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The art and science of names
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Ok friends, I have a serious question I have been mulling over for a long time.What makes for a good authorial pen name?
I’m interested specifically in pen names for science fiction/fantasy, because that’s what I write (with a heavy lean toward the fantasy), though I am also interested in discussion of pen names for other genres.
I am not particularly close to publishing at the moment, as my agent hasn’t had much luck placing my first novel yet and I will probably shelve it for the moment while I work on some other material. But I am thinking that this is a good opportunity to re-think the name I hope to publish under. I was previously planning to use initials + last name (E.V. + You know my last name if you were paying attention when the forum decided to spontaneously publish several of our real names—if you weren’t, it’s a common one-syllable name of Anglo-Saxon derivation).
But I have recently been reconsidering, largely due to the necessity of doing publicity on social media and how very nasty it can get. (I probably don’t need to elaborate, but it is becoming pretty routine for authors to get literal death threats, along with their home addresses published, from people who disagree with their political views—and sometimes even from people who *agree* with their views but misinterpret their work. For a recent example of friendly fire, look up the attack helicopter story by Isabel Fall published in Clarkesworld magazine). Even if it isn’t that difficult to find out the real name behind a pen name, I am thinking that the extra layer of protection may be worthwhile.
My hesitation has always been in the idea of publishing under a name that I don’t really feel I have a right to use. I wish I knew more about other authors’ process in choosing a pen name. Do they pick something they feel some personal connection to? Or do they just pick out some names that sound aesthetically pleasing and suitably authorial?
I know the *why* of many authors—sometimes it’s because they have previously published books that didn’t sell well, and wanted a fresh start (Kate Elliott); sometimes it’s because they’re writing in two different genres and need different branding in each of them (Seanan McGuire/Mira Grant); sometimes it’s to distinguish themselves from another writer with a similar name (Jenny Trout); sometimes it’s to obscure her gender (let’s be honest, it’s always *her* obscuring her gender in these cases) (James Tiptree Jr. and countless others); sometimes it’s because they don’t want their fiction linked to their professional name in their day job (common for romance writers). But I don’t know the *how*, with one exception—I read an interview with Robin Hobb in which she discussed going to bookstores and noticing that the authors with H surnames tended to be at eye level, so she chose a surname starting with H (and chose Robin to be intentionally androgynous). Robin Hobb, incidentally, I feel is a fantastic pen name for a fantasy author—evokes Robin Hood, so has that mythological overtone to it, and just hits that balance between sounding suitably professional but also like it could actually be a character in a fantasy novel.
In days past, I would have said that an androgynous first name was the most marketable, but it turns out that my target audience is pretty firmly women, and now I’m thinking that an identifiably female name may be more effective in reaching that audience. I would also have said that a memorable yet easy-to-pronounce surname of British Isles origin would be the most marketable (which would rule out most of the branches of the family tree that I most identify with—they are European, but not Anglo/Celtic). These days, that seems like a pretty racist/xenophobic idea, but then, the publishing industry is still grappling with some major issues of institutional racism (see: the ongoing Romance Writers of America debacle, also American Dirt), so I'm not sure we're out of the woods on that one yet.
I have a lot of other thoughts, but this is getting long already, so I’ll cut myself off with: What kind of name would make readers more likely to pick up a book? And does the choice of name need to be somehow justified?
“You have a very friendly name,” Wattenberg says. “Julie is a full name, but it has a form like a nickname—short with the -ie ending is a very friendly and approachable sound. If you look on dating sites, for instance, women with names like that are more likely to be approached because you sound like you’d be nice!” I’m not sure this has worked out for me, I say.
Wattenberg goes on: “I once did an analysis of the pen names that romance authors choose for their fake author names. The heroines might have crazy romantic names, but the men and women who are writing the books uniformly choose names that are considered really normal. It’s always a short, Anglo surname, and a common, familiar, friendly first name. So your name could actually fit; it fits the approach of the friendly everywoman.”
Once she mentioned it, I had to see if there was a romance writer named Julie Beck. And there is—well, sort of. At birth, her name was Julia Beck, but she goes by Julie (another one of those). But her married name is Kenner, and over the years she’s published novels under the various aliases of Julie Kenner, J. K. Beck, and J. Kenner.
“When I sold my first book, my editor thought Julia sounded too ‘the bishop’s wife,’” Kenner told me. “She asked, ‘How do you feel about Julie?’ and I said, ‘Sounds like home to me.’”
When she switched genres, from contemporary romance to darker, more paranormal stuff, her publisher suggested a new pen name, and she went with J. K. Beck, and did a few books under that name. Now she publishes as J. Kenner, and says she’s probably going to stick with it.
“I know people liked the J. K. Beck name—they thought it had a neat rhythm to it—but I don’t think it helped drive sales. Last names that are single syllables can be really cool for an author, but I like the rhythm of having the two syllables. I prefer J. Kenner and Julie Kenner.”
Plus, she says, Kenner is a less common name. “I didn’t want a pseudonym. It was going to be Beck or Kenner. The domain name thing was really the deciding factor: being able to get the domain I wanted and not wrestle for internet space with somebody else.”
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