What drives authors like J.K. Rowling to use pseudonyms

The revelation that a debut detective novel named The Cuckoo’s Calling, purportedly penned by an ex-military man named Robert Galbraith, is actually the handiwork of Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, has left the literary world in a tizzy. The book, which follows the exploits of a war veteran turned private investigator named Cormoran Strike as he looks into the suicide of a troubled supermodel, received good reviews but sold a modest 1,500 copies before a Sunday Times investigation blew the lid off the story.

Rowling is by no means the first famous author to publish under a pseudonym. Years earlier, horror maestro Stephen King had been outed as Richard Bachman, the author of mildly popular novels such as Rage and The Running Man. For King, the alias was a way to test if his commercial success was due to his talent or plain luck, as well as a method to get more books out into the market, as his publishers believed that more than one book a year would dilute his brand. King kept up the deception for almost a decade, steadfastly denying any connection between him and Bachman, until a bookstore clerk definitely proved that Bachman and King were one and the same.

Pseudonyms have been used by authors for different reasons. The Bronte sisters published their famous works under male pen names- Ellis (Emily), Currer (Charlotte) and Acton (Anne) Bell- as women writers were not taken seriously in Victorian England. Pen names have also been used when authors want to write in a genre completely different from the one they have made their name in. Agatha Christie wrote romance novels under the name Mary Westmacott, vampire fiction writer Anne Rice became A.N. Roquelaure to write The Sleeping Beauty trilogy of erotic novels. Ashwin Sanghi, who published his first novel, The Rozabal Line, under the name Shawn Haigins, says about his decision to use a pseudonym, “By the time that I finished writing The Rozabal Line in 2006, I had already been in business for over 20 years. The decision to use a pen name was nothing more than a desire to compartmentalize my life so that my entrepreneurial dimension would remain distinct and separate from my literary one.”

For Rowling, it could have been a way to start afresh, after the middling, and sometimes harsh, reviews that her first book for adults, The Casual Vacancy, received. In a statement released by her publicist, she said, “It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation, and pure pleasure to get feedback from publishers and readers under a different name.” Sanghi adds, “I was not too sure about the sort of response that I would receive from readers and critics. Having another identity made one feel a tad safer... almost like adding another layer between the writer and the outside world.”

Software engineer Anushree Sridhar has a different point of view. “It could be a giant publicity stunt. Rowling has already shown herself to be a marketing genius, with the giant PR machine she had running before the release of each Harry Potter book. This could just be a way to drum up publicity for her new series.” Certainly, Rowling did not enjoy her anonymity for long: an anonymous tweet led to her unmasking just six weeks after the book was published. Also, the timing of the revelation, just before the paperback release of The Casual Vacancy, is suspect.

Whatever the motivation, Rowling’s decision paid off. Sales of the book shot up by almost 150,000 per cent after the news broke, propelling it to the top of the charts. A sequel is reportedly already in the works. The publicity is also good news for the publishing industry, reeling under the effects of underperforming book chains and self-published books stealing away readers and dollars. Most booksellers hope it will have a ripple effect across genres and motivate readers into picking up books by unknown authors.