Your Byline Is Your Brand

Someone on a forum I frequent asked recently about pen names, and whether a writer should use different names for different genres. Two schools of thought emerged.  One was “I can’t keep track of all those different names,” and the other one was “you should absolutely use different names for different audiences.” I’m firmly in the latter category.

Readers make decisions about which books to read based on three factors: the cover design, the cover blurb, and the byline. Yes, when it comes to selecting reading material, books are judged by their covers. Even online.

The cover design, if done well, tells the reader what the mood and style of the piece is. A dark cover featuring a leather-clad woman holding a sword is going to be a very different book than a brightly colored one featuring a scantily clad man embracing a woman in a flowing gown. Just from my description of the cover, you’ve probably got an idea of what sort of novel each book is, don’t you? The cover copy — that paragraph or so of information they put about the book to entice the reader to buy it — can make or break the deal with an unknown author, but first the reader has to get as far as picking up the book in the first place, and the cover is the first weapon deployed to get the reader to do so.

The cover is arguably the most important factor is selling the book, except for very well-established authors. Let’s be honest, you could put “by Stephen King” on a brown paper grocery bag and end up with a bestseller. But that didn’t happen by accident. Stephen King spent years building his brand. Think about it. When I say, “It’s a Stephen King novel,” don’t you have certain expectations about what kind of novel it is, how the story will be told, and whether or not you would enjoy reading it? The same is true if I say, “It’s a Sue Grafton novel.” Or, “It’s a Danielle Steele novel.”

These authors are extremely well-branded. Readers know without seeing anything other than the byline if they’re likely to enjoy the book. But if Stephen King wrote a torrid romance, or Sue Grafton wrote a boody horror story, or Danielle Steele wrote a romance-free detective story, readers would balk. They’d have a bad reaction to the books. The romance fans who might enjoy King’s very well-written romance would never find it, because it’s a Stephen King novel, while the Stephen King fans would be put out at picking up a book they thought they were going to enjoy and getting a romance instead.

Now, it would not surprise me at all to learn that King writes romances, or that Grafton writes horror, or that Steele writes mysteries. But if they do, I’m sure they’re doing so under a different byline.

Think about it in terms of actors. If I say, “It’s a Jackie Chan movie,” you probably know right off the bat if you’d be likely to enjoy it. Similarly if I say, “It’s an Adam Sandler movie.” These are actors who are well-branded.

Other actors thrive on diversity, being able to play different roles in different types of movie. But actors don’t have the option of changing their byline. I generally really enjoy watching these extremely versatile actors work, but I (like most Americans) won’t go see a movie just because they’re in it. Therefore, they have a lot less box office draw than Chan or Sandler. Seriously. If I say, “It’s a Sigourney Weaver movie,” you probably don’t know whether or not you want to see it. You trust her performance will be good, but you need to ask, “Well, what’s it about?” You need more information. I respect Sigourney Weaver. I like her work. But that doesn’t translate to knowing whether or not I will like a particular film.

Similarly, authors who use the same byline for a body of work that’s too diverse will get the same reaction from readers. Ask a typical reader about the byline and they’ll say, “Oh, I like some of his/her work, but not all of it.” These writers will never be able to guarantee sales based solely on having their name on the cover.

The other reason I’m fond of pen names is that they’re a lot more disposable than your legal name. One sad truth in this business is that your advance (and how much publicity your next piece gets) is based on how well your previous one performed. If your sales are generally declining, sometimes it’s a better business move to jettison your pen name and start over as if you’re a brand new writer. If it’s your real name you need to jettison, that can be painful.

You may find you also need to jettison a pen name due to a P.R. problem. Obviously, it’s better to avoid P.R. problems altogether, but sometimes they happen regardless. Think about how hard it’s going to be for Jacqueline Howett to land a publishing deal after the fiasco with The Greek Seaman. (For those who don’t follow, she got into a very public flame war with a critic, and got burned.) For her to ever have a chance as a writer, she needs a new name. I joked on that other forum that after an incident like that, you need to change your name to “Sari Alwright” and see who accepts the apology…

So, let’s assume you’re on board with this “different name for different types of work” idea. How do you decide when a work needs to go under another byline? Here you need to be honest about who your audience is.

Very few readers like to marvel at the writer’s skill. They simply want to be entertained. Ergo, I am not going to pick up a romance novel just because it’s written by someone whose work I like. I don’t like romance novels. But I do like science fiction. So I will gladly grab a novel written by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, because odds are good I’ll enjoy it, while I’ll ignore anything written by Kristine Grayson, because I know I probably won’t enjoy it. Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Kristine Grayson are the same person, and I know that. She’s perfectly capable of writing for two different audiences, and I’m only in one of them. I won’t read her romances just to marvel that she can write them. I, as a reader, deeply appreciate her branding her work with different bylines.

Some writers, such as Dave Wolverton / David Farland, go so far as to use different names for science fiction and fantasy. While there’s a lot of overlap in the readership of the two, this is justifiable. Other writers — especially mystery writers — will go so far as to put different series under different pen names. Ever wonder why that author whose series you like hasn’t ever written anything else, before or since? Odds are good they have, but they did so under a different name.

These are grey areas, of course. On the one hand, a reader liking a series of space operas won’t necessarily translate to that reader liking a hard science fiction series. But on the other hand, if a reader likes a writer’s series they may enjoy something else by that writer (Agatha Christie wrote Miss Marple books and Poirot books without baffling readers), and writers who make it too hard for them to find what else they’ve done lose potential readers for that other work. The aforementioned Dave Wolverton and Kristine Kathryn Rusch deal with this by being very open about what other names they use. Nora Roberts / J.D. Robb is another  author who is very outspoken about her different pen names. There are many others.

Or, you can relish the anonymity. Who really needs to know that the person whose horror is scaring the bejeezus out of them also writes happy stories about unicorns for children? Isn’t enough that you know?

To use my favorite soft drink analogy, who really cares that Mug is made by PepsiCo?  I grab a Mug when I want a root beer and a Pepsi when I want a cola. It’s all about branding.

2 thoughts on “Your Byline Is Your Brand

  1. It’s funny that you mention Stephen King, because he HAD a pen name–Richard Bachman–that he later jettisoned (and, I believe, ceremonially buried). It was of little use to him. I consider that a warning not to go all pseudo on your nym unless and until you have a genuinely good reason.

    • As I recall the story (and I have this 3rd hand), I believe he used the pen name while he was starting out, being very aware that most writers end up being very embarrassed by their early work, and for works he didn’t think were up to the standards he set for himself. If true, what a remarkable foresight and quite at odds with most of our desire to see our names in print…