Thursday, September 15, 2011

Are Pen Names Becoming Pointless?

L.J. Sellers (Guest Blogger)

The publishing industry is in upheaval with major changes, but one of the more subtle changes is the declining use of pen names.
As more authors take charge of their own publishing and online marketing, they choose to skip the pen names when they write in various genres, in an effort to capitalize on the brand success of the name they’re already selling under.

This makes sense to me and it’s why I’m publishing my futuristic thriller, The Arranger,
under the same author name as my police procedurals. Essentially, the books are all crime stories, and in this case, they even share a major character, so I never considered using a pen name. Some marketers would argue this is a mistake, but I disagree.

In fact, even if I decided to write in a completely different genre, say fantasy, I still don’t think I would use a pen name. Here’s why. Marketers at major publishing houses established the practice with the idea that books should be categorized and shelved by genre and that readers were easily confused. They worried readers would buy a book in a genre they didn’t want just because it had their favorite author’s name on it.

This seems like an insult to readers. If the cover art and book description are doing their jobs, then readers will know exactly what the genre is and what to expect from the novel—regardless of the name on the cover. Readers have also come to expect authors to pen stories in various genres. It is neither surprising, nor confusing to them.

In addition, writers are blending story types and making up their own genres. Paranormal historical mystery, anyone? Or in my case: futuristic crime thriller. I’m not sure pen names were ever useful, but if they were, readers are long past it. In the age of the internet and open access to writers, readers learn everything they need to about an author and their various books with a quick visit to their website.

What about readers browsing in bookstores? Does a pen name prevent them from buying a futuristic police procedural written by J.D. Robb instead of a romance by Nora Roberts? I don’t think so. At least not more than once. I know there are instances in which a pen name could be useful, such as if the author wants or needs privacy, but those cases are rare.

To minimize any possible confusion, I labeled my novel with a subtitle: A Futuristic Thriller, and I created a different style of cover. It will be clear to my Detective Jackson fans that this novel is different from my police procedurals.

I also have two other standalone thrillers, so most of my readers already know that I write non-Jackson books. Of course, I want my Jackson fans to try the new novel, which is partially why I sent Detective Lara Evans into the future to tell this story. (I also think she’s a lot of fun, but that’s another blog.)
Some of my police procedural readers will check out this novel and some will pass. That’s okay. I’m hoping new readers who’ve never heard of me will try it too.

As a fairly new author, I have to capitalize on my name recognition. My name is my brand. Without the support of a major publisher, it’s all I have, and I use it everywhere: Facebook, Twitter, chat groups, etc. I never use amusing nicknames like thrillergirl or crimefighter. They might be fun, but they don’t tell readers who I am. I’m not likely to ever use a pen name either, for the same reasons.
What do you think? Are pen names useful to you as a reader or writer?

L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist and the author of the bestselling Detective Jackson mystery/suspense series. L.J. also has three standalone thrillers. When not plotting murders, she enjoys performing standup comedy, cycling, social networking, and attending mystery conferences. She’s also been known to jump out of airplanes.

L.J. Sellers would like to give away one print copy and two e-books of her new release, The Arranger, to readers who leave comments today on her PDD post. If you comment, you can email her directly at ljsellers[dot]novelist[at]gmail[dot]com with your own email address. She'll let you know if you've won the drawing--and let her know if you have (or don't have) an e-reader!


Nancy Adams said...

Hi L.J.

I love books that mix mystery and other genres, so THE ARRANGER sounds really interesting to me and I'd love to win a copy.

Your discussion on pen names makes sense to me. I know if I like an author I'm usually interested in anything else she writes regardless of genre.

Wishing you success in your indie endeavors!

Laura B in TN said...

I love your books! :) And I really don't care for pen names - If I think it's a pen name, then, geek that I am, spend FAR too much time trying to find out who the "real" author is... LOL I could spend that time actually READING!

Randall Platt said...

I think it can work in favor of the author to use different names at times, especially when one is jumping from YA to the adult markets or perhaps from early readers to teen readers. I do think that people get an image of the writer in their mind and are hesitant to think that writer can create for a totally different readership, especially different age groups. Certainly publishers want to pigeon-hole us as writers and when we venture out of that hole, we are fighting a bit of a battle. I also think the sex of an author has an affect. As a female with a given male name, I have seen both sides of this literary discrimination. It's a real case for using initials and no photo on the jacket

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Good to have you on PDD, LJ. I confess that having poured my heart into whatever I write, I want people to know it's me. :) My impression is that the publishers and the chain bookstores make a lot of the decisions about pseudonyms.

lil Gluckstern said...

I like when writers try different genres, and retain their names. That way, I know I will be getting the quality I expect from that author. I love books, and I can't keep track of the different names authors use. Even Nora Roberts' publishers are using "...Writing as J. D. Robb" to identify her. It's about sales, I'm sure, but for me it represents the authors body of work.

Cozy in Texas said...

I agree with you. There are many authors that have done this and I haven't bought their books because it was an unfamiliar name.

Kaye George said...

I love the LF Sellers books I've read and would love another one! Thanks for the interview.

L.J. Sellers said...

Thanks everyone for stopping in. Liz, I think you're right that pen names are still pushed on some authors by their publishers. It makes things challenging for the authors at conferences, as well as having to maintain multiple websites and newsletter lists.

Robin Reed said...

My real name has been stolen by porn merchants so I think I need pen names.

obxwriter said...

My thought is, each author has his/her own particular reason for using a pen name. I don't really care whether an author's name is their legal name or not. I'm more intrested in what they have to say in their work. -- DQ

Marlyn Beebe said...

I've never understood the reasoning behind a pen name for an already published author.

Kerry Gans said...

I think it's pretty hard these days to HAVE a real pen name - one that you can totally hide behind and no one knows who you are. The Internet makes it too easy to find out who you are. And I agree that your name is your brand in this day and age of publishing, so why hide it?

That said, I am using 2 pen names! Kerry Gans is my author name, and I intend to use it in every book I write no matter what genre. It is my maiden name, but (like many women in business) I chose to keep using it because that was how my growing network of contacts knew me, and because my husband would like a little bit of a privacy shield should I ever become a household name. :-)

I also am writing one book with 2 other authors. We all agreed that 3 names on the cover would be ridiculous, so we created a pen name, PGK Hanson. If you go to that website, we do nothing to hide our real identities. Plus, it eliminates the need to haggle over whose name goes in what order on the cover, etc.

So I think pen names can be useful--as long as you're not expecting to be able to hide your real identity with it.

Susan Russo Anderson said...

Thanks very much for your post.

It used to be that if a man wrote in the romance genre, he would use a female pen name because readers expect a romance to be written by a woman. I don't know enough about this genre or its authors to know if this is still true.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, LJ. I write in a few different genres, too, and I've always used my real name. As you mentioned, if one does have a fan base , it just seems logical to draw from that no matter what the genre. That said, I'm shopping around a post-apocalyptic novel for which I may try a pen name as an experiment.

L.J. Sellers said...

I've decided to send an e-book of The Arranger to everyone who commented and wants one. Email me and let me know whether you prefer a mobi (Kindle) or epub file.

Anonymous said...

Seriously i love your books, lovely to find your blog, that is miracles, keep posting bro!

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