What’s in a (brand) name?

When one first decides to become a novelist, many important questions come to mind:

Even though the first question is the only example that impacts the act of writing, all three are related.  However, I suspect most writers don’t spend too much time pondering genre.  One typically decides to be a writer after coming up with an idea (or twelve).  Choosing a genre to write tends to follow the same thought process as choosing which genre to read.

Cover of Stephen King's "Under the Dome"

Note the size and placement of the author’s name.  Would I have purchased this book if Stephen King’s name weren’t on it?

A lifelong fan of science fiction and fantasy, I always saw myself as a conjurer of tales that contain magic, mad science and/or other manipulations of the laws of reality.  I didn’t overthink it.

And while I did grow a full beard and pretentiously smoke a tobacco pipe for a few months in college, I’ve dedicated more time to addressing the second question above: real name or pen name?

In my early days of being a writer—when I spent nearly as much time fantasizing about how wonderful being an author would be as I did writing actual fantasy—I came across the same bit of advice for up-and-comers time and time again: Start with a pen name.  That way, if at first you flop, you can always try, try again without carrying any baggage with you.

When at last you’ve taken the publishing industry by storm and the masses finally appreciate your literary, then you can start slapping your real name on the cover.  (You can also let your new readers know about the various non de plumes you collected over the years to boost sales of those older books.)

Call it confidence or just plain cockiness, but I quickly decided such pessimism wasn’t for me.  Why bravely venture down the road of achieving my dreams while preparing for—no, planning for—the possibility of failure?

So then the big question became how to write my real name.

David Williams?  Far too common.

David M. Williams?  Better, though not by much.

D. Michael Williams?  Hmm…

D.M. Williams?  We fantasy writers do seem to like initials…

But in the end, I settled on spelling it all out.  And while future journalistic and PR writing would bear a byline of first and last name only (mostly because throwing in a middle name just seemed pretentious in those situations), I vowed all fiction would unabashedly boast my full name.  No guts, no glory, right?

Having made that important decision, I was able to move onto arguably more important endeavors, such as writing novels, editing novels, finding an agent, creating this website, etc.

So imagine my surprise when the big question recently made a reprise.

Oh, David Michael Williams will be the name that appears on the proverbial spine of my speculative fiction—from sword-and-sorcery short stories to sci-fi series.  But what about other types of fiction?

No, I’m not talking about erotica or the steamier subgenres of romance.  Or gruesome horror thrillers whose macabre details might inspire my neighbors to install extra security.  Or even essays that take a politically controversial stance.

I’m talking about a chapter book for children.

Here’s the thing: An author’s name is more than a mere label.  It’s his or her brand.  And if you don’t think brands are important, take a look at the covers of books penned by New York Times bestsellers.  While a newbie’s name likely will be printed at a much smaller size than the title of a book, a name like Dan Brown or David Baldacci takes up more space than the title.

Nora Roberts could slap her name in big letters on a half-finished crossword puzzle, and people would buy it.

If you need further evidence that brand names do matter, consider this: When Stephen King wrote the book Thinner under the pen name Richard Bachman, he sold 28,000 copies during the first run.  But after the public learned Bachman was really King, ten times as many copies sold.  Same product, different results…simply because of the brand.

Now if any of these heavy hitters decided to genre jump (and if the experts are to be believed), he or she should create a pen name so as not to confuse fans.  After all, if Dan Brown put out a collection of poetry, readers expecting another Robert Langdon adventure would be more than a little disappointed after the first stanza or so.

Even writers who aren’t household names are advised to adopt aliases when dabbling in multiple genres.  Because writers aren’t just people who write anymore.  We’re also supposed to be business experts in our own right; masters of our one, chosen genre; and personas with an online presence in order to engage prospective customers.  Therefore, each specific audience requires a separate identity.

I’m told that in order to be successful, writers must also be marketers, self-promoters, and subtle salesmen who don’t wait for their target audience to find them, but rather relentlessly seek them out.  Just about every how-to article on the internet instructs authors to develop websites, engage in social media, and build their brand online and offline.

