Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 16

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.

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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.

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About Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne is a recovering editor-turned-novelist, with an Endeavor Award, a Nebula nomination, another Endeavor award nomination and a Washington State Book Award nomination under her belt. Her most recent series is the award-winning "Devil's West" trilogy, starting with SILVER ON THE ROAD, and her same-universe story collection, WEST WINDS' FOOL, AND OTHER STORIES OF THE DEVIL'S WEST. The novella GABRIEL'S ROAD was published by Book View Cafe on April 30th, 2019. Her Patreon, featuring original fiction, writing advice, and original Rants, is at https://www.patreon.com/LAGilman Learn more at www.lauraannegilman.net, where you can sign up for her quarterly newsletter.

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Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 16 — 11 Comments

  1. This is very informative. It never really made sense to me that some authors would prefer to write under a pseudonym. Some even have multiple pseudonyms and it becomes difficult to keep track of them. For example: Nancy Fairbanks/Nancy Herndon/Elizabeth Chadwick all the same person.

    I was really surprised when JD Robb turned out to be Nora Roberts (which is also just a pseudonym). It. Gets. Complicated.

    And as my comment gets rambly, I shall close it out by saying thank you for clearing the air on why some authors write under pseudonyms.

  2. I will also add that, before you commit to that pseudonym, throw it into Google and then dig deep. If the name is also used by a well-known specialist in the mangrove ecology of Southern Australia (as my name is!) that’s not a problem. A noted porn star in Belarus? Maybe you should reconsider. Once you’re in, there’s no going back.

  3. There’s certainly nothing dishonorable about using a pseudonym–it worked for those Brontë girls, and Mary Ann Evans. I’m going to be taking a pseudonym for The Salernitan Women, too (see above: deathspiral. Sigh.)

  4. When I sold my first book “The Glass Dragon” by Irene Radford, still used my married name. There was another writer who had been writing SF/F for 20 years with my first name and my husband’s last name. First question from my editor, “What pen name do you want?”

    At the time I hung out mostly with Romance Writers. They had horror stories right left and sideways about pen names imposed upon them by their publishers and they couldn’t take the names with them if they published elsewhere, but elsewhere wanted the pen name and the established readership. (Much of this has changed.)

    With that in mind I chose my middle name and my birth last name because I legally owned it and no publisher could take it away from me. They might bury it if sales tanked. but it was MINE!

  5. Great blog! I changed my byline for a whole bunch of reasons, including a shift from one genre niche to another. The problem is not just writing a lot, it’s writing in two or more niches with disparate sales figures. If you write something wildly popular and want to write something else in another genre with smaller sales expectations (example: going from YA vampire romance to high-tech sf and then back again) you might not want the sf numbers as faithfully recorded by amazon.com and other computers to follow you. You really want to consider using 2 names.

  6. I knew a writer once who was a second grade teacher in a suburban county. A pseudonym was a necessity for her, what with that gift for writing lesbian SF.

  7. Playing with persona can be a valid reason, too. An author’s voice can be varied enough that using other names could be useful – at least for avoiding confusion. Though that’s probably a variation on the “don’t confuse markets” example Laura gave. (It’s good that Daniel Handler has one name for his adult books and another for his children’s books.)

    I was going to cite, of course, Stephen King as Richard Bachman, though most of what he published as Bachman was originally intended to be published or considered for publication under his own name. I think only two of the Bachman books, THINNER and THE REGULATORS, were written as books “by Richard Bachman” from the start. But by the time he started THINNER, King knew he enjoyed having that alternate voice he could use. (And the voices weren’t different enough to keep people from asking King if he was Bachman long before he admitted it.)

    Maybe Donald Westlake as Richard Stark is a better example, but I’ve read far less of his work (one Stark book and two of his novels under his own name).

    There are probably more examples of authors who successfully write as different personas, but I’m blanking on more examples. Must read more! (And I wonder if J.K. Rowling might want to use a pseudonym for whatever her first post-HARRY POTTER book may be, as “J.K. Rowling” is such a brand now.)

  8. Laura – OK, more names to look up and not read! (I have no interest in Koontz. Godspeed for him, since plenty of people do.) Still, I didn’t know that. Thanks for the tidbit.

    Now i’m flashing on Harlan Ellison’s early-career galaxy of pen names…

  9. I use a pen name … yeah, no-one guessed that widdershins isn’t my real name! … for no deep and meaningful reason other than it’s what I used when I first ventured to dip my toe into the world of an internet presence, way back in the last century! … ‘sides which, it looks kinda catchy on my book covers

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