Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Should You Make Up A Pen Name? Part I

Last week we talked more about changes in publishing, and how long established, famous writers are retrieving the rights to their own novels from the big publishers and issuing them as ebooks on their own.

The organization that Duranna Durgin (oh, you gotta read her books) founded is Backlist Ebooks, just for writers trying to learn the ropes of self-publishing.  The dues are steep but worth it, as with any organization of professionals. 

Yes, famous writers with big followings are self-publishing!

And in fact, some writers just now breaking into print are having a problem selling titles they post themselves, or titles published via indie or e-book-only publishers because the big publishers are now flooding the market with the newest books by big names, while the big names are posting their own backlist titles.

It's sometimes hard to tell the difference when shopping an ebook catalogue, so various entrepreneurs have launched various projects to re-engineer the fiction delivery system.  Everything is changing so fast that new writers -- and even long established writers -- need to think carefully before wading into the chaos.

Not all members of Backlist eBooks are using Kindle. Some just post their novels on their own website. Some distribute to a lot of formats through smashwords, and hit Kindle that way.

Doing all this self-publishing work requires climbing a very steep learning curve, and takes a lot of time away from producing actual new novels.

Along with covers, and ISBN numbers, and formatting for this-and-that system, and other such mysteries, comes the decision of whether to republish a novel under the same byline it was originally published under.

Many writers have several bylines, or pen names, as they were called in the days of pens.

How does that happen? If you've never published anything yet, should you create a bunch of bylines?  Do you have to do it? Should you stop doing it?

The name you put under the Title of your work is a "brand" -- as marketers are teaching writers to call it these days. Writers have to be branded as well as genre'd!

For example, my Agent decided I needed a different byline for my Military Science Fiction novels just when he read them. He decided to market them with the challenge to the editor, figure out who wrote this from the style. The editor who bought the two couldn't figure it, then decided I should pick a male byline for them.

They are Hero and Border Dispute, which came out as Ace Mass Market novels at the peak of the military SF boom under the byline Daniel R. Kerns (before Daniel Kerns made a name for himself - that Daniel is not me).

So because of the similar and confusing byline issue, when I reissued the two novels as an omnibus Kindle edition, I put my own byline on them even though they're not the usual science fiction romance I write. They are relationship driven, human/alien stories. The problem that drives the relationship is an interstellar war -- but not against an "enemy." That's the SF twist that's so Lichtenberg -- rethink the entire meaning of "war" and "action."  Find them here.

Hero & Border Dispute

So that's an example of a science fiction byline bleeding over into a sub-genre, military science fiction. Many wouldn't consider military science fiction a "sub" genre at all since science fiction started as a male-action sub-genre. Do you need a new byline for a sub-genre?

Can one byline work over many genres, and for fiction and non-fiction as well -- for non-fiction in different areas (such as Biography vs. say, Tarot)?

This is an especially sensitive question for writers of SFR, Science Fiction Romance or PNR, Paranormal Romance, vs. plain contemporary Romance, vs. Historical Romance.

My main topic on this blog has been how to raise the level of respect for the various Romance Genres in the minds of the general public -- even people who don't like or read Romance should view the genre as a high precision, demanding genre that arouses the thirst for education in a wide variety of highly regarded professions.  Today, though, a byline known in the Romance genres carries a stigma that is not honorable.  So should you use your own legal name?  Or make up a name for your byline? 

Publishers have a "legacy wisdom" from the days of printing presses, that insists one byline famous for Romance simply will not sell to Mystery readers. A byline famous for Mystery might sell to Science Fiction (Asimov comes to mind as the exception that proves all these rules) but a byline famous for Science Fiction will never, ever make it in Westerns or Romance.

The more famous your byline in one area, the more resistant publishers are to using it in another.

Take Nora Roberts for a big example of how that legacy wisdom is not applicable any more.

She wanted to write a series of sort-of-SF-Romance novels set almost in the future, called the IN DEATH series (I really like that series a lot!) So the publisher and/or Agent, or someone, decided she needed to avoid sullying her prominent Nora Roberts brand name with that icky science-fiction crap.

I don't know if it was her idea or theirs, but they put the J. D. Robb byline on the In Death Series and hid the Nora Roberts attribution from most readers.

IN DEATH didn't sell well at all, even though it was Nora Roberts style and made it into most libraries in paperback.

That's an object lesson in marketing. Content doesn't matter to sales. Brand does.

