Nom[s] de Shame

Before I started writing paranormal romance, I used to pooh-pooh pseudonyms.  When writing students would ask me if there was any reason they should consider writing under an assumed name, I would laughingly say, “Aren’t you proud of your writing?”

That was before my publisher told me my dwindling sales figures necessitated a change in persona.  Talk about instant karma.  Not only had I been handed a very compelling reason to use a nom de plume, but it was by far the most shameful one, i.e. “you suck; you need to be someone else.”

I may sound blunt, but I’ve learned that with the issue of pseudonyms in science fiction/fantasy that if I don’t say it, someone will be thinking it.  (This, however, is not at all true in romance.)  Anyway, I don’t really think the books by my alternate personality sucked at all.  They won critical awards and got all sorts of outside validation to their non-suckiness status.  But publishers (and their bean-counters) are in a corner these days due to all sorts of factors outside of the control of the writer (New York tax laws, distribution conglomerates, etc.) that cause the life of more and more books to be shorter and shorter.   

Those problems aside, there are other reasons to consider changing your published name that are much more positive.  First of all, there’s simple aesthetics.  Some names are a mouthful and you may want to consider shorting or jazzing up your given name.  You certainly don’t have to, but the theory is that if your name is too hard for the average reader to pronounce, they’re going to have a hard time asking for your novel at their local bookstore (presumably you could counter this by having extremely memorable titles.)  Also, some people just plain want to leave behind the names associated with their family of origin, and that seems perfectly valid to me.

Then there’s the issue of genre.  More and more authors are being asked to consider “branding” (one of the latest marketing fads that basically asks an author to promote themselves like you would a bottle of perfume – to get consumers to “brand” identify.)  My alternate persona wrote cyberpunky noir future fantasy; I write paranormal romance.  You might be able to see how never the twain shall meet.  This is the sort of use of pseudonym that’s particularly popular in romance.  Though romance fans are some of the more voracious readers you’ll find, but there are also a lot of categories and sub-genres so that people can seek out very specific niche books.  Thus romance authors who bounce from steamy, futuristic erotica to sweet, Inspirational (Christian) HEA (Happily Ever After) novels chose similar, but different names with the idea that you don’t want to confuse your reader into picking up something by you that might completely turn them off to _all_ your writing.   

Like me, these authors set up separate web sites, email accounts, blogs… sometimes with the intention of keeping each name completely isolated from the other, but sometimes with a kind of “open secret” so that the books can cross-promote each other. 

That’s not so important for me, since all of the books written under my other name are out-of-print.  I find, however, that I enjoy the freedom of not having to use my other personality’s blog, etc., to sell myself.  I write (and say things at SF/F conventions) that might be construed as controversial now, because there are no sales figures to suffer if I were to become globally despised. 

I also refuse to have any shame about my predicament.  It’s amazing to me how many people who should know better buy into the idea that books survive based on their quality alone.  Despite the fact that writers are always willing to point out how that certain New York Times bestseller is a piece of hackwork crap, when someone says that their books failed in the market those same authors assume that if so-and-so had only written a better book it would have survived. 

I think part of the resistance I find in SF/F is that pseudonyms just aren’t that common.  Many people know that Megan Lindholm is Robin Hobb, but for the most part SF/F writers tend to write under some version of their given name.  Is that just my perception or is it true?  Does anyone on this list besides me use a pseudonym? 

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  1. 1. Marie Brennan

    I’m in the “unmanageable legal name” camp. I knew by the time I was ten that it would be Pseudonym City for me when I got published. The downside to this is that I’m deeply attached to Marie Brennan as the name for Who I Am When I’m Writing, and if I ever had to give that up, I would be very sad.

  2. 2. lyda morehouse

    It was very sad for me, but I decided that I couldn’t let the b***ards get me down. I threw myself a “career wake,” complete with a lot of Irish whiskey and a keen (seriously, a friend of mine who teaches Irish studies at Notre Dame wrote me a career keen. It was awesome.)

    I was still depressed for months, however. I was really lucky to have a chance to re-invent myself. I will be forever grateful to the editor who took a chance on me, despite my apparent suckiness. :-)

  3. 3. Vernieda

    Many people know that Megan Lindholm is Robin Hobb, but for the most part SF/F writers tend to write under some version of their given name. Is that just my perception or is it true?

    I could be mistaken but doesn’t Dawn Cook write under the more well-known pseudonym of Kim Harrison?

