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Why Do So Many Authors Use Initials Instead of Their First Name on Book Covers?

why did J.K. Rowling use initials instead of full name?Author initials. A.A. Milne. G.K. Chesterton. E.E. Cummings. E.B. White. C.S. Lewis. J.R.R. Tolkien. P.D. James. J.M. Barrie. H.L. Mencken. E.L. Doctorow. B.F. Skinner. T.S. Eliot. W.H. Auden. M.K. Gilroy. What’s with that? Why do so many authors use initials instead of their first name?

I’m guessing F. Scott Fitzgerald never forgave his parents for naming him Francis. But he could have gone with Frank.

When my first novel, Cuts Like a Knife, was introduced, my sister Susan asked me, “What’s with the initials on the cover of the book instead of using your full name?”

My first response was it seemed to have worked out fine for Joanne Rowling—and no, no one has been able to confirm whether her middle name is Kathleen or Katherine. (Do you know why?)

That raises a much bigger question than why I went with M.K. rather than Mark. Why did Joanne become J.K.? To my knowledge she’s never answered that question directly.

When I headed up marketing for a publishing group early in my career we made cover decisions on the basis of the old advertising rule that females will relate almost equally well to a picture of a female or a male—but generally speaking, males relate almost exclusively to a picture of a male.

I’m not claiming that rule is still true, but I suspect there’s significant truth to it. I just can’t prove it. If someone can point to research on the topic, please message me!

I have to assume that J.K. used initials to make her author name gender neutral, which makes sense for the launch of a series categorized as children’s literature.

Is that the same reason why I went with M.K. instead of Mark?

I’ll make a confession. I originally wrote the novel under a female pen name and attempted to sell it that way as an agent. After all, my lead character is a female. I got a lot of interest but to my surprise there was near universal resistance to buying a novel by a pseudonymous author – which I thought would be a marketing benefit. I wonder if Nora Roberts had a hard time convincing her agent and publisher to introduce a mystery series under the name J.D. Robb? (Hmmm. There are those initials again.) On the gender switch, Rowling got “outed” pretty quickly when she wrote as Robert Galbraith for The Cuckoo’s Calling.

But back to the question. Why initials on my book cover? Was it because M.K. is more gender neutral than Mark or is it because M.K. Gilroy fits easier on one line than Mark Gilroy – a decision based on style?

The former. It was a marketing decision. My guess is that is the same reason many authors use initials.

But there is another reason I went by M.K. instead of Mark. And maybe I’m not alone.

My Kristen Conner series was acquired by Jeana Ledbetter who let me know a pen name wasn’t in the cards. But then she said, “But we do think ‘M.K.’ sounds kind of cool.”

Cool. I liked the sound of that. Is it possible J.R.R. Tolkien was showing off by adding three initials to his book covers? His friend and contemporary C.S. Lewis was satisfied with just two.

I’ve always wanted to be kind of cool—so there you have it. Mystery solved. Now you know why so many authors use initials instead of full first name.  We want to be cool!

Bestselling Books of 2012

2012 was a good year to sell books as an author if your last name was James or Collins.

The January 4, 2012, online of edition of Publishers Weekly provided a chart with three bestseller lists, all dominated at the top by Fifty Shades of Grey (E.L. James) and The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins).

Bestselling Books of 2012
Nielsen Bookscan Top 20
Amazon Kindle Top 20
Amazon Print Top 20
1. Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James (Vintage)
1. Fifty Shades of Greyby E.L. James (Vintage)
1. Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James (Vintage)
2. Fifty Shades Darker by E.L. James (Vintage)
2. Fifty Shades Darkerby E.L. James (Vintage)
2. Fifty Shades Darker by E.L. James (Vintage)
3. Fifty Shades Freed by E.L. James (Vintage)
3. Fifty Shades Freed by E.L. James (Vintage)
3. Fifty Shades Freed by E.L. James (Vintage)
4. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic)1
4. The Hunger Gamesby Suzanne Collins (Scholastic)
4. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic)
5. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic)
5. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic)
5. StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath (Gallup Press)
6. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic)
6. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic)
6. Fifty Shades Trilogy Box Set by E.L. James (Vintage)
7. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Third Wheel by Jeff Kinney (Amulet Books)
7. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Crown)
7. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic)
8. No Easy Day by Mark Owen (Dutton)
8. The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic)
8. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic)
9. Killing Kennedy by Bill O’Reilly (Henry Holt)
9. Bared to You by Sylvia Day (Berkley)
9. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Third Wheel by Jeff Kinney (Amulet Books)
10. Fifty Shades Trilogy Box Set by E.L. James (Vintage)
10. The Racketeer by John Grisham (Doubleday)
10. No Easy Day by Mark Owen (Dutton)
11. Killing Lincoln by Bill O’Reilly (Henry Holt)
11. Reflected in You by Sylvia Day (Berkley)
11. The Hunger Games Trilogy Box Set by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic)
12. Jesus Calling by Sarah Young (Thomas Nelson)
12. The Lucky One by Nicholas Sparks (Grand Central)
12. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Crown)
13. The Mark of Athena by Rick Riordan (Hyperion)
13. Defending Jacob by William Landay (Delacorte)
13. The Mark of Athena by Rick Riordan (Hyperion)
14. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Crown)
14. War Brides by Helen Bryan (AmazonEncore)
14. The Official SAT Study Guide, 2nd Edition by the College Board (The College Board)
15. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic)2
15. A Game of Thronesby George R.R. Martin (Bantam)
15. A Song of Fire and Ice, Books 1–4 by George R.R. Martin (Bantam)
16. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic)3
16. The Innocent by David Baldacci (Grand Central)
16. Killing Kennedy by Bill O’Reilly (Henry Holt)
17. The Hunger Games Triology Box Set by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic)
17. No Easy Day by Mark Owen (Dutton)
17. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (Amer. Psychological Assn.)
18. The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling (Little, Brown)
18. A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin (Bantam)
18. Killing Lincoln by Bill O’Reilly (Henry Holt)
19. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever by Jeff Kinney (Amulet Books)
19. 11/22/63 by Stephen King (Scribner)
19. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand (Random House)
20. The Racketeer by John Grisham (Doubleday)
20. The Help by Kathryn Stockett (Berkley)
20. Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander (Simon & Schuster)
Nielsen/BookScan (week ending Dec. 30, 2012)
Amazon Kindle (as of Dec. 31, 2012)
Amazon (as of Dec. 31, 2012)