The Debut Author Who Isn't a Debut Author

the dressmaker kate alcott patricia o'brienI was going through the new book releases recently and a book called The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott caught my eye. It has a lovely cover and then I noticed two things that interested me. First, it's a novel about the Titanic. I spent much of last fall wondering why I wasn't seeing more books about the Titanic in publisher catalogues (you all know it will be 100 years since it went down in April, right?). They are popping out of the woodwork now. The other thing that I noticed is that was by a debut author. I added it to my request list and didn't give it much more thought until I found it that the debut author? Is not a debut author. Kate Alcott is a nom de plume.

I was flipping through some of my feeds and my twitter stream late last night when I came across a link a link to a New York Times article, "Patricia O'Brien (as Kate Alcott) Sells The Dressmaker." O'Brien, who has published several other books, was racking up rejection after rejection when sending out The Dressmaker. She was being judged on past sales, which were not great. After being rejected by 12 publishing houses her agent suggested they shake things up a bit and submit it under a nom de plume. It sold to Doubleday in three days.

Nom de plume's aren't unknown in the publishing industry. My favourite is Nora Roberts. Nora Roberts is actually a pseudonym for Eleanor Marie Robertson. She switched to the shortened version of her name when she pitched to Silhouette after being rejected by Harlequin multiple times. She created yet another pseudonym when she wanted to move away from traditional romance novels to writing the more suspenseful novels that would become the "In Death" series. (It's always fun to watch people's reactions when they find out that JD Robb and Nora Roberts are the same person.) Meg Cabot, who publishes middle grade, young adult and adult novels has published under different names as well, including Jenny Carroll and Patricia Cabot. Even Mark Twain and Stephen King have used pen names.

But Roberts' publisher knew that JD Robb was a nom de plume. Patricia O'Brien/Kate Alcott's did not. According to the New York Times article it was only last fall, after the contract has been signed and the need for an author photo arose, that O'Brien's publisher found out. While her publisher claims to be just fine with it, you can't help but wonder what their immediate reaction to the news was -- no matter what they are publicly stating.

For me, it also raises questions about how books are really being judged. As Patricia O'Brien all the author got was a stack of refusals. As Kate Alcott not only did the book sell in three days but also sold the translation rights in five countries (a first for her) and she got a pretty decent advance.

I know that publishing is a business. I know that publishers need to be worried about sales. I know that good books get rejected all the time. At the same time, when I hear about stories like this I can't help but feel that sometimes we are judging the author's name, not the piece of writing. I am also kind of disturbed that even after Doubleday knew the author was not a debut author, the book was presented as such. Even Kirkus touted it as a debut.

I don't fault Patricia O'Brien. I'm sure I would have submitted under a nom de plume in her situation as well. She believed she had written a good book and based on how it was received by publishers after she stuck a new name on it, and the advance reviews I've read, she was probably right.

In our heavily connected internet world nom de plumes are harder and harder to conceal. We read author websites and twitter streams. We expect author events, be it in person or via skype. There are pictures and interviews and blogs. We expect to be able to see the authors we read.

While nom de plume's might be good for getting a previously published author through the slush pile, and away from BookScan, are they still sustainable once the book goes out into the world?