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Wednesday, October 27, 1999 Published at 07:29 GMT 08:29 UK

Initials: Why are authors so keen on them?

By BBC News Online's JL Duffy

Making your mark on the literary world has always been a bit of a hit and miss affair.

But if you're intent on following in the footsteps of a classic novelist then consider an initial step - literally.

History shows that some of the greatest literary figures of the past century have forsaken their full names for their initials.

JM Coetzee, who on Monday became the first writer to win the Booker Prize twice, is one example.

[ image: JM Coetzee: The first author to win the Booker twice]
JM Coetzee: The first author to win the Booker twice
Another is the big hitting children's author, JK Rowling, whose Harry Potter books are currently winning over schoolboys around the world.

Yet despite Joanne Kathleen's breathtaking success - she has sold seven million Potter books in the US - her desire to be known by her initials marks her out as one of a dying breed.

Simon Trewin, literary agent with Peters, Fraser & Dunlop, says the trend for initialisation is a throwback to the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

It was a time when writers and poets occupied a more sacred, hallowed status in society.

[ image:  ]
"It's all about formality. There was a time when giving out your first name was informal and unsuitable for the profession," says Mr Trewin.

But these days it would simply turn him off.

"[Writers] think it will stand out and it may get them more attention than usual ... But if I received a letter from an unknown author who used their initials rather than their proper name, I would immediately think it was pretentious.

"I think that publishers these days like to publicise the author as well as the book, so it just gets in the way."

In fact, the marketing game is itself not a new one. Kate Pool, general secretary of the Society of Authors, points out that authors have often toyed with their names to appeal to a wider audience.

The most famous example is Mary Ann Evans, who adopted the male pseudonym George Eliot for works such as The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner and Middlemarch.

[ image: JK Rowling: Used initials to hide her gender]
JK Rowling: Used initials to hide her gender
More recently, consider the famous authors Ruth Rendell and Barbara Vine, who, in case you did not know, are in fact the same person.

In the case of JK Rowling, publisher and author jointly decided on to shield her true (female) identity for fear it would put off young boys.

While the trend for initialisation may be on the wane, it remains an option for journalists who wish to set themselves above the day-to-day grind of news reporting, on a more artistic bent. Think restaurant critic AA Gill and columnist AN Wilson.

As a final thought, Mr Trewin offers an altogether more down to earth explanation: it simply saves time at book signing sessions.

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