This week it was revealed that J. K. Rowling, author of the much-loved Harry Potter series, released a new novel in April under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Unlike her previous adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, released in September of 2012 and described by The Guardian’s Theo Tait as a “solid, traditional and determinedly unadventurous English novel,” this new novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, was marketed as début crime fiction. The novel sold only 1,500 copies before the truth of its authorship was uncovered.
While Rowling has expressed disappointment over the speed with which her identity was unmasked, sales of The Cuckoo’s Calling have, unsurprisingly, sky-rocketed as a result. What some readers may not realize is that, in the context of the publishing world, Rowling’s use of a pseudonym isn’t terribly surprising. Many popular authors have employed similar tactics, often when writing in a new genre, perhaps hoping to avoid alienating existing fans while simultaneously attracting readers who wouldn’t normally pick up their work. A few of the most notable examples are Stephen King, who adopted the name Richard Bachman, Nora Roberts, who became J. D. Robb and Anne Rice, who has written erotic fiction under two pseudonyms, Anne Rampling and A. N. Roquelaure.
Once a pseudonym is revealed, sometimes through investigative work on the part of fans and/or journalists, sometimes by the author themselves, the false name is often maintained and can appear as almost a type of branding on book jackets, e.g. “Stephen King writing as Richard Bachman,” “Nora Roberts writing as J. D. Robb.” While there may be additional reasons, maintenance of the pseudonym in this fashion presumably warns readers that this book may be of a different style or genre than the author’s best-known titles, while still drawing the eye of established fans. Unfortunately for Rowling, although her novel had already received critical acclaim, the early discovery of Galbraith’s true identity may have precluded the solid establishment of an independent fanbase for Rowling’s crime fiction. While slow sales of The Cuckoo’s Calling are no longer a worry, the question remains, will Cuckoo’s newly-acquired readers respond with disappointment when they find the novel isn’t just Harry Potter and the Private Investigator? Sales of Cuckoo’s sequel, said to be due for release next year, may reveal the answer.