Sunday, April 01, 2007

what's in a nom de plume?

I know many professional writers who refuse to publish under any name but their own. After heartfelt blood, sweat, and tears, they want full recognition, damn it!

But there are others—myself included—who don’t mind anonymity. And in some cases, actually seek it.

The big question I’m always asked is why, after all that work, do you want to publish under anything but your own name?

I hate to suck the joy or mystery from the creative process, but it often boils down to the business of branding. An author might write for multiple genres; in competing markets; or want to create an identity as an expert on a very specific subject. They may also want to write about deeply personal issues, be extremely shy, or want to distance themselves from a particular subject or controversial stance. And sometimes, a writer has no choice.

The publisher or agent wants a sexier name, a different image, or has a marketing crisis because your name is too similar to another author on his/her list. They may even want to ‘place’ you on the bookshelves next to an already established author—as in the case of Ian Rankin, who took the name Jack Harvey so that it planted his work in the middle of the shelf (close to Jack Higgins).

I first used a pseudonym in a Cosmo-type magazine, for two reasons.

Firstly, because I still worked in the corporate world and my boss would have deemed it inappropriate for a manager in my position to write about ‘such things’. I’d have received a quick adios amigo … and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

Secondly, because I’m a very private person who believes that my personal life is just that—personal. (So no, I'm not sharing my other names here!)

Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander, says: “Anytime you work with materials that are deep parts of yourself, you feel revulsion at sharing things about yourself that you do not want people to know.” *

I don’t know that I’d use the word revulsion. Embarrassment. Fear. Vulnerability. Feeling over-exposed, all ring truer for me.

As someone who’s known for never broadcasting love’s highs and lows, or family issues, or friends’ secrets, I wanted to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge a few years ago when a deeply personal and intimate story—involving a man I loved very much—was “accidentally” published under my own name in a very popular international anthology.

Of course, no one else knew or cared, and the publisher was very apologetic. But I couldn’t have felt worse if I’d been stripped naked and made to stand in the middle of Times Square next to the singing cowboy and his dirty yellow y-fronts. I did, however, learn a very valuable lesson about double and triple-highlighting the “publishing as nom de plume … ” box on all future releases.

So why do other writers use pseudonyms?

Writing across multiple genres or different character series

  • The queen of mystery novels, Agatha Christie, wrote romance novels as Mary Westmacott.
  • Bestselling romance author Norah Roberts switches gear when she writes erotic thrillers under the pen name J.D. Robb.
  • Samuel Langhorne Clemens wrote about different subjects, using different voices, under the names Mark Twain and Sieur Louis de Conte.
  • Mathematician Charles Lutwdige Dodgson wrote academic papers on logic using his own name, but wrote Alice in Wonderland as Lewis Carroll.
  • John Creasey published almost 600 books using 28 pseudonyms including the female nom de plume, Margaret Cooke.
  • Evan Hunter found fame as Ed McBain, but also wrote as Curt Cannon, Hunt Collins, Ezra Hannon, and Richard Marsten.
  • Robert Ludlum also writes as Jonathan Ryder. Barbara Vine as Ruth Rendell. Jack Higgins is Henry Patterson. And Alistair MacLean, Ian Stuart.
  • Pulitzer prize winning journalist, John Camp, writes suspense novels as John Sanford.

Gender switching

Less than a hundred years ago publishers rarely signed female authors, and to avoid automatic rejection, many women submitted their manuscripts using male pseudonyms. Even today, women who write for genres typically considered male-dominated, often publish using male names, or just initials as in the case of J.D. Robb.

  • Charlotte Bronte published under the name Currer Bell.
  • Mary Ann Evans wrote as George Eliot.
  • Katherine Alice Applegate writes as Nicholas Stevens.
Likewise, female readers often prefer to read stories written by women and The Romantic Novelists' Association claims several male members writing as women:

  • Ian Blair writes as Emma Blair.
  • Hugh Rae as Jessica Stirling.
  • Roger Sanderson, as Jill Sanderson.

  • Author Eric Blair believed his family would be devastated once they discovered he’d lived down-and-out in Paris and London, and so George Orwell was born out of embarrassment.
  • Collaborators F. Dannay and Manfred B. Lee published their mystery series under the name Ellery Queen.
  • Teodor Jozef Konrad Korzeniowski wrote Heart of Darkness as Joseph Conrad.
  • By dropping the Pearl and adding an e, Pearl Gray became the very successful Western author, Zane Grey.
  • And doesn't Isaac Asimov sound much more of a sci-fi expert than Paul French?

Secret identity

Rather than use a pseudonym to determine if his work as an “unknown writer” would receive as much interest as his "non-pseudonym work", Stephen King created a whole secret identity. Publishing under the name Richard Bachman, book jackets displayed a photo of an anonymous male claiming to be Bachman.

Bachman was eventually killed off with ‘cancer of the pseudonym’ after word got out that King was the author. And yes, the Bachman sales shot up.

That’s branding folks!

* Oleandar quote excerpted from a Writer's Digest interview.


dinahmow said...

Aw, heck! Now I'm going to delete a partly-written draft in similar vein!
Nicely put, Bibi.

John Ivey said...

Bibi -- Extremely interesting article and as always well-written and researched. I recently "hid" several of my blogs that were posted on my profile because they contained elements of my past that I now choose to be more discriminate in revealing. They were virtually discontinued anyway, and I had forgotten how open I had been in one until I started telling a fairly new acquaintance about some past indiscretions only to have her say, "Yes, I read that in your blog." I was embarrassed at how open I had been. No more. Not under this name, anyway.

