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Advantage: new authors

5 March 2012

This week's there's an interesting story from the US about writer Kate Alcott, whose first novel The Dressmaker has just sold 35,000 copies in hardback and been sold for translation in five countries. It seems explicable in terms of the subject-matter because The Dressmaker is about a seamstress who goes on board the Titanic as a lady's maid, is wooed by two men from opposite ends of the class spectrum and is eventually one of the last people to escape from the ship. Historical novels are popular these days and the Titanic story seems to have an enduring fascination.

But that's not the end of the story, because the book, actually written by author of five previous novels Patricia O'Brien, had already been submitted under her own name and rejected by thirteen publishers. When sent out by her agent, publishing veteran Esther Newberg, under a pseudonym, it sold within three days. Perhaps the name Kate suggests someone younger and livelier than Patricia, but the main reason is what in the UK used to be known as 'the curse of EPOS'. This stands for electronic point of sale and measures sales. What did for Patricia O'Brien's new manuscript was the fact that Nielsen BookscanUK bibliographic organisation, describing itself as 'the definitive retail monitoring service for books', which shows UK bestseller lists on its website. figures revealed that her last one, Harriet and Isabella, had sold only 4,000 copies. This track-record meant that any publisher would face an uphill battle to get her new book into the book trade. A first book by a new author, however, carries no such stigma and starts with a level playing-field.

"It meant that the story I had wanted to tell had sold," said Ms. O'Brien "My book wasn't getting a fair chance. And choosing a pen name gave it a fair chance."

There's an honourable tradition of using a pseudonym, usually but not always to disguise the author's sex. George Eliot did so and plenty of authors have written books under other names when they wanted to try something different, such as Stephen King with his Richard Bachman books.

Ms O'Brien, who has also written three nonfiction books, said she did what she had to do to get her book published at a time when publishers are being unusually cautious about which books they can invest in and how much they can pay as an advance. The rapid rise of e-books has thrown out the old rules of traditional publishing, and publishers have been more conservative with advances than in the past. "I have friends who are getting one-fifth of their last advance for new books," the author said.

It proved surprisingly easy for O'Brien to pass herself off as someone else, with a specially set up email address, and it helped that her editor hadn't met her. But the author photo proved a bit of a problem and an old fuzzy one just wouldn't do, so in the end the agent and author had to come clean. The publisher is quite happy though, they've just bought a second book under the new pseudonym. And Kate Alcott has sloughed off her former identity and taken on a new one, that of a new author with a fresh chance to find a new market.