The publisher of the Harry Potter books originally worried their target audience of young boys wouldn’t read a book by a woman named Joanne, so she became J.K.
In literary history, it wasn’t unusual for female writers to adopt male pseudonyms in order to better market and sell their novels in a so-called man’s world. Charlotte Brontë’s Currer Bell, and Mary Ann Evans’s George Eliot are particularly well-known examples. Today, with women making up the majority of fiction readers, a male writer might at least consider the possibility that he could achieve higher book sales by publishing under a female name.
Or an author’s gender ambiguity may be a sales advantage—think Riley Sager or A.J. Finn.
If your author name is your publishing brand, who is your target audience? (Don’t say “everyone.”)
Stating the obvious, an author’s name on a book cover is the writer’s persona as presented to the world. It has sales ramifications.
Too many books
If a prolific author writes more than one book a year, their publisher may worry they are cannibalizing their own sales. Fans of a bestselling author may be eager to buy one or maybe even two of their books a year, but publishers cannot assume they will achieve the same level of sales if they add in a third title—or, say, three books within fourteen to sixteen months. The economics of publishing an author at that rate aren’t as simple as just tripling the profits. Sometimes an author’s sales fall a bit across the board; or, if one book is the main franchise, it might stay steady, but the newer franchise or stand-alone titles might only get half or two-thirds of those sales.
It’s not necessarily that readers tire of the author, but they may also want to spend their hard-earned dollars on other authors as well. As a work-around, some career authors release books under more than one name.
Building a literary career means developing a satisfied and loyal readership. Veteran authors may adopt pen names when they begin writing books off brand; perhaps they move into a different genre. From a sales perspective, a disappointed reader is anathema: for example, a popular mystery writer’s readers might be annoyed after purchasing and reading that same writer’s new and first romance novel, particularly if it’s packaged similarly to her mysteries. No one gets bumped off and instead they kiss a lot!
Extreme fame changes the formula. Novelist Nora Roberts is so well-known that her loyal readers do not confuse her romances with the futuristic suspense novels she writes under J.D. Robb. Devoted fans just choose their preferred genre.
Perhaps the publishing house an author just left owns the pen name they’ve been using—like Nancy Drew’s Carolyn Keene or Sweet Valley High’s Francine Pascal. Or maybe a writer needs a pseudonym for their new book because a previous book contract’s non-compete clause forbids them from publishing under their own name within a certain time period.
With past sales figures readily available to sales reps and booksellers on NPD Bookscan, an author might change their name to strategically circumvent a less-than-stellar sales record. Disappointing numbers from a previous title might inhibit orders for the newest one. It’s a fresh start with a new identity.
Writing teams sometimes keep it simple on their book covers by using just one author name. Bestselling author Liv Constantine is really two sisters; the pen name is an amalgam of Lynne and Valerie Constantine. (Lynne also writes under the name L.C. Shaw.)
But there are no hard and fast rules. Certainly, using two names has not been detrimental to Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child—who publish joint-effort bestsellers as Preston & Child. Similarly, Brian Andrews and Jeffrey Wilson have successfully released numerous military thrillers under Andrews & Wilson.
Noms de plume
There are numerous reasons to publish books under another name. Some writers decide to use a pen name in order to remain anonymous. It may be liberating for them to write and sell a smutty novel without their aunt Dee knowing.
Or perhaps a writer’s given name isn’t quite right. It’s too long. It’s hard to remember or spell or say. Or their name might be too much like that of a famous or infamous person—a writer or any well-known personage.
Above I mentioned using initials to obfuscate gender, but there are drawbacks to that strategy. The periods can look funny, and writers must decide whether to use them or not—JT or J.T. Ellison?
Some initials like D.J. are easy to adopt as spoken names but others may prove more difficult when a writer is out and about promoting themselves. What do your readers call you? At some point, you need to have a name. And then when you say, “Call me Laurie,” the reader might wonder why you didn’t simply say that in the first place.
A new author name should be designed for social media, too. If a name is too long, your Twitter or Insta handle may not allow enough characters for your full name. How will you deal with that? Readers looking for you must guess whether you are SarahJParker or SJParker or SarahJohnsonP. At some point, they may well give up.
Publicizing yourself or your brand with a name that’s not your own can present other unexpected challenges. In an age when writers have little choice but to maintain an active social media presence, having more than one pen name will double or triple the time required to post original content, create brand confusion, and may lead authors to a cyber-meltdown.
And while a pseudonym may work fine on Twitter, there are roadblocks on other platforms. On Facebook, you must use a business page rather than a personal page for pen names. No one can “friend” your business page and you can’t invite friends to like your page without outing yourself. Also, care must be taken not to accidentally like or comment from your personal page while acting as your pseudonym and vice-versa.
Choosing a Pen Name
Despite these negatives, let’s say a writer decides to choose a pen name. The optimal pseudonym is designed to capture a potential buyer’s attention, keeping in mind that, according to Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, the average consumer has an attention span of no more several milliseconds.
So many factors influence consumer choices. Sure, a writer wants a pen name to represent who they are, but numerous criteria should be considered. A simple spelling will help, and the chosen name should be memorable, but there’s more to an informed choice than that.
A diligent author may conduct their own market research survey with a list of prospective names. What’s appealing? What sticks in your head?
Preferably it is short and looks good on a book cover
Will a newly adopted name fit gracefully and artistically on a book cover? If the name is too long, the font size will have to be smaller. The wonderful Yrsa Sigurðardóttir understands this, and her publisher recently designed her book cover to feature YRSA in huge type, with her last name artfully small. This creative layout transforms a potential marketing negative into something intriguing.
The optimal author name has searchability
An author’s pseudonym should build in consumer ease during an online search. McSomething or MacSomething will be alphabetized differently. A hyphen or apostrophe can be glitchy: O’Brien or OBrien? Julia Spencer-Fleming or Julia Spencer Fleming? Some familiar names have several spellings: Olson, Olsen, Ollsson. The ideal author name is one which future readers will need to make the least effort seeking out.
Choose a last name that begins with a letter found between C and M for optimal bookstore placement
In bookstores, a career author’s choice of last name is all about eye-level on the shelves and proximity. A last name beginning with A (Avery Aames!) will always be in the first row on the top shelf. If your last name begins with W, X, Y or Z, you are doomed to the end at floor level. For some reason—maybe proximity to Connolly and Crichton—names beginning with “C” often seem visible. The middle of the alphabet is often easy to see in bookstores, but when you get to R and S? Not so much. (Of course, this depends on the luck of the shelf size, so there’s no way to be sure.)
Using three names, where the middle name might be a last name—like Sarah Johnson Parker— can be a problem. Will her books be shelved under Johnson or Parker? Recent Anthony Award-winner Hank Phillippi Ryan is sometimes under P and sometimes under R.
Selecting a pen name may be as easy as using a middle name and the first street you lived on. (Edwin Southwood?—sort of fusty but not bad.)
On a trip to France, writer Jim Grant and his wife joked about the Renault brand of automobile called Le Car. For laughs, they used the French article “le” in front of just about everything, even dubbing their daughter “le child.” Later, when Grant decided to adopt a pen name, the wonderfully short and androgynous “Lee Child” sounded and looked just about perfect.
It didn’t hurt that the new moniker fell right between Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie on the bookstore shelf.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of your author name? What’s an especially good one? Share your thoughts with us on Facebook.