So after a few In Death novels, they "came out of the closet" (rumors abounded online about "who" J. D. Robb really was) and put the Nora Roberts byline on the front covers.

And they sold.  Are still selling, big time.

Isn't that interesting? Against all legacy wisdom of publishers, science fiction romance sold to an enthusiastic Romance readership -- not so much at all to the science fiction readers, and not to the fantasy readership.

Something changed, and I think it's an important something.

Now, I have to be a nasty critic here and state that the IN DEATH series is really crummy science fiction, if you judge it as SF. (I don't, so I actually like those novels!)

It's plain vanilla Nora Roberts romance, hitting the middle of the Romance market - nothing much to talk about except "I keep buying these things and I don't know why."

So is IN DEATH different enough to warrant another byline? Apparently not. And that was in 2004. Note IN DEATH #1 is now on Kindle, and has over 200 reviews on Amazon.

Here's Treachery in Death

Note the high price on the Kindle edition whereas many members of Backlist eBooks are posting their own novels for $2.99 (and many write as well or better than Nora Roberts in my not-so-humble opinion)..

Byline and branding is all marketing, not supply and demand. After all, ebooks come with unlimited supply. Stores don't run out of copies!

Now, about the byline problem.

Which brings us back to the stigma problem.

I think the major publishers have the computerized sales results to substantiate their insistence on separate bylines for separate genres, but especially for authors who sully their brand with SCIENCE FICTION.

So I'm going to talk about a friend of mine, Sarah A. Hoyt -- we're friends on facebook. She's been sending me review copies of some of her books for a while now. Her publishers don't understand why a reviewer for a New Age Magazine (me) would rave about murder mysteries, steampunk, historicals, etc etc. But I can find something esoteric in anything because the reality behind the art is all about Love Conquers All.

I reviewed some historical mysteries Sarah A. Hoyt wrote under a different byline Sarah D’Almeida about the Musketeers:


and in 2010

Death of a Musketeer by Sarah D’Almeida, Berkley Prime Crime Mystery, 2006

Dying By The Sword by Sarah D’Almeida, Berkeley Prime Crime Mystery, 2008

There are a couple more and Sarah expects to get them out as ebooks with new ones in that series. (see the problem? Sarah who?)

Here's a note from her about bylines:
The mysteries are an open pen name. Also, the first musketeer's mystery has been re-released with a small press: http://nakedreader.com/

Amazon it should have this version up by now. If it does well, I will finish novel #6, The Musketeer's Confessor. I've just delivered A Fatal Stain (the third of the refinishing ones.) I'm now working on Darkship Renegade, which apparently will have a "sister book" that takes place on Earth with different characters. (I didn't know this. The character mugged me one fine morning... :/ so now I have to write him.)

That's how writers keep up with each other's work -- notes on facebook.

And then there's a series of well, Steampunk-ish novels Sarah did that I loved -- more or less fantasy, maybe.

Heart of Light is one of the titles.

Here's a whole list of Hoyt titles:

Sarah A. Hoyt

I've just read DARKSHIP THIEVES by Sarah A. Hoyt, and it's REALLY GOOD SF-Romance in the Linnea Sinclair tradition -- a lot of running around in space ships and space stations, but no non-humans. This one is a break-off human colony with genetic modification issues. And a really good star-crossed lovers story.

FULL DISCLOSURE - you all know I'm a reviewer, and I get free copies. I don't review everything sent to me, only 5-star worthy items.

However, there's a bit of a brag on this one - there's a quote from me on the back cover of DARKSHIP THIEVES.

(Totally aside, in Amber Benson's new Ace Fantasy, Serpent's Storm (a Calliope Reaper-Jones novel), there's a quote from me on the front-inside-page with many other reviewer quotes, but that one only credits The Monthly Aspectarian, the magazine I review for. -- the point being reviewing is not an "objective" business.  You can get my attention by quoting me and by giving me freebies. As far as I know Amber Benson doesn't have any other bylines. This is the actress/director/writer Amber Benson, a brand name in itself.

As Sarah A. Hoyt says above, she's working on a sequel for DARKSHIP, and that too would be for Baen.

Oh, and I'm not done with Sara yet. Hold your hat.

She's ALSO a mystery writer with byline Elise Hyatt!!! That's the reference to "refinishing" above. (and yes, this, too is great stuff you ought to read, and nevermind the genre label).

Elise Hyatt publishes with Berkley Prime Crime mass market paperback, two titles I've seen so far,

Dipped, Stripped and Dead,


French Polished Murder

The series, subtitled A DARING FINDS MYSTERY is contemporary setting, ho-hum yawn normality -- but the lead character is a woman who's divorced and raising a boy from her first marriage as she gets involved with a new boyfriend.

