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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19 Responses to What’s in a Name?

  1. Great post.

    Except for times when it would be prudent to use a pen name, such as when an author writes both erotica and YA, I would prefer for authors to stick to one name. I make my reading decisions based on subgenre and plot first, so a pen name makes no difference to me. Plus, I’ve seen as many as three different pen names for one author and I get confuuuuused.

    I like when authors divide their various books into lists by genre/subgenre on their sites–that’s more helpful to me than a pen name when it comes to identifying the fact that they’ve branched out.

    We’ve also entered into a different publishing era, one that may not require authors to reinvent themselves so much. I’m guessing that with digital publishing, the issue of returns is not as much of a factor. I see authors having many more choices in terms of publishing their work these days.

    I will follow authors from publisher to publisher (print or digital) if I am interested in the genre they write. In fact, sticking with one name would make that searching easier for me.

    >But when authors try to be secretive about their pseudonyms

    I think trying to be secretive with pen names is going to be a big challenge given the Internet. Also, it seems to me that some publishers play a big role in that kind of collusion.

  2. DabneyAAR says:

    Interesting post, Leigh. Lots of authors do this outside the romance genre. Stephen King writes as Richard Bachman, Lemony Snicket has written under his real name Daniel Handler, three different published authors took the name Erin Hunter to write the wildly popular YA series Warriors, Ruth Rendell also writes as Barbara Vine.

  3. AAR Sandy says:

    Publishers do indeed pay a part in that collusion, Heather.

    I know of two authors who were told they HAD to change their names if they wanted to keep their contracts. One went elsewhere to another publisher and the second is still weighing her options.

    The reasons are myriad, but the primary one seems to be book store sales. A retailer buys based on how the author sold in the past and if sales were low, well, then their current buy will be too. So, the publisher is in effect trying to fool the retailer.

    But with retailers paying a less important role in book store sales, maybe the push for pseudonyms will go away, too. Eventually.

  4. maggie b. says:

    I waffle on the issue. Sometimes an authors first works can be absolutely dreadful and their subsequent books much, much better. So I don’t always mind them changing names and I can like and hate books by the same author. An example of that is SEP – I really disliked Breathing Room but I still read her because I have liked most of her stuff. But her first book was AWFUL. Couldn’t finish it. I know several people who love her but don’t like Honey Moon, Hot Shot or Glitter Baby because they don’t have the standard romance structure. They read more like women’t fiction. Granted SEP kept the same name for all of those but my point is even with knowing the author name you don’t always know if you will like the book. And sometimes the structure and plotting do change, again even under the same name.

    I’ve become pretty strict about sampling books prior to purchase. It seems my best bet for knowing whether or not I will like something.

  5. maggie b. says:

    Shoudl Add: sometimes it bothers me in the other direction. When I have to chase a beloved author down from pen name to pen name because her sales are always mediocre it can get tiring. Those authors tend to be people who also have the annoying habbit of not keeping websites. Thank God for fantastic fiction!

  6. Wendy - AAR says:

    I don’t normally mind when an author uses a pen name, but I have been burned before. A while back an author wrote a book that I reviewed and gave the equivalent of an F at AAR. Later I bought another unrelated book and hated it just as much. Looked at the copyright and realized it had been written by the same person. I would never have bought the second book if it had been published under the authors real name.

  7. dick says:

    Doesn’t bother me much. For one thing, I always check the copyright page which usually reveals whether the author on the cover is somebody I’ve already read. Sometimes, the books written under a pseudonym are better than the ones written under the author’s better known name and/or vice versa. What bothers me more is when the author has written a book under a pseudonym which is re-issued under the author’s better known name with no indication of the change. That seems deliberately deceptive to me, because titles in romance fiction are homogenous and it’s difficult to distinguish by title alone.

  8. bungluna says:

    I agree with dick that the re-publishing of books under a better known name is what gets me. I don’t mind pseudonyms. I’ve learned to rely on review sites and sample chapters to weed out the books tha will not suit me, so the name on the cover is not as important.

    I thank the internet daily for saving me from buying second copies of books already read and for pointing me to books I will enjoy, regardless of who wrote them.

  9. mb says:

    I find it frustrating as a reader, since I don’t always know if an author I like has another pen name. Having the internet has made things easier, but if I’m reading older stuff it’s not always easy to know. For authors I don’t care for, it doesn’t matter to me how many pen names they have. But for authors I love, I want to seek out everything they write! Goodreads is helpful for this, but internet sleuthing is necessary. Especially if the author is no longer living or marketing herself.

