What's in a (pen) name?


J.K. Rowling does press for The Casual Vacancy, a novel published under her real name, in 2012. (Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press)

First aired on Q (17/07/13)


In a 2001 interview with the BBC, British author J. K. Rowling called writing under a pseudonym "appealing," but went on to suggest that her chances of getting away with it were "incredibly remote." But she did get away with it -- at least for a time. Recently Rowling was outed as the real author of the thriller The Cuckoo's Calling, which was published under the pen name Robert Galbraith. It had only sold 1,500 copies before her authorship was revealed, but is now on its way to becoming a bestseller.

After that story broke, fellow U.K. novelist Anna Maxted, who also chose to write under a nom de plume, published a defence of the pen name in The Telegraph. Maxted explained her stand in a recent interview on Q.

Maxted said she was pleased when she heard that Rowling was behind The Cuckoo's Calling. "I was very excited. I just thought how lovely. I like thrillers, and I like J. K. Rowling, so what could be better?" She acknowledged that she hadn't heard of the book, or of Robert Galbraith, before the news came out. "I think the simple truth is that unknown writers, debut authors, don't get as much publicity as sometimes they deserve... even if they've written a great book."

Maxted wrote five books under her own name, before switching to the pseudonym Sasha Blake. Why the change? "There were a few reasons. The books I had written previously were quite intimate books," she said. As an example, she cited her debut novel Getting Over It, in which her heroine's father dies at the beginning of the story. "And the book is, even though it's a romantic comedy, at the same time it does investigate her reaction to that grief."

Maxted decided she wanted to write a different kind of book. "The thing is, I know that as a reader as well as a writer, once you are accustomed to a certain type of book being written by an author, you don't react very well to buying a book and having it be something completely different. We're quite rigid in our expectations of authors." So she came up with Sasha Blake, "who was somewhat more racy than I was. "

Though Maxted published under her pen name in Britain, her American publishers didn't want her to use a pseudonym, so they published the same novel under her real name. "People in America were not happy, on the whole, not because it was a bad book, but because it was an unexpected book," Maxted said. "They were hoping for something different, they were hoping for the kind of book they had always received from me. So this was a nasty shock."

Maxted acknowledged that using a pen name can allow an established writer to avoid the pressure of delivering a particular product. She points to the reception of Rowling's first novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy. "It's perfectly fine for people not to like it because that's not their kind of book and they didn't like the way it was written or they didn't like the storyline or whatever," she said. "But I think there was also quite a bit of condemnation purely because they were accustomed to ...that very cosy world [in Harry Potter] she had created and this was completely different. "

On the other hand, using a pen name hurts sales. Crime writer Ian Rankin lamented on Twitter that "a debut novelist garnering good quotes from famed author for the cover, plus good reviews, can expect to only sell a few hundred copies." Maxted agreed, saying, "It is a great shame. The trouble is publishing at the moment is very tough... I think that publishers are having to publish fewer books, so they have shorter lists. And essentially they are businesses and they have to ensure above all they turn a profit. You can understand that, pressing as it is, they prefer to bank on safe names rather than take a risk on somebody unknown."

Maxted believes that readers will often opt for the "safe names" they're accustomed to rather than trying a book by an author they don't know. And they don't always welcome the fact that authors can write in different styles or genres. In fact, she said, it can feel like "a betrayal."

When asked if she feels that she's betraying readers by writing as Sasha Blake, Maxted laughed. "I certainly felt like I'd betrayed the readers who bought the book expecting a typical Anna Maxted and got a Sasha Blake. I feel quite ashamed about that, because my other books were very, I suppose, emotionally literate but they weren't explicit. And these books were explicit.," she said. "So it was sort of like shocking your grandmother, really. I felt bad about that."

Related links: