Friday, July 19, 2013

Competent Work in Quiet

So, suppose you are a bestselling author, and not just a bestselling author but a blockbuster author whose name on a book creates explosive sales. You are, however, essentially typecast as an author of a certain kind of book, the kind that made you unbelievably famous, and whenever you try to branch out, people buy your books because of your name, but you are savaged by critics and reviewers. So what do you do? You submit a work under a pseudonym, in a different genre. It takes some time to get it accepted, because it doesn't come with that magic name, but when it finally is, it turns out to be a modest success. It doesn't have the explosive sales that you could get with your real name on the cover, but the sales are solid, being exactly what you'd expect of a book successful in an ordinary way in that genre, and, what is more, the reviews are actually quite good. Your plan is working: you are showing that you have actual writing chops that people will find at least respectable in their own right, that it is not merely the fluke of having become unbelievably famous with your first books, and that much of that critical savaging was nothing more than people trying to make a name as a critic at the expense of an author of name, rather than a genuine indictment of your abilities. But it eventually leaks out that Robert Galbraith, up and coming mystery author with a very promising first novel in the field and another book already sold, is J. K. Rowling. (It's happened before; Stephen King famously published for years under the name Richard Bachmann, and was also a mid-level success as such. Once it came out that Bachmann was King, Bachmann's sales exploded, because King as King had a massively larger market, but Bachmann's sales were already brisk and increasing. The Bachmann name, like the Galbraith name for Rowling, gave King a chance to play around a bit with new things without any of the hype or expectation.)

I've always thought Rowling, despite the defects of some of her work (they are, after all, early novels, however famous they became, and after the first, novels published under extraordinary pressure), was not quite given a fair shake as an author in some quarters, but this whole thing makes me like her even more: there is something very heartening about a blockbuster novelist deliberately not using her name just so she can try her hand at doing some competent work in quiet.


  1. Enbrethiliel3:55 AM


    I think this story would have been more interesting if she had waited longer to reveal who Robert Galbraith was. Now we'll never know how successful "he" could have been on his own--or (which would be more fun) how many of "his" fans would innocently compare "his" style to hers! And I confess that I side a bit with the sources from whom I first heard this story, who think J.K. Rowling revealed the truth so prematurely only because sales were disappointing and she wanted to make some bigger bucks.

    The most interesting angle I've read comes courtesy of some women book bloggers who are upset that Rowling chose a man's name the second time around. They say it was bad enough that she and her publisher agreed to change "Joanne Rowling" to "J.K. Rowling" all those years ago because they didn't think boys would read a book written by a woman; and now the implication seems to be that grown men (and other women?) will not buy serious Mysteries written by a woman. Of course, the irony is that the books are selling better now that we know they were written by a specific woman.

    Anyway, I agree with you, Brandon, that the Harry Potter books are quite rough--some glaringly so--and I'd go as far as to say that if they are the only novels Rowling ever writes in the MG/YA genre, she will become as "niche" in about three generations as Edgar Rice Burroughs is today. (Or am I wrong about Burroughs?) I recall her saying several years ago that she didn't plan to write other books under the name "J.K. Rowling" because she didn't want the rest of her work to be in Harry Potter's shadow; so I was a little disappointed when The Casual Vacancy came out under that name. Knowing that she did do something else as Robert Galbraith is indeed heartening; but as I've said, I think she jumped the gun on the big reveal.

  2. Enbrethiliel4:02 AM


    Okay, I just read the latest article on the story, which I should have done BEFORE posting my comment, and it turns out that Rowling's cover was blown by a gossipy tweeter. And she is even more disappointed and upset than a disinterested observer like myself could ever be!

    So just disregard about 80% of my first comment, Brandon!

  3. branemrys6:51 PM

    I had a similar first reaction, I think, so you're not alone! I think you're probably right about Rowling and the likelihood that she will be niche if she doesn't have real success moving out. Burroughs is probably a good example, if she's fortunate -- steady niche market, with very small revivals -- although if the Harry Potter books don't age well, her fate may be more like some of the more faded old Stratemeyer Syndicate series (Rover Boys, Motor Boys, Betty Gordon) -- many of which were hugely popular but now hardly remembered.

    I find all the gender politics about author names to be weird; but I do wonder why Rowling picked a male pseudonym.


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