Pen Names for Different Genres, Yea or Nay?

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Let’s talk about pen names today. Not the type of pen name you adopt because you need to hide your writing career from employers, stalkers, mob bosses, or grannies who don’t approve of your “active romance” novels (all valid reasons to write under a pseudonym), but the type you feel you have to create because you’re going to publish something in a different genre.

It used to be accepted wisdom that you took a pen name (or two or three) if you were delving into new areas, such as from non-fiction to fiction, or from historical romance to space opera. Of course, it also used to be that publisher forced you to use a pen name if you wanted to publish more than a book a year, regardless of genre. Apparently the market would simply be too flooded with titles by the same author that it would self-implode (or maybe it had something to do with bookshelf space in physical stores — perhaps those of you who have been publishing longer than I have can  enlighten us). And of course your historical romance fans not only won’t touch your Farscape-inspired romp amongst the stars but that they’ll be terribly offended that you wrote such a thing to start with (and vice versa).

The e-publishing/digital marketing era has brought some changes. These days we’re realizing that authors who publish frequently… tend to make more money. Not only do they have more books out for readers to discover, but it’s easier for them to collect fans and build momentum when they have new books appearing in the Amazon category lists every few months (or for the truly prolific — I just listened to an interview with Elle Casey over at the Rocking Self-Publishing Podcast, and she publishes a book every month). As far as publishing in multiple genres with the same? If we can use Ms. Casey as an example again, it just doesn’t seem to matter.

Ella Casey uses her name for everything she writes, and she’s published everything from YA dystopian to contemporary romance. In that interview, she points out that she doesn’t get as much crossover from readers as she’d hoped (though, from my own experiences, I’d wager she gets at least some), but she’s had bestsellers and been quite successful overall (especially since she started publishing less than two years ago), while doing no more promotion than your average dedicated-to-succeeding indie author. In short, using a single name for multiple genres isn’t hurting her.

In fact, I’m going to argue that in today’s competitive and fast-changing digital environment, experimenting with multiple author names will seriously hinder your ability to increase your overall readership and sell more books.

Three reasons to pick a name (or pen name) and stick to it…

“Building a platform” and maintaining a social media presence is enough work for one person

As an author these days, you’re expected to be on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and Google+. You’re expecting to have a newsletter and a blog, and to guest post or participate in interviews for other people’s blogs. This is true whether you’re self-published or traditionally published (actually traditionally published authors seem to get pressured to do all this to an extent that’s out of proportion with the amount of books one truly sells because of this stuff). Some authors enjoy this sort of work, but others lament that it takes away from book-writing time. Either way, it’d become tedious for most if they had to juggle and try to maintain multiple online personae. In addition, it’s hard to gain momentum if one’s activities on these sites are infrequent (blogs, in particular, take a while to gain critical mass and start receiving traffic from the search engines).

Sticking to one pen name needs you only have to worry about doing the work of one person instead of two or three.

More books out under your name equals more ways for readers to discover you

A while back (before I was in a similar camp), I looked at three indie fantasy authors making thousands of dollars a month from their work. I’m come across many, many more self-published authors who are able to do that now. The common thread? Most of us have 10+ books out. Some sell well and others don’t. The more you have, though, the more chances you have of seeing one book or series take off.

For most of us, it takes a while to write a novel (more than a month, anyway!), but ten might be achievable in the not-so-distant future (you start to get a lot more enthused once you’re making a little money and getting fan mail). However… if you’re spreading those books across multiple pen names, the odds are that it’ll take longer to hit critical mass. As far as the world knows, you’ll be three different people with three books out, no relation. Sure, you can tell folks on your mailing list about your alternate names, but authors always have a lot more people who buy and read her books than who actually sign up for a newsletter.

Even a small amount of readership crossover can help launch your new book/series

Will someone who loves your mysteries also enjoy your YA paranormal romance? Maybe, maybe not. But let’s assume you have a few faithful readers who will try anything you write, or who just happen to enjoy both of those genres. We’ll say, thanks to the success of your earlier works, you have 3,000 readers who bought and adored the novels in the first genre you tried. You’re hopping over to a new genre, and only 10% are willing to buy the new book. That doesn’t sound like many, but 300 book sales in the first few days of a release will get you onto some category Top 100 charts on Amazon, where your book has a chance of being seen by new readers, readers who adore that particular genre. They may not recognize your name, but if you have a good cover, blurb, and sample, they may give you a shot. And if they see that you’ve written another series that has garnered lots of positive reviews, that could be enough to sway them to try this new novel. From there… well, one never knows when a book given a head start like that can take off and sell well.

