what's in a name

A week or so ago I invited questions and somebody (you out there? please speak up) came up with an interesting one that I haven’t answered yet. And maybe it can’t be answered. But it was something like this:

Do you think your contemporary novels (Tied to the Tracks, Pajama Girls of Lambert Square) would do better if they were published under Sara Donati rather than under Rosina Lippi?

First, I should note that all my novels — contemporary and historical — appear under the name Sara Donati in Australia and New Zealand. The publisher asked how I would feel about this, and I said: fine. I really didn’t mind, and I could see their reasoning. Sara does really well downunder, much better than she does here in the States. I will never forget the day my Australian editor emailed to say that Sara had knocked John Griffith off the number one spot. So there’s one way to answer this question: ask my Australian editor how TTTT is doing. Except this is something I will never do. Talking about numbers makes me so anxious I can’t write for days.

In this country nobody ever raised the subject of which name to use for the contemporaries. The thought did cross my mind, but I didn’t pursue it. Now, in retrospect, was that a mistake? Would the contemporaries do better if they were Sara’s instead of mine?

I dunno. I suppose it’s possible — Sara has better name recognition, after all — but there are also ways it might have worked against me. Sara was born precisely because the publishers were worried about (their phrase) confounding reader expectations. Homestead and Into the Wilderness came out within three months of each other, and they were nervous about that fact.

Which means very simply this: Joe has read all the Wilderness novels and really likes them. He sees Sara has a new novel out, and he bops on down to the bookstore and buys it immediately.Then Joe sits down to read and he’s disappointed. He was expecting adventure and high jinks with a love story or two thrown in, battles, Curiosity-like characters. And instead he got Angie Mangiamele. He is unhappy. Sara has disappointed him by switching direction.

My hope would be that he is so delighted with Angie and Rivera and the rest of them that he soon forgets he was expecting something else, but that may be unrealistic of me.

Please note: this is not my conclusion. This is how the publisher looks at it. Are they right? I have no idea. I’ve tried to think of a parallel — some author who changed direction and threw me off balance — but nothing comes to mind. So the question is, would Tied to the Tracks be selling like gangbusters if Sara’s name were on the front cover? Or — hold onto your hats — a third, completely new penname?

I just don’t know. What do you think?

9 Replies to “what's in a name”

  1. A third, completely new pseudonym might have been an interesting thing to try; I hadn’t even thought of that.

    One author who did change directions was John Grisham. One legal thriller after another and then BANG a couple of completely different stories. I haven’t read either of the new ones, but from what I understand there’s not a Witness Protection Program in sight. So you might find out how he’s doing with those. Personally, not having been a rabid Grisham fan to begin with (I think I read maybe four of his lawyer books in my early twenties and liked them pretty well, but I didn’t feel compelled to keep going), I didn’t have that author loyalty that would make me run out and buy the latest Grisham and wind up disappointed, but even I remember thinking when he came out with the first “different” book that that was a risky thing for an author to do.

  2. I don’t know about a third name. Name recognition has to count for something so to have three names to recognise seems a bit too much to me.

    I don’t know what the results were here in Australia either unfortunately.

  3. When I like an author I will read all his/hers published books and will keep an eye open for new comings — it does not matter the genre change or bad/good reviews. I never buy a book in the dark, I do a little research. Even if I get some in the spur of moment in a book store I will at least read the covers.

    So, I would imagine that an author would sell more if he/she uses the most known name.

  4. Rosina,

    Can you use both names on your covers? Look at the way Nora Roberts does her J.D. Robb books. Or the way Jean Plaidy did with her aliases. After Victoria Holt became the top selling name, the publisher put that pen name on all the book jackets, no matter whether authorship was attributed to Philippa Carr or Jean Plaidy. That way genres can still be separated, but name recognition draw in additional sales.

    Debbie K.

  5. Orson Scott Card is another author that changed genres – sci fi to fantasy to a religious basis. My husband and I wouldn’t have picked up “Rebecca” if it hadn’t been by Card.

  6. I agree with Debbie K. Both your names should be on the cover and on the back. Names of novels you’ve written in each name on the back, or at least the most famous one of each. Only those people who follow authors carefully tend to know all the pseudonyms. It’s the followers of one name who need to know this author with another name should also be of interest.

  7. I agree with Debbie and asdfg, when I am browsing in a bookstore I always look at the authors that I love for new novels.

  8. I’ve always had reservations about pennames.

    Intellectually, I understand what you mean about someone reading one book then being disappointed with the next. However, it seems to me that a lot of, if not most, people nowadays — because of the Internet, reviews, etc. — already know when an author uses two names before they even see the book in the bookstore. I may be wrong about that — just because I look up everything on the Internet first doesn’t mean everyone does — maybe some people just grab a book if they see a name they recognize and then are surprised when the content is different than what they expected.

    I can, however, understand some uses of pennames — if an author, for instance, writes erotica as well as more mainstream books, then I can see the need to keep the “two” authors “separated”. Or if someone is more interested in writing and being published than they are in personal attention, then it would make sense to use a penname and remain incognito. But, otherwise, surely, people are smart enough to realize that the same author can write completely different novels.

    But maybe that’s asking too much.

  9. I agree with Debbie K’s suggestion – it’s a terrific way of doing so and as long as the book back (or somewhere) makes it clear that it’s not part of “Into the Wilderness” series you should be fine.

    I too look for everything an author has written and a lot of people don’t look up author blogs so they will never know that you publish “ITW” series under a pen name.

    Stephen King has of course changed styles in his writing as another example.

    I think publishers are too conservative – why does every book written under your pen name have to be in a particular style??

    The only issue is that you might want to publish under your own name (b/c why not) and add a note on the front cover per JD Robb’s books per Debbie K’s suggestion alerting people that you wrote “ITW” series as well – and could you have the last book of the “ITW” series done in this format?? Maybe to start people who love you as Sara but don’t know about this blog and that you’re Rosina – looking for you as Rosina??

    Just some thoughts.

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