The following post is By-Request. Feel free to ask for specific topics in the comments, and I will add them to the queue!
Who Are You, Really?
Most writers can’t wait to see their name on the byline or cover page. “That’s me! I wrote that!” It’s a confirmation of all the work and worry we put into this biz, and it’s totally justified [editors don’t send cover flats so you can use them in promotion, really. They know damn well you’re dancing around the house crooning “my precious.”]
But for some writers, the name on the cover isn’t theirs. Or, it is, but it’s not the one their family uses.
Pseudonyms. I get a lot of questions about why anyone would choose to use one. Isn’t it a BAD thing, used only as a last resort, or to jumpstart a failed career?
Yes, writing under another name is one option when your sales are disappointing, to avoid the so-called “death spiral” of bookstores ordering fewer and fewer copies of each successive book. There is nothing shameful about this: It’s a useful tool, and shows that the publisher still has faith in your ability to tell a good story/win readers. However, it’s far from the only reason why a book might be marketed under a different name.
It is also – sadly – sometimes used when the gender of the writer is thought to be “offputting’ to readers. As an editor I didn’t recommend this, but there is some marketing support for it (especially for men writing romance).
A pseudonym might also be used by someone who writes so fast that they might glut the market (a more common fear back when the average length of a novel was 75,000 words!). It is also used when the writer’s name is too similar to one already established: “Ellis Peters” was actually Edith Pargeter – but medieval mystery writer Peter Ellis, who started publishing later, had to write under the name Peter Tremayne, to avoid reader [or bookstore] confusion.
Along that same practical note, writers often choose to write under a pseudonym if they work in a field where even minor celebrity could be detrimental to that career (law, education, etc), or if they’re not certain how the two careers will interact.
These days, branding is also a common reason to use a pseudonym. One of the better-known genre examples of this is Nora Roberts, who writes futuristic romantic suspense under the name JD Robb. That was a “tight” secret until the branding took off, and then the writer behind the name was revealed. The trick there was not to ‘fool’ anyone, but allow the name to gain its own momentum, without putting the established brand at risk. This way, readers know what they’re getting under each name, and the sales of one ‘style’ won’t impact the other negatively.
Choosing a ‘nym is a personal matter: you can use a family name, or choose one to make sure your book hits a certain place on the shelves. The only advice here is that you be careful with the name you choose: keep it realistic, and don’t try to be cute or trendy (or punny, unless you’re writing humor). Obviously fake names are the kiss of death for many would-be readers.
There are also different ways to handle a pseudonym, once published. In some cases, the pseudonym is kept a close-guarded secret, often to the point where the author will appear in public as that persona, and keep their real name private, or at least, reserved for non-publishing friends and family. I know of at least five writers who have done this successfully, over the long-term [long-term here meaning more than five years]. With an “open” pseudonym, your legal name may be on the copyright page, and all the books may be listed on your website/promotional materials.
So, in response to the reader’s original question: a pseudonym might be used for a range of reasons, and none of them are “bad.” There’s no wrong way to go about it: just the way that works for you.
Coming up in Week 17: You are Not What You Write (even if other people insist you are)
Laura Anne Gilman is a former editor with Penguin/Putnam, and the author of more than a dozen novels, most recently the urban fantasy PACK OF LIES, and WEIGHT OF STONE, Book 2 of the Nebula-nominated Vineart War trilogy. Her SF collection, DRAGON VIRUS, will be published by Fairwood Press in June 2011. For more info check her website, her BookView Cafe bookshelf, or follow her on Twitter (@LAGilman) And yes, her nickname really is meerkat.