What's the point of a pen name?

My wife is reading a series of books by Nora Roberts, but this series actually is listed as written by “Nora Roberts writing as J.D. Robb.”

What is the point of writing a book under a pen name when you list your real name along side it anyways?

There are several reasons for pen names, some of which have more to do with marketing than hiding one’s identity. A writer will sometime write different genres of fiction under different names, so that one name is used for romance, another for sci-fi, etc. In some cases one of these pen names becomes such a popular “brand” that it is used to promote books previously written under another name.

Someone will come along soon and give you some actual examples of this, I’m sure.

Good question… some of her books just used a straight pen name on the cover, and so were only listed as “bestselling author” J.D. Robb. Since they are in a different genre then her romance books under the other name, this makes a fair bit of sense. Like you, I don’t see the point of listing both.

Not to sound all bitchy about the issue as it is completely trivial to me, but…

It sure seems like she is all full of herself when she does this.

That makes no sense at all. But then: if she was originally publishing under two different names for marketing reasons, or whatever–she was probably so prolific her publisher didn’t want her competing with herself–and the was “found out,” she’d have developed two different audiences. The “writing as” gathers both of those audiences together.

Because she got “outed”.

There are a zillion reasons for writing under pen names, but the most likely one in this case is that publishers think book buyers are stupid.

The gospel in publishing is that buyers will not follow authors if they switch genres. This “dilutes the franchise” or some such nonsense. They actually picture a romance reader picking up a Nora Roberts title expecting love and romance, finding that it is set in the future, and hurling the book against the wall in horror, becoming so traumatized in the process that they never will even touch another book with Nora Roberts on the cover ever again.

(This is also held to be true at times when an author decides to start a new series even within a genre.)

The true question, of course, is the number of readers who will hurl rather than just saying, science fiction isn’t my thing - I’ll wait for the next romance. And especially when you put that up against the number of readers who will say, Nora Roberts - I’ll read anything by her.

It turns out in this case that the number of I’ll read anything readers is huge. So now the J. D. Robb books also have Nora Roberts name on them, but keep the pseudonym so that people will know the older books in the series.

There is a secondary issue here as well. Even the most popular authors will not sell as well if they go outside their usual genre. I’m sure that the Robb books still don’t sell as many as the Roberts books.

But the big chains order by computer. So the publishers visualize a scenario in which a Nora Roberts starts an sf series and her sales are 90% lower than for her previous book. So the chains’ computers automatically order only 10% of their usual allotment of her next book - whatever that might be.

Now I’m sure you’re saying that this scenario is too stupid to be contemplated, but you can find large numbers of people in the industry who will swear that this is true.

Therefore, all sorts of stratagems are used to get around this. Half the new mystery and sf books on the market are purported to be by old veterans whose last book didn’t sell that well, so they are getting around the death symbol next to their names on the computer list by writing under a pseudonym.

Publishing - to paraphrase Britney S[pears - is no longer a profession but not yet a business.

For example, Jayne Ann Krentz (also a romance author) writes Contemporary romances (romances set in the current time) while her pen name, Amanda Quick, writes Historical Romances. Heather Graham writes Contemporaries while her penname, Shanon Drake, write Paranormal romances (vampires, etc.).

Meggin Cabot writes romance novels while her penname Meg Cabot writes novels for young adults.

Almost all men who write in the Romance genre do so under a female penname. For example Kylie Adams is a man. Likewise women writing in the SF genre sometimes take male pennames: Andre Norton is a woman.

In the case of Nora Roberts, her publisher may have felt she was overexposed and initially asked her to write her futuristic mysteries as JD Robb (Stephen King was asked to write under the penname Richard Bachman for this same reason). Later it was discovered that it is not possible for either Roberts or King to be overpublished for their market, so they gave up keeping the names separate.

Finally, a writer may begin writing in a “genre” (romance, mystery, SF) under a penname if they have the intention of ever writing literary fiction or nonfiction.

Is your wife reading “Remember When” Dragwyr? If so, that is a wierd case. It contains storylines from both her Roberts-style boks and Robb-style books. I believe both her names are on the cover.

