At the Back Fence Issue #273

July 30, 2007 

From the Desk of Anne Marble:

What’s In a (Pen) Name?

How many of us have mourned the loss of a favorite author, only to find out that she is writing under a pen name? Sometimes you need a flow chart to keep track of the pen names.

Here are some examples: Jennifer Greene, has written under Jeanne Grant and Jessica Massey . Claire Delacroix sometimes writes as Claire Cross and has a book coming out as Deborah Cooke. Eve Silver is about to be published as Eve Kenin. Jennifer Ashleywrites as Allyson James, Ashley Gardner, and Laurien Gardner. Colette Gale writes a paranormal historical series under another name. Each of these authors gave me her views on the subject.

Why use a pen name? Romance pen names used to be mandatory. When Jennifer Greene first started out, publishers required them. Pen names can be advantageous to publishers. They can be less helpful to the authors, whose careers are advanced through reader recognition. Authors who change pen names every time they change publishers must start with readers from scratch. They receive fewer royalties than with the name that is known. Authors fought against this practice and nowadays publishers don’t insist on pen names.

On the other hand, some name changes are advantageous to authors as that “clean slate” gives them a fresh start with the middlemen in the publishing industry who supply the bookstores. In Laurie’s 1999 interview with Judith Ivory (aka Judy Cuevas), the author told her that Avon wanted to market her differently but feared that “a certain pattern had already been established” with the Judy Cuevas name. Instead of those supporters thinking they were “really, really supporting” her by “taking ten more books”, Avon wanted help on a different scale…”they wanted to boost the numbers considerably.”

When authors use pen names, there are practical reasons. Some authors’s names are obvious candidates for change. Jennifer Greene argues that, “Josie Bdkrenvidhonva, for instance, would be tough for readers to remember. Or…someone could have a name like Nora Roberta. Or…like in my case, my real last name was Hart, but so many authors had chosen Hart for a pen name that I couldn’t use it.

Pen names can be useful in alerting readers to a certain writing style. Claire Delacroix uses her pen names for this reason, pointing out that pen names can build a stronger brand. But it can cut both ways; readers have complained when she published different work under the same name, and others were bothered when they couldn’t find all of her books under one name. Because the first group is more vocal, Claire uses pen names to divide her work into categories. She recognizes that this doesn’t work for all authors, as not all authors are prolific. “The author needs to be able to write two books a year under any given name to build sales for that name. Most print houses will want a new book every six months if they are trying to build sales. So, an author should only write under two names if that author can write four books a year. I write four to five books a year so writing under several names makes sense. I also like to alternate between types of work to refresh myself creatively, so it’s a good solution for me.”

As with many authors, Eve Silver never meant to use a pen name. Her historical Gothics (published by Zebra) were published under her real name, as were the contemporaries she wrote for Grand Central Publishing (formerly Warner Books). Then Eva wrote a book for Dorchester’s new Shomi imprint (which publishers speculative romance), and she decided a pen name – Eve Kenin – would be a good idea. Her reasoning? While her Gothics and paranormals fall under recognizable romance sub-genres, the Shomi line is something else entirely. It’s romance with a strong thread of speculative fiction. By creating a new pen name, fans of her Gothics and paranormals wouldn’t pick up a Shomi book with, say, a post-apocalyptic plot, and then get frustrated because it wasn’t their type of story. She adds, “While I hope my ‘Eve Silver’ readers will give my ‘Eve Kenin’ books a try, I felt it best to separate the names and be as honest as possible about what the reader is getting. (Now that I’ve seen the Manga-style covers of SHOMI, I realize that it was never a danger, LOL! But at the time, who knew?)”

Like Eve, Jennifer Ashley never intended to use pen names. She had planned to publish her books under Jennifer Ashley, her real name. However, when she was finally published, several publishers bought her books at once,. The books were in different genres, so she published romances with Dorchester and mysteries with Berkley. She used Jennifer Ashley for the romances and Ashley Gardner for the mysteries. Then Berkley chose the Laurien Gardner name for the Wives of Henry VIII historical fiction series. Jennifer wrote only one book under that name (the RITA award-winning A Lady Raised High). A more deliberate creation was “Allyson James”, for Ashley’s erotic romances published by Ellora’s Cave. Jennifer wanted to find out if she could write erotic romance and published with Ellora’s Cave, She used the Allyson James name in case the book flopped. This way the author could “quietly walk away and pretend it never happened.” She picked “Allyson” because she loved the name and “James” because “at the time there weren’t many ‘J’ authors at EC.” Allyson James books sold well at EC, and later, she sold as James to Berkley. Although her first for Berkley, Dragon Heat, earned a C grade from us, it did hit some national lists. The author doesn’t plan to take any more pen names, “Not unless I stop publishing under all names and then start over again with one. I am not planning to do that any time soon!”

