The new novel Altar of Bones, written by a famous author under a pseudonym, has attracted a lot of speculation. John O'Connell looks at the various reasons well-known writers choose to publish books under other names
Travel on the underground in London at the moment and you can't avoid posters advertising a novel called Altar of Bones. The book's jacket image (a large key, lots of skulls) is a fair indication of what lies within: a preposterous but gripping post-Da Vinci Code conspiracy thriller about a shrine in a Siberian cave which has the power to bestow eternal youth. Its author: Philip Carter.
Philip Carter, however, is a pseudonym. And while there is nothing particularly unusual about this, what is interesting in this case is that Carter is what the publicity blurb calls an "internationally renowned" thriller writer who does not want his true identity to be revealed.
Massive interest in the book at the manuscript stage resulted in an auction where publishers bid frenziedly against one another. In the end, Simon & Schuster triumphed, paying a "healthy" (read enormous) sum for Altar of Bones and a second book to be published next year.
Carter's editor, Maxine Hitchcock, insists that even at this stage no one at the company knew who the writer really was. "We were told at the time of submission by the agent that the author was well known and already published, but that the agent wasn't revealing his or her identity at that moment. While it got tongues wagging and increased the intrigue, it didn't influence us one way or the other in terms of making an offer. It was the plot, the tension, the suspense and the drama that had us hooked."
The author could have been any number of people and Hitchcock says some big names were bandied about, including Stephen King and Dan Brown himself. "What was possibly the most interesting part was the speculation over the author's gender," she says. "People were convinced they could tell just by certain scenes whether the author was a man or a woman, although interestingly opinions were divided straight down the middle." Altar of Bones is pacey and compelling, an excellent example of its genre, and I believe Hitchcock when she says she would have bought the book regardless and that the "author's identity is irrelevant". At the same time, an author's identity can be allowed to remain irrelevant nowadays only if the ultimate goal is to create a brand more powerful than that author.
Nothing facilitates this goal like a nom de plume. After all, it can be anything you like, and fine-tuned to reflect a book's style and subject matter. Would HarperCollins's Sam Bourne thrillers have been anything like as successful if they'd been published under the name of their author, the Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland? No, because "Bourne" has been chosen to evoke Robert Ludlum's Jason Bourne novels, to which Freedland is paying obvious homage.
The nom de plume has been with us as long as writing itself. Think of Mark Twain (actually Samuel Clemens), Lewis Carroll (the mathematician Charles Dodgson) and George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans). The Brontë sisters published poetry pseudonymously because they feared it would not be taken seriously otherwise - "authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice".
Joe Klein was an established political writer when he published Primary Colours as Anonymous. The initials of SE Hinton, the author of The Outsiders, stood for Susan Eloise. Would boys have been less inclined to read her teen-gang classic had they known it was written by a woman? Bloomsbury was not taking any chances. When it signed up Joanne Rowling and her funny little books about a boy wizard, they insisted she become JK Rowling for maximum gender inclusiveness. You can't say it didn't work.
The phenomenon of established authors using pseudonyms to publish different sorts of books from the ones they became famous for is also well known. The Lucky Jim author Kingsley Amis wrote the first non-Ian Fleming James Bond novel, Colonel Sun, as Robert Markham. Ruth Rendell created the alter ego Barbara Vine (derived from her own middle name and her grandmother's maiden name) to distinguish the Inspector Wexford crime procedurals, for which she was largely known, from her more Gothic, psychological thrillers such as A Fatal Inversion and A Dark-Adapted Eye.
Iain Banks has long published science fiction novels under the name Iain M Banks. Stephen King started using the nom de plume Richard Bachman in the late 1970s, partly because he wanted to publish more than one book a year and feared over-saturating the market, and partly to prove to himself that his success was a result of talent rather than luck.
Often, when an already-successful "literary" writer publishes under a different name, it's because he wants to slum it for cash as a genre writer. Years ago, Julian Barnes interspersed his "proper" novels with hard-boiled thrillers by one Dan Kavanagh - a moniker arrived at by conjoining the names of his editor Dan Franklin and late wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh. John Banville has an ongoing sideline penning crime novels as Benjamin Black.
That Banville's Black books are reviewed as respectfully as his literary novels is a measure of how far old genre snobberies have been eroded. As the journalist Stephanie Merritt, who writes successful historical thrillers as SJ Parris, has observed, pseudonyms are now adopted not because a writer is embarrassed by books he may have written for the money, but because he wants to carve out a distinct identity for them.
Of her own thrillers, Merritt wrote: "They felt so new and different in flavour that I wanted to give them a chance to make their own way in the world, free of any expectations created by the books I had written previously." Her pseudonym was intended not to mask her identity but to signal to prospective readers that if they liked books by the non-pseudonymous CJ Samson, then they might like hers too.
Underpinning this, of course, is the desire to make some money. As the literary agent Antony Topping of Greene & Heaton observes, the use of pseudonyms by the already famous "could be because the Bookscan figures for their real, famous names aren't all that they might be, in the context of trying to jump into a more populist genre where the publisher is hoping for the book to be picked up in a big way by WH Smith and the supermarkets. Also, the trade loves a debut and is sometimes inclined to give more visibility to a new name than a tested name".
Who, then, is the author of Altar of Bones? My guess is Harlan Coben. For one thing, Philip Carter thanks Coben's agent Aaron Priest at the start. For another, the phrase "tell no one" - the title of Coben's most famous book - has been worked into the back-cover blurb. This last detail, obviously, suggests that Simon & Schuster know a good deal more than they are letting on. But if they do, and they surely must, who can blame them for trying to create an air of mystery? As Hitchcock says: "In this day and age, with so much competition from all media, not just other books, it's important to stand out, to get noticed and to get people talking."