In April 2013, an ex-military policeman, Robert Galbraith, published his debut crime novel, The Cuckoo's Calling. Though critically-acclaimed, according to the New Statesman it only sold a little more than 1,500 copies. Then something spectacular happened.
Richard Brooks, the Sunday Times' arts editor was of the opinion that the quality of the writing was too good to be that of a new author. Later, a columnist at the Sunday Times received a tip-off that the book had actually been written by JK Rowling; and finally JK Rowling admitted that it was indeed her work. Rowling told the Sunday Times, "I hoped to keep this secret a little longer because being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience. It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation, and pure pleasure to get feedback from publishers and readers under a different name."
Before this news broke, according to an article in the New Statesman, The Cuckoo's Calling was ranked #4,709 at Amazon. Within a couple of days, it had hit the top of the charts at #1, and journalists have been falling over themselves to write-up this extraordinary event. Again by the New Statesman's reckoning, at the time it hit the #3 slot at Amazon, the book had made a 150,000% "increase in sales over just one day."
Doris Lessing's experiment
As Joan Smith pointed out in the Guardian's Comment Is Free, in an article entitled JK Rowling's book ruse is a cautionary tale for unknown writers, JK Rowling isn't the first to have adopted another pen name after achieving success, however. Doris Lessing famously did the same thing in the early 1980s – though in sharp contrast, when her ruse was discovered, her pseudonymous novel did not turn into a major bestseller. For the detailed story, see the article Doris Lessing Says She Used Pen Name to Show New Writers' Difficulties in The New York Times. By the way, there was also another fascinating piece in The Guardian about the use of pseudonyms, if you're interested, entitled From the Brontë sisters to JK Rowling, a potted history of pen names.
Doris Lessing's best known novel The Golden Notebook, published in 1962, sold no fewer than 900,000 copies in hardback. As well as receiving literary awards, in 2005 it was chosen by Time magazine as one of the top 100 novels published since the magazine was founded in 1923.
In 1982, Mrs Lessing attempted to publish two novels – The Diary of a Good Neighbour and If the Old Could – under the pseudonym Jane Somers. This was an experiment that Mrs Lessing had been planning for years, in order to show the difficulties that new, unknown authors faced. Her UK publisher, Jonathan Cape, turned down the first book, The Diary of a Good Neighbour. According to Jonathan Clowes, Mrs Lessing's literary agent: "Jonathan Cape said it was a pretty good book, but it wasn't commercially viable", whilst Granada who also declined, stated that it was "too depressing to publish."
However, the works were accepted by Michael Joseph in the UK and Alfred Knopf in the USA, both publishers being privy to Mrs Lessing's secret experiment.
Mrs Lessing later combined both novels into one volume and published them under her own name and with the title The Diaries of Jane Somers. In the preface she explained that "I wanted to highlight that whole dreadful process in book publishing that 'nothing succeeds like success'. If the books had come out in my name, they would have sold a lot of copies and reviewers would have said, 'Oh, Doris Lessing, how wonderful.' As it is, there were almost no reviews, and the books sold about 1,500 copies here and scarcely 3,000 copies each in the United States."
That, then, is an answer to the question "What's in a name?" The difference between fries and baked beans in The Greasy Diner and a three course lunch at the Savoy. A helluva lot.
A sad indictment of [traditional] publishing
I have a great admiration for JK Rowling, not least for the way she rose to success from a difficult life as a single parent, and also for inspiring a whole generation not only of readers but would-be writers and also many who are still struggling to get by in this oft-mad world. I was not at all thrilled by the way in which critics jumped on the anti-bandwagon to slate JK Rowling's The Casual Vacancy, and I wish her continued success.
Nevertheless, as Joan Smith writes in the Guardian's Comment Is Free, "JK Rowling's book ruse is a cautionary tale for unknown writers. The Cuckoo's Calling became an instant bestseller once the Rowling brand emerged – a sad indictment of [traditional] publishing."
• By Etienne de L'Amour ~ Google+
• Image of JK Rowling by Drew Angerer. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
• Image of Doris Lessing by Elke Wetzig (elya). Source: Wikimedia Commons.