Why Do Authors Use Pseudonyms? - August 2017
By Nigel Cooper
Why Do Authors Use Pseudonyms? The question of why do author’s use pseudonyms is one that comes up quite a lot these days. The question was prompted even more when J.K. Rowling went with the pseudonym, Robert Galbraith, for her new Cormoran Strike private investigator series of novels. Going back further in time (1977), everybody knows that Stephen King went under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman. There was even an author photo of somebody else on the back of his Bachman novel, Thinner, a man who was in fact a Minnesota tire salesman, but Mr King said he had a great ‘look’ for an author. But, pseudonyms go back much further than this.
So, why do authors attribute certain works to a pen name?
There was a time when female writers believed that their gender prevented their works from being published, or taken seriously at all. If you go back to the 1840s, when the Brontë sisters (famous for Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, to name a few) were writing under the male pseudonyms: Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, this was a time in history when women authors were not perceived to have the same credibility that male authors had. Back then women were thought to be frivolous, frilly and dainty little creatures who had no real perception of the real world. Back then, women’s roles were that of mother, wife, housemaid, and little else. ‘Women, know your limits,’ as they would say in The Fast Show TV series sketch. It wasn’t uncommon for women authors of that period (and others) to use a male name to stand a better chance of being taken seriously by editors, publishers and others in the – then – male-dominated industry. In fact, during the 20th century, some European countries had laws in place that prevented women from earning money without the permission of their spouse. Two such examples are George Sand (Amandine Aurore Lucile Dupin de Francueil) and George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans). These days, things are quite different and today’s literary marketplace is open to authors of every gender and persuasion.
Stephen King wrote under the pen name Richard Bachman because publishers did not like authors writing more than one book per year. King wanted to write more, so he convinced his publisher, Signet Books, to let him write under a pseudonym. Back then, King was unsure of his talents as an author and wanted to know if his success was down to talent or pure luck. So he deliberately marketed the Bachman novels with as little marketing as possible. The Bachman book, Thinner (1984) sold 28,000 copies during its initial run. But when it was revealed that Bachman was, in fact, King, the book then sold ten times as many.
With crime novels, pseudonyms are used for a different reason. Both male and female writers often get pigeonholed into a particular literary domain. Stereotypically, women are expected to write soft romance novels, while the men write the fast paced thrillers.
J.K. Rowling appears just this way on the covers of the Harry Potter series to hide her gender. However, in Germany she is successful as Joanne K. Rowling, but this is because in Germany crime fiction is divided evenly between both genders. P.D. James (Phyllis Dorothy James) is another example.
These days, agents and publishers expect authors to stick with one general genre. This is another reason an author will write under a pen name if they switch genres, such as J.K. Rowling when she switched from the Harry Potter series to her Cormoran Strike private investigator series, the latter using the pen name Robert Galbraith.
Today there is a trend when using a pseudonym, to announce immediately (quite often on the book jacket itself) that the pseudonym belongs to Joe Bloggs, the actual author. Looking on the bookshelves at Waterstone’s and in supermarkets it is not unusual to see something like, ‘J.K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith’ on the cover. This is quite the opposite to what Stephen King did, he tried to keep his pseudonym Richard Bachman a secret.
There are several schools of thought as to why todays authors use pseudonyms. One such thought is that horror, crime and erotic genres are part of mainstream reading now – just look at the popularity of E.L. James’ (real name Erika Mitchell) Fifty Shades Of Grey. The stigma definitely is not what it used to be.
As I mentioned above, publishers don’t really like authors to mix up their brands as it makes things murky and complicated. By choosing a pseudonym to write in a different genre is a way of letting the reader know not to expect the same type of novel this time around. And by stating on the jacket cover, ‘J.K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith, for example, is a sure fire way to capture both audiences; J.K. fans and crime fans. In this instance, shoppers will think, ‘I don’t usually read crime, but I love J.K. Rowling, so I’ll buy it,’ or ‘I’m not a Harry Potter fan, but hey, this private detective character intrigues me, what the hell, I’ll buy it.’
Once upon a time, erotic novels were dirty smut, crime novels were cheap buy trash, while horror novels were only read by unhinged teenage boys. Today, there is no shame in any of these genres; on the contrary, crime is quite possibly the most popular selling genre in the world. And, I don’t need to tell you how popular Fifty Shades Of Grey proved to be, while some modern horror novels have proved hugely successful, especially those by a certain Mr King.