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Is JK Rowling's Gender-Bender Nom-De-Crime a Costly Own Goal?

09/07/2014 17:20 BST | Updated 08/09/2014 10:59 BST
Danny E. Martindale via Getty Images

The hottest ticket at next week's Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival at Harrogate will undoubtedly be Robert Galbraith, in her only promotional appearance for The Silkworm. I say her because, as you probably know, Robert Galbraith is the crime pen name of JK Rowling.

The Galbraith story hardly needs revisiting. The manuscript of the first book in the series was submitted to Hachette pseudononymously and accepted for publication. During the publication process reportedly only three people at the publisher knew Galbraith's real identity. The novel came out to good reviews and modest sales and it wasn't until a leak from an acquaintance of Rowling's lawyer that Galbraith's real identity became generally known.

Authors have a multitude reasons for using pen names; to distinguish between different styles or genres, make pronunciation easier or move themselves to the middle of the alphabet and hence the bookstore's shelves, or because, like Rowling, they want to be judged on their work not their celebrity. What's more interesting - and perhaps controversial - is the decision by some female crime writers to adopt gender neutral or men's names, like Rowling/Galbraith.

Rowling has been this way before. She famously unsexed her name for Harry Potter on the advice of her publisher, who felt that boys wouldn't read a book written by a woman. Of her latest decision Rowling says, 'I certainly wanted to take my writing persona as far away as possible from me, so a male pseudonym seemed a good idea.' She's reportedly said she was 'proud...that when I "unmasked" myself to my editor David Shelley...one of the first things he said was "I never would have thought a woman wrote that."' Precisely what Shelley meant by that isn't quite clear. When I asked Shelly to elaborate, he just said he was 'very convinced' by Rowling's male protagonist.

Maybe it's because there's a long history of women writing as men in order to gain readers (the Georges Eliot and Sand among others) that any discussion about women taking on gender swapping or gender neutral names sails rapidly into choppy waters. (Though, interestingly no such hysteria is voiced when male crime writers write as women). Nichi Hodgson writing recently in The New Statesman went so far as to question whether Rowling had 'betrayed women,' asserting, without offering any evidence, that 'it is male or androgynously-named authors that sell big in the crime genre.'

Let's unpick that a moment.

'The generally accepted wisdom is that male readers can be put off buying thrillers written by women,' says Sophie Orme, a senior editor at Pan Macmillan, a phenomenon which 'angers' bestselling (male) crime writer SJ Watson, among others. 80% of all crime readers are women, so even if it's true that some men are reluctant to try out a new female author, the sales effects will be on the margins. Not that margins, or male readers, aren't important; in an ever more competitive market they are, but they're also unlikely to convert a sluggish seller into an international publishing phenomenon. Says Harrogate cofounder and top literary agent, Jane Gregory, 'Women will read anything, but men want brand names and familiarity.'

In some dusty, antediluvian corners it's evident that naked chauvinism still exists. Distinguished crime writer NJ (Natasha) Cooper was asked by a male radio interviewer; 'Why would any man pick up a book by anyone with a name as silly as Natasha?' In a March 2013 survey The Guardian reported that male authors are wildly disproportionately reviewed in the mainstream press, but the connection between mainstream reviews and sales, always slender, is as thin as spider silk in the age of social media and Hodgson's assertion that men are the big sellers simply isn't backed up by the evidence. The biggest selling crime writer of all time is Agatha Christie.

But this old dog just doesn't want to die. Says SJ Watson: 'I decided to write under a gender-neutral name as I naively believed that it would make my decision to write from a female point of view a non-issue.' It didn't. In my own career, the decision to write crime fiction as MJ was purely practical, as a means to distinguish between my fiction and nonfiction. I have nonetheless found myself in the middle of in a tug-o-war with US publishers, who feel that MJ maximises sales and German and Nordic publishers who insist that Melanie does. Needless to say, Melanie/MJ doesn't give two hoots what anyone calls me so long as they enjoy my books.

One does have to wonder, sometimes, how much of what publishers think they know on this issue is either opinion or guesswork. For years Lee Child's publishers assumed his readers were overwhelmingly male, and when research confirmed the opposite the covers were hastily redesigned and the stable door shut, several decades after the horse had bolted. The 'silly-named' Natasha Cooper, who became NJ at the insistence of her publisher says, 'I'm not sure it make any difference at all - except causing problems on radio, when interviewers weren't sure how to address me.'

Publishers may actually have shot themselves in the foot, says Orme, 'by flooding the market with crime writers using their initials,' which readers can find difficult to remember. What matters now, apparently, is 'discoverability.' And that might come more easily from authors using their full names.

In any case, the worm may be turning. 'Female readers may question how well a man can write a female protagonist,' says Orme. Here's award-winning MR (Matthew) Hall: 'my publishers thought that as I was a man writing a female character, it would confuse my readers most of whom would be female.' For Martyn Waites the switch to writing (with his wife) as Tania Carver boosted both his profile and his sales. Indeed, Jane Gregory says she would actively advise her female crime writer clients against doing what JK Rowling has done. In general, women crime writers would do best to stick to female names. Indeed, Gregory would go so far as to encourage male clients to use gender neutral versions of their names. If Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were writing today he might sell better rebranded AC Doyle, or, even, Dame Martha. Now there's a thought.

See more by MJ McGrath at www.melaniemcgrath.com or follow her on twitter @mcgrathmj

The Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival takes place 17-20 July at The Old Swan Hotel, Harrogate. Melanie will be a tutor at the Festival's 'Creative Thursday' on 17 July - a day-long workshop for aspiring crime writers. For more visit: www.harrogateinternationalfestivals.com/crime/