Writers: Pen Names or No Pen Names?

Dean Wesley Smith, typically rock solid on this brave new world of publishing, has some strong words in favor of pen names. I usually find myself bobbing my head in agreement and finding his advice and passion helpful as I set out planning my own terrifying venture into the world of publishing (hopefully soon).

The whole of his argument seems to revolve around the idea that you will hopelessly befuddle and confuse your readers by switching genres on them. Thus, if you start by writing a dozen fantasy novels, you should create a pen name if you plan on venturing into science fiction or romance or mainline literary fic. Now, I get his point and understand where he’s coming from, but I do think this underestimates fans by a fairly wide margin. I mean, if there is a writer I like who I find out is coming out with a book totally different from the ones he did before, I am usually willing to follow him into the breach, or I don’t care and just wait for the next thing to arrive that I do care about.

In short, the audience will find the work.

There are some cases that might seem to support his point. R. A. Salvatore, after a decade of writing Drizzt novels, decided to come out with a fantasy series all in his own world. Fans were slow to respond to the new books because what they wanted was Moar Drizzt. But sales picked up eventually. The power of the name can do that. After a few books and the fans run out of stuff to read, will go back to stuff they might have dismissed before, because they trust you (and, relatedly, your name) rather than take a risk on some new thing by somebody they don’t know which they might not care for. Another example might be J. K. Rowling’s new book The Casual Vacancy, which is mainstream lit fic, not fantasy. A lot of fans were perturbed by the book. Then again, without her name, the book would probably have sunk without a trace, never to surface again. Once again, name means something, even with risky ventures.

Some counter examples. In Hollywood, most everybody keeps the same name and tries various things all the time. Michael Bay isn’t going to change his name when moving from Armageddon to Transformers. Lots of folks there have fans who will follow them across genre and medium. Name has meaning.

Joss Whedon, for example, didn’t bother changing his name when moving from Buffy to Firefly (horror/thriller/comedy to science fiction/western), or from Dollhouse to Dr. Horrible and The Avengers. He didn’t write under a different name when he moved from TV to comic books for The Astonishing X-Men and Fray. His fans will follow him across medium and genre. Why? Because his name is his brand. He is proven to try his hardest with everything he does, and has a track record of respect. And his fans don’t get confused.

Now. There are certain common elements to all his work. He always writes genre of some kind. He doesn’t venture from genre to mainstream literary or anything wacky. He skips around genres, but he always sticks to genre (and his own personal style and structures within those genres, to boot).

Dean Wesley Smith wants to suggest a refusal to change your name means you want praise and glory, but you’ll lose readers for your own vanity. As you start new projects, this will happen, sure. It would happen anyway, changing from any project to another. But not wanting to change your name doesn’t have to be narcissism. There is a power in a name. People recognize a name, and are far more likely to take a risk on a book by an author who they trust and whose name they recognize, than for some other person they know nothing about.

To me, the fans who like it will read it. The others won’t. Except that some of them might. Correction, some of them will. Different readers will try your new project, once it’s out. The right readers will find the right genres, and your fans who weren’t enthusiastic at first will, odds are, warm up to it.

As a writer, I have many stories in me. My main one is my long-run fantasy series, of course. But I also have a pirate novel finished. I have plans for a vampire novel. I’d like to try a dystopian novel sometime. Zombies are always fun. Got a horror idea I want to try. But I don’t plan on writing in those genres a lot. To warrant a name change, I’d have to write a series in each genre. But I’ve only got one pirate novel in me, I think. I’m not going to make my living writing endless sequels to the endless undead. Changing my name each time for a couple of one-off books seems silly to me, especially if and when folks start recognizing my name as its own brand. Names have power. People trust names.

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