Both of Colette Gale’s names are pen names. The name she uses on her historical vampire series combines her real first name with another last name – partly for privacy and partly because no one can spell her last name correctly. In the case of her historical erotica, a new pen name was necessary to keep the books separate. “Because those books are so very different from my vampire books, my editor and I both agreed that a pen name was a must. People who read my vampire books may not like the level of sexual explicitness that are in my erotic novels, and by having a different name on those books, I’m keeping those two markets separate. The other reason is for privacy purposes. I didn’t want it well-known that I also write erotica.” We wish Gale well, but her first erotic romance is now a shoo-in for Laurie as worst book of the year, and our review, which just went online today, indicates a similar level of dislike.

Publishers are still a major factor behind pen names. Changing a publisher can become a complication when one is used. When Jennifer Greene was first getting published, she was required to create a pen name for each publisher. She had four publishers, which meant that she was known by four names…in addition to her real name, which meant she “always gave big presents to [our] mail man.” In comparison, Colette Gale never had a publisher request that she use a pen name. The decision of what names she would use was up to her. As for Jennifer Ashley, because she sold several books at once, publishers requested the use of pen names for competitive reasons. She points out, “Publishers don’t want to spend time building up an author’s name to have another house scoop the pot.” When she sold the dragon stories (starting with Dragon Heat) to Berkley, she had just sold the Immortals series to Dorchester, so she had to use two names again. In that case, it wasn’t a hardship because she had already established a following with the Allyson James name through Ellora’s Cave.

The request to use a pen name doesn’t always come from the publisher. Sometimes it’s the author’s idea, as in the case of Claire Delacroix. She came up with the idea of anglicizing “Claire Delacroix” to come up with “Claire Cross” when writing paranormal romance for Berkley because so many readers admitted they couldn’t pronounce Delacroix. She still wrote historicals as Delacroix (for Harlequin and Bantam/Dell). But when sold her upcoming Dragonfire paranormal series to NAL, things changed. She thought she would publish the series under the Delacroix name, but her editor – who was familiar with some of her Delacroix books – pointed out that the series was too different from her previous Delacroix books. “This is an urban fantasy series, with dragon shapeshifter heroes in a contemporary setting, so it is a bit different from my Medieval romances!” According to Claire, when the publisher says, “we should think about this,” she listens. Thus the new series series will be published under the name Deborah Cooke.

So how does a writer go about picking a pen name? For Jennifer Greene wanted a name that would be easy for readers to remember; a name with a personal meaning to her and a name that wouldn’t be associated with other authors or be similar to the name of another author. Names that started with “Z” were out because it would mean her books were always stocked at the bottom in stores. Publishers had some input. Three out of four gave her first say, and she had the right to argue if they had issues with the name she picked. One publisher gave her a pen name without asking her. She wrote one book for them, and doesn’t think this could happen to a writer today.

In Eve Silver’s case, the ultimate decision was hers, but she also asked both her agent and her editor at Dorchester for help when choosing the Eve Kensin pen name. She loved the input they gave and found it a big help. When it came to picking a name for her historicals and paranormal, Eve used her real name. For her speculative romance she opted for something short with hard consonants. Kenin is based on her husband’s name, only she shortened it and gave it a hard “K”. She admits, “I stuck with Eve as the first name because I had visions of being at a booksigning or speaking engagement and someone calling a name other than that one, and me not responding.”

Colette Gale started with a name that meant something to her. She picked the name Colette because it “was the name of a famous erotic novelist.” “Gale” is the last name of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, and she had just “received a beautiful, leather-bound and embossed collection of erotic adult comics about a grown-up Dorothy, Wendy (from Peter Pan), and Alice from Wonderland …. so the name Gale just popped into my head … and it went well with Colette.”

Some names can sound pretty silly. During a publisher spotlight at RWA National, one editor warned against choosing a silly pen name. Some writers try too hard to create something unique and to tie their pen name into the stories they’re writing. This can result in corny names, such as Nightly Dreaming. On the other hand, it is a good idea to pick a pen name that has some connection to what you write. So how can a writer pick something interesting without going over the edge?