    Authors I love that I was pleased to find wrote under multiple names include: Patricia Finney/P.F. Chisholm and also Ariana Franklin/Diana Norman.

  10. farmwifetwo says:

    I was reading your post and thought “there’s one more missing for Sandra Brown” but it was Rachel Lee I was thinking of and Sue Civil Brown.

    I have read both by the author and find them very different in style so the change in name isn’t an issue IMO.

    I don’t mind if it’s a different genre. I do dislike reprints of any kind that are not “tagged” so we readers know about it. I like that Nora has an NR on her new books. Simply, effective and appreciated.

    I also think it can be detrimental if one has a following in a different genre/publisher aka hqn and then moves on. If you don’t know about it, how are you going to try the new books. Someone mentioned poorly kept up blog pages. This is a huge complaint of mine and the reason why I used Fantastic Fiction instead.

  11. Moriah Jovan says:

    I know several people who love her but don’t like Honey Moon, Hot Shot or Glitter Baby because they don’t have the standard romance structure. They read more like women’s fiction.

    That’s because they are women’s fiction.

  12. pop tart says:

    I don’t mind pseudonyms in and of themselves. Whether the author is trying to differentiate between two kinds of books they write (Krentz, Robb) or trying to start fresh, either is fine. What I don’t like is when they deliberately try to hide or muddy the trail to their earlier persona. Some of this is driven by publishers, some by the authors, and I understand it in a business sense, but I’ll also be turned off if they are actively hiding their other identity.

    I get especially irritated when the book under the new pseudonym is touted as a debut by the author. An author only gets one debut book; the first one published. You can tell me it’s a debut in a new series or a debut under the new pseudonym, but don’t call it a debut when the author has published 10 other books in the past.

    If I’m reviewing the book I want to be able to pass on the correct information to those using/reading my reviews. If I’m reading the book simply for my own enjoyment, knowing whether it’s a debut or not is also important. I actively seek debut books to discover new authors and I will often purchase a debut book that is borderline in regards to my own tastes – just because I’m hoping for that great new discovery.

    So if I bought a book as a debut I’m going to feel deceived and very possibly irritated if I find out that it’s not a first.

  13. Leigh says:

    pop tart – trying muddy the waters is what irritates me too.

    farmwifetwo- I also appreciate NR putting the her initials on her new books especially since Harlequin has reprinted her books so many times under so many different titles.

    mb – I agree. It is horrible to look and look for a new release by your favorite author and wonder why she hasn’t had something out in a while. Only to find out months later that she started a new series under a different name.

    bungluna – it was from one of poster here that I found out that my debut author was previously published so yes I really appreciate the wealth of information you can find on the web and from other readers.

    Dick – I have learned my lesson and will check from now on. Although I believe that an author can use her pseudonym on the copyright page if she wants.

  14. Leigh says:

    Wendy – while I didn’t hate either book I don’t get her humor.

    Maggie – It boggles my mind that authors don’t keep up their website.

    Sandy – sounds like the authors are between a rock and a hard place. Recently I read about Expresso book machine – print on demand. That would seem to eliminate some of the issues with returns. But of course if you are browsing in a store you want to pick up the book and look.

    Dabney – those authors have been writing a while so I can understand them having pen names. Hopefully in the future it won’t be necessary.

    Heather – like you I follow authors so having one name makes it easily to keep up with them. And from Sandy’s post publishers do seem to be the driving force behind pseudonyms.

  15. Thank you for the good writeup. It if truth be told was a entertainment account it. Look advanced to more brought agreeable from you! By the way, how could we keep in touch?

  16. Plenty of us use pseudonyms to preserve our privacy. I have one writing friend who had two fans turn up unheralded on her doorstep one morning. Excuse me? Most of us would prefer to avoid that situation.
    Another example is Anne Gracie. She wrote one contemporary Western years ago. I think it was about her third book. It was a lovely book, but it confused readers who already, after two Regencies, expected Regencies from her. I suspect that if she had wanted to continue writing the westerns she would have had to take a pseudonym.

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  19. Denise says:

    I like to follow an author no matter what kind of book he or she is writing. But I do see the argument for having a different name for each genre. I knew Jayne Krentz was Amanda Quick and I read (or read) Amanda Quick and not Krentz. It’s the same way with Barbara Vine’s books. You know what kind of book to expect depending on the name. But I do sometimes read books under both of an author’s names (I like both Barbara Vine and Ruth Rendell). I would also read anything Carla Kelly wrote, and she writes different sorts of books under one name.

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