In case you haven’t heard, J.K. Rowling has been unmasked as the true identity behind “Robert Galbraith,” a Little Brown author who recently released a detective novel to mostly positive reviews. The news is being hailed far and wide as the greatest literary coup since Stephen King took up the pen name “Richard Bachman” back in the 80s. But there’s an important question no one is asking: Is this kind of thing actually ethical?
Because to me it stinks to high heaven.
Not the use of a pen name, mind you. Let me state at the outset that I am all for the use of pen names. If an author has a reason to stay incognito, power to them. We’ve covered that topic here. But when the publisher goes so far as to fabricate an author bio in order to lend credibility to an unknown author, I have to admit that as a reader, I’m a little miffed. Here is what Little Brown says about Mr. Galbraith while pitching his book on their site:
“A remarkable debut…” (LIE)
“Robert Galbraith is married with two sons. (LIE) After several years with the Royal Military Police (LIE), he was attached to the SIB (Special Investigation Branch) (LIE), the plain-clothes branch of the RMP. He left the military in 2003 (LIE) and has been working since then in the civilian security industry. (LIE) The idea for protagonist Cormoran Strike grew directly out of his own experiences and those of his military friends who have returned to the civilian world. (LIE) Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym. (TRUE! But all the lies above kind of lead us to believe the pseudonym is simply a necessity in Galbraith’s line of work, so… LIE!)
Did the fabrications accomplish what Little Brown wanted it to? Sure. Getting reviewed as a “major new talent,” or having your work praised as an “auspicious-” or “stellar-” or “remarkably mature debut” is a heckuvalot better than getting reviews that say, “J.K. Rowling seems to have righted the ship after her last non-Harry Potter project, which actually had a lot of her fans quite worried.” But it’s patently dishonest. Fiction is what’s inside the book. We expect the packaging and the credentials on the outside to represent the publisher’s best, but honest, effort to get us to buy what’s inside. Lying to me about the author’s background so that I’m more likely to pick up the book, is two or three kinds of shady.
After all, where do we draw the line? Can a publisher pull non-existent blurbs out of thin air to sway potential readers? Can they throw “New York Times Bestseller” on the cover if it will help them sell copies? How about an Oprah’s Book Club seal? Or “Winner of the Man-Booker Prize?” Made-up snippets from national media outlets? Or outlets that sound like national media authorities?
I’m happy the Rowling’s written a great book, but as long she uses snake oil salesmen to hawk it, I’m not buying.