Fiction publishing: Is there an industry rule to avoid authors using same name?

When working on a book database web site of mine which cross-references books with the same author name I noticed that:

[li]with nonfiction/scientific books there are a lot of author names with books on wildly disparate fields; I assume these mostly are by different authors of the same name (especially if the first and last names are reasonably common)[/li][li]with fiction authors, however, it seems that duplication is avoided, even with common names.[/li]
Is there some sort of industry rule analogous to actors? (I understand there is an union rule in the US film industry to the effect that a name cannot be used once it’s ‘taken’ as someone else’s actor name, even if it happens to be your actual name).

Or is there legal precedent to the effect that re-using an author name constitutes fraud, or a civil tort against the other publisher?

IOW, what keeps unscrupulous publishers from seeking out literary nonentities named e.g. Stephen King and publishing books under their name?

Whether there’s such a rule at the moment I can’t say - however, I can think of a counterexample.

Charles Williams is different to Charles Williams

Another: John Lange was a former pen-name of Michael Crichton, and also the real name (and appeared on the copyright notices) of Gor author John Norman.

The old Fighting Fantasy adventure game book series had 3 different authors called “Steve Jackson”. The books themselves never differentiated them.

There’s no rule that requires authors to use different names, but occasionally an author will be asked change his name or take a pseudonym in order to avoid confusion.

Michael McDowell, for instance, found there was another author by that name, so he wrote as Michael Kube-McDowell (which he dislikes) on the advice of his editor.

There was also an aspiring science fiction writer in the 80s named Robert A. Heinlein. Editors strongly suggested he use a pseudonym, but he refused. AFAIK, though, he was never published.

There is a self-published author by the name of Bob Eggleston, which creates some confusion with the well-known SF artist Bob Eggleston. However, even in this instance, there’s no way to stop the author from using the name.

The reason why actors can have such a rule is that they are part of the Screen Actors Guild. “Guild” means that you can’t act in a movie without being a member.* Since the guild controls who acts, they can set up rules about duplication of names. No such guild exists for writers (and couldn’t exist). Thus, any writer can do whatever they want. The publishers can suggest they use different names, but they have no way to enforce it.

*There are exceptions, of course, but if you want a career as a movie actor, you have to join.

I kept getting reminders from Amazon that Douglas Adams was publishing new books.

This was, of course, a different Douglas Adams to the one I was interested in. But I notice he has added a middle initial, which was probably asked of him.

This may be because of the existing popularity and recognition of the name, though. Maybe less prominent names aren’t policed?

There is a ‘Rice’ who writes what looks like romance novels. I see them in passing in the grocery store, and wonder if she is trying to capitalize on Anne Rice’s name. And there are Several Parkers I have to wade through looking for Spenser, Stone, and Randall.

There are several authors named Carolyn Keene. And they all write books about Nancy Drew.

There is (or was, rather) an American John Gardner and an English John Gardner.

Checking Barnes & Noble, I’ve found there’s already somebody publishing with my name, down to the middle initial. So if I ever produce something worth publishing, I’ll probably come up with a pseudonym to avoid confusion.

Winston Churchill was a famous American writer. Winston Churchill was a famous British writer.

Bill James writes mysteries. Bill James writes baseball books.

Carolyn Keene and Steve Jackson are house names, which is a different thing altogether.

The only rule is the practical one of not causing confusion in the reader’s mind. The two Bill James write in different fields, but in these days of search engines they are hard to sort out. It makes sense to have a name that is findable for you and you alone.

Legally, nothing. Practically, however, no bookstore would touch them so the plot would be self-defeating. You’d get a hundred times as many sales by using a different name and plastering, “just like Stephen King” on the cover.

Well, what would happen if I decided to use “Stephen King” as a pen name for my next erotica blockbuster? Cease-and-desist letter from his publisher’s lawyer, I imagine.

I am truly the most minor of fiction authors (a handful of published stories, sold another one last week – woohoo!), but I made the “different name” decision for myself, for two reasons:

First, there is already an author in my genre, far better known than I, whose name is very close to mine and whose books are somewhat similar to my stories (not really, but same setting [the West] and same time [present day]). My name is Jodi Lastname; her name is Josie Lastname. (Not really.) Since she is already published as Josie Lastname, I publish under my full name – Jodi Middlename Lastname. It sounds kinda pretentious even to me, but I wanted to distinguish myself from that author, for both our sakes.

