February 27, 2012

The advantages for a writer of not being yourself


When a novelist is published for the first time their potential is limitless. They could be a bestseller, a literary sensation, a genius. But the moment the reviews have run and the sales figures come back, that potential has vanished, possibly forever. That writer now is on the record and has a reputation (good, bad, or middling) that will dramatically impact the response to their later work. If they flopped or bombed, they’re stuck with that for life.

Unless they change their identity.

For years, I’ve argued it makes sense for authors with poor sales or bad reviews to “start over” and try to publish under a pseudonym. So I was pleased and intrigued last week to read that my strategy was actually employed:

As reported in The New York Times, when novelist Patricia O’Brien‘s sixth novel The Dressmaker was rejected by her publisher Simon & Schuster and 12 other publishers based on the poor Nielson BookScan sales of her previous novel, O’Brien and her agent Esther Newberg began to shop the novel around under the pen name Kate Alcott.

“I realized that the book was not being judged on its merits,” Ms. Newberg said. “It was being judged on how many books she has sold. I needed somebody who couldn’t look on BookScan. And no, I didn’t feel guilty at all.”

Armed with a new name, new email address, and no Google footprint at all, O’Brien sold The Dressmaker to Doubleday in three days for a respectable high five-figure advance. There are now 35,000 copies of the book in print and international rights have been sold to five countries. ”Ms. O’Brien” writes The Times, “had cannily circumvented what many authors see as a modern publishing scourge — Nielsen BookScan, the subscription service that tracks book sales and is at the fingertips of every agent, editor and publisher.”

Reading this article, I can’t help but think that this publishing story might become increasingly commonplace—not just in publishing, but in the world at large. Authors with mediocre sales vastly outnumber those with good sales. Any of these writers, even if they can publish under their own name, might be better off pretending they are someone new.

More generally speaking, in the 21st-century people’s biography and history is easily attainable on an unprecedented level. Controlling one’s identity and privacy becomes increasingly difficult, and just one negative detail could become a lifelong obstacle. In ten years will the current teenagers of the internet feel comfortable with their Google footprint? The web is like a digital tattoo, and there’s no guarantee that the data surrounding your identity will help you fulfill your dreams. The easiest solution: become someone new.

Naturally, this all starts to lead into legal issues. When does self-misrepresentation become fraud? When O’Brien’s identity was revealed, her editor and publish seemed nonplussed. On the other end of the spectrum, the bizarre “J.T. LeRoyhoax saga led to the fictional character’s creator, Laura Alpert, being convicted of fraud.

Still, as the internet simultaneously makes identities more public and makes new identities more easy to fabricate, I can’t help but think that identity manipulation will become an increasingly common practice.

For those who want some assistance with the process, The Fake Name Generator will give not only a new name, but an email, Social Security number, and fake home address.