I think these 2 books made me a fan of "Cozy Mystery" -- there's nothing hard-edged, and a lot of character depth. The Relationships while dramatically charged, are more "normal" than I've been seeing lately.

Here's the thing - DARING FINDS is science fiction in disguise.

Why? Because this lead character, Candyce Dare, is living on subsistence income from refinishing furniture and selling it on the "antique" market.  Her attitude is pure SF-Hero stuff.

Trust me, there's more than one science involved in her body of knowledge. It was a hobby she cultivated while married, and now is making a living from it, learning the hard way, gaining associates in this industry, and showering us with the science of it.  This is the oldest, classic SF motif of a young person without format education in a subject becoming an expert with "outside the box" thinking. 

Without the extraordinary skill at science fiction worldbuilding and information feed (topics I've discussed at length in these blogs -- you can find most of my blog entries on aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com by searching for the tag Tuesday), these Elise Hyatt mysteries would be incredibly boring. Instead, DARING FINDS is a series with a luscious hook, and page-turning fascination, sizzling romance angle, and lots to learn.

The DARING FINDS mysteries is the very best science fiction romance with a mystery plot. Both books satisfy on every level.

OK, you don't get to the HEA because it's a series, but you know you will get there. The writer's hand is so firm and disciplined, it's like riding with a supremely accomplished rally driver.

Good grief, by now you're so confused you don't know which writer I'm talking about.


Brand. Byline. Stigma. 

Readers want to grab hold of a SYMBOL and know that anything sold under that symbol delivers what the other things under that symbol deliver.  And that's the re-engineering of the fiction delivery system that Backlist eBooks is participating in.  How can a reader navigate this avalanche of ebooks and find just what they want when they want it? 

Publishers want to know which readership to spend money promoting a byline to -- mystery, SF, Fantasy, historical -- marketers see these as separate readerships. My contention is that this was true, but is less true with every passing year.

So here we have Sarah A. Hoyt, Sarah D’Almeida (also from Berkley Prime Crime, notice?) and Elise Hyatt, and there are other bylines of this author.

On the Elise Hyatt byline, she says:
I wanted to use Alice (my name pre-citizenship was spelled Alice, pronounced Elise, hence Elise Hyatt for Daring Finds, because I will answer when called that.) Alice Rye... because they asked for "white bread" -- I'm a horrible woman. Mind you my pre citizenship name was Alice Maria da Silva Marques De Almeida, (my grandfather spelled it D'Almeida) which means there is A LOT there to use. But... no. It had to be "white bread." Ugh.

But - (hold your head and groan) - she's starting yet another byline! Here's what she says about the new one:

I've also just sold (but not announced yet) a series under Sarah Marques which also has the musketeers but very different musketeers than the mysteries (like alternate versions of them. Yes, it's weird to have both in my head, but no, it's not confusing) I don't have samples up, yet. The first book is called Sword And Blood.

SWORD AND BLOOD: the first in a series in which the Three Musketeers battle vampires in an alternate France where Cardinal Richelieu is one of the undead. In order to "save" France, a deal has been made to turn the churches and a good deal of the power over to the damned. Athos himself has been turned by the wife he thought he'd killed, who is in fact one of the vampires, and must fight his bloodlust while battling for his soul.

They'll come out under Sarah Marques simply because I think my Baen sf fans would choke if they picked that book up by accident. What do I mean choke? Well... it has a lot of sex. Woman-on-top (well, vampire on top) sex. Which hasn't been in my other books. Because of THAT I think it's fair to give fair warning. As it were. So I'll let people know it's mine and it's coming, but why it's under another name. THAT one was my choice. (The book also features a pagan priestess, the battle of evil having forced the good sides to unite, as it were, and forget their differences -- she's Madame Bonacieux and the religion is meticulously researched and reconstructed, not the least from the local workings I grew up with, which, while not in France, had a lot of the remains of Celtic religion [I come from a region known as Heights Of Maia -- Alto da Maia -- which was a Cultic center of the Celtic Common Wealth as well as the site of an annual bardic festival in pre and I presume early Roman times.] Although there's still humor in this book, it's quite different from the humor in the Musketeer Mysteries. One of my friends called this the "laughing in the teeth of H*ll" type of humor.

As for why I write so much? Heaven help me if I know. Rumor has it I'm compulsive. Of course, I never believe rumors.


