WASHINGTON — 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. O’Brien’s longtime editor at Simon & Schuster passed on it, saying that her previous novel, “Harriett and Isabella,” hadn’t sold well enough.
One by one, 12 more publishing houses saw the novel. They all said no.
Just when O’Brien began to fear that “The Dressmaker” would be relegated to a bottom desk drawer like so many rejected novels, Newberg came up with a different proposal: Try to sell it under a pen name.
Written by Kate Alcott, the pseudonym O’Brien dreamed up, it sold in three days.
O’Brien and 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. It has been employed by writers from Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) to Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) to Stephen King (Richard Bachman).
“It meant that the story I had wanted to tell had sold,” said O’Brien, a chatty 70-something who wears her hair in a smooth brown bob, talking over a tray of herbal tea and lemon cookies this week in her spacious apartment in the Wyoming building in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood here. “My book wasn’t getting a fair chance. And choosing a pen name gave it a fair chance.”
The book, a story of a scrappy seamstress who survives the sinking of the Titanic, went on sale this week, ushered in by sparkling reviews — Kirkus said it had “an appealing, soulful freshness” — and with translation rights sold in five countries, something that had never happened to any of O’Brien’s books before.
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,” 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.
O’Brien, who has also written three nonfiction books, said she did what she had to do to get her book published in a time when publishers are being unusually cautious about which books they can invest in and how much they can pay in advances. 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,” O’Brien said.
There is a long history of employing pen names in publishing, for reasons both varied and simple. Some women have written under male names so that their work would be taken more seriously.
J.K. Rowling, who is known as Jo, created a gender-neutral version of her name so that boys would be more likely to read her books. Doris Lessing wrote two novels under the name Jane Somers — an experiment, she once said, in showcasing the problems that unknown writers face.
Some famous authors publish under pseudonyms so that they can get a fresh reading of their work. In 1987, Joyce Carol Oates released a book under the name Rosamond Smith but apologized and swore off pseudonyms when her publisher discovered what she had done.
Doubleday executives said they were unruffled when they discovered that Kate Alcott was really Patricia O’Brien.
After the 13 rejections last year 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,” 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.”
Keeping up her identity as Kate Alcott required a bit of deception on O’Brien’s part. She created a new email address for corresponding with Danaczko. She was spare with her biographical details, telling Danaczko only that she lived in Washington, had four children and used to be a newspaper reporter — all true. And even after the book contract was signed, the two had never met.
Even though O’Brien briefly worried that Doubleday would cancel the book, Newberg finally told them that Kate Alcott was O’Brien. A new publicity photo was taken, and O’Brien came to New York to meet her editor for the first time over lunch.
“It was an interesting twist, but it didn’t affect the way I felt about Pat,” said Danaczko, who just bought another novel by O’Brien. “During the editorial process, I became incredibly fond of Kate Alcott.”