Robert Galbraith, or, why pseudonyms are awesome

Posted on July 14, 2013

So, over the weekend, we all learned that JK Rowling had a new book out — and, in fact, that book had been out for some time. The world’s most famous author had slipped a detective novel onto the market without anyone knowing, by using a pseudonym, “Robert Galbraith.” And apparently a lot of people are slightly weirded out by that?


Now, I’ve only seen secondhand reports of people being actually put out or angry by the fact that JKR released a novel under another name, and I can’t imagine what anyone’s reason for that would be. (Unless maybe your name actually is Robert Galbraith, in which case it’s going to be harder to sort through your Google results from now on, but this seems unlikely to be a common objection.) But a lot of people expressed some confusion about why JKR would do such a thing – and, as an author who uses a pseudonym, I even got some questions about why I (or anyone) would publish a book under another name.

My situation is about as different from Rowling’s as it gets. She adopted a pseudonym later specifically so that she could release a book without the inevitable attention/hoopla/reaction that would come with her name. I used one from the get-go, having neither then nor now any reason to expect similar hoopla. Rowling’s “Galbraith” pseudonym came complete with a false bio — which is a tad unusual, but probably was adopted to deepen the disguise. I’ve never created any fictional history or personality for “Claudia Gray.” And while Rowling and her publisher kept her secret for some months, my pseud has always been very open, with my real name either on the dust jacket or on the copyright page.

(Yet I’d rather not be called by my real name at events. I know people mean well, and it’s flattering that they’ve looked it up, but “Claudia Gray” is the name I chose to be known as, as a writer. It’s the name that belongs with my books and stories, and I prefer it that way.)

Why a pseudonym? For me, in all honesty, the answer is, “I thought it would be fun.” And it IS. From the time I learned, as a child, that some people wrote books under other names, I thought that sounded cool and wanted to give it a try if I ever got the chance. I got the chance; I gave it a try; and I like it. All of us should get the chance to rename ourselves at some point in our lives. It’s a strangely empowering thing to do. That said, using a pseud has had other benefits as well, ones I didn’t predict back when I took the name. For instance, it helps me to be able to keep separate Facebook pages, email accounts, etc., associated with each name. Those of you who read my books are interested in a very different kind of information about my life than, say, my old college roommates. Maybe more significantly, it’s always helped me maintain a sense of balance about sales, reviews, etc., whether bad or good. When people talk about “Claudia Gray,” I know they are pretty much only talking about what I’ve written, about who I am as a professional writer. For me, at least, that’s always been a source of balance.

As for J.K. Rowling, I say good for her, both for using the pseudonym in the first place — putting her book out there the way she wanted — and for letting the truth be known when THE CUCKOO’S CALLING had trouble finding an audience despite glowing reviews.* The hard cold fact is that great books sometimes fail to reach the readers they need in order to prosper. Now hundreds of thousands of people are going to read her latest novel. If there’s an author on earth who wouldn’t tell so simple a truth to make sure their book did well out there, I would be extremely surprised.

A lot of people seem to assume that the use of a pseudonym is a sign of shame about your real life (WTF? No.), or proof that you have something disquieting to hide (not so much), or in some other way a hugely secretive act. Honestly, really, it’s not. For some authors it’s a marketing choice — whether to separate work in different genres, to set yourself apart from bad past sales, or, like J.K. Rowling, to let your work succeed or fail on its own merits. And for other authors — like me — it’s just plain fun.

Do you feel differently about a book knowing that the author wrote under a pseudonym? If so, why?

* Yes, I think Rowling, perhaps at the behest of her publisher, chose for the real identity of “Robert Galbraith” to be leaked. While JKR herself may never need to make another dime of profit from publishing, her publisher took a risk on the book; her editor worked hard on it; her publicists did their job; and all those people’s fortunes rise or fall on the success of the book as well. Ensuring the book does as well as it can would be, for Rowling, about respecting her colleagues’ efforts. 

3 Responses to “Robert Galbraith, or, why pseudonyms are awesome”

  1. Kimberley S

    So I’m pretty much just copy and pasting everything I just tweeted you – mostly because I’m lazy, but also because I’m at work.

    Just for the record, I’ve come across a few authors who write under pseudonyms and it doesn’t make me think of them any differently, just sparks my curiosity about dealing with two different lifestyles.

    I’ve always been curious about how they’re picked and whether it’s tricky to step into this other persona? I know you said you’re happy with the name you’ve created for fans to address you by, so I guess that answers part of my curiosity. But, and this might be the stupidest or weirdest question, do you ever forget to answer to certain names, or are you always tuned into both sides of yourself? No trouble with split personality or signing “Claudia Gray” on cheques? How hard is it to maintain the separate sides of yourself?

    Sorry…that’s actually a bit more than Twitter, but I really do wonder these things sometimes. Thanks for saying you’d try answering for me 🙂


    • claudia

      These are great, Kim! OK, let’s get started:

      1) In my case at least, there’s no question of different “lifestyles” or “personas.” My personality is very, very much what you get via Twitter and Tumblr. (Yes, I am that obsessed with James McAvoy. If anything, I’m restraining myself a bit there.) So I don’t feel like there’s anything extra/artificial to step into. Really the only thing is that, of course, when I’m presenting myself as an author, like anyone else I try to behave sort of, kind of, professionally. But I don’t think that’s any more inauthentic or hard to remember than, say, not wearing pajamas to the office.

      2) No, I never forget my name/s. It would be pretty hard to disengage yourself from your real name, I’d think. As for “Claudia Gray,” that’s no different than a well-liked nickname. And I’ve never mistakenly signed Claudia Gray where I meant to sign my real name, though every once in a great while I will slip up and do the reverse. (But it’s truly rare: I’m not sure I’ve done it more than three times, total.)

      3) I really don’t have to maintain separate sides of myself. Like I said, what you see is what you get with “Claudia Gray.” It’s not a role I’m playing, a secret identity a la Clark Kent/Superman, although that would indeed be cool if I had the superpowers to back it up. It’s just a name for my writer self, that’s all. 🙂

      Thanks so much for asking!

      • Kimberley S

        That clears up a lot. I guess it would be pretty hard to separate yourself so drastically, but I have always wondered if that sort of process or divide happens.

        I’m glad we’re getting to see *you* and not just the side you’re showing for “Claudia Gray” because I like what you share (I don’t have tumblr myself, but I’ll admit to stalking your James McAvoy posts…and others)

        Thanks again for feeding my curiosity!