Second, I already have an established career, including some publications, under the name Jodi Lastname. By using my full name for my fiction writing, I distinguish for myself the work I do for fun and the work I do for work. And given the true pittance paid for short fiction work, I must be in it for the fun.

In short, there is no mechanism that says you must publish under a name that is uniquely your own, but I’m certain a lot of authors try to do so. There isn’t really any profit (literal or metaphorical) in having a common or confusing name.

Actually, no. It was 3 unrelated guys, who all happened to be called “Steve Jackson”. For all three of them it was their actual name.

Edited to add: One Steve Jackson only wrote one book, and there were about 10-15 non “Steve Jackson” authors for the series.

If that’s not your actual name – probably. The difference is that the scenario you describe is an attempt to profit from Mr. King’s publicity and his reputation, in a manner that theoretically would damage him professionally. (Assuming he doesn’t want his name attached to an erotica blockbuster he didn’t write – a safe bet, I think.)

But if your name REALLY WAS “Stephan King,” what basis would he have for saying you can’t publish your own work under your own name?

In case the point hasn’t been made yet, there’s no rule. You can always use your own name, even if it’s the same as someone else’s.

Don’t make the assumption, however, that those books in widely disparate genres or subject areas aren’t really by the same person. Many authors have the inclination (and ability) to write more than one type of book.

Isaac Asimov, for example, although known best for his science fiction, also wrote college textbooks, science essays, young adult fiction, mysteries, and a whole lot more. Romance writer Nora Roberts writes mysteries (although she uses a pseudonym). Mark Haddon (author of the wonderful novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) has a book of poetry out. The same Jon Krakauer that wrote Into Thin Air (about climbing Mt. Everest) also wrote Under the Banner of Heaven (about the Mormon religion). Some of my favorite authors write both fiction and nonfiction (Ivan Doig comes to mind).

As a much more modest example, I have over a dozen children’s picture books in print, but I’ve also written four technical books, a historical booklet, and a bunch of computer manuals. My magazine articles have appeared in such different venues as The National Law Journal, Blacklisted! 411 (a hacker magazine), the magazine for the National Association for the Deaf, a semiconductor design magazine, and an anthology of small-town living essays.

So when you see that Rufus T. Snugwaller has written a book about electron migration in p-doped semiconductor substrates and a novel about a teenage girl and her illicit love affair with the town’s disgraced chinchilla breeder, don’t assume that they are two different Rufus T. Snugwallers. Old Ruf just might surprise you.

Probably not, unless something in the publicity and promotion of the work gave the impression that it was the more famous Stephen King.

Treading on identity is a segment of the law that’s both hazy and in flux. California has laws that protect the name and image of celebrities in ways that no other state does, for example. Some authors have trademarked their names (see Harlan Ellison®), and so have other celebrities. That certainly means you can’t use their name to publicize your projects, and it also seems to give them better protection from people trying to seize URLs with their names, but I don’t know if it would extend so far as to prevent another Harlan Ellison from writing in a field he doesn’t normally work in.

A search at the Library of Congress, BTW, brings up a couple of other Stephen Kings and a long list of Stephen [middle name or initial] Kings.

I didn’t know that about the three Steve Jacksons, though. Odd story.

Not precisely the same situation, but Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks are the same author*, writing in two slightly different genres.

  • Okay, so I’m quite sure there are other Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks out there, some of whom may write books. I’m trying to make a point, so don’t be so pedantic. That’s my job.

I’m reminded of the case of Christopher Priest … well, of comic book writer Christopher Priest, who used to be called Jim Owsley but changed his name to Christopher Priest because it sounded cool. British SF novelist Christopher Priest, who was already called Christopher Priest and always had been, was a bit annoyed about that.

For a while, too, there was a guy called Bob Shaw who was very active in British SF fandom, and who was often referred to as “the fake Bob Shaw”, to distinguish him from the writer of the same name.

(Might as well add: should you wander into a bookshop and come across Meditations in Green or M-31: A Romance by Stephen Wright, it ain’t me.)

We knew that. You’re a standup comedian.

In fact, I believe Mr. Asimov remains, to this day, the only author with at least one book in every category of the Dewey Decimal System.