for the pseudonym, I was yearning to go back to the beginning of a writing career in this new genre, to work without hype or expectation and to receive totally unvarnished feedback. It was a fantastic experience and I only wish it could have gone on a little longer.

Why did you choose to write it as a man? Did it influence your writing in anyway?

I certainly wanted to take my writing persona as far away as possible from me, so a male pseudonym seemed a good idea. I am proud to say, though, that when I ‘unmasked’ myself to my editor David Shelley who had read and enjoyed 'The Cuckoo’s Calling' without realizing I wrote it, one of the first things he said was ‘I never would have thought a woman wrote that.’ Apparently I had successfully channeled my inner bloke!"

Those last two comments are exactly part of what bugs me here, evidence of even literary pros having a bias about what kind of books a woman 'can' write. It's bogus.

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  1. Her reasons for having a pen name are really interesting. I wasn't aware that her editor didn't know it was her until afterwards. I've been discussing the whole pen name thing with my coworkers in the office and we've gotten some really varied reactions! Thanks for writing this. It's made my work office a more interesting place, haha.

  2. Sounds like an interesting conversation! Glad to hear it. :)

  3. Great blog! The information you provide is quiet helpful. Wooden Concepts executes perfection & quality craftsmanship in custom Wooden Pens unique & handcrafted wood products.


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