This multi-byline author has also been discussing in public a Marlowe and Shakespear guy-on-guy thing she wants to write but doesn't think anyone would buy it. If it sells, though, that would likely need yet another byline.

Academics discussing this writer are going to have several Excedrin Headaches at once.

To help you track down some of these items, the author gives us a whole list of URLs with samples and descriptions:


Here's a web page with her novels and she gives us a list of URLs with sample chapters.


Samples of Darkship Thieves: http://darkship.sarahahoyt.com/dst-excerpt.html

Magical British Empire: http://empire.sarahahoyt.com/

Musketeer Mysteries: http://musketeers.sarahahoyt.com/

Daring Finds: http://daringfinds.sarahahoyt.com/

Shifters -- I have a third one due this year, and so far what I know for sure is that by the end of the book, Kyrie is pregnant (whee) -- http://shifters.sarahahoyt.com/

My career started with this, which now reads incredibly clumsy to me: http://shakespeare.sarahahoyt.com/



Now, this byline musical chairs thing is a marketing ploy that the big guys have been very successful with.

This is very old traditional methodology, and there are times when it makes perfect sense if you understand byline as brand.

In fact, in the Science Fiction magazines of the 1930's and 1940's -- you'll see a table of contents with 4 or 6 bylines, and it's all by 2 people.

Pen Names are one of the oldest inventions in publishing, going back to hand-copied manuscripts.  

Are they still a relevant marketing tool today, in the world of Amazon, Kindle, Nook, B&N, etc. etc.?

If you're starting a writing career, consider carefully.

Is it cheating your reader to change the book title and re-issue it? (believe me, that's an old tradition in science fiction publishing!) Is it cheating your reader to change the byline and reissue it? Will you have to do that at some point in the distant future?

Do you want to be known for doing that?

Will you ever want to tie your body of work together under one byline?

Asimov and Heinlein, and now C. J. Cherryh and some others write "future history" -- a single universe, many novels with different genre-signatures, but hidden underneath it all, a single vision, so they all need a single byline.

Sarah A. Hoyt admits she, too, has constructed a "future history" but only because she thought it was required.

How will your fans find and follow you?

And what happens if fiction delivery system technology changes in ways you can't anticipate now?

For more considerations and dilemmas of other writers forging the way ahead, see Part II next week.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. I do think it's "cheating" to change the title of a book and re-release it, unless the old title is displayed very prominently. (And in that case, why bother changing the title in the first place?) Several of Agatha Christie's mysteries had alternate titles, and I got suckered into buying a second copy of the same book that way, before I caught on.

    I love the "In Death" series, too. But they aren't romances, they're police procedural mysteries in a future setting. The first two novels can be called mystery-romance crossovers, when Eve and Roarke are in the process of falling in love. Their relationship continues to develop throughout the series, but that thread is definitely secondary to the mystery plots.

    I use the same byline (or minor variations thereof) for all my works, because I see the lit-crit on the supernatural, the horror, the paranormal romances, etc., all as expressions of my interest in relationships between human characters and "monsters." RE vampires in particular, my fiction, to me, doesn't feel like a separate category from my nonfiction writing about vampires.

  2. Hi JL! Once again you've given us much to think about. Bylines are a very interesting topic and relate so much to branding ourselves as authors. It can be confusing at best, esp. for new authors.

    Right now, as a fiction author I am targeting SFR. But I can see by changing genres a writer might want a new name, maybe.

    As a journalist, I do write with a variation of my SFR author's name. But I always felt to build up a market following with my fiction I would need to stick to the name I am promoting now. (with SFR)

    Good post, and thanks for opening up those thought processes!

  3. Sword and Blood sounds really cool. I wants it.

    "(I didn't know this. The character mugged me one fine morning... :/ so now I have to write him.)"

    If it's not my biological children getting me up at night, it's my imaginary ones, I swear.

    After my four years of reviewing, I concluded a pen name should not be changed unless absolutely necessary, like a children's picture book author suddenly wants to write Erotica. I also figured I'd better stick with my blogging username, Kimber An, because I'd become known around cyberspace for it. I've seen more readers lost and confused over pen name switches.

    I also chose Kimber An because I wanted a last name which started with 'A' so I'd always be first on every list. 'An' means 'peace' in Chinese, by the way, and I thought it looked elegant and youthful.

  4. I have always wondered how authors who write romance books come up with pen names. Some of them turn out to be pretty silly and don't sound like a real person at all.