Jennifer Greene wouldn’t recommend picking a name that reflects the genre, but rather, picking a name that speaks to the target audience. For example, Druscilla could be a fun paranormal name, and Zenna might sound like an SF writer. If you pick up something by Druscilla, you suspect it’s going to be different than something by Zenna. Jennifer picked the name “Jennifer Greene” both because of personal reasons and because she thought readers would likely think “contemporary, an everyday kind of person, nothing fancy, women’s books.” She hopes she got that image right, and if not, then she “goofed up.”

Claire Delacroix agrees that publishers want authors to have easy-to-pronounce names, because those are easier to remember, as well as names that sound like names real people might have. “Some of these new ‘over the top’ names sound more like corporations than like people, which could make readers conclude that the books aren’t all written by the same author or that they’re written by committee. As a reader, I wouldn’t like to have that feeling either, so a name like that might adversely affect sales of the book.”

Jennifer Ashley agrees that pen names can be overdone but having a “romancey” name can be an advantage. She reminds writers to “Let common sense prevail. You want a good, easy-to-remember name, but not one people close their eyes and shake their heads over.” A writer should pick a name that’s easy to say and easy to pronounce, but not too common. Of course, they should also avoid picking a name that’s similar to that of another author, or their fans might buy the other person’s books by mistake!

The Internet is the best way to alert fans to pen names. Claire Cross has different websites for the different names, but she links between the different websites, and also updates readers on her blog and in her monthly electronic newsletter. She also sees marketing as an important part of this equation. While an author who writes only historicals probably wouldn’t have to distinguish between different periods they write under, authors who write in different subgenres might want to use pen names to keep their historicals and paranormals separate, or their contemporaries and historicals separate. After all, many people read only historicals, while some love the “woowoo fact” and others hate it. Whatever she does, she realizes that not everyone will make the connection. “Ten years on, I still meet people who aren’t aware that Claire Cross is Claire Delacroix – and I thought that one was obvious!”

Eve Silver also uses the Internet to keep fans up-to-date on both her pen names. She has an web page and an webpage, and both URLs open a common entry page that lets readers pick which site they want to visit. While both names have separate pages, they share all the other pages, such as for news and contact information. Her promotional materials mention both pen names, and some reviewers have made it a point to mention the connection. On top of that, her publishers have helped in the marketing. “My publishers have been amazing to me in regard to support of my dual identity. My August ‘Eve Silver’ release from Zebra, Dark Prince, has a teaser chapter for my September ‘Eve Kenin’ release from Dorchester, Driven, (and vice versa). “

While other authors keep their pen names connected, Colette Gale keeps them separate. She has set up separate web sites for each personality, and though both the personalities and the sites are very different, this isn’t as difficult as it might sound. Both authors blog, but when she blogs, she does it as one personality and keeps the other out of the way. While she does admit that “there is a benefit to letting readers know about your other personalities,” she prefers not to have the connection known as the two authors are so different. While she does mention her friend Colette on her blog or at signings, and does pass out bookmarks for both authors, she never comes out and admits that she’s the same person. “It’s a decision I made early on to try and keep them separate.

Pen names can be confusing for readers, and some may cry foul when one author mentions her pen name as a friend. Googling can help settle questions, although some authors do far better at keeping their separate identities a secret. That’s understandable when an author is writing two very different sorts of work, such as paranormal historical vampire series and erotica. If you haven’t seen anything new by a favorite author for a while, ask around on AARList or our Reader to Reader Forum. You never know, you might find out that your favorite “Missing in Action” writer is now writing romantic suspense, chick lit, paranormal historical mysteries, or erotic Regency romances…

Questions To Consider

What do you think about pen names in general? Have you ever been frustrated trying to keep track of which name is which? If so, do you use pen name data bases, message boards, or other resources to find out who is using a pen name?

What are ways you’ve seen authors use to help fans keep track of their pen names (if they want to reveal the connection) – such as web sites, news letters, etc.? Also, what are ways you’ve seen authors keep the names themselves connected on the books themselves, such as revealing the truth in the bio or using names that start with the same letters?

What are your thoughts on the way companies used to treat pen names (as noted by Jennifer Greene) as opposed to the way pen names are treated today? Do you think it reflects on changes in the romance field as a whole?

Have you ever bought a book by an author you didn’t like in the past because she was now writing under a pen name? Did you ever like her books under the new name more than those under the original name? Conversely, have you ever realized that you missed out on books by a favorite author because she was writing under a pen name?

Several years ago, Josie Litton was launched as a debut author, but it quickly turned out that she was a pen name for established author Maura Seger. Yet none of the authors interviewed for this piece had ever encountered a case where the publisher made them keep their pen name a secret. Do you think this practice is a thing of the past?

Anne Marble

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(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)