Becoming Someone Else

Lewis Perdue and Paul Levine are just a few of the authors who have referred me to the Wall Street Journal piece on novelists who have to adopt pseudonyms to stay in print.

Now that retailers can track books sales speedily and efficiently with
point-of-sale technology, the entire publishing world knows when an
author’s commercial performance takes a dive. For these unfortunate
scribblers, such a sales record makes it hard to get good advances and big
orders from bookstores. So some are adopting an unusual strategy: adopting
an alias — even one of the opposite sex…

Two decades ago, the book industry largely relied on guesswork as it decided
what to publish and sell. Editors could keep promoting promising authors,
even if sales were weak. When they finally wrote a "breakout" title, their
catalog of older books would become valuable.

These days, publishing
veterans talk about "the death spiral" of authors’ careers. A first novel
generates terrific reviews and good sales, but with each succeeding book,
sales get weaker and the chains cut their orders until they don’t stock any
at all.

"You’re only as good as your last book’s sales to much of the
retail  market," says New York literary agent Richard Pine, a principal in
Inkwell Management LLC.

This practice of authors having to change their names to defeat the computers at the chains has been going on for some time. For example, Gar Haywood became "Ray Shannon" and hasn’t made a secret of it.  Neither has Jeremiah Healy, who lately has been writing books as "Terry Devane." Terrill Lee Lankford,  a frequent commentor here, tells WSJ that he resisted pressure to follow their example.

Terrill Lee Lankford’s literary agency was urging him to take a pseudonymeven before his book, "Blonde Lightning," hit the shelves this summer. He
declined the advice. His earlier title, "Earthquake Weather," was a
critical, if not commercial success. But since it wasn’t a big seller,
orders from bookstores for the follow-up were lackluster. Mr. Lankford’s 
editor at Bertelsmann AG’s Ballantine imprint was enthusiastic about the
sequel but the author’s agency said his name was a liability.

Lankford says switching monikers is unethical. "If somebody didn’t like my
book under my own name it would be wrong to sell another book to that person
under a different name," he says. "Just to defeat the computers at Barnes
& Noble and Borders isn’t a good reason for doing this."

He may not think so, but author Reed Farrell  Coleman isn’t taking a chance. His next book will be written by "Tony Spinosa."

12 thoughts on “Becoming Someone Else”

  1. It’s too bad Reed has to pay for his publisher’s poor marketing choices. The Prager series was some of the most solid writing I’ve seen in recent years.
    And Terrill, way to stick to your guns, man.

  2. Donald Westlake wroote about this phenom in his great thriller THE HOOK – if you haven’t read it, get it, great book – it’s a tight read and dwells on this very subject.
    And I love the ending.

  3. I know an author who writes under several pseudonyms, but I’ve never found any of them on a shelf. Lankford has the correct policy on this sort of deception. I fail to see why it’s necessary.

  4. I see nothing wrong with pens names. It’s an old tradition — practiced by many writers, including Westlake, mentioned earlier. Richard Stark, Tucker Coe… Different names for different styles.
    The reasons for using a pen name may have changed, but I find nothing dishonest in it at all. If it’s a matter of survival, changing your name seems like one of the least offensive things you could be asked to do.

  5. It’s necessary because the publishing industry today is cruel and unforgiving. A few books that don’t quite perform up to par, and suddenly your career is stalled and heading into that death spiral. And once you’re in the spiral, it’s next to impossible to pull yourself out of it. It doesn’t matter how good your books were, or how many starred reviews you get, the chains only care about numbers.
    What this really demonstrates is the power of the big chain bookstores to determine your future.
    Sometimes, a name change is all you can do to keep your career alive. There’s nothing wrong with trying to survive.

  6. In TL’s case, his background seems like a natural marketing hook for his Hollywood novels, so his agent’s advice seems odd. Plus, the books have the same principal characters. I liked Blonde Lightning a lot for what it’s worth, but I’m not a buyer for the chains, who, as Tess points out, hold the real power behind the scenes.

  7. I have to side with Tess on this one. The rules have changed since I got in this business back in the medieval 80s. Then, publishers were a lot more patient about waiting for you to find your audience. Now it is all about nefarious “numbers.” I have written under a pen name since the start, not to avoid the death spiral but because I write with my sister and folks are leery about books “written by committee.”
    That said, it was my first editor, eight books ago, who suggested we come up with a “neuter” pen name. Because we write hardboiled about a male cop, the thought was our female name(s) would turn off male readers. I was pissed at first, wanted to help carry the standard for women HBers. But I had no clout, so I went with PJ Parrish. It turned out to a solid marketing move. I still get guys at signings who, once they find out I’m a woman, won’t buy the book. So I don’t regret assuming an alias for one moment.
    And God forbid, if I ever do go into a death spiral, I will not hesitate to adopt a new identity. I don’t want to just be published. I want to be read.

  8. And God forbid, if I ever do go into a death spiral, I will not hesitate to adopt a new identity. I don’t want to just be published. I want to be read.

    Me, too. I am with PJ and Tess on this one. I’d take a pseudonym, too, if that’s what I had to do to remain in print. Hey, using a pseudonym was how I got into print in the first place (as “Ian Ludlow”).
    As an aside… one of the big incentives for me to do the DM novels was to overcome the low sales figures for MY GUN HAS BULLETS and BEYOND THE BEYOND in the chain computers. They were well reviewed but, for whatever reason (like the GIANT PENIS ON THE COVER OF THE BOOK) didn’t sell well. As someone else said, starred reviews don’t necessarily equal sales. Now, thanks to DM, my sales numbers in the chain computers look pretty darn good…certainly better than they did before.

  9. I’ve written under a variety of names in several different genres, and for any number of reasons. It’s not about dishonesty, it is first and foremost a survival decision. The chains can kill a career faster than any bad prose.
    Personally, I don’t care what name is on the cover – I KNOW who wrote it, and I get the checks, so it works out nicely. Beyond that, I’m not attached to any one particular name, so if a publisher asks me to do something under a different name (happens more than people would think) I shrug and say, “Sure, what did you have in mind?”

  10. Tess is right, but it’s not that the publishing industry is cruel and unforgiving. In reality, most are foolish and clueless.
    Foolish for shoving out so many products with no marketing support and clueless about marketing for the few that are supported.
    I’ve started and sold four successful companies and been involved with half a dozen other start-ups (mostly technology but two publishing companies), in roles ranging from VP Marketing to CTO and Chairman/CEO — and I can tell you that no one who sincerely wants a successful company and knows how to get there would ever run their business the way we find in most of publishing.
    Further, the pursuit of profits and pressure to produce is _not_ the main problem — it is the lack of creativity, management skills and vision which sees salvation through overloaded editors, underpaid writers and failure to market.

  11. Well, everyone here seems to be hanging on to them so far, and I’m not in a position yet to do much with my own name ao any other so it’s all moot to me. Change away.


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