When you write books – if you write books – do you use a pen name?
I’ve got to admit, it’s something I hadn’t even thought of, until last year. I had the privilege of speaking to a highly successful literary agent. I haven’t asked her permission to identify her, and frankly it doesn’t matter for the purposes of what I’m writing here. Suffice to say she represents some of the biggest names in fiction, It was a fascinating discussion, and her advice has been really helpful for me.
But one area she highlighted to me was about using a pen name, and whether or not you should. Her advice to me was I should. Despite the back-catalogue of work I have.
If you’ve got a fun, interesting name, why not stick with what you have?
That’s the problem for me. Andy Jones is pretty boring. And while I’ve been writing books for years, there’s a much more successful (and I’d argue, more talented) chap with exactly the same name. Now don’t get me wrong: in many respects, that’s an advantage. I’m sure many copies of my books have been purchased by people who thought I was the “other” Andy Jones. Hopefully some of them enjoyed what they were reading that it didn’t matter, and they even were then inclined to try some of my others. I had a lovely email about two years ago from someone who bought my book Everything in Seven Stories thinking it was by the other Andy Jones. But they loved it, and started looking into my back-catalogue and ended up buying a couple other pieces by me, including Succession of Power. Win.
Though is it really a win? It sort of feels like cheating to me.
And this agent’s insight into how an author’s name can affect who chooses to buy a book (and who doesn’t), really turned things on their head for me.
She told me some things that might be of interest to you. They were to me, and it’s why for my new book, I used My new pen name. And I’m sticking with it from now on. It’s a decision I have not made lightly. But I’ve made it.
Firstly, she said I should keep the name simple. Is it easy to say the name? Is it easy to spell? Are you going to be easy to search for?
Secondly, is it uncommon and therefore interesting? This question might contradict the first, but think about it this way: Is there a name that’s simple, but no one else in the literary world is using?
Thirdly, is it nice to say? Is it maybe alliterative, or pleasant in some other way? Is the first name just initials, or something that doesn’t directly indicate whether the author is a man or woman? Apparently that’s advantageous too.
And finally, is the surname one of the first six letters of the alphabet? A, B, C, D, E, or F? Why does this matter? Well, when you’re browsing in a bookstore (or even online), you might be doing so alphabetically, if you’re not just browsing the “top sellers” lists. So, for example, let’s say you’re in a bookstore, browsing along the romantic fiction section. The books are going to be listed in alphabetical order, by the author’s surname. You’ll look at the As, the Bs, the C’s and the D’s happily. But you’ll start to get bored by the Es, and the Fs will often be the last ones you look at before moving on. Believe it or not, this “retail truth” as been tested by publishers and booksellers.
Do you need a pen name? Absolutely not. Should you consider one? Maybe. Just maybe.