Why hide behind a pseudonym?

J.K. Rowling
J.K. Rowling

When you have a billion-dollar name, why hide it?

“Harry Potter” series author J.K. Rowling admitted she did just that this week, acknowledging she used the pen name of Robert Galbraith to write detective novel “The Cuckoo’s Calling.”

Readers scrambled to purchase the book, which shot up to first in Amazon’s online sales.

Rowling’s not the only person hesitating to take credit for work – others from big-name authors to Twitter parody accounts hide behind a pseudonym. 

Stephen King, outed as pseudonym Richard Bachman, told USA Today, “It’s an impossible secret to keep for long.”

Political-stat virtuoso Nate Silver first wrote under the name Poblano. And fans of Mayor Michael Bloomberg might know @ElBloombito, in real life a local writer, which mimicks the mayor’s press-conference Spanish.

Hiding behind a pseudonym  is a low-risk way to try something new, experts say.

“It’s impossible to separate her from Harry Potter, so in order to have that work taken seriously on its own, she had to become a different puppeteer,” says Michael Plugh, a Fordham University communications and media studies lecturer.

“It’s a clean slate,” adds Temple University psychology professor Frank Farley.

But what ultimately unmasks a pseudonym? Success, he suggests.

“They’re testing the waters, and therefore they want to do it in disguise,” he says. “Then if it works, they’ll yank the disguise and reveal themselves.”

Social-media pseudonyms

On a smaller scale, many tweet out clever – or scandalous – things from behind a Twitter alter ego.

Anonymity is the norm online, Farley notes.

“It’s almost a standard to not put your full name,” he says. “So we shouldn’t be surprised that we’re seeing that elsewhere.”

One parody account unmasked this week was @RuthBourdain, a combination of Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl and TV food host Anthony Bourdain with more than 60,000 followers.

Freelance writer Josh Friedland told The New York Times concealing his second virtual life became exhausting. Taking credit for the work would be nice, too, he added.

Still-cloaked parody writers might hope to perpetuate a spotlight on the jokes, not the person, Plugh says.

“As soon as you know who the puppeteer is, the puppet ceases to be the focus,” he says.

Follow Alison Bowen on Twitter @reporteralison


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