What’s in a name? How about best seller status.

JK Rowling has been casting some magic spells again.  And this one was called “Pseudonymicus Invisiblistus!”

Here’s the cliff notes version of what happened:

  • JK wrote a book called The Cuckoo’s Calling under the pseudonym, Robert Galbraith.
  • The book got good reviews, but sold about a half dozen copies.
  • JK was outed as the Author of The Cuckoo’s Calling.
  • The book skyrocketed onto the Best Seller list, and sold a gazillion copies.

Apparently JK isn’t so thrilled about it and has been pretty adamant that the pseudonym and her unmasking was not a marketing ploy.  My thoughts?  Well, she doesn’t need the money, so I’m sure she doesn’t care if the book sat in a discount rack, but her publishers sure do.  I bet they let her publish under the pseudonym because it’s what she wanted.  And if it sold, great!  If it didn’t, well, they could also let out her dirty little secret and poof!  Best  Sellerus Statustiki and Cash-in-the-Bankerumptus!

So apparently, in the publishing world, what’s in a name can mean the difference between what sells and what doesn’t.

But does it mean something for what gets bought, or in our case, produced?

This CNN article about what happened to JK also tells the tale of Chuck Ross, a man who 35 years ago experimented by purposely plagiarizing a best seller, put it under his own name, and then submitted it to 14 publishing houses, including the house that published that same best seller.

It was turned down by every single one!

Read about it here.

Could this happen in the theater world?  Do you think if Evita or A Little Night Music was submitted today under an unknown author’s name and got to some ignorant reader’s desk, that it would get rejected?  What about The Homecoming by Pinter, or All My Sons?  

Our world has so few “best sellers” compared to the Publishing Mecca, that there’s probably no way to ever truly test this out.

But this story did make me think about pseudonyms, which is something you never, really ever, see in the theater.  Why not?  Well, for one, we usually need every bit of marketing power we can get, so we’re going to squeeze whatever juice we can out of that name, even if it’s only where that person went to college so we can get an article in the local gazette.  And two, our world is just too small and too “in-person” to ever keep that kind of secret.

But could some folks benefit from a pseudonym?  Maybe.  What about the oft-maligned (and many times, unfairly so) Frank Wildhorn?  Would one of his musicals, that crushes it overseas, have a better critical shot if reviewers here didn’t know it was him?  What about Adam Rapp who was told publicly by Charles Isherwood that he had no shot at getting a good review from him, based solely on his name?

Not sure a playwright will ever do such a thing, which I talk about in a similar pseudonymical article here.  And that’s why in 2013, every author out there, whether you’ve had a hit on Broadway or whether you’re still dreaming about having a hit on Broadway, must build value into their name if they want a long and lustrous career.  You want your career like the Cheers song:  where everybody knows your name.

Because all of these stories prove one thing, whether we like it or not.  

Shakespeare was wrong.  And he knew it (which is why R&J ended in such a tragedy).  

Unfortunately, when you’re selling something, and not smelling something, a rose by any other name isn’t as sweet.


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  • Jeff says:

    The Anarchist sure wouldn’t have made it to the main stem. But I think general consensus is that Mamet has been running on fumes for a while now.

  • Lois says:

    There’s a story kicking around about George F. Walker’s 1981 play “Theatre of the Film Noir.” Story goes: critic Gina Mallet had always pilloried all of George F. Walker’s plays, so when Factory Theatre was prepping for the initial production they invented an elderly, forgotten Qubecois playwright and called Walker the translator. Mallet gave the play a glowing review. Maclean’s magazine broke the story of the fake, at which point Mallet claimed to have been in on it the whole time.

    I just heard this story for the first time last week second hand and have been attempting to verify it, but haven’t yet found the right people to ask. But I love the idea that in a pre-internet era it was easy enough to just invent a forgotten old playwright.

  • Paul Argentini says:

    My aphorism: Perservere and succeed or become wise. After sixty years I love to sign copies of my A MATTER OF LOVE IN DA BRONX. Patience is all no matter whose name is used.

  • Carl says:

    I believe there is also an anecdote out there about a guy who every year submits “Casablanca” to all the major motion picture studios under a different title. Nothing but rejections.

  • George Spelvin says:

    My wife, Georgina, and I see no inherent value in theatrical pseudonyms.

  • Samuel Clemens says:

    I, too, think pseudonyms are overrated.

  • Jane Martin says:

    It’s a hat-trick: why would any playwright need a pseudonym?

  • Helen says:

    I’d just like to add as an aside that for a unknown author not willing to do press, The Cuckoo’s calling sells were entirely admirable. Personally I’d have liked for the ‘outing’ to have been after the paperback had been out for a while to get a better picture of the overall success.

  • Re: The Casablanca story. I too had that happen to me, with a modernized version of “It Happened One Night.” I had a friend who worked in Columbia Studios, and I sent her that version, with the same titled as the 30’s film, she gave it to a reader friend and that reader called it silly and sophomoric. Except for changes to reflect the time, it was the same script. I hoped Columbia would remake it. (A Reboot, it would be called today.)

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