J.K. Rowling As “Robert Galbraith”: Is it Consumer Fraud?

The Truth is Preferable to CuckooRecent reports indicate that J.K. Rowling took what she has previously called the less “brave” route by publishing her second post-Harry Potter novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, under a completely different identity: Robert Galbraith, ex-military officer.

 The author’s biography for The Cuckoo’s Calling reveals that “Robert Galbraith” is a pseudonym, but such a disclaimer does not give the author and the publisher a free pass to make up “facts” about the author’s life. The biography states:

 After several years with the Royal Military Police, Robert Galbraith was attached to the SIB (Special Investigative Branch), the plain-clothes branch of the RMP. He left the military in 2003 and has been working since then in the civilian security industry. The idea for Cormoran Strike grew directly out of his own experiences and those of his military friends who returned to the civilian world. ‘Robert Galbraith’ is a pseudonym. (emphasis added).

 The only truthful sentence in that entire biography is the last one: “‘Robert Galbraith’ is a pseudonym.” Rowling and her publisher, Little, Brown, and Company, seem to think that the word “pseudonym” encompasses an entirely fictitious life and not just a fictitious name adopted by a real author.

Obviously, J.K. Rowling couldn’t have used her real biography under an assumed name, but she also did not have to be so adamant — and specific — about her fake identity’s military experience, and she certainly didn’t need to falsely assert that the novel was based on real events by claiming “The idea for Cormoran Strike grew directly out of [Galbraith’s] own experiences.” As far as I know, Rowling has no direct military experience from which “the idea” could have “[grown] directly.”

 We don’t expect a fictional novel to be real between the covers, but we do expect the text on the front and back to reflect the truth about the book’s origin. There are several factors readers weigh when deciding whether to purchase a novel, and the author’s biography is often one of them. I think we can all agree that authors shouldn’t masquerade as ex-military officers to sell books, even someone as beloved as the author behind Harry Potter.

 While Rowling’s deception isn’t as extensive as James Frey’s exaggerated “memoir” A Million Little Pieces, Rowling published under more than a false name; she concocted a false identity that might have encouraged some readers to purchase the book when they otherwise might have chosen something written by an actual military officer (and it isn’t enough to say the majority probably would’ve bought it anyway just because the author turned out to be J.K. Rowling; this is an issue of reliance on the individual level). I’m left wondering whether Rowling’s false biography is consumer fraud, possibly violating any number of consumer protection laws in the United States (where this novel has been sold).

Various states have their own consumer protection laws, but, to keep it simple, let’s just consider the federal Lanham Act. To establish a false advertising claim under the Lanham Act, a plaintiff must prove:

  • 1) that the defendant has made false or misleading statements as to his own product [or another’s];
  • 2) that there is actual deception or at least a tendency to deceive a substantial portion of the intended audience;
  • 3) that the deception is material in that it is likely to influence purchasing decisions;
  • 4) that the advertised goods traveled in interstate commerce; and
  • 5) that there is a likelihood of injury to the plaintiff in terms of declining sales [if competitor], loss of good will, etc.

Pernod Ricard USA, LLC v. Bacardi U.S.A., Inc., 653 F.3d 241, 248 (3d Cir. 2011). The Galbraith biography was obviously false or misleading. Did it also create “a tendency to deceive a substantial portion of the intended audience” that was “likely to influence purchasing decisions”? I think there’s enough there for a jury to consider the issue: after all, it seems the whole purpose for the fake biography loaded with specific fake details was to deceive the intended audience into buying the book. Why else would they do it?

Regardless of whether Rowling and her publisher will be (or should be) held liable, it’s deeply unsettling that the publishing industry thinks it’s okay to mislead readers so blatantly. As a former Headmaster of Hogwarts once said, “the truth is generally preferable to lies (The Goblet of Fire, page 722).”

57 thoughts on “J.K. Rowling As “Robert Galbraith”: Is it Consumer Fraud?

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  6. I actually reported JK Rowling to Trading standards over this matter.

    They said that as not many copies had been sold before the truth was revealed and they had not had any other complaints a prosecution would not be in the pubic interest.

    They stated if the information was used in any advertising then the ASA could get involved.

    I informed her publicists of this and they said if I had bought an early copy without knowing the biography was false the publishers were willing to provide a full refund.

    1. renu

      According to the Fraud Act 2006 s1 to s3, it is fraudulent to mislead others for personal gain.

      It’s not about how many books were sold, it’s about the principle. A burglar would be prosecuted for breaking into just one house. There should be one rule for all. Besides, she sold 8,500 prior to being unmasked, which is a lot more than “not many,” especially as new successful authors often only sell a few thousand of their first book. However, she will never be charged on account of her fame and popularity.

      http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2006/35/section/1 (fraud act link)
      http://ind.pn/1c26tR0 (volume sold link)

      1. NN

        She hadn’t really “gained,” though, had she, by saying that she was some she was not? Everyone knew that by pretending to be someone she was not, she was going to decrease sales, so she did not “mislead others for personal gain” at all.