I’d have to agree with lissener that this is probably the case. Stephen King did that with his Richard (?) Bachman surname, to avoid flooding the market with his books at the time.* Eventually it was somehow revealed that Bachman was King, and I’ve seen his Bachman books reprinted with both his real name and the pen name on the cover. This draws in the King fans but lets people looking for a particular book by Bachman (who perhaps don’t know who the real author is) still find it on the shelf.

  • Departing even further from GQ: Moreso than usual, that is.

Asimov wrote a series of books, Lucky Star and the [fill in the blank]. I have a couple, reprinted by Signet in 1972, with the original copyright date being 1958 and published by Doubleday. On my reprint, it has Issac Asimov and then, in much smaller type underneath, “Writing as Paul French.” I assume this means that Asimov published these as Paul French and then the reprint used Asimov’s name. My guess for why would be the publicity: Asimov is/was a big name in science fiction, and the series is sorta sci-fi detective stories.

PS Exampno Mapcase– the “big chains” don’t order by computer. I word for the second-largest bookstore chain in America. There are human beings that make these descisions, although they do look at sales history and many other factors. the scenario you describe below:

But the big chains order by computer. So the publishers visualize a scenario in which a Nora Roberts starts an sf series and her sales are 90% lower than for her previous book. So the chains’ computers automatically order only 10% of their usual allotment of her next book - whatever that might be.

does not reflect reality. What would happen is that the next time an SF novel rolled around, they would remember if it undersold projections and order less of the next similar novel. NOT the next novel by that author.

[fails to read OP]

It’s called a nib.

[/fails to read OP]

I write novels under a pen name.

My novels contain a significant element of social commentary, and many of the the characters are ‘freethinking’ people of philosophical bent seeking ther truth, and often see -if only briefly- through the tissue of social lies that are necessary to live in our culture. My books also contain elements of painful personal experience. I want to share my thinking on those subjects, but I don’t necessarily want to open up speculation on events in my private life. Finally, since I tend to ‘write what I know’, I often incorporate ‘inside facts’ from various fields -it’s hard to do otherwise- which might anger some people. In addition to the usual fact-checking, I find myself bogged down with the details of what, exactly, was declassified and when, or issues of personal or professional privacy (to avoid the possibility of lawsuits). Sure, anyone who was determined could identify me, but why make myself an easy target?

You may not think that Western/American society has many inviolable sacred cows anymore, but it assuredly does. I don’t consider it cowardly to state ideas or propose situations to be weighed on their own merits, without interceding my personal identity. I’ve seen what happens to people who anatagonize a small but vocal fraction of the populace, who lead in turn a tenfold larger ‘me-too’ faction, can be a substantial burden.

Simply being known as controversial could cause problems for me in he medical community or with patients, though those controversial views have nothing to do with the practice of medicine. If nothing else it can be an excuse for those who dislike you to dislike you more, and provides fuel to be misused by your adversaries. Many well-known physician-authors published their first works under a pseudonym.

As a student, I expressed (and supported in solid academic terms) some views in a student forum, which my characters state more firmly, and support more vigorously than I would dare. Yet, even in a university, a traditional home of fact, analysis and acceptance of divergent views, some of my moderately phrased remarks were taken out of context, and used viciously against me behind my back. I’ve learned to cultivate a deliberately stilted style of internet posting to ‘cover my tracks’ (More than once, I’ve had a friend or colleague send me something I’d written under a nick, along with a note saying “I thought you’d agree with this,” or “I think this is a clearer formultaion of what you were saying the other day”)

I don’t consider What I wrote to be terribly controversial on a factual basis (or even ‘bad’), but every Doper knows how humans (ourselves included) cling to the myths, values, and urban legands that we unthinkingly accepted, and often actively embraced because it filled some subconscious need. Our political system, social structure, and every aspect of our civilization is built on such myths, and any open-minded person who’s spent much time with an inquisitive child has probably been set back on their heels by some innocent statement or question of that innocent mind

Still, I am proud of my work, and hope that someday, I will be in a position to be less cautious, and will be able to put my real name alongside my pen name. That day might come sooner if I chose to do the speaking circuits, book-signings, and otherwise publicize my books - but that’s not how I want to spend my life at this point in time. Am I ‘full of myself’? Yes -as many of my friends will laughingly tell you- but that’s not why I use a pen name.

