To pen name or not to pen name, part II

Yesterday, in response to a reader’s question, I went into the contentious issue of whether an author who writes in a number of different genres or book categories should use a unique nom de plume for each. As I pointed out yesterday, there are many in the industry who would say that unless your work sells awfully well, it simply doesn’t matter: unless the two books are likely to end up on the same bestseller table, who besides the alphabetizers at Amazon and a few scattered librarians is likely to notice?

Those who favor a different name for each book category would disagree: seeing the same name on disparate book spines can only lead to confusion, they aver. Not only does it make it harder for readers in a particular genre to track down the book they want online (for much the same reason that fans of an author named John Smith might have difficulties: a whole lot of hits would come up in a web search), but it also renders it less likely that an employee in a bookstore is going to be able to lead a curious potential customer to your book. 80% of the books sold in North America are still sold in bookstores, so word of mouth among bookstore employees is almost as important as it ever was.

Do you really, such arguers will ask an aspiring writer archly, want to make it harder for them to push your book?

It’s not quite this simple, however, and it’s probably no accident that defenders of the one-name-one-genre rule tend to be older people, ones who have been in the biz for 20 or 30 years. Quite a bit has changed in the interim: which books got face-out space on shelves, for instance, and positions on those tables near the cash registers, used to left up to the discretion of bookstore managers, but now, in the big chain stores, publishers rent that space in order to push their books. (I know; disillusioning, isn’t it?) And most buyers familiar with online shopping are too used to getting 3,000 hits on a single query to hold it against a particular author.

Also, computers have made it much, much easier for booksellers to track an individual author’s sales than in the bad old days – which makes it harder for distributors to push a second or third book to the big chains, if the author’s first book did not sell well. Or his most recent.

Which leads me to the most current reason semi-established writers adopt different names for themselves for new books, even if a subsequent book is in the same book category as earlier ones: to start fresh within the booksellers’ databases. It’s an industry-accepted means to clear the substantial stigma of a flop.

So the next time you pick up a book and think, “Gee, this new writer, George Washington, reminds me of Betsy Ross, that writer I liked five years ago. I wonder what ever happened to ol’Betsy,” maybe you shouldn’t wonder whether George was a writing student of hers in some obscure MFA program. Maybe you should wonder if Betsy had a name makeover instead.

All that being said, there are more one-name-one-genre advocates in the industry than those who advocate a more laissez-faire approach; unless a name is already fairly well established, many agents will advise writers to have different names for their fiction and nonfiction works, at least.

This does not apply to academic works, interestingly enough, from the industry’s point of view; frankly, practically no one in mainstream publishing follows academic publishing closely enough to notice if an author is getting published in both. Since there are an awful lot of professors who write fiction on the side, the more literary the book categories concerned (i.e., the better-educated the anticipated readership), the more acceptable keeping the same name is considered by agents and editors.

So it is indeed worth considering picking one name for each type of book you write. No one in the industry will fault you for doing it, certainly, and in a business that runs very heavily on name recognition, it’s not a bad idea to brand your mysteries differently from your literary fiction.

Which brings up an interesting question: given your druthers, which book cover would you rather have your real name gracing?

How do you pick otherwise? The standard wisdom dictates that if you already have articles on a subject published under a given name, every subsequent publication on that subject should be under that name. It establishes you as an expert – and that’s important for NF, for you will want to include these old clippings in your book proposals. If you have the luxury of publications under one name across a wide array of topics when you are moving on to books, figure out which articles had the widest readership, and keep the original writing name with those topics.

However, if your fiction and nonfiction is on similar subject matter, have a serious talk with your agent about whether you are more likely to retain your former readership under one name or two. Readers think a whole lot less about book categories than folks in the industry do: as much as publishing types like to tell one another that only a particular type of person buys a particular category of book, the fact is, the most cursory glance at how book buyers move around a bookstore will demonstrate that few readers look at only one or two shelves. If you are a good writer, your readers may well want to follow your work around the bookstore.

Recycle those past readers, I say.

So what does all this mean for strategizing your writing career? Well, obviously, if you are planning to write a book on a topic, it will be easier to sell to agents and editors if you have already published articles on the topic, under any name; equally obviously, if you are unfortunate enough to have released a book that did not sell well, you might not want to carry that contretemps into your next book’s marketing.

But regardless, naming decisions are generally made toward the end of the publication process, rather than the beginning: at the getting-an-agent stage, it matters far more that you HAVE past publications than which nom de plume you chose to slap upon them. Because even if you do decide to publish under several different names, it’s not as though you are going to keep your real identity a secret from your agent or editor, right?

You’re not Superman, after all. Although, come to think of it, have I ever seen you and Superman together?

Because, ostensibly, you would like your advance and royalty checks to be made out to the name your bank manager likes to call you, your real name AND any pen name you elect to use will be on the title page of any manuscript you submit to an agency or publishing house. (If you’re not sure how to pull this off gracefully, check out the Your Title Page category at right. There’s a standard formatting trick for this situation.) Trust me, if your agent thinks you should be marketing your next book under a new name, you’ll be the first person she’ll tell.

My advice: if you write across a number of genres or book categories, and are getting material published – hallelujah! – start establishing a different name for each type of unrelated work you write. That way, by the time you start publishing books in each of those genres or categories, your readers will already know your name(s).

After all, in the long run, isn’t your loyal fans being able to find your books far more important than what the industry wants you to do?

Keep up the good work!

P.S. Hey, if you live in the greater Seattle area, are even vaguely interested in children’s or YA fiction, and are not completely iced in this coming Saturday, December 2nd, why not check out the Secret Garden Bookshop’s 30th Annual Holiday Author Celebration? It runs from 10 am to 6 pm at 2214 NW Market Street (in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, so if you get a craving for lutefisk while you’re there, you’ll only have to step around the corner to get it), and they have an impressive array of well-respected writers all lined up to read their work – and chat with those who would like to emulate their successes.

Quite apart from the facts that this event is extraordinarily likely to be a lot of fun for kids and adults alike AND is a good opportunity for those of you with aspirations to write for the under-voting-age crowd to make excellent connections, the Secret Garden has a long track record of being simply marvelous about supporting local writers. It’s a genuinely marvelous independent bookstore, and that alone is worth celebrating! I’ll be there after 4:30 or so; if you can swing by to say hello, please do!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *