Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Ask the Editor: The Not-So-Secret Nom de Plume

Charlotte Williamson asks:

I know that authors use aliases from time to time for various reasons, but they usually stick to gender. What if a writer, who is female, and writes detective novels from a male point of view (1st person), wants to submit to agents and/or publishers as a male? Would it be possible, and has it been done? What are the pros and cons? I've never heard of anyone doing this, but I thought it was something to consider. Men's books DO get more attention than women's.

Charlotte Williamson

Dear Ms. Williamson,

Correction: Exciting, entertaining, unique and well written books get more attention than boring, unoriginal, poorly written books. :-)

Having said that, please allow me to address your question regarding pen names.

Many authors choose to publish their work under a pen name. Let’s look at some of the reasons they might do so.

  1. An author writes under two different genres. Nora Roberts, for instance, publishes romance novels under Nora Roberts and publishes her In Death series under the pen name J.D. Robb.
  2. An author writes stories of which his or her friends/family/employer/co-workers would not approve (erotic romance, for instance).