On the other hand, if you’d decided that writing in a new genre meant you had to use a different pen name, then you’d be starting at ground zero with this new novel. With more and more ebooks in the marketplace and more and more authors competing for promotion “resources” (i.e. Bookbub ads), it’s harder and harder to get noticed as a new author. And if you’re splitting your time between pen names and not able to publish often enough to improve your books’ visibility… Well, it’s hard enough to establish yourself as it is. Why make it tougher?

What are your thoughts? Given today’s publishing and selling environment, would you still use pen names for different genres? Or do you agree that one name is the way to go in most circumstances?

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Comments (21)

I agree that branding by genre and having a new pen name to suit each genre is no longer as important as it used to be, what with the majority of people buying their books online rather than in bookstores.

That being said, I am still going to use pen names, one for my translations and one for my original writing. Over the past couple years, I’ve noticed almost no cross-over at all between who is interested in which, and I actually have had problems with people expecting me to be writing or writing about one instead of the other, so keeping them separate has been more beneficial than not.

I’ve noticed the same with people who publish both fiction and non-fiction. Say, historical fiction and history non-fiction. Combining both names on one website is doable, to keep fans apprised, but the name-divide has been helpful, to those I’ve seen who do use them. There’s a stigma between the two, and using different names has helped combat the stigma.

As a reader, I find writer pennames useful for finding what I want. For example, I’m a fan of Kris Rusch. When I want a fun sweet romance type, I go for her Kristine Grayson stuff, and I can just search “Kristine Grayson” without paging through her other work to get to it.

But if I want to find her non-fiction, I have to look up “Kristine Kathryn Rusch” and then dig through her sci-fi and fantasy titles to find the link to what I’m looking for. (Usually The Freelancer’s Survival Guide or How to Negotiate Anything.)

Now, I like the Fey and Diving books that I’ve read, and I want to collect them, but when they’re not what I’m looking for, they’re not what I’m looking for.

That’s why I use pennames, some of which are derivatives of each other.

Note: I do admit to my pennames on my website (er, most of them—one is findable in reverse, but I avoid making it easy to find on my website if you don’t already know it, because it’s not kid-friendly in the “mature themes” way). And my newsletter is set up so somebody can easily subscribe to everything OR a specific subset of what I release, if they so want. 🙂

Funny you mention Kristine Kathryn Rusch, I was going to mention her Business blog post of a few weeks ago, which subject was … pen names

Such a small percentage of people bother to go to authors’ sites or sign up for their newsletters, so what they see under the author’s name on Amazon is all they’ll ever know.

I had no idea Kris Rusch was Kristine Grayson (someone it sounds like I might like), and I never bothered to do more than look her up by the name on her blog. So, ya know, lost sales possibly, because I do stumble across her posts from time to time (usually chunks of them shared on Passive Voice) and am likely to buy books from authors I’ve met in the blogosphere. Not that I imagine she cares, as I understand she does quite well, but for new authors starting out… I think it’s just one more obstacle to overall sales.

I wouldn’t use a pen name for anything but erotica. For that I’d be worried about alienating my other fans, although maybe I’m just worried I’d have to change the name on all my books to my pen name because they’d be so popular.

I have more non-fiction books now than I have fiction books. I wonder sometimes if they’d do better under a pen name, but then I think about cutting my back list in half and that doesn’t seem so appealing.

In the extremely short span of time that’s been my writing career, I’ve already started on one side of the pen name divide and then (after agonizing for a while) hopped over to the other. In the days leading up to publishing my first short stories, I actually set up two websites, got two of everything ready, etc., etc. My real name (this one) was going to be for fantasy and my pen name for action/thrillers. In the six or eight months that I maintained both personas, I was amazed at how much extra work it was to have to do everything twice, even for someone in the very early stages of a career who doesn’t have all that much to do. Not to mention the fact that it would take far longer (say, twice as long? 🙂 ) to get enough stories and novels out there to hit “critical mass” for both names.

In the end, I decided to go the route of trusting the reader to know what they would like and what they wouldn’t. And that way, like Lindsay mentions, I gain the chance to pick up a least a few readers who might hop across genres. For a while I would ask myself, who on earth would hop from epic fantasy to modern-day political thrillers? Then I thought, you know what? I would! And I figure there’s probably at least a few other people out there like me.

