Thursday, December 21, 2006

Pen Names (Hopes and Fears IV)

There are five good business reasons to use a pen name. I am likely to write under multiple names for the first two, and it is possible that at some point I will be forced into the third, though I hope not.

Overpublishing (see H&F III below). You produce more novels than the market, in the form of your editor(s) are willing to let you publish. This can be because you've got a big back catalog that shouldn't all be released at once, or because you're simply a fast writer—more than two books a year. I definitely fall into category one, and I'm hoping to fall into two as well once I can get loose of some non-writing commitments and gear up to writing at the pace I think I can comfortably achieve.

And now, a digression (are you surprised? Didn't think so). If you can write more than two books a year without a significant deterioration in the quality of your work, your chance for long term financial success as a writer is significantly increased. This is because, A, you get paid more on simple linear basis and it helps build a dedicated readership if you produce reliably and, B, a good part of writing income is a non-linear phenomena. Book advances can run anywhere from ~5,000 dollars (a typical advance for a new writer) to ~3-4,000,000-deep fantasyland for almost everyone but the tip-top sellers in the fiction markets. Advances are based on previous sales which are wildly non-linear. 20,000-50,000 copies is pretty good for a first book, and what a lot of writers sell each time out. However, every so often, for reasons that no one seems to understand, a book will hit the sweet spot in the reading public's mind and take off like a rocket. It is not unlike winning the lottery, though the returns are generally lower in comparison to the work involved. And, of course, the more books you write and sell, the more chances you have to hit big.

Multiple Unrelated Genres or Styles. Say you write sweet sappy romances, dark vicious serial killer murder mysteries, and oblique literary fantasy. The readership overlap for these is not going to be huge, and if a reader of one of these stumbles on another by dint of looking your name up and ordering from the other genre, the cognitive dissonance may cause them to have trouble reading future books from the you they liked before. In my case, I've written high-fantasy farce, adventure fantasy with a humorous element, dark adventure fantasy, urban noir fantasy, and dark to very dark YA fantasy. If you add in short stories and partials, I've also written space opera, hard sf, psychological and fantastic horror, light murder mystery, romance and a variety of poetry. I guarantee that someone going from my farcical FimbulDinner short (WT #339) to The Black School's ultra-dark WW II YA without any warning is going to feel a certain amount of whiplash.

Dead Name. Because of the way sales are now tracked and books bought, an author, even a multiple-award-winning author with decent if not great sales can end up in a position where the editor who loves their work can't buy books from them under that name anymore. This leads to one of two choices, quit writing or use a new name. For people like me, who can't not write, the choice is an easy one. It's even one I've consciously planned for and, though some writers have trouble with the idea of writing under a name other than their own, I don't. One of the reasons I'm seriously considering starting a pen name sooner rather than later is to try to establish multiple parallel careers from the get-go. For writers who choose this route there is a decision to be made in concert with their editor, which is: how open should I be about being multiple people? There are writers who use multiple pen names that everyone who wants to make even a modicum of effort can dig out. There are also writers who have pen names that are so secret that when the writer makes an appearance they do so under that name with no hint to anyone that they exist as any other person. And, of course, there are writers who fall everywhere in between.

Necessary Anonymity. This can come from having a dead name, mentioned immediately above, or from having a non-writing career that is incompatible with your literary work. For example, an author who writer fetish erotica as second career or hobby while working with children in the day job. This is one of those cases, where no matter how good and responsible the writer is in their day job, there is going to be a certain percentage of parents who would object violently to the idea.

Unpronounceable/Hard to Remember/Too Long for a Book Spine. I think this one is self-explanatory.

Other reasons. There are many other reasons why someone might choose to write under a pen name, and I'd love to hear about that in comments, but I think I've covered the bases for business choices. I'd like to note also that I've heard from a couple of editors that they prefer where possible to have writers write under their own names, and are somewhat suspicious of writers who "don't want to put their name to their work." Also, anyone submitting work under a pen name must include their real name with the submission. Names and pen names are authorial tools, use them well. And that's all for now.

So, do you write under a pen name? If so, why? Does the idea of writing under a pen name make you unhappy? Also, why?

10 comments:

Sean M. Murphy said...

