Joe Klein had 6 million reasons (green in color) to release “Primary Colors” as Anonymous.
You may remember the brouhaha back in 1996, when his roman à clef (based on President Clinton’s 1992 presidential primary campaign) spent nine weeks at No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list. Not only did determining the author’s actual identity serve as an appetizer at inside-the-beltway dinner parties but, like St. Peter, Klein issued public denials (at least) three times.
On July 17, 1996, however, the jig was up. Klein was outed by Maureen Casey Owens, the expert in literary forensics who helped the FBI identify the Unabomber. The Washington Post hired her to compare handwritten corrections to an early manuscript of “Primary Colors” with samples of Klein’s handwriting.
In response, Klein called an immediate news conference and appeared before his peers sophomorically removing a pair of Groucho Marx glasses. His colleagues, though, remained unimpressed with his tepid mea culpa and questionable ethics.
Fast forward 17 years. According to Sarah Lyall of The New York Times, readers described “The Cuckoo’s Calling” as “complex, compelling and scintillating.” They also compared the author thought to be a former military police investigator named Robert Galbraith, to P.D. James, Ruth Rendell and Kate Atkinson. One even called the writing “almost too assured and sophisticated to be a first novel.”
As it turned out, not only wasn’t “The Cuckoo’s Calling” a first novel, but Robert Galbraith was a pseudonym adopted by J.K. Rowling, whose Harry Potter novels made her just another billionaire.
Rowling, who denies her pen name was a “marketing ploy by me, my publisher or agent,” was unmasked on July 14 by Richard Brooks, the arts editor at The Sunday Times of London.
Acting on an anonymous Twitter tip, Brooks discovered that not only did both “The Casual Vacancy” (Rowling’s 2012 novel for adults) and “The Cuckoo’s Calling” share the same agent, publisher and editor in Britain but, according to computer linguistic experts he employed, significant literary similarities.
Yet, why would someone whose writing life has been as transparent and whose work has been as enthusiastically anticipated as Rowling’s — not want to take advantage of her advantages?
“I had hoped to keep this secret a little longer,” she explained in a press statement, “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 under a different name.”
Rowling isn’t the first best-selling author to write under a nom de plume. Stephen King scribbled a couple of thrillers as Richard Bachman. Earl Stanley Gardner penned detective fiction as A.S. Fair. And, Nora Roberts dabbled in science fiction as J.D. Robb.
While Doris Lessing’s 1962 “The Golden Notebook” would sell 900,000 hardback copies and Lessing would win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007, the novels by her alter ego, Jane Sommers, were DOA. Yet, Lessing’s intention with Sommers was to make a point. “I wanted to highlight that whole dreadful process in book publishing that ‘nothing succeeds like success.’”
Today, with America’s up-and-coming generation proud to be bibliophobes — more than half will not read another book after college — publishers are even more reluctant to take a risk on untried writers.
Aping the mistakes of the music industry, the so-called “Big Six” New York publishers are resolutely engaged in deck-chair arranging instead of figuring out how to make money with e-books, which now constitute one-third of the market. Did I mention they cost virtually nothing to publish? Still, these guys keep the printing presses humming.
But just as nature abhors a vacuum, so does the economy. E-book distributors such as Kindle Direct Publishing or Smashwords, among others, have crafted a whole new future for self-published digital writers.
These e-book distributors invite anybody with a manuscript in an acceptable format to upload it for free — allowing the market to sort out the winners. Much depends, however, on how much of the marketing a writer is willing to do.
And marketing doesn’t have to mean a half page ad in The New York Times. E-book scribes have already earned big bucks from works priced well under $9.99 — a figure intended to undercut the Big Six. Some attribute their success to maintaining a Facebook page or posting daily on an author’s blog or to giving their books away (for a limited time) on sites like Pixel of Ink or Bookbub.
Keep in mind that publishers never advertise second-tier published authors. Their efforts must also be DIY.
While Klein figured out a way to engage the mainstream media into spreading the word about “Primary Colors,” I don’t believe Rowling is nearly as avaricious or ethically challenged. At least I hope not.
Harry would be so-o-o disappointed.