By now I’m sure you’ve heard the news about Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. In April she published a crime novel under the pen name Robert Galbraith. The Cuckoo’s Calling, a murder mystery featuring a private investigator named Cormoran Strike who attempts to solve the murder of a model, had reportedly sold 1,500 copies. When the novel’s true author was recently revealed, sales shot up.
Although some critics have given her (and her publisher) a hard time for making up a false biography to go with the pen name, I commend her decision. Pen names are sometimes necessary for readers to judge a work on its merits.
“I had hoped to keep this secret a little longer, because being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience,” Rowling told The Sunday Times of London. “It has been wonderful to publish without hype and expectation and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name.”
I know from experience that using a pen name is indeed liberating: I self-publish mystery novels under a different name. And the pen name has a long tradition in the literary world, with authors using them for various reasons. For example, the Bronte sisters—Charlotte, Emily, and Anne—revealed they’d published work under “brothers” Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Sometimes female authors use initials when writing male-oriented novels, such as thrillers. In fact, “J.K. Rowling” is a pen name. Joanne Rowling doesn’t have a middle name. The “K” stands for her grandmother’s first name, Kathleen. Rowling’s publishers expected that the book series’ target audience would be boys and figured they’d be more willing to read books written by a man.
Novelists choose to publish under pseudonyms to protect privacy, to avoid embarrassing family (especially if writing erotica), or to prevent confusion among fans when writing in widely different genres. I understand the impulse to publish under a different name. One reason I chose to do so was to experiment with self-publishing without the pressure of people who know me inquiring about my progress, sales, etc. I also use a different name because my “controversial” political and religious writings would bring out the haters.
People who don’t like me, or my views, and haven’t read the books might leave nasty, ad hominem reviews on Amazon.com. I’ve seen it happen. They’d review my conservatism or my Christianity, especially my opposition to the normalization of homosexuality, instead of the books.
Orson Scott Card, author of the science fiction novel Ender’s Game, is dealing with that right now. Card, a Mormon, is considered controversial by the mainstream because he believes the definition of marriage doesn’t include two people of the same sex. Ender’s Game, which I haven’t read, has been made into a movie, and the homosexual lobby plans to boycott it.
There are conservatives who publish under their own names, such as New York Times-bestseller thriller novelists Brad Thor and the late Vince Flynn. But at this point in my fledgling publishing venture I join the pen name tradition and cover myself with the cloak of pseudonymity.