That’s a lot of work for one person (especially when that person already has a full-time job, wants to spend time with his family, and, oh yeah, actually write new stuff now and then).  Juggling multiple brand names means either investing more resources into self-promotion/marketing or splitting up what time has already been allocated for such things among the various personas.

Today I’m David Michael Williams and tomorrow…someone else?

Once again, I find myself tempted to flout conventional wisdom and do it my own way.  If I’ve learned anything on this long and winding road toward publication, it’s that the entire process—from conception to sale—is as much art as science…with a little of the arcane tossed in for good measure.

And while I understand the danger of confusing and perhaps disappointing readers, I’m pretty sure most folks are smart enough to realize that If Souls Can Sleep and The Pajamazon vs. The Goofers Twofers are intended for two distinct audiences, even without seeing their covers.  Besides, most stores are pretty good about clarifying categories.

Sometimes I fear the business side of books distracts writers from our chief concern: the craft of writing.  We spend a lot of time these days plotting how to get more manuscripts into readers’ hands, and maybe that’s unavoidable.  But I, for one, am ready for another reprieve from thinking about my own appellation and, instead, selecting the perfect name for my next villain.

At the end of the day, I’m an ordinary guy with a very common name who likes to write books for various age groups.  I’m happy to share my thoughts on different aspects of the craft, but I can’t claim to be an expert.  I’ve put away my pipe and shaved off (most of) my beard because I’m not a celebrity and don’t care to be one.

Granted, that’s not a very compelling brand, but I’m just naïve enough to believe that the words in my novels should matter more than those on the About the Author page.

What is your thought on pen names and managing multiple author names?  Comment below and/or weigh in at Writers Poll: real name vs. pen name



Filed under Writing

5 responses to “What’s in a (brand) name?

  1. Thomas P. Ramirez


    Where in hell do you find the time? I’m retired, and you don’t see me turning out such fine and literary advice on a semi-weekly basis.

    You’re a wonder. .


    • And you’re too kind, Tom. The sad truth is that this blog does take some time away from literary pursuits, but it’s nice to have something self-contained to work on in between novels and short stories.

      Thanks, as always, for reading!

  2. Hey, great post. I use a pen name, sort of, allowing my real name to appear when I sign posts or email people, and using the pen name on my blog and when I submit my work. Why did I choose to use a pen name? I thought about the issues you bring up for a few minuted and decided to give myself a little flexibility in the event that things take off in one direction or another. By using a pen name I could maintain a little more anonymity (as if that’s a worry even for most published writers!)

    I still contemplate the topic form time to time. I’m not so worried about the overlap between my sci-fi and literary writing. Lots of writers in one genre also wrote in others. But I also have the desire to be a playwright, and that’s a little different venue all around. Not only is there the print community involved, but to an even greater extent there is a direct, live interaction with people from actors to directors to viewing audiences.

    I read recently that the pathway to success as a free lance writer lies in diversity. I even wrote about it in one of my blog posts. So using one name on all work seems most reasonable to me. Judy Blume wrote some really erotic fiction and also wrote stuff for kids, and as far as I know she always used Judy Blume. So I’m going to use my pen name, such as it is, for everything, and if the time comes that I need to consider changing that approach I will have a long discussion with my agent over a very nice dinner and we will decide how best to take my career in that direction. Meanwhile I want to Universe to have an easy way to find me.

    • One could argue that Judy Blume will always be best known for her children’s fiction…that her brand will always be youth-oriented. But I’m impressed that she took the risk of publishing under the same name outside of her genre.

      Didn’t J.K. Rowling say her first for-adults novel was going to use a pen name just to see if the works itself (and not her name) would garner praise and sales? I’m guessing that didn’t go so well, considering Casual Vacancy bears her name in very large letters. Or maybe she changed her mind, and Casual Vacancy is her first publication since Potter…

      Thanks for sharing, Mr. Moore.

  3. Pingback: Some bad news about my brand | David Michael Williams

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