As the only thing that currently applies for me is option 2, I'll note that I have planned for years to have pen names for different genres, ever since I had an editor tell me that it can be difficult to sell work in different genres with only one name. Think of Danielle Steel writing Hard SF. Or Charlaine Harris writing Cyberpunk. Major cog-dis.

I think there's a little more room for crossover between SF and Fantasy--to a much stronger degree than other genres, we've got a long-established mutual community, and readers are more willing to allow for crossover. Even so, I've got pen names ready for mainstream fiction and poetry, and I have a couple of others on the chance that I end up with option #3.

Muneraven said...

Here are a few more good reasons to go for pen names:

1. Your real name in hard to pronounce or remember. If 95% of your classroom teachers mangled your name while doing roll call, how many people are going to be able to ask for the lastest book by Krystywytz?

2. While I don't believe in choosing a pen name so that your books will be slotted next to a big name writer's books, I WOULD use a pen name if my last name began with v,w, x,y, or z. Very often those end of the alphabet books get the corner-turn, by which I mean the last few books alphabetically in a genre section in a bookstore get stuck onto the end of the next genre section. In a world where people abandon websites that don't load in five seconds, I don't want people having to scour the shelves for my books.

3. Old acquaintances and icky relatives who see your name on a book and assume you are now a millionaire and, boy, do they have an investment opportunity for YOU!


Some pen names are brilliant. I think Robin Hobb is an excellent pen name. I think Tate Hallaway is pretty great as well. Both have a ring to them, fit the kind of fiction the writer is putting out there, and are easy to remember.

As for keeping one's true identity hidden . . .I think that is VERY difficult in these days of author blogs and internet chat-rooms and the expectation of closer writer-reader interaction in order to sell books. How long would James Tiptree Jr. have remained anonymous had she been blogging and frequenting newsgroups and discussion boards rather than writing actual letters? I think a writer today might as well cop to the pen name pretty freely.

Kelly Swails said...

Robin Hobb's a pen name? Sheesh. I need to get out more.
Sean, I think you're right about fantasy/SF readers. There's a lot of crossover readers between these two genres. Also, I think that readers who read in these genres are more willing to read other genres.
Would I ever use a pen name? Probably, if I got the opportunity to publish in different genres. That is a question for the future Kelly to answer.

tate said...

Thanks for liking my penname. I originally wanted to be named after two museums: Tate Walker. I even bought the domain name and scored the google account, but my publisher wanted Tate's books to be found closer to those who write vampire fiction so I was told to look for a last name that started with "Ha."

Seriously.

Next time you're in the bookstore look to see just how many vampire fantasy writers all seem to have names that start with "Ha."

Muneraven said...

Hey Tate,

Tate Walker is nice, too, but then you might have run into the "end of the alphabet" problem i mentioned, lol.

In any other genre I would say your publisher was nuts to want to get your book in there with the other "Ha-"s, but it IS actually hard to find vampire romance books in bookstores. They are sometimes in horror, sometimes in romance, sometimes in SF/F, and sometimes on a shelf stuck at the end of a row, quite by themselves. Sometimes they are in ALL the categories mentioned!

Still...the "Ha-" thing is rather odd, isn't it. But "Hallaway" is really good. Much better than, say, "Harris".

Oh, and Kelly S., Robin Hobb is the pen name of Megan Lindholm.

AND . . .I think I actually repeated one of the original post's reasons for a pen name in my comment as if it were a new reason, lol. I blame insufficient coffee. Sorry!

Happy holidays, Wyrdsmiths.

Kelly McCullough said...

Happy Holidays to you to, Muneraven.

And I'll add one more. I know a couple of writers who write some stuff under a pen name because psychologically it allows them freedom to write things that they wouldn't be willing to under their own byline.

Kelly Swails said...

Robin Hobb=Megan Lindholm? No kidding. Sometimes my naivete astonishes even me.

As for the "Ha" thing, it makes sense: "I'm looking for Charlaine Harris, there's no books here I haven't read, oh, look, here's Tate Halloway, haven't read these. Hm...looks interesting. I'll buy it." *Evil corporate laugh*

Kelly McCullough said...

Kelly X,

Yeah, the business of picking a pen name involves a lot of drafting on other writer's success.

MariAdkins said...

My legal name is "Mary", but I've used the name "Mari" since 9th grade--that's the name everyone knows me by, and is also the name I write under.

Anonymous said...

My real name is a pun.