Attempting to shirk the fame associated with her Harry Potter series, author J.K. Rowling used a nom de plume and once again became a first-time author.

Following the success of Harry Potter, one might expect that author J. K. Rowling would never see another rejection letter from a publisher. With reported earnings well over $1 billion—enough to buy any publishing house she desired—and sufficient fame to have any book she writes immediately published, Rowling instead decided to embark on an old challenge, perhaps one of the hardest in the literary world: getting published as a first-time novelist. 

Rowling tried to publish a novel outside of the Harry Potter universe using her own name in 2012. Casual Vacancies soared to the top of the fiction charts within its first week, selling more than 10 times as many copies as the second bestselling novel on the list. Yet critics credited this success to the name J. K. Rowling appearing on the front cover, not the quality of prose. 

Rowling didn’t disagree, and for her next novel, she wanted to avoid the inevitable bias her name would bring to the project. She created the pseudonym, Robert Galbraith, and sent the manuscript of her first crime novel, Cormoran Strike, to major publishing houses for consideration. One by one, the rejection letters came back to her. Even after a decade spent writing the most popular and best-selling fiction series in history, Rowling’s new work wasn’t universally embraced. 

Instead of being crushed, she welcomed her return to life outside the blinding spotlight of fame—she even found it liberating. “I was so thrilled with every rejection letter, you have no idea. It just felt so real, it was all about the writing,” she told The Guardian. Rowling had hoped to keep her true identity unknown throughout Galbraith’s entire Cormoran Strike series. She had even invented an in-depth backstory for Robert Galbraith: He worked in the civilian security industry but had an extensive military background, which gave him a reason to not provide an author photo or be seen in public. It also explained why Galbraith has such extensive knowledge about the operations of the Special Investigation Branch (detectives working for the British military police). In reality, Rowling had extensively interviewed ex-military personnel for “as long as they would let me bother them.” 

Prior to the invention of Galbraith, Rowling worked under a nom de plume. She had already doctored her given name, Joanne Rowling, when she first sold Harry Potter. Knowing that her target demographic for the series would be young boys, her publishers asked her to pick something more gender neutral. Since Rowling didn’t have a middle name, she borrowed the K from her grandmother’s name (Kathleen) and created the pen name, J. K. Rowling.

Rowling was in good company; many successful female authors have changed their names to help their writing career. Here are a few notable examples: 

Harper Lee, author of the 1960 classic To Kill A Mockingbird, was born Nelle Harper Lee. Despite the success of her debut novel, Lee didn’t publish another book until 2015 and she spent the majority of her life outside the public eye of fame.

Charlotte Brontë, most famous for her 1847 novel Jane Eyre, published under the name Currer Bell. Her sisters, Emily Brontë (author of Wuthering Heights) and Anne Brontë (author of Agnes Grey) also published their writing under male pen names Ellis Bell and Acton Bell, respectively.

Brontë Sisters

Louisa May Alcott, who published the delightful Little Women trilogy between 1868 and 1871 under her own name, also published under the name A.M. Barnard. Under the identity of Barnard, Alcott published novels about spies that dealt with more traditionally masculine themes such as revenge.

Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, one of the most prolific writers of the European Romantic era, published under the name George Sand. She critiqued the social norms of the time with her writing and public persona, frequently dressing as a man and being open about her many romantic affairs.

Mary Ann Evans had a well-established reputation for writing under her own name before she published her most famous work, Middlemarch under the name George Eliot in 1872. Evans had seen the stereotyping of female authors during her career and wanted to escape those along with the inherent limitations of her own well-defined career.

Women have long known that posturing as a man may result in their writing be taken more seriously. Publishers respond to male authors more regularly than female ones, and publishing agents may be more willing to sign on male authors. Consumers, even those who consider themselves progressive, might have a subconscious bias when purchasing certain books. 

While authors such as Rowling have benefited creatively from alternate, gender-neutral identities, performers regularly take on alter egos of the same gender to great effect. This technique is more recognizable with performance artists such as Beyoncé, whose alter ego Sasha Fierce takes control before she gets on stage, or Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, who is better known as her celebrity identity Lady Gaga.

But Rowling’s cover was blown three months after Galbraith’s first book, The Cuckoo’s Calling, was published. The crime novel had sold less than 2,000 copies during its first 12 weeks on shelves, but once Rowling was publicly outed as the author, the book hit No. 1 on Amazon’s sales chart. This success came at a bitter cost; Rowling would no longer be able to finish the crime series outside the spotlight of the world.

Although Rowling was disappointed that she was robbed of her anonymity before the series was finished, the author responded to the unmasking with her signature generosity and grace. Perhaps informed by her time working with Amnesty International, Rowling donated the worldwide royalties of The Cuckoo’s Calling to a British charity The Soldiers’ Charity. 

Since joining Twitter in 2009, Rowling has made herself accessible to fans and is well known for using the platform to speak her mind and offer witty clapbacks. Once fans discovered that Rowling had received rejections from publishers for her initial Galbraith manuscript, they took to Twitter pleading to share the letters. In response, Rowling shared a couple of rejection letters—not out of malice or spite for the publishers, but to encourage young writers. 

Rowling knew how hard it is to initially get published, and wanted to show that no matter how much success an author has, there will always be hardships and rejections. The only trick is to keep creating and submitting your work-it only takes one “yes” to get published. 

Grace Boyle is a writer for Rebel Girls, where she focuses on interviewing contemporary feminist artists and researching historical feminist leaders. Previously, she led the writing and content team at MentorBox as executive writer and editor, where she created educational content for world-class experts and thought leaders including New York Times bestsellers and Pulitzer Prize winners. Grace studied writing at the Ezra Pound Center for Literature and learned to interview at the Nationally Acclaimed Public Radio show New Dimensions Radio. She regularly consults with podcasts and businesses on brand narrative and communication strategy. Grace lives by the ocean in San Francisco and begins each day with a cup of tea and a text to her mom. You can find Grace on LinkedIn.