  4. 4. Alma Alexander

    The publishers renamed me – it was apparently a deal-breaker, my real name, because English speakers are not to be expected to struggle with the fact that my real name has the letters H and R occurring next to each other and that’s just TOO hard…[wry grin]

    I”ve kind of got used to being Alma Alexander now. if I ever had to change THAT, I’d be upset…

  5. 5. lyda morehouse

    I’ve had a lot of trouble with my first name: lyda. A lot people, including my own publishing house team really, really want me to have misspelled my own name and will put “Lydia” on any number of things (including, I just discovered on ad copy for my own books or for books I wrote blurbs for.)

    It’s such an easy mistake to make, actually, that I’ve made sure to embed “Lydia Morehouse” in the keyword metadata of my web pages so that Google and other search engines will still find me, even though the name is misspelled.

  6. 6. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Rob Thurman is sort of one–Robyn. And I know that Louise Marley is also Toby Bishop. I think there are a lot of initials in use out there too to mask gender of authors, or perhaps, to make the gender less noticeable.

    By the way, Lyda, I’m really curious as to how you chose Tate Holloway, which is a terrifically cool pseudonym. And Bryn, well, I like Marie Brennan too–how did you arrive at that one? But I like Bryn a lot too, tough I bet I’d butcher the heck out of your last name.

  7. 7. Marie Brennan

    Re Lyda -> Lydia, Bryn often gets turned into Bryan. And then I’m a man, apparently.

    Diana — Marie is my middle name, and Brennan I put together out of my first and last name, Bryn + N.

  8. 8. Patricia Bray

    Funny that you should talk about resistance to pseudonyms in SF. The first time I heard the phrase “committing pseudonym” was in reference to an SF author who’d been asked to take a pen name in response to declining sales. You may know Kate Elliott, whose has gone on to great success with this pseudonym after being originally published under her own name Alis Rasmussen.

    Lawrence Watt-Evans has written under various pseudonyms for decades. He’s currently using the Watt-Evans name for fantasy while publishing sci-fi under a different name.

    A friend of mine is currently considering taking a pseudonym after lackluster sales of his first two books–his editor & publisher are still behind him, and want to publish his next series, but there’s a consensus that for whatever reason, his initial launch didn’t go well. Rather than carry the burden of low sales figures which will make it hard to generate orders for a new book, they’re considering relaunching him with a new identity.

    Pseudonyms became common in the romance world for two reasons–first the two major category houses (Harlequin and Silhouette) used to require authors to write under a pseudonym which the company owned the rights to. When the author left the house, that name could be assigned to another author to write under. That clause was gradually phased out in the 1990s, and some authors fought and won the ability to take their pseudonyms with them to other publishers.

    The second reason, as you mentioned, was related to the different genres of romance, using different names to manage reader expectations. Highly prolific authors were also encouraged to use pseudonyms, since there was a perception that having too many books published in a single year would be taken as a sign of hack-writing and turn readers off.

    So far I’m still Patricia Bray. I was prepared to take a pseudonym when I made the move from Regency romances to epic fantasy, but fortunately it wasn’t necessary (the genre shift was so extreme it was as if I was an entirely different Patricia Bray). But if the day comes when I need to take a pseudonym, I have mine all picked out already :-)

  9. 9. S.C. Butler

    And then there’s the situation where a guy with my name (even though he’s been dead for a hundred years) is still on the shelves, sometimes even the SF shelf. Anyone ever read Erewhon, or the often misconstrued, non-pornographic novel, The Way of All Flesh?

  10. 10. lyda morehouse

    You’re Samuel Butler? Wow, I can see the problem there. :-)

    As for how I chose Tate Hallaway, it’s kind of a funny story. Originally, I thought it would be cool to be named after two museums, so I picked the Tate (London) and the Walker (in Minneapolis, MN) = Tate Walker. My publisher liked the sound of it, but thought the W would fall too far down on the shelf. Plus, they wanted readers to find me next to other vampire/romance/paranormal writers like Harris, Harrison, Hamilton, etc., so they wanted me to pick an “Ha” surname. I opened the St. Paul phone book found “Halloway,” but when I searched “Tate Halloway” I got a million hits — I changed the “o” to an “a” and got zero.

    Thus Tate Hallaway (all “a”s) was born.

  11. 11. Jenna Black

    I write under a pseudonym for two main reasons: 1) I’ve heard enough stories about weird fans of authors in my genre (paranormal romance) that I want to put a little buffer between the real me and the writer, and 2) I share my real name with a Star Trek actress, and I didn’t want people to have any trouble finding me when searching the web.

Author Information

Tate Hallaway

Tate Hallaway is the best-selling paranormal romance alter-ego for an award-winning science fiction author. Her most recent novel is DEAD IF I DO is forthcoming from Berkley Trade in May of 2009. Visit site.

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