A secret too good to keep

In today's hyper-connected world, keeping a pen name under wraps is increasingly difficult.

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP/File
J.K. Rowling

When Robert Galbraith, a first-time author, was revealed to be the pen name of J.K. Rowling earlier this summer, sales of “The Cuckoo’s Calling” shot up 150,000 percent. Most authors would have been pleased by those results, but Ms. Rowling was genuinely upset and fervently denied any suggestions that the whole thing had been a marketing stunt. (Sales of the book are being donated to charity.)

But should the mega-author have been surprised that her attempt to write a book devoid of any connection to “Harry Potter” under the guise of a different name utterly failed? In today’s hyperconnected world, where even the most powerful government in the world has trouble keeping its covert operations under wraps, pen names are an open secret.

Complete author anonymity is an increasingly rare achievement, says Carmela Ciuraru, author of “Nom de Plume: A Secret History of Pseudonyms.” With all the marketing dollars that go into releasing a book, she says, “if you try to publish a book with a big [publishing] house, someone [will] find out who you are.”
Those who want to publish under a pseudonym generally tell their editors or agents. And they must use their real names when filing the book with the Library of Congress. Pen names are not recognized under copyright law.

Most authors who employ pen names do so with the intent of trying out different writing styles, while others hope to shelter their muse from the crush of celebrity. (Has anyone ever really respected a famous author’s privacy?)

Joyce Carol Oates, who has written a number of psychological suspense novels under the pseudonyms Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly, said in an e-mail to the Monitor that revealing a nom de plume without an author’s consent is usually an egregious breach of confidence. “The more people who know, the more they are likely to tell others, who don’t feel obliged to keep the secret,” said Ms. Oates.

As the Rowling case illustrates, the personality of the writer can sometimes fuel the success of a book more than its literary merit – although Robert Galbraith was selling about as well as Rowling in the early days of her authorship. Since its true-author revealing, “The Cuckoo’s Calling” has held its place at the top of bestseller lists, sold 1.1 million copies in all formats, and launched a movie-rights bidding war. Hardly a quiet debut.

Fame is a two-edged sword. Rowling’s preestablished brand may have given “The Cuckoo’s Calling” new life as her fans snatched it up, but that success came at the loss of honest market feedback and what may have been a series of engaging adult mysteries by a mysteriously reticent writer.

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