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  10. I never really though about this. I mean, I saw that this was her using a pen name – which I actually like. I follow authors and if they’re changing genre I appreciate that they’re doing it as someone else. But thinking about it after reading what you’ve written – I do think it’s fraudulent posing as someone else (either in person or through a biography).

    1. I also like it when authors use pseudonyms to differentiate between genres, but a fake biography crosses the line. Rowling did not have to have such a blatantly dishonest one, stating that the idea for the book grew “directly out of [Galbraith’s] own experiences.” I wonder whether this marketing practice is a common one for her publisher, Little Brown’s Mullholland Books, or whether they made an exception for Rowling by allowing/encouraging her to do something that is clearly unethical and possibly illegal. I’m now suspicious of everything that comes from that publisher.

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  12. If this is consumer fraud, it’s a case for Lionel Hutz. The idea, suggested in a few comments here, that a false name is OK but a false bio is not, is something out of Alice in Wondeland.

    This is not a legal issue, it’s a cultural issue How good your book is does not matter if you have a famous name. That is scary, and I’m not even an author.

    1. What’s wrong with a false name? Impersonating another person–if I published as J.K. Rowling (for example)–wouldn’t be okay, but simply choosing a name different from the one on your birth certificate isn’t a problem, particularly if you’re honest that it’s a pseudonym. Rowling made it clear in the bio that “Robert Galbraith” is a pseudonym, but gave no indication that everything else in the bio is false. That’s what makes the bio misleading and potentially consumer fraud.

  13. How funny. I didn’t realize you wrote about this there days before I did. 🙂

    I was unaware of the fake bio. That does run me the wrong way. I wonder if that was her idea, or the publisher? Either way, I would assume she approved. Disappointing.

  14. Jaclyn

    Fascinating post! I have to say, I think it’s a really interesting question, whether the fictional biography amounts to consumer fraud under the law, but I believe the fifth element is missing and/or impossible to prove. What’s the harm to the plaintiff? If it’s an individual, yes, they’re out the cost of the book, but that’s de minimis anyway and now they have a cool collector’s item that’s probably worth more than the sticker price. (And even if the publisher had to reimburse those 1500 people, they’ll make those reimbursements back in half a moment with the book on top of the bestseller lists and selling out everywhere now.) And if it’s a bookseller, I don’t think they’re harmed – even if a few people return the book and ask for their money back, the books are going like hotcakes. It’s a neat question to pose, but I just can’t come up with a plaintiff who could prove harm and make it stand up in court. (It is extremely shady, however, and I agree with you that it’s a big matter for concern that the publisher evidently endorses the fictional biography approach. That’s pretty unethical, no matter what.)

    1. Hi Jaclyn! I don’t think there’s such a thing as “de minimis” damages in consumer protection law; the false advertising laws are designed to protect purchasers and most won’t have damages beyond the cost of the item they were misled into buying. In the James Frey example, both he and the publisher were the defendants in a class action, which settled, and the plaintiffs received refunds. You’re right that the cost of the refunds for a portion of the buyers and the legal fees didn’t outweigh the profit, even for Frey. With bestsellers like “The Cuckoo’s Calling” and “A Million Little Pieces,” deceptive marketing might be worth it, and I think that’s sad. For other authors, particularly those who can’t afford the legal fees, it would be a bigger problem.

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  16. Hmms this is a really interesting debate..I understand her wanting to publish under another name in the hopes that it will be judged more fairly and not be compared to her previous work..but the fake bio does upset me and I think it is cheeky of her to pretend experiences she doesn’t have!

    1. Yeah, the fake bio is what really crosses the line. JK Rowling shouldn’t get special treatment (being allowed to publish under a fake identity) just because of who she is. I can’t believe she did that.

  17. Great post. I am definitely not one of the people that will go rush to buy “Rowling'” new book. I used to work at a bookstore, and a few of the employees bought the only four copies received, and now view it as a collectible edition. I am not one of those people. It is really like James Frey and Pittacus Lore. He screwed up, yes with his memoir, that was initially pitched as fiction, btw. Rowling doesn’t need to hide, nor stir up this kind of debate. I am starting to respect her less.

    -indiereadergirl

    indiewritergirl0329.wordpress.com

    1. Thanks! Yes, it is like Frey (I’m not familiar with his works under a pseudonym). He might have pitched A Million Little Pieces as fiction, but that’s not the way it was sold. As for Rowling, I will always love her as the author of Harry Potter, but I am disappointed that she would perpetrate such a hoax on her readers. It’s fine to write under a pseudonym, but not under a completely false identity.

