What's in a Name?

plume During an e-mail conversation about the AAR poll, one person asked a question about 2011 debut authors. Several of us threw out some names of people we thought were first time authors, only to be informed that while a certain book is the first book released under this particular pseudonym, the author has a long history of published books. Then I discovered that a book that I requested to review by a new-to-me author was in fact an author that I read before. It was discouraging in a way because I didn’t finish her last book, and had I known that this was a pseudonym of hers, I wouldn’t have requested this book. So that got me to wondering how relevant pseudonyms are in today’s environment.

At one time when an author left a publishing house they had to leave the name used at that house also and that is the reason that many authors have written under so many names. As an example Deborah Smith wrote under the names Leigh Bridger, Jackie Leigh, and Jacquelyn Lennox . Maggie Osborne used Margaret St. George for books she wrote for Harlequin. Sandra Brown was published under Laura Jordan, Rachel Ryan, and Erin St. Claire. Diana Palmer, whose real name is Susan Spaeth Kyle, has also written as Diana Blayne, Katy Currie, Susan Kyle. With the formation of Romance Writers of America in 1980, authors finally gained additional bargaining power and an advocacy group which negotiated with Harlequin allowing them to register copyrights for their work, and retain their pen names.

I completely agree that there are some good reasons to use pseudonyms. It can be used in branding to make it very simple to categorize the type of book by the author’s alias. One good example is Jayne Ann Krentz. Under the Krentz name readers know that the book is a contemporary, under the Quick name it is a historical, and recently Castle has been used for futuristic books. I like that. Same with Nora Roberts and J.D. Robb – readers know exactly what type of book to expect. In this type of situation it makes perfect sense to me to use different names. Also some authors enter into a partnership, writing books together and choose a new pseudonym. That makes sense too. What I don’t like is being unaware that a established author is writing under a new pseudonym. I get that they might want to write something completely different from their previous works. An author that writes inspirational books and decides to try her hand in erotica would definitely need a different name. But when authors try to be secretive about their pseudonyms, it bothers me.

When I did an internet search on the advantages of using pseudonym, the same reasons I expected turned up such as masking gender, shifting genres, unifying identity – as in the Nancy Drew or Hardy Boy books, hiding one’s moonlighting, establishing credibility. However, published author Holly Lisle discusses a more guarded financial reason in her FAQ about money:

Authors whose first three or so books have returns of fifty percent or more are out of the game. Publishers will stop buying from them — not just your current publisher, but also the other publishers you might hope to sell to . . . This is where pen names can be useful — more than one author with bad numbers has started over with a new name, in essence becoming a first novelist again and acquiring a clean publishing history in the process.

This is where the waters get muddy. I can re-invent myself by changing jobs or moving to a new city. So why shouldn’t authors be able to do the same thing? Intellectually I understand that. But still I don’t want to waste my money buying a book by an author whose work I have already tried and disliked.

I know that some of you are thinking, “What is the big deal? Just read the first chapter to decide if you like the book or not.” Sometimes I can tell by the first chapter but other times I can’t. I don’t believe that an author’s style or voice – the way she handles dialogue, her sentence structure, her plotting ability, and pacing changes when she assumes a different name. In a way it is the opposite of William Shakespeare’s “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Instead I think that if I didn’t like your work under Jane Doe, then I am probably not going to like it under Janie Deer.

How do you feel about author’s pen names? Do you like an author writing under one name but not their pseudonym? Is the writing different or is it the content – like more sex or violence? If you have read an author before and the book didn’t work for you would you knowingly buy her work published under a new name?

– Leigh Davis

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