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?