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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9 Replies to “about names and pen names”

  1. OMG . . . I suppose this means the Easter Bunny isn’t real either . . . that’s exactly what I said to my parents when I found out. I can still remember that moment.

    As to pen names, I have my middle-last combo set for me the YA author: Theresa Black. Domain purchased. Blog set. Now I just gotta finish and sell the book.

  2. Ha! The Mathematician sounds like my husband…so silly, but although I’ve never really considered writing for real ( I do fantasize about creating a story, just so it will have all the things I love and I can get lost in my own world..) I’ve often thought of this and I would use a super creative name: JJ Johnson. :) It’s got initials, middle of the alphabet-the perfect pen name!

  3. So for my pipe dreams, I’d often thought of combining my married and maiden names. Graham Shaw. I’ve already bumped into a gifted watercolourist named Graham Shaw though. Beautiful paintings of Canada’s north. Since then, I realized it may be too generic of a name. I believe I’d be the type of author willing to jump through several marketing hoops. Reality is, I’d wait to know what audience we were aiming for. So probably several names on hand: Graham Rose; Ashley Lane; and E. B. Cale. And my own name for the possibility of poetry. Just my opinion, but I like to know the true name of the person writing poetry, if at all possible. Adds to the layers of meaning, for me.

  4. I have given a fair bit of thought to this over time. I used to think I would use my maiden name and my mother’s first name, as a sort of tribute to my parents, particularly as my father is dead. These days I mostly think that I would want those who know me to know that I finally did get my book into print, and it wasn’t just an excuse to play on the computer, so I would use my own name so they could all recognise me, (and be impressed maybe?)

    So now that I have the most important bit sorted out, I only have to finish my book…do all the editing etc…find an agent who likes it…and then hopefully find a publisher who will buy it!

  5. 1) I think that I would take a genre of book in which my writing style fit, go to the bookstore and see where my favorite authors in that genre landed on the shelf. And then pick a name that would put my books next to his or hers.

    This method makes sense to me, because my mom is forever scanning the shelves for “new” authors, and there has been any number of times where she has said something along the lines of “So, I was picking up the latest book by so-and-so, and while I was standing there, a book next to it caught my eye. I read the flap and decided it sounded like a good book to try.”

    I have found authors this way too. And it doesn’t really matter so much where in the alphabet it falls, just that it is within the shelf or two of the vicinity of the author.

    2) Definitely easy to spell and pronounce.

    3) Perhaps a “period” name that fit in the genre in which I was writing, but must still fit into #2 even if it fell into science fiction/fantasy where most names are unusual.

    That said, I like the idea of having people know the books are written by me and getting credit for it. So, I’d be tempted to simplify my hyphenated last name and just publish under my maiden name. That would put me in the G’s.

    The one thing that you didn’t mention is this: Once you start a genre with a name, are you stuck with it forever? Do you just start putting your less well-known name inside the flap of the books with the well-known name? I’ve seen this lately for Nora Roberts/ J.D. Robb and I think Jayne Ann Krentz/Amanda Quick.

  6. I guess it would depend on the type of books I’d write. I’m not a fan of initials. I find them too impersonal. If I felt I needed a more manly name, I would go with Ray. I had a friend who called me Ray-Ray for fun. The last name, I would use my mother’s maiden name: Hunt. It’s easier for people to remember and doesn’t sound too foreign like Auclair does, which is my last name.

  7. I think all men have the same idea regarding Santa Claus because my husband always hated that Santa got all the credit…

    I think I would pick my name by using pieces from friends or family, maybe Laura Morgan…

  8. Speaking of pen names – Ariana Franklin – excellent author – just finishined two of her books – completely different – one based in Germany during the rise of Hitler the other about Henry V.

  9. I’ve always had at the back of my mind that I will use “Deke Talmar” if I ever need a male pen name for marketing purposes. “Deke” from a phonetic extension of my first and middle initials, D. K., and “Talmar” as an anagram of my maiden name, Marlatt.

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