Pseudonymus Bosch

That title is, of course, a stupid pun referencing Hieronymus Bosch, a 15th/16th century Netherlandish painter with a weird name and even weirder paintings.

But today’s subject is not art history, so let’s move on.

The Pseudonym

Pseudonym: a fictitious name, especially one used by an author. Also called a nom de plume; closely related to its cousins the stage name, the nom de guerre, and many more.

Basically, sometimes the name you see on the book covers isn’t the “real” name of the person who wrote that book. And sometimes it’s common knowledge (UF author Seanan McGuire is very open about writing her horror/medical/zombie thrillers under the name Mira Grant), and other times it’s a closely kept secret (James Tiptree Jr., whose real identity was for years one of the most intriguing secrets in the SF community).

It’s an odd thought, that someone would put forth something into the world (asking for attention, in a way) and yet deliberately adopt another name. So…

Why wear the mask?

Any number of reasons. I won’t delve into the psychology of authors who use pseudonyms; it’s not my place, and I don’t have the training. But it’s not hard to speculate that someone might feel more confident putting their work forward under an assumed name. The work stands on its own, then. It’s a safety issue, too — if it bombs, that doesn’t reflect badly back on your “real” life.

Sometimes there are practical issues as well. Writers may change their names to make them less generic, easier to spell, more memorable, or to create some separation in a list which includes vastly different genres or age ranges. The author Ursula Vernon writes kidlit under her real name and slightly weird-and-dark adult fairy tales under the obvious pseudonym T. Kingfisher. I’ve already mentioned Seanan/Mira above. I don’t necessarily know off the top of my head of an example where an author changed their name to make it more memorable, and I don’t want to presume…but it’s something that happens frequently in other industries, and often in the context of changing to a “less ethnic” name (ex. actress Chloe Bennett, née Wang).

There’s a long history, too, of women writing under gender-neutral, ambiguous, or male names. J.K. Rowling is a particularly well known example, but I could list off a whole bunch, starting with the Bronte sisters and George Eliot and ending with Harper Lee and Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb. Alice Sheldon not only published under the male name James Tiptree Jr., but corresponded with other authors of the time as Tip.

(As an interesting aside, in one particular genre there’s been a trend of male authors writing under female names, as they sell better with a woman’s name. Care to guess what it is?)

Of course, these days it’s more and more difficult to maintain an anonymous pseudonym — just recall the recent Robert Gailbraith nonsense — considering the ubiquity of the internet, and the expectation that authors will engage with their fans. But on the flip side, I think (with absolutely no empirical evidence, this is just my gut feeling) that open pseudonyms adopted for marketing purposes are becoming more common and accepted.

My Nome de Plume

I think that if I ever end up in traditional publishing (and that’s by no means guaranteed, but at the moment it’s the eventual goal), I would publish under a slightly different name. And it’s not for any complicated psychological reason, or because I want to adopt a male name (I most emphatically do not want to do that, sales be damned).

Frankly, it’s because my last name is so damn generic. Might as well be “Smith”, for the number of people who have it. Pop my name into Google, and who knows whether my books would come up first? If people can’t find you, you lose sales.

Plus it’s at the end of the alphabet. So let’s imagine my books in Barnes and Noble — they’ll be at the end of the shelving unit, where a casual browser is less likely to run into them.

There is one teeny, tiny little hitch in this potential plan…

I have no idea what that pseudonym would be.

Put the Horse Back Before the Cart

Doesn’t really matter, in the end. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it — and if I do come to it, I’ll have an agent and maybe even an editor to help me brainstorm.

Which means…I should get back to writing. Hard to sell a book that doesn’t exist, after all.

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