As far as readers and sales go, my biggest concern is that there might be some people who think, “Ew, political thrillers and terrorism? I don’t want anything to do with that,” and therefore they wouldn’t even consider trying the fantasy series, which of course has nothing to do with the modern day or with terrorism. Or that there might be readers who try to read between the lines of the thriller novels and think, “I’m pretty sure that I don’t like this guy’s politics. Therefore I won’t read anything that he writes.” If you stay wholly in the realm of fantasy for a given pen name, you avoid those potential problems. So I do think that it’s possible that I could lose a few readers by having everything published under one name. But I think there is the potential to gain far more than I lose. I think (and I’m about 98.7% sure . . . I mentioned that I agonized for a while about this, yes?) that one name is the way to go.

So moving forward, all of my publishing will be done under one name. In doing so, I will take care to identify the genre of each book clearly through its cover, book description, placement on my website, etc. And I have to admit that it has given me a sense of freedom to realize that I can write anything I want to and not need to worry about classifying it under a certain pen name or even, heaven forbid, having to start another new one. I’ve already published the first book in an epic fantasy series, and the book I’m working on now is a political thriller. Then it will be back to the fantasy series for book 2. Future plans include a sci-fi/dystopian series and maybe even a romance novel (!!). We’ll see how it goes. I certainly expect it will be a fun journey! At the end of the day, I know that it will be easiest for me to have everything under one name. And I think it will be just fine to put the ball in the reader’s court and trust them to find whatever kind of book (or two) it is that they want to read.

Ha! Apologies for writing such a tome . . . didn’t mean for it to turn out that long 😛

Maybe it is some remembered childhood agony, but I look at my own name and while I have no problem having my stories out with it emblazoned across the cover, I worry that the name itself doesn’t “feel” like an authors name. Like I led with, I imagine at least part of this is remembering being teased for it as a kid A LOT.

So while I definitely would stick with the same name for all my publishing activites, I do wonder sometimes in the dark as I go to sleep whether a “better” author name would sell more books. And yet, I have blogs and social media with my real name on it and I have absolutely 0 interest in changing that. I will still use that social platofrm that I have built in blogging, so it makes no sense to put another name on it and yet the teasing echos in my head.

In the end, I expect I will just use my real name and lean into being proud of it and what I can produce and not worry so much about it.

I am definitely on board with keeping ONE NAME for all the reasons you’ve mentioned. So far I’ve done paranormal romance that’s both adult and YA. There was some crossover–less than I’d hoped for, but no one was upset about the shift (well, except for those who were frustrated at having to wait longer before my next adult release).

I think the only real circumstance where separate pen names would be a good idea still is if you were making a jump between, say, childrens books or YA or sweet romance and erotica. Because you can put information in the description until you’re blue in the face, and you can hope that the covers make it clear the nature of the content, but there will STILL be people who ignore all that and do an autobuy and then get angry because they “didn’t know.”

I agree with Kait Nolan – I would LOVE to have everything under one name but I’ve started with children’s middle-grade and am now planning to publish some adult “steamy” romances – and I just feel that it would be inappropriate to have those 2 under the same name. Do you agree, Lindsay?

Aside from worrying about kid readers stumbling on the wrong type of book with mature content, I worry about alienating the hard-won parents of my kid readers – and even just some conservative adult readers who enjoy my innocent dog stories & currently follow my dog’s blog. I think it would be different if it was YA to adult – but middle-grade to steamy romance just seems too big a leap.

So – much as I hate having to do double of everything in terms of branding, social media. etc, I think I’m going to have no choice. 🙁

ps. just wanted to add also how much I value & enjoy your blog, Lindsay – it’s been one of my most valuable resources since deciding to self-publish back in May. You always write about things that strike so close to what I’m thinking or debating and you do it all with such clarity & honesty. Have been wanting to comment lots of times before but always been busy or sidetracked – but have finally come out of lurking! 🙂

With the bump I see with every newly published book or short story, I can’t imagine intentionally setting myself back to step 1: total obscurity. Any author starting out faces obscurity as their number one adversary. Your book can be the next Lord of the Rings or a failed high-school creative writing assignment, and it will get the same market response initially (i.e. none).

The work that goes into taking that starting position and advancing it to the point where people hear your name and associate it with your writing is immense. Why subject yourself to a repeat of that same struggle?

A minor exception I could see would be publishing fiction and non-fiction under different name variations. I write fiction under J.S. Morin because “J.S.” sounds more writery to me than “Jeff.” If I were to put out a non-fiction work (which I’ve considered), I’d have to decide whether I use “J.S.” or “Jeff”, just to keep audiences clear on the distinction. However, I would use the same platforms for promotion, and make it reasonably clear that the two names are the same author.

