If you’re even somewhat conscious, it was hard to miss the recent J.K. Rowling pen name controversy. Lauded by some, lambasted by others, Rowling’s decision to do things a little differently became international news.
But here’s the really interesting part: what Rowling did wasn’t new. Writers have been using pen names for, well, forever. Secret pen names, open pen names, pen names for different genres, I’ve seen them all. Kristine Kathryn Rusch wrote about this topic in her July 17 blog, and she provides a very interesting perspective on the topic.
But as a publisher, I’m expected to have a certain reaction to Rowling’s use of a secret pen name. According to the media, and according to traditional publishing models, I’m supposed to be pissed. How dare she not use her name to line the pockets of her publisher? How dare she not milk her fame for every dime she can to sell as many books as humanly possible?
How dare she? Well, I’ll tell you. Because she can. She is the writer. Her publisher is making money from her skill, her creativity, her work. Now, don’t get me wrong. A lot of people put in a lot of time, skill, and creativity into taking a manuscript and turning it into a book. We don’t just sit around twiddling our thumbs all day and wait for the money to roll in. But the fact of the matter is, without the writer, we don’t have a business.
So my actual reaction to Rowling’s outing: Disappointment and admiration. Disappointment that her pen name was outed against her will. And admiration that she had the guts to create one in the first place.
You see, once you’ve reached the level of success Rowling has, there’s extreme pressure to keep churning out the same successful product. But in my experience, talented writers (and let’s face it, you’re not gaining that level of success without the talent to back it up) rarely have just one type of book in them. Writers’ brains are chaotic places where the possibilities are boundless. To confine them to one type of writing is like locking them in one room of a castle. Torture.
But for someone like Rowling, to break out of that box can be very hard to do publicly. But the unknown Robert Galbraith could write anything he wanted. And his book, the first in a series, was doing well. Not blockbuster well, but well. It was selling based on the writing, not the writer’s name.
I would have loved to have seen what would have happened to the series had the experiment continued down its intended course. I can lend supposition, but no one can say for sure.
But the vitriol with which some reacted to this news made me shake my head. As I said at the beginning of this post, pen names (secret or otherwise) are not new.
Here at WMG Publishing, we are no strangers to the concept. We publish works by authors under open and secret pen names. Heck, Kristine Kathryn Rusch alone has works published by WMG under her own name as well as open pen names Kristine Grayson, Kristine Dexter, Kris DeLake and Kris Nelscott. Dean Welsey Smith has works published by WMG under his own name and Dee W. Schofield. They both have secret pen names, too. Some I know, and many I don’t. Our Fiction River authors write under their own names, open pen names and secret pen names. But you’ll never get a secret pen name out of this former journalist.
Because the reason I’m a publisher is I love books. I love good writing. I’m not just selling widgets here. I’m selling genius. I’m selling imagination. Do I want to make money off of that genius and imagination? Well, duh. But is that the only driving force at work. Absolutely not. Maybe that makes me less of a salesperson. I’m okay with that. I’m an artist, too, you see. And the art comes first. So, if my writers want to experiment (like Kris did with giving Spree away one chapter at a time), I’ll give it a try. Writers and readers: They are what drive this business.
I’m just lucky enough to be able to make the introductions.
Allyson Longueira is the publisher and CEO of WMG Publishing. She is an award-winning writer, editor and designer.