      Thanks for the comment!

    1. That’s how I feel, too. The pseudonym is fine, but the fake biography is not. I really hope this isn’t what that publisher does with all of its authors. Should we believe any of the bios that come out of Little Brown? It’s a problem.

    1. Yes, the whole thing smells like a marketing ploy. An anonymous tweet? Yeah, right. Otherwise, the Sunday Times seems to have based its investigation on its assumption that an ex-military officer can’t write, and viola, that “officer” turns out to be J.K. Rowling! It’s like magic, with the publisher hoping that their “hands” are quicker than our eyes. I’m less annoyed by this marketing “trick” than by the deceptive bio. How would people feel if I published a crime novel and claimed that it developed from my experiences with the FBI? Following Rowling’s example, authors can claim any experiences they want in their bio. The bio isn’t supposed to be the fictional part of the book!

      I’ve wondered if the “Galbraith” novel will increase in price. Right now, it’s $9.99 for the ebook on Amazon, which is a slight decrease in price from yesterday.

      1. renu

        It has since been revealed that a partner at a law firm revealed the identity to his wife’s friend. J.K. Rowling received substantial damages as a result, which she donated to charity. I have added the link below as an update.

        http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-23515054

        I do however believe that it’s important to keep raising the issue as there should be one justice and law for all.

  18. Yeah, a little more than weirded out about making up such a grand bio hoax. And what good did it do them in the end? People still know who actually wrote the book.

    It does make me wonder, however, about how it might be to enjoy that much success with your first series vs. modest success first and substantial success later on. Either way, maybe she should just embrace her fame and name and go for it with new books. *shrug*

    1. Hi Jae! It can’t be easy to follow the Harry Potter books, but I hardly feel sorry for Rowling. The mixed reception for her more recent novels isn’t so bad. Most writers would feel very lucky to have even that type of response.

  19. I don’t think it matters at all and I don’t find it unethical. I highly doubt that someone bought the book purely on the basis of the author’s background. They will have bought the book because the story was interesting and critically acclaimed. The story is the content of the product, not the background of the author.

    1. Maybe you don’t buy books based at least in part on the author’s bio, but I do. It’s going to differ from person to person, and the author’s bio is part of the marketing. Otherwise, why bother to put the author’s bio on the book anyway? I expect the content of the story to be fiction, but not the author’s background. Would it be okay for me to write a crime novel and claim its drawn directly from my experience in the FBI’s behavioral science unit? I don’t think so, and that’s essentially what Rowling did. She doesn’t get special treatment because she’s J.K. Rowling. It’s not only unethical, but also possibly illegal.

  20. So true. I’d only read the part about her having written under a pseudonym, not the made-up bio. that’s just bizarre. And, yes, I agree that creating a false identity is just wrong. Writers who are established in a particular genre commonly write under pseudonyms if they try a different genre. But making up a whole false identity? Not cool, man. Not cool.

    1. It’s such a terrible example for Rowling to set. I can understand why she wrote under a pseudonym, particularly after her experience with “A Casual Vacancy,” but the fake identity really crosses the line. The publishing industry shouldn’t allow it. The readers of “The Cuckoo’s Calling” might not care because it’s Rowling, but what if it had turned out to be James Frey pretending to have British military experience? In Rowling’s case, the money she and the publisher will make from the increased sales due to the “Galbraith hoax” would probably make any lawsuit on behalf of deceived readers (if there are any; I don’t think the book sold all that well under Galbraith’s name) just part of the cost of doing business. That’s sad.

      1. At this point, I don’t think money is an issue for Rowling. It’s not like she needs or wants to make more. She would just like to write quietly and have the book judged on its own merits. I get that. But for the publishers to knowingly publish a false bio is wrong. Patently, simply, clearly wrong.

        1. I agree that it’s wrong, and it will probably make both the publisher and Rowling (whether that’s a motivating factor for her or not) a lot of money. The book has already become a bestseller, and controversy has a tendency to result in profit.

  21. I very much understand her desire to publish under a different name, especially because she’s writing in such a different genre. On that point, I think most people agree. But I am incredibly surprised that her publisher even allowed her to create a phony background and one that claimed achievements that she doesn’t have. I’m with the other commenters – it’s just strange.

    1. I understand her desire to write under a pseudonym, too. It’s the fake identity behind the pseudonym that crosses the line. It’s a terrible example for Rowling to set.

