The Storyteller , which arrives in stores this week, is an engaging, funny novel about an aspiring author named Steven (with a V, so as not to be confused with that guy who wrote The Shining ) King, who inherits a friend’s manuscripts, retypes them and publishes them under yet another pseudonym-to huge professional success and even greater guilt. Both a light thriller and an affectionate send-up of the publishing business, it is edited by Jason Kaufman, Doubleday’s man of the moment thanks to the surprise success of The Da Vinci Code , another book he edited. The Storyteller got a positive review in Publishers Weekly , a blurb from best-selling In the Cut author Susanna Moore, and a healthy 25,000-copy first printing. The author, however, is someone nobody ever heard of, or at least not under this name: Arthur Reid, the flap copy tells us, is the nom de plume for a long-time publishing executive.
Even before Vanity Fair ‘s Elissa Schappell revealed the shocking news that Arthur Reid is really publishing insider Howard Kaminsky and his wife, Susan Kaminsky (a former Dutton editor), I’d guessed the secret: You only have to look at the front of the galley or the published book to read the copyright line that gives their actual names. Still, I thought, what a clever idea: to publish a book about an author who uses a pseudonym-not to mention somebody else’s work in the first place-under a pseudonym. How funny. How, well, how meta.
Interestingly, though, when I spoke to Messrs. Kaufman and Kaminsky, the joke-on-a-joke idea was not the first thing they mentioned. Neither did they opine, like my friend Stanley Bing (himself the pseudonymous author of the forthcoming novel You Look Nice Today and the essay collection The Big Bing ), about how writing under a pen name can be freeing to the author. Nobody said anything about wanting to protect the “real people” who might appear in the book. (“None of them is really modeled on any one person in publishing,” Mr. Kaminsky said.) No. Instead, Mr. Kaufman took a straight business approach and pointed out that “booksellers are under intense pressure to pick the winners, and sometimes all they have to go on is a previous track record.” The Kaminskys have written before, you see, sometimes under the name Brooks Stanwood (an amalgamation of family names: Mr. Kaminsky is a cousin of the comedian Mel Brooks, Stanwood is Ms. Kaminsky’s maiden name). Their horror titles-one is called The Glow -“like many other people’s, didn’t get a lot of attention,” Mr. Kaufman says. “But this is really different [from their previous work]. We thought it would have a better chance under a nom de plume.”
There’s nothing new, of course, about familiar names writing under fake ones. The real Stephen King publishes, best-sellingly, as Richard Bachman; Ruth Rendell writes as Barbara Vine; this fall, Putnam will release Remember When , a “collaboration” between best-selling juggernaut Nora Roberts and her alter ego, J.D. Robb. But as publishing becomes more competitive, it must, apparently, begin to compete with itself. And one way to do that is to create something-or someone-new. Never mind that there are huge risks, especially when it comes to publicity and promotion-a conundrum illustrated brilliantly in Scott Spencer’s 1996 novel Men in Black , about a literary writer who hits it big with an embarrassing, pseudonymous sci-fi tale and now has to travel the country as a person who doesn’t exist. “We were going to work around it,” says Doubleday publicist Rachel Pace, by booking mostly radio shows. Besides, “you don’t really do much touring with novels anyway,” Mr. Kaminsky says. (The Kaminskys, by the way, have just been booked on Charlie Rose .)
Me, I’m getting the feeling that the strategy all along was to let the “secret” leak out. There’s that copyright line, and the fact that The Storyteller is dedicated to, among others, “Victoria and Si”-obviously Newhouse, who perhaps not so coincidentally own Vanity Fair , which first outed the Kaminskys. (Call this a full-disclosure moment: I too collect a Newhousean check at Glamour .) And why not? Publishing’s job, these days, is to create buzz, and a pseudonym is one way to interest people like me in writing stories like this.
Or, as Stanley Bing put it, “I’ve been discovered, busted, revealed and investigated more than a dozen times …. I always encourage it, because it gives the subject more interest than it deserves.”