Writing a book, IMHO, should be a sharing of ideas and writing, not necessarily a political battle - but in a culture built of myth and empty false symbols, clear ideas can subversive by their very nature

Hello – your experience runs counter to all I’ve seen.

I’m sure that an individual store can decide to pick books that they determine they want, but the major buyers for the chains have a tremendous influence. You can pick books for your store, but the chain buyer buys books for a few thousand stores. You may know of a particular author and get that consignment from the buyer, but there will be fewer books overall in the stores, espcially in those that don’t think to ask for them.

Book publishing has been factoring in this for a decade or so, finding that the big buyers for the chains do indeed cut back on purchases depending on the previous track record. Several authors have deliberately used pen names (e.g., “Robin Hobb” and “HN Turtletaub” are pen names created precisely for that reason). See this from Harry Turtledove:

Turtledove, BTW, originally wrote on the the pseudonym “Eric G. Iverson” (there was a feeling no one would belive Turtledove was his real name); if those stories were to be reprinted, it would probably list both names.

I do find it hard to believe your assertion that the books are determined by genre; that if an SF book sells badly, then other SF books by other authors are affected. It makes no sense: SF readers will still buy SF books, and there are always books that sell poorly in a genre. If a particular book sells badly, how does that affect a book by a different author? And as far as “next similar novel” is concerned – how on Earth do you define “similar” with any rigor?

At the same time, choosing by an author’s previous sales – while a poor way to do your ordering in the long run – has some reasoning behind it, since readers do consider the author foremost in buying a book. You’re most likely to buy a book from an author you like, and most readers will buy a new book by the author’s name alone from time to time. Few would buy a book simply because it was science fiction.

Hello Again, you didn’t go on to quote the part in which I said:

I thought that made it clear that I wasn’t one of those people.

However, I know there are writers and editors and agents who work careers as if it were true. And it often seems to be the case that writers appear to be punished for a poorly-selling off-market book.

realitychuck wrote:
I’m sure that an individual store can decide to pick books that they determine they want, but the major buyers for the chains have a tremendous influence.

Exactly. A person, known as a buyer makes the descision. You are absolutely correct in saying that buying desciions are made at corporate for the whole chain (on the majority books) I was simply disagreeing with Exapno’s contention that these descisions come down from machines. Which they don’t. They come from a very influential person, who is in fact human.

However Realitychuck I think you misunderstood me. I meant that if a writer writes a novel which is outside their genre (and genres do have definitions internally) which fails, it is not considered predictive that their next novel inside their genre will fail.

For example, Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark (a story told from the first-person perspective of an autistic man) did not sell gangbusters, but I doubt it affected the buying of her latest military SF, Trading in Danger. They probably looked at her previous book in the series, Herris Seranno, I think, to decide how many to buy.

Greg Maguire’s novel Lost which broke from his “retold fairy tale” series of books, was also disappointing. Now that he’s back on with a retelling of Snow White Mirror Mirror, that book is expected to sell well.

People like to become familiar with an author and don’t usually like it when they switch genres or do anything unexpected (people are like Hobbits that way, eh?).

Somehow, I missed the part about robotic executives. (In any case, I thought it was done by monkey butlers.)

For reasons much like KP’s, some professions who also write books like to keep their two professions separate. A lawyer with a major white-shoe firm who wrote books full of lawyers at major white-shoe firms having unethical behavior and wild sex … well, you can see how unless and until he became very famous for those books, that would be a problem.

Science fiction writer C J Cherryh’s real name is Carolyn Janice Cherry, but I’ve read an interview where she said she added the H because Cherry sounded too much like a romance novellist (in addition she probably uses her initials so you can’t guess she’s a woman).

Writers need to have a name that fits the style of book they write, and they also need a name that’s memorable and looks good on a cover. And to take a hypothetical example, if you’re called Tim Flower you’re not going to sell many war stories under your own name.

