So, what about pen names?

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.

I hope.

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.

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9 thoughts on “So, what about pen names?

  1. I recall a dear friend of getting some hard times for using a pen name, especially one that is different to sex, but this is hardly a new thing, and I can understand why some people want to use a name that is sexually ambiguous, or flat out different, because certain genres people seem to like a certain sex to be writing them. (Because as we know the public at large can often be picky, shallow and just flat out stupid at times.)
    For myself I change my mind often about what I am going to do. Currently as you know I have a pen name, one that isn’t so different from my real name and just to really separate my personal life from my writing life just a bit. I don’t think there is any right or wrong to it, and I have contemplated a different pen name if I branch out into different genres.
    I recall reading somewhere that people used pen names when they were writing multiple books a year in different genres because people tended to not want to fork out money for the same author too quickly but would happily buy a book by another person. Which sounds logical if a little strange…
    And then it brings the thought….what about the fan base you have on your first name, how do you make sure they all know that it is you, or should you be happy that new people who might be biased against the original work not being up their alley can find your new stuff and like it without that stigma….okay I’m rambling now but you made me think…again….about the topic.

    • I think that, if I were to use that system, it would be pretty obvious. I put my blog address in my books, and I doubt I would stick a different address in there for the sake of confusing people. If you type in an address that takes you to a website where you find the statement “X and Y and Z are all names A uses for such and such a purpose,” I don’t think you’re likely to feel deceived or anything. And I certainly understand about being reluctant to buy several books by the same author in the same year, at the very least because it gives the impression that not much time was spent on each one, even if – as I often do – they worked on several simultaneously and they all took years and just happened to be complete around the same time. I would consider that.
      Anyway, I like my file folder analogy, and that’s all I would ever use a pen name for. X and Y and Z may all be the same person, and everyone knows that, but they also know that a book with X on it will be paranormal fantasy, and a book with Y on it will be a mystery, and a book with Z on it will be something else. Just for convenience.
      (If I ever did decide to call myself Andrew B. Smith, and someone took issue with my using a man’s name, they could just suck it up and deal with it. I’m not interested in acquiring a readership that wouldn’t buy something by a chick.)

  2. Reblogged this on Justine Dee – Writer in Play and commented:
    I recall a dear friend of getting some hard times for using a pen name, especially one that is different to sex, but this is hardly a new thing, and I can understand why some people want to use a name that is sexually ambiguous, or flat out different, because certain genres people seem to like a certain sex to be writing them. (Because as we know the public at large can often be picky, shallow and just flat out stupid at times.)
    For myself I change my mind often about what I am going to do. Currently as you know I have a pen name, one that isn’t so different from my real name and just to really separate my personal life from my writing life just a bit. I don’t think there is any right or wrong to it, and I have contemplated a different pen name if I branch out into different genres.
    I recall reading somewhere that people used pen names when they were writing multiple books a year in different genres because people tended to not want to fork out money for the same author too quickly but would happily buy a book by another person. Which sounds logical if a little strange…
    And then it brings the thought….what about the fan base you have on your first name, how do you make sure they all know that it is you, or should you be happy that new people who might be biased against the original work not being up their alley can find your new stuff and like it without that stigma….okay I’m rambling now but it made me think…again….about the topic.

  3. I’ve come across this recently when a new horror writer brought out her second book, more a psychological thriller and received tons of criticism for the shift in genres. Pen names is a good way of dealing with reader expectation, but you are missing out on sales.

    I guess one way around that is to point them to a blog where you explain the different names for different genres. It’s then up to the reader whether they want to read the other genre.

    • Missing sales is bad, but I can’t imagine it making that much of a difference, really. Either you’re a big shot, in which case missing out on those sales won’t matter too much; or you’re a tiny-timer like me, in which case adding one more book to the shelf won’t boost sales enough to make it a significant incentive. You’d have to be balanced right on the line between for it to be a really serious loss. (And this is all conjecture. I have no idea how it actually works, but that’s how it plays out in my head.)
      Personally, I would probably explain the system in a blog post or on my About page, since I don’t really envision it as a way to hide my identity so much as a quicker way to direct readers to what interests them.

  4. I’m constantly switching genres (only because I write about what I’m interested in at the time). I guess this is probably a bad thing. One day I’m hoping to find one and stick to it 😉

  5. I should probably use pen names, considering the fact that one of my ideas is sci-fi, another is fantasy and yet another goes more into the thriller genre… now if only I could make myself write those books…!

    • Not necessarily “should” but if you felt like it would help, go for it. You could probably get away with writing sci-fi and fantasy under the same name, though.
      But on the other hand… having a pen name is cool. :B

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