    1. Yes, it’s very strange. The story I read earlier today focused on the pseudonym part and briefly mentioned that the publisher had described “Galbraith as an ex-military man.” So, I decided to check out the bio on Amazon and thought it unethical at a minimum and possibly even illegal. I don’t know if anyone who bought the book felt misled, but it’s a terrible example Rowling has set. Authors can’t make up their bios.

  22. I agree, it is weird. And also it is most definitely unethical. A pseudonym is fine, of course, but the fake bio is not okay. I don’t know about it being lawsuit material, but it certainly puts her in a bad light, for me. And I think it’s worse because she is such a big name. She should be a better example. Also, I’m sure more people will notice this lie since she is so well known.

    I rarely read author bios or try to find out anything about an author unless I love a book and want to know who wrote it, and then usually just so I can find more of their work. I find it preferable to know less about them, actually. I mean, when you like a book, then you learn that the author is a jerk or a bigot or a racist or something, what do you do? You can’t buy any more books they’ve written. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss.

    1. Yes, there are definitely some authors I wish I knew less about! That’s a subject I discussed in my last post (if I had time to see movies that weren’t animated kiddie films, I’d probably skip over Ender’s Game). I read bios before I purchase books because I like to know something about the author’s perspective. Most bios included by the publisher are pretty bland, but they sometimes include an interesting fact that might be just what I’m looking for to click “Buy Now.” Thanks for the comment!

  23. Writing under a different name is one thing. But a fake identity just seems to stretch it a bit too much. Yes, it is imaginative, but also very misleading. I’m still not sure how I feel about it. It’s better than writing the whole book as a “memoir”, though. It does answer the question of why Robert Galbraith never went on book tour, though.
    –JW

    1. Yeah, it’s definitely better than Frey, but still unethical and perhaps even illegal. I can understand why she would want to write under a pseudonym–and I see nothing wrong with that–but the fake identity behind it crosses the line.

  24. I do see an issue with the fake credentials for the reasons you stated. It seems like she built up the author which makes the author an expert of sorts. As accomplished as she is, why would she do work under a pseudonym anyway? Was she worried her other books would fail to meet the high sales of the Harry Potter series?

    1. Yeah, I think that’s part of it: she worried her books would fail to meet the expectations set by Harry Potter. She published “A Causal Vacancy” back in the fall under her real name, and it received mixed reviews. It’s hard to live up to her readers’ expectations. So, I can understand why she’d want to publish under a pseudonym. What I don’t understand is why she had such a blatantly dishonest author bio. It’s very strange.

  25. I only read the author’s biography after I’ve finished a book…before that I don’t much care about finding out about the author. I don’t see a problem with this. The only thing it did inspire was my going to my library account and placing a request for this book. I’m excited to read another novel by her. 🙂

    1. Yeah, every reader is going to be different in how they approach purchasing/reading decisions. I always read the author’s bio before I read the book, just like I always visit a blogger’s “about me” page before I decide whether to follow them. I like to know the writer’s perspective, and I particularly enjoy fiction with a realistic basis.

      As for Rowling, it’s possible few will be bothered by it because she’s such a big name (and a lawsuit requires someone who would want a refund; maybe there isn’t anyone), but it’s a very bad precedent for publishing houses to think it’s okay to lie in the authors’ bios. How would you feel about a legal thriller purported to be written by a lawyer who lived similar events only to find out that the author never went to law school? I wouldn’t want consumers to be mislead in that way, and it’s really no different with Rowling except that she’s a world famous author many of us like.

      Anyway, thanks for the comment. I hope you enjoy Rowling’s latest book!

  26. Maybe this is just me, but I like when you find out about an author’s pseudonym years later, like after they’ve passed or at least when they’re no longer publishing under that name. Then it’s a really exciting discovery that you can read more books by your favourite authors.

    1. Yes, that is a nice surprise. I don’t have a problem with writers using pseudonyms. My concern is when they purport to have experiences that they do not have and use those fake experiences to sell their books. It’s possible that no one cares because it’s Rowling, but it’s a bad practice for the publishing industry to engage in. Readers might feel just a tad bit differently if, hypothetically, James Frey not only wrote under a pseudonym but was also writing legal thrillers based on his fake legal background (as far as I know, he’s not a lawyer).

      Thanks for the comment!

  27. Wow. This truly fascinating. As someone who also publishes under a pseudonym, I confess to being downright STUNNED that Rowling has done this. In fact, beyond merely finding it unethical, it’s also just … well … WEIRD.

    1. Hi! I haven’t seen you around much. Is your second Anna King book out yet? As for Rowling, I’m not surprised that she’s using a pseudonym. The fact that she’s purporting to be an ex-military officer, though, is very weird. It’s possible that no one cares she’s masquerading as an ex-military officer because she’s such a big name, but I’m very concerned that her publisher thinks this is okay. Author’s bios are part of the overall marketing package.

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