Patricia O’Brien had five novels to her name when her agent, Esther Newberg, set out last year to shop her sixth one, a work of historical fiction called “The Dressmaker.”
A cascade of painful rejections began. Ms. O’Brien’s longtime editor at Simon & Schuster passed on it, saying that her previous novel, “Harriet and Isabella,” hadn’t sold well enough.
One by one, 12 more publishing houses saw the novel. They all said no.
Just when Ms. O’Brien began to fear that “The Dressmaker” would be relegated to a bottom desk drawer like so many rejected novels, Ms. Newberg came up with a different proposal: Try to sell it under a pen name.
Written by Kate Alcott, the pseudonym Ms. O’Brien dreamed up, it sold in three days.
Ms. O’Brien and Ms. Newberg had cannily circumvented what many authors see as a modern publishing scourge — Nielsen BookScan, the subscription service that tracks book sales and is at the fingertips of every agent, editor and publisher — with a centuries-old trick, the nom de plume.
. . . .
Doubleday has 35,000 copies in print after two printings, said Todd Doughty, a spokesman for the publisher. That gives “The Dressmaker” a major head start over “Harriet and Isabella,” Ms. O’Brien’s previous novel, which was considered a flop. It has sold 4,000 copies, according to BookScan, which tracks about 75 percent of retail sales of print books.
. . . .
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,” Ms. O’Brien said.
. . . .
After the 13 rejections last year Ms. Newberg sent the manuscript bearing Kate Alcott’s name to Melissa Danaczko, an editor at Doubleday, part of Random House.
“I realized that the book was not being judged on its merits,” Ms. Newberg said. “It was being judged on how many books she has sold. I needed somebody who couldn’t look on BookScan. And no, I didn’t feel guilty at all.”
Ms. Danaczko, 28, who said she had seen the 1997 movie “Titanic” perhaps a dozen times, instantly loved Ms O’Brien’s dramatic retelling of the disaster and its aftermath. But when she was piqued by curiosity about her unknown author and typed “Kate Alcott” into Google, nothing significant popped up.
“I guess I hadn’t really thought about the possibility that she might be working under a pen name,” Ms. Danaczko said. “I was operating under the assumption that she was somebody Esther had pulled from the slush pile or was an old friend.”