I definitely agree about a single penname, but I usually write things more geared towards adults and I am delving into a for kids only book, so I won’t be using my pseudonym for that. If it was YA, then I’d keep it, but I’d rather children not stumble upon books with blood, guts and sex…unless they’re very motivated to do so.

“Three reasons to pick a name (or pen name) and stick to it…”

Reason # 1 is reason enough for me 😉

“Building a platform” and maintaining a social media presence is enough work for one person”

Not trying to compare myself, but it’s like a Ron Howard movie, or Shakespeare, or Beatle music, doesn’t much matter if it varies in genre or tone, you know who/what it is, and can find it in one Google search – oops, I guess that’s kinda like reason # 2 🙂

Thanks Lindsay!

A very timely post. I’ve been agonizing over the decision whether to use my core online identity as my writing identity or whether to make up several pen names. I really like the appeal of using different pen names for different genres, but I have a lot of potential books. It would be SUCH a pain in the butt to manage all of that…

I envy authors who can juggle multiple WiP’s and publish more than one title per year, but this is one of those times when I’m glad I’m not prolific enough to write in more than one genre.

Though I intend to use only one name, I do sometimes wonder which name to use. Married name? Maiden name? Hyphenated name? Initials and last name? Etc.

Right now though, what I really need to focus on is finishing the current project and moving on to the next. Wash, rinse, repeat.

I don’t use pen names for most of my stuff, and it spans epic fantasy, dystopian sci-fi, YA post-apocalyptic, horror, and YA mystery. I have seen a little bit of crossover.

Author Julie Phillips, in her biography of the science fiction writer Alice Sheldon, has some interesting things to say about pseudonyms:

A new name can allow work to be judged on its own merits, or, conversely, add cachet. But whether it happens deliberately, casually, by marriage, or as a prank, a change of name can be powerful writing medicine. It can give access to that inner voice that dictates. It can allow a writer room to play, try out new ideas, or explore forbidden emotions. Multiple pseudonyms, like all the characters who spoke for the poet Fernando Pessoa, can give voices to many sides of the self. A writer may speak of “possessed” by a pseudonym, as Terry Carr has said. When he wrote as Carl Brandon, he said, “ideas and phrases would come to me that didn’t seem to be part of my own psyche at all.”

For a woman, a pseudonym can be a way of getting published at all, or of avoiding public disapproval. “George Eliot,” for example, put some distance between the respectable novels and the “fallen woman,” Mary Ann Evans, who wrote them. “Currer Bell” put distance between Charlotte Brontë and the words of poet laureate Robert Southey, who told her that writing “cannot be the business of a woman’s life.” A male name can confer a power and authority, in the eyes of the reader, that a woman might not have as herself.

It can confer that authority even in her own eyes. It is a strategy for getting around self-censorship, for, in Virginia Woolf’s phrase, “killing the angel in the house,” for claiming creative potency, for following the imagination into deep waters. The tight rope walk of play, control, power, openness, and confidence that is writing has everything to do with gender, and it’s not only a 19th century phenomenon. Throughout the 20th century, women writers have adopted male or genderless pseudonyms, from H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) and Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), to Carson McCullers (born Lula Carson Smith) and Flannery O’Connor (who dropped the 1st name Mary). Few have taken the deception as far as Alice Sheldon (who wrote as James Tiptree, Jr.), but many have used male protagonist: as Dorothy L Sayers pointed out, Lord Peter Wimsey could have much more fun than she. For a long time Ursula Le Guin wrote about men, and said, “My Daemon just wouldn’t produce a woman hero.”

[…] Buroker: Pen Names for Different Genres, Yea or Nay? “Let’s talk about pen names today. Not the type of pen name you adopt because you need to […]

Just starting out, but I am using a pen name (my married name) to separate from my academic writing (my legal name). However, I’ve got a novel percolating that’s more in the memoir realm, which would pose a problem for which name to use.

I do like the reasons stated above for having multiple pen names for a mature audience. And Peter’s suggestion for using a different style of name to channel different voice. For a website, it seems like it would be simple to redirect domain names, but the social media and Amazon ranks would pose an issue.

[…] Note: Don’t go crazy… with to many pen names! It is a lot of work to establish one author brand with success. Thus, we do not recommend to have more than two or three pen names. If you write in numerous genres, do not create a new personality for each genre. It is better, to organize them in two areas such as fiction and non-fiction. Another good possibility is to separate one contradicting genre from the others and to brand only this one under a pen name. Reading tip: Lindsay Buroker “Pen Names For Different Genres: Yea or Nay?” […]

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