Another new year begins and thoughts turn to renewal and new beginnings. 2016 gave us all some challenges and some heavy losses in the entertainment industry, so now we look forward to seeing what 2017 has in store for us on all fronts.
It doesn’t take a new year or the month of January to bring up musings of changes though. Authors see change with every new project; a new environment to build, new fictional characters to develop and our own ever changing relationship with the imaginary worlds that we write.
Sometimes a new project can take us far afield from what we’ve created before, even into a new genre. If the change is significant, we might even consider starting in this new direction with a new pen name. It is commonly done among well-known writers. For example, Agatha Christie, known for her Mystery stories, chose the name ‘Mary Westmacott’ when she wanted to try writing Romances.
There are many others. It was discovered after the death of C.S. Lewis that he had been writing poetry under the name ‘N. W. Clerk’, to keep that part of his writing separate from his Children’s Fiction and Fantasy writer Dean Koontz has written in a variety of genres as ‘Aaron Wolfe’, ‘Brian Coffey’, ‘David Axton’, ‘Deanna Dwyer’, ‘John Hill’, ‘K.R. Dwyer’, ‘Leigh Nichols’, ‘Anthony North’, ‘Owen West’, and ‘Richard Paige’.
Occasionally a well-known writer will try a different pen name to separate new or different material from a name that has become so famous that they can no longer tell if it sells because of its own merits or because it is under the familiar name, like Stephen King who tried writing as ‘Richard Bachman’ when he deviated from his expected Horror genre or ‘J.K. Rowling’ who wrote detective novels as ‘Robert Galbraith’, then was outed by her publisher when sales didn’t immediately take off.
There is a list of well-known authors and their pen names at Wikipedia.
For us lesser known authors, the possibility of choosing a new pen name requires several considerations. The obvious one is whether it’s worth starting over on ‘building a platform’. If you’re writing in a significantly different genre than you’ve built a reputation for, it may well be worthwhile. I know one author who started out writing Romance novels and doing no better than average, but when she released a Dystopian series under another name shot into an income bracket that would be the envy of many indie writers.
When I was about to release my first Fantasy novel, Dance of the Goblins, the choice of pen name was a consideration I put a lot of thought into, yet might do differently in hindsight. I had built a significant reputation in a non-fiction genre, writing about nature spirits and chaos magic and as Jaq D Hawkins am still well-known within the followers of those sub-genres, despite not having released a new book of that nature for several years. Stepping into Fantasy fiction was like moving up to high school; no matter what you accomplished in the old school, you’re now a noob.
If I could get a ‘do over’, I would choose a new pen name for the fiction writing. Using my established pen name hasn’t caused me trouble or the sort of confusion that moving from one fiction genre to another can generate, but having chosen another pen name since then for a different fiction genre, I find that keeping different types of writing separated through the simple use of a different name helps to keep the persona behind choosing to write in a particular genre focused in a different way than the part of one’s creative process that is driven to write in the other genre.
I had practical reasons for keeping my established name at the time. The fiction novels include certain references to magic that is relevant to my non-fiction writing and to a large extent, would appeal to many of the same readers. There was the concern that extremely religious readers might find my non-fiction occult writing objectionable, but as we’ve all seen with Harry Potter, that kind of hysteria can actually boost sales rather than hinder them.
Every case is unique and it is up to the individual author to decide what will serve them best. If you have become known for writing Romance, would shifting to Women’s Fiction be a huge deviation? Would trying Science Fiction confuse readers expecting it to turn out to be Science Fiction Romance when really you wanted to write a good space opera?
I know of a writer who first tested the waters of authorship with a werewolf Romance story, then a very metaphysical sort of SciFi, then pulled both off sale and started releasing a Time Travel series that has much more science than romance to it (so far) and has done rather well with it. She has only used one name for all of her writing thus far. Whether it makes a difference will be seen after she re-releases her earlier books, as she has stated on her blog she intends to do.
One thing to keep in mind is that maintaining blogs and social media as multiple people can be very time consuming. One alternative pen name might not be an issue, but a stable of author profiles to keep up the many faces of Dean Koontz in today’s publishing environment would be mental!
It’s not for me to advise anyone whether they should try a new pen name if they want to branch into a new genre, but the primary consideration for each author to work out for themselves would be, would the change of genre confuse your established readers? That is something each author must work out for themselves.
Here’s to a happy and prosperous 2017 for all of us!
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