Quoth asterion:

Actually, in that case, it’s because there was hope of turning the stories into TV serials. But the television phenomenon was still somewhat new at the time, and nobody was sure how well they would do. Asimov wanted the pseudonym so as to be able to distance himself, in case they flopped. As it happened, the books did moderately well, and the TV shows were never made, so Asimov’s ego took over, and they’re now attributed to him.

The only other time Asimov ever wrote under a pseudonym was The Illustrated Dirty Old Man, by “Dr. A.”, but that was an open secret and intended as a joke. In addition, he wanted to use a pseudonym for “On the Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline”, because he was working on his PhD thesis at the time, and was worried about what his thesis comittee might think of his more frivolous pursuits. As it happened, though, it was accidentally published under his own name, and his comittee laughed it off. But in general, Asimov was too, ahem, humble to want to miss getting credit for his work.

Meanwhile, Heinlein wrote under the pseudonym “Anson MacDonald” for market-penetration purposes. The magazines didn’t like to run two stories by the same author in an issue, but Heinlein often had two good stories at once. So they’d publish one as being by Heinlein, and one by Macdonald. I think he also used another pseudonym or two for outside-the-genre exploration, but I don’t recall what they were.

A few more reaons…

A friend of mine who is shortly to be published is using a pen name, because her real name is the name of another well-known writer in the same genre. Another writer friend has been advised to use her initials so that readers aren’t deterred by a female author. I haven’t given much thought to any future name I might use for my writing (I’ll finish the book before I worry about that), but, given that my real name is a common expression in America, a pen-name might be a good idea.

When a successful author’s name becomes sufficiently well-known, it becomes a valuable asset. So valuable, in fact, that the writer can sign an agreement with a publisher under which he or she will only sign that name to books issued by that particular publisher. Such contracts are likely to have a set duration.

So it was, for instance, that the famous suspense writer Cornell Woolrich had an agreement back in the 30s and 40s with a publisher (was it Knopf?) under which that publisher, and only that one, could publish his books so long as he signed his own name to them. While he was doubtlessly paid by the publisher for the exclusive use of his name for the duration of their agreement, he did not commit to publishing books only through that publisher. If that publisher declined to buy one of his manuscripts, or if he was able to get another company to outbid his primary publisher for a manuscript, he was entitled to sell a manuscript to another company, but that second publisher couldn’t put the name “Cornell Woolrich” on it.

So it is that Cornell Woolrich was also William Irish; in fact, I believe he was able to sell the use of the name William Irish to another publisher under another exclusive use agreement. He was even able to start up a line of books under a third name.

Once the agreement giving exclusive use of his name ran out, it was advantageous for publishers to let readers know that Cornell Woolrich and William Irish were the same person; that way they could attract Cornell Woolrich fans who weren’t also fans of William Irish books, and William Irish fans who weren’t familiar with Cornell Woolrich. So it is that reissues of William Irish books are marked “by Cornell Woolrich writing under the name William Irish”; this means that originally the book was published under the name William Irish, but there is nothing stopping the publisher any longer from letting readers know that it was really written by Cornell Woolrich.

It is said that in France the novels of Cornell Woolrich are published exclusively under the name William Irish, even if they were originally published in America under the name Cornell Woolrich. This is because his novels signed “Cornell Woolrich” were exported to France until after the exclusive use agreement ran out, so French readers were only familiar with the William Irish name.

Another notable instance of this sort of arrangement is the work of Earl Stanley Gardner, who wrote numerous mystery novels under the name A. A. Fair. I expect the book discussed in the OP is probably a reissue of a book which was originally published under the pseudonym.

BTW, a similar situation prompted Prince to become “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince”. Prince Nelson signed an agreement with a record label under which he could only record under the name Prince if the recordings were issued by that recording company. They didn’t have the foresight to limit how he could otherwise sign his work during the duration of the agreement, though. Nelson then adopted an unpronouncble symbol as his new “name”, and so people had to refer to him as “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince”, thereby rendering the agreement, for which he was know doubt paid handsomely, meaningless.