Ant said...

I see. How topical for me... :o)

How about the breakability of noms de plume though? I guess they take the writer's name off the public's immediate gaze, but as your list clearly shows, they get rumbled eventually. Are they generally considered "safe"?

Jeff Roberts said...

Yeah, I don't think I'd want to be on the shelf next to Nora Roberts.

When I first saw Gordon Dahlquist's Glass Books of the Dream Eaters it struck me that he had put himself on the shelf right next to Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.

His head shot on Amazon looks totally fake, and ... Dahlquist? What kind of name is that?

Cazzie!!! said...

Marvelous post, I think we like the idea od seclusion from ourselves when we write sometimes, it allows us to feel free, and maybe say things we wouldn't say in any other given case.
I dunno, theres things I wont post on my blog because I value my lovely readers. Guess I should open up a blog of seclusion..hmmm, you have made me think :)

Kiyotoe said...

hey, i do this all the time.

you didn't think "Kiyotoe" was my real name did you? ;)

As you stated, I think it's a great way to be as forthcoming and unyielding when writing without having to worry about the consequences or backlash.

Maybe not in my fiction stuff but in my blog i get personal sometimes and give my honest opinion on things......may not want my boss or a family member to know that it's me behind those words.

Ian Lidster said...

Ann Rule in your town writes under two different names, and for her it's because of a genre switch from true crime to fiction. I have a good friend who is a multi-published writer of mysteries in the UK. However, he is Canadian, but his UK publisher ostensibly only publishes UK writers (so they tell their readers), so my friend not only has a fake name there, but a made-up biography that bears no resemblance to his other life as a Canadian high school teacher.
This was really interesting, Vicki. I've always been a journalist under my own name but, believe me, especially on those few occasions in which I've received threats from wackos that I've wished I'd used a pseudonym.


Anonymous said...

This is really interesting Bibi. You covered some good points and I will say that's one of the reasons I love the blogosphere. Anon, anon, anon.

Deirdre said...

I'd always wondered why authors use pseudonyms - now I know the reasons are as varied as the names.

Bibi said...
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Bibi said...
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Bibi said...

Cazzie, thank you!! Anonymous contributions definitely offer the freedom of opening up and letting rip. ;-)

Kiyotoe ... gasp. That's not your real name? ;-D Blogging at random has caused problems for many employees ... discretion, discretion.

Ian, of course ... how could I forget Ann Rule! Interesting about your Canadian friend, and I know what you mean about the occasional whacko. I have one who’s called every July for 7 years on an interview I did with Jane Goodall.

Anon, hah... you aren't taking any chances LOL.

Deidre, very true. And I certainly didn't list all reasons.

Bibi said...

Dinahmow, don't dump your story! I'm sure you'll have a different spin.

John, I think that's the danger of blogging ... sometimes people forget it's accessible worldwide. That's why mine stays mainstream.

Ant, I think most authors disclose their own identities as soon as they make it big, or if they really have an issue with using a pen name ... and many don't want to use pseudonyms in the first place, but their pub team requires it. If you go to the Library of Congress (or Brit equiv') there's info there on how to file. Regarding your last question ... is anything 'safe' these days? No. Used to be easier and if someone really wants to keep a copyright confidential, it's typically handled via an agent. But most publishers want to know the legal name as well. And you know first hand what difficulties 'branding' can create.

Jeff, I checked out the link and yes, it is a strange photo. The guy has/still does work in theater (at least that's what they tell us) so maybe he took a little creative license there.

MSU gal said...

great article.

Anonymous said...

I didn't know so many people used pen names. But then I know little. LOL.

Ces Adorio said...

I think that if I wrote erotic novels or really dark tales I would not use my real name, however, if I wrote for professional publications I have to use my real name.

kj said...

bibi, what an informative post. i never thought of this option, and i tend to spill my sleeve and my heart sometimes when i write. in my writing group i am trying to include total LIES and fabrications so it is not so obvious the "narrator" is yours truly.

thanks alot for this helpful piece. i will benefit from it!


Bibi said...

msugal86, thank you!

pete,surprising isn't it. And I know you know much.

ces, I can see the logic in that

kj, yes, a pen name will make life much easier to tell. I wouldn't go so far as to say you're telling lies ... a little creative license is allowed in narrative tales, LOL.

Anonymous said...

V. interesting Bibi. My friend uses a pseudonym to write travel articles and another to write fiction. I'll have to think of one for myself ha ha.

andrea said...

I read this last week, really enjoyed it and have finally returned to re-read some bits.

I use a 'nom de plume' -- the one on my birth certificate. Everyone else knows me by the surname I adopted when I married (first name remains unchanged :). My husband does something similar: uses his full name at work (Gregory) whereas his personal friends/family know him as Greg. So there you go: it happens everywhere, no matter how subtle.

Ultra Toast Mosha God said...

I posture about as a piece of toast wearing a pair of sunglasses, so I think it's safe to say that I understand where you are coming from.

Bibi said...

Lisage, yes, create a whole new you!!

Andrea, thanks ... see, a lot of creatives do it!

Ultra toast mosha god, and as I just typed your 'secret name' for the third time, I'm wondering how you came up with such an identity?? At least no one else could be confused with you, right. ;-)