When one first decides to become a novelist, many important questions come to mind:
- What kind of stories should I write?
- Should I use my real name or invent something better?
- Can I pull off the pipe and beard look?
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.
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.