Author pseudonyms have a long tradition in fiction, especially in genre fiction. The reasons for them have varied. Hiding the gender, and at certain time periods, ethnicity of the author was a main reason. Working as a writer for hire under a brand name was another. In fact, romance publishers used to own the author pseudonyms, assigning them to a different writer should the original one leave until a flurry of class action lawsuits mostly squashed the practice. An author with a difficult name might change it to make it easier for readers to remember. Another major reason — and this one is making a comeback — is that pseudonyms allowed prolific writers who were often working with many publishers, sometimes in different areas of fiction, to sell and publish without seeming to be everywhere to readers at once, and allowing writers to try strange experiments. Stephen King famously not only wrote fiction as Richard Bachman, but hired a pal to pose as Bachman for a good bit until the jig was up and fans discovered the suspected truth, at which point nobody really cared that they were one and the same.
Pseudonyms have always been a favorite of SFF writers, but in the 1990’s we had the wholesale market collapse, cutting the mass market paperback sales in half. It became more critical for authors to be front and center and pressing the flesh, to be on the Internet and interacting with fans, and to sell not only paperbacks but an increased trend of first run hardcovers and trade paperbacks. That meant it was harder for writers to hide their identities behind a pseudonym and it started to become less common. Publishers also became less comfortable with SFF authors working with other publishers and attempted tighter option clauses, though that tradition still continued.
But as we enter a new electronic age, a new, extremely silly reason for having a pseudonym has emerged over the last few years — to fool computers. Most notably BookScan, from the folks at Nielsen, which has aggressively swarmed in to provide bookchains with sales data. And if that sales data isn’t shiny enough, especially in a bad economy, bookstores buy a lot less of those authors, even though in fiction, the past performance of one title of an author’s is no guarantee of the performance of another title from the same author. Such is the case with an unnamed author who is now writing a series as Benjamin Tate, whom author Jim Hines interviewed on his blog:
Asked why he or she had taken on the pseudonym, “Benjamin Tate” replied:
The decision came from the marketing department, according to my editor. The problem is how the chain bookstores order the books that they put on the shelves. What they do (in general) is look up the author and see how many of the previous books by that author sold in their store, and then base their order on those sales. This is unfortunate, especially for a series, because while the third book of the past series may not have sold well, the start of a new series might find a different audience and do very well . . . but only if those books are available in the bookstore for the customers to notice and pick up.
Since WELL OF SORROWS is the start of a new series, it was decided that in order to get more books on the shelf, a pseudonym would be the way to go. My editor talked to me about this for quite a while, to make certain I was OK with it, before we went forward.
And Hines said he would keep the author’s previous identity secret. To which my first thought was, why? The only ones you have to fool are the computers. I first ran into this with British author Debbie Miller, who had actually started out writing under the more male-like pseudonym of Miller Lau. Having made a following but not yet a huge splash, Miller switched to her real name for a slightly different series on the advice of her publishing folk to get under the radar of computers. But she continues to promote her works under both pen names; her identity is not a secret.
More recently, Sarah Monette made a large splash in the field with Melusine, the start of a series that drew her a following, as well as other works. But her publisher, Berkley Ace, didn’t feel the series was developing a good enough sales record and in the bad economic times, cut her loose. Tor Books picked up Monette’s new project, but since the computers no longer felt Monette was a sufficient brand — thus worrying booksellers — Tor will be publishing Monette under the new name of Katherine Addison. That Monette is actually Addison is not something that is going to be hidden from anyone, as Monette explains in her blog:
(Remember that. Everything makes more sense if you remember that publishers aren’t actually selling books to readers; they’re selling books to bookstores, and the bookstores with the clout to determine what publishers can and can’t sell are the big chains.)–are not interested in buying any books associated with the name “Sarah Monette.”
Ergo, my new publisher Tor, in order to do an end-run around the computers, will be publishing me under a new name: Katherine Addison.
This is not a “rebranding”: the book Katherine Addison is writing for Tor is the same book Ace rejected from Sarah Monette. It also, obviously, isn’t a secret; neither Tor nor I see any point in hiding from people who liked my first four books where they can find the next one.
In the land of the Internet, hey even without the Internet, a SFFH author hiding his or her identity is an unlikely proposition. Authors have to go to conventions, have to do book signings and events and sign stock for booksellers, have to have websites and blogs. And even with the ones who aren’t doing a half-bad job of hiding, like K.J. Parker, there is rampant speculation as to the author’s real identity and fans rooting out a lot of information about it (because no one is more dedicated to wiggling out information than SFFH fans, as King found with Bachman.) But most authors aren’t doing this with these pseudonyms. They market all their works together under all their names. Their fans know all their pen names, the critics and SFFH community knows, their publishers certainly know, and basically the booksellers know too.
So why bother? Near as can be told, the booksellers seem to fear that if a SFFH author is not doing spectacular sales as soon as possible, that must mean that the author is disappointing the fans. So the fans won’t respond well to the “loser” name (rather than the reality that fans might not yet be very aware of the current author name.) A new name will draw new fans, because fans like new names. This is true, but fans also like new projects from authors they’re beginning to know. And it’s going to be rather hard for authors to build any sort of sizable audience if they have to keep switching names every year, while their fans struggle to remember all their pen names. Fast burn bestsellers right out of the gate are rare in fiction. Major authors like Neal Stephenson, Laurell K. Hamilton, Glen Cook, etc. built up their huge and loyal followings over time and several books. In bad economic times, authors are given much less time to do this, but even so, fiction is to some extent always going to be a game of hit and miss. You are not going to have J.K. Rowlings popping up for half a publisher’s list. More to the point, fans aren’t that stupid, especially genre fans. They are most of the time not going to be fooled by the switch or even care.
So with the current crop of pseudonyms, the only ones being fooled are the computers, the things that aren’t human. And all the humans in publishing are conspiring to trick these statistical beasts. Perhaps that’s so book buyers for chains can reassure their corporate overlords that, see, we aren’t buying those poor sellers. Or perhaps being new to this idea of “rating” fiction titles as if they were toilet seats, bookbuyers and publishers feel that the computers must be fed or they will grow angry and explode. (If you put this in a satirical SF novel, I suspect readers would feel that it was lacking in credibility.)
People often complain to me in discussions that I seem to be defending publishers and agents as doing perfectly great, as there being no problems in book publishing, (because I don’t agree with whatever they are complaining about.) My response is that there are large problems in publishing, just not what they are complaining about. Coming up with pseudonyms just to deceive a numbers program is what I consider a large problem in fiction publishing. Although, who knows, perhaps in the future it will create a Renaissance reflective of times past when SFFH authors wrote everything under the sun under every name.
In any case, dear Benjamin Tate, whoever you are, you can come out of the closet if you like. Seriously, DAW Books, we don’t give a shit, we really don’t. And we promise not to tell the computers the truth.