I’ve recently run up against quite a lot of articles and persons who seem dead-set on authors finding a genre they’re good at and then sticking to it. As far as I can tell, this is partly because it’s hard to be good at disparate genres and partly because it’s hard to convince the reading public that you’re good at disparate genres.
I have no idea whether I’m good at disparate genres (yet), but I have no intention of limiting myself to one. Anyone who’s been to my About page knows that I putter around on a couple of different blogs, Always 1895 and my new Lost Knowledge blog, and those clearly represent very different interests. I mean, I know that people have pasted Sherlock Holmes and fantasy together before, but it’s still an unusual combination, and I have no intention of messing with both in one book. Even if I did, some people deny that paranormal mystery is even a real genre, because clues and magic are hard to mix.
So, if you can’t mix mystery and paranormal (completely disregarding my interest in sci fi and historical fiction and spy thrillers and high fantasy), and I refuse to pick one and stick to it, at least until I’ve tried a few and discovered that I really am only good at one, what’s the solution?
Well, apparently, that’s what pen names are for.
Author names are kind of like file names; I’ve heard this, and when I think about my own home library, I have to admit that it’s pretty true. My library looks a lot like my laptop, in some ways. I arrange my books by genre, and most works by any given author are grouped together, because they’re all in the same category. When I consider purchasing more books to expand my library, I look first for new work by authors whose work I already have, because I know they write things I like. Occasionally, I pick up a book expecting it to be like the author’s other work, and it isn’t, and I’m disappointed. That has nothing to do with the new book being bad; it just wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. And nobody likes being wrong.
This is especially problematic on sites like Amazon, where one can click on the author’s name and find a complete list of works by that individual without any immediate indication of which are different. I mean, yes, one could go through and check the genre on each, but genre can be flexible. I happen to like all of Laurie R. King’s work, and it all fits rather neatly into the mystery genre, but her Kate Martinelli series is very different from her Mary Russell series, and I can see someone with more specific taste than mine liking one but disliking the other. The settings are different, and different themes are addressed, and the tones of the mysteries are different… What would happen if King wrote a space opera? Her mystery fans would probably object, and sci fi readers probably wouldn’t pick it up in the first place, because she’s known as a mystery writer. (I use King as an example because I don’t actively internet-stalk many other writers, and most of my favorites were dead long before the internet, anyway.)
Pen names are not necessarily aliases. Sometimes they are, of course. A second-grade teacher may or may not want anyone to know that she writes steamy romance novels in her spare time. She may also be afraid that her educational children’s books won’t sell, if they come with a romance novelist’s name attached. Maybe lots of different people are contributing to the same series, all of them under the same name.
But at the same time, writing under a different name is not necessarily the same as writing under a fake one. Most people have middle names. I can be AB Smith, or I can be Andrew B. Smith, or I can be A. Bernard Smith, or I can be Andrew Bernard Smith, and each one is real, but each one can serve as a separate file name to keep separate things separate. (And to Andrew Bernard Smith, whoever you are, I apologize for singling you out.)
So the options are:
- pick one and stick to it OR
- create a new file folder
New file folder, of course, means new name. Someone toodling around Amazon who clicks on “MR Graham” will find the Books of Lost Knowledge and assorted similar fantasy stuff. Same person clicks on the new name and finds something different, something they don’t automatically assume will be similar to that fantasy stuff. I haven’t disappointed anyone or accidentally tricked a fantasy buff into reading Holmesian pastiche they really didn’t want.
And I realize this is not one of my better-organized posts, and I realize there are a number of issues with using pen names (such as making it hard for readers to find your other work when they would actually be interested in whatever you throw at them, regardless of genre). If I missed something significant, do let me know, but it seems to me that pen names are helpful organizers, at best, and only inconsequential at worst.