about names and pen names

It has been a long time since I’ve posted about this, and I’ve had a couple questions over the last few months. So here goes: author names and pen names, what’s the deal?

At one point, a woman who actually got her work into print was a rare bird. Many early female novelists chose to write under a pen name — or were forced to by their editors and publishers — as a way to avoid coming into the public eye for reasons that ranged to modesty and privacy to sales. There’s a good article here that provides an interesting list of early women writers and their pen names.

Today people write under pen names for a wide variety of reasons, and sexism is still one of them. A man writing romance will often use a female pseudonym, in the same way  a woman writing techno thrillers might use a man’s name or just initials. Julie Ann Jones  – J.A. Jones – which one would be shelved next to Tom Clancy?

There are occasional cases of writers who are too prolific. Yes, I mean that they produce too much publishable stuff. Imagine such a problem, would you? Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates are two writers who fall into this category. They are both famous enough that they don’t have to resort to pen names. King did use a pen name at one point in his career; I don’t know about Oates. This reminds me of the Mathematician, who insisted we tell the Girlchild  the truth about Santa Claus when she was four. His reasoning: Santa Claus was getting all the credit, and it wasn’t fair. I still have to laugh when I think about that conversation. The girlchild scowled splendidly, crossed her arms, and said I suppose this means the Easter Bunny isn’t real either.

Sometimes an author will take a pen name to help flagging sales by getting a fresh start. Sometimes simple privacy is the issue.

And sometimes a publisher will push the idea of a pen name for purely marketing reasons. This is why I write fiction under two names.  When Into the Wilderness and Homestead sold within three months of each other, the publishers were worried about what they call ‘confounding reader expectations.’  Translation:

Reader X loves your work and is excited to see you have a new book out. There is a great rushing about as Reader X tracks down this new book, and then anticipation when s/he sits down to read. Reader X is shocked. Shocked, I tell you, to realize that this is not another serial killer/mystery, but a novel about lady golfers in the thirties.  In my case, Homestead came out first and Bantam was worried that readers would find the jump from a quiet book of linked stories to historical adventure/romance too much to negotiate.

Picking a pen name is not particularly straight forward. Publishers prefer something in the middle of the alphabet, so your book will show up in the middle rather than a far-end of the display, where people are less likely to see it. That is, if your last name is Zombrowski or Aaron, your publisher may ask you to consider something in the D-L range.

Anastasia Gianbatista  is in the right part of the alphabet, but this would not be a good pen name. Imagine your book takes off (despite the fact that readers can’t remember how to spell your last name). Imagine sitting at a table signing two hundred copies of your book.  You will regret Anastasia Gianbatista. You will contemplate the beauty of a minimalist name. This, I can promise you.

Readers have pointed out that a pen name may have a negative effect. I have heard any number of times something like: you write under two names?!?!!! I’ve missed all those other books? Oh no! Which is why I make no secret of my pen name, and try to be as transparent as possible.

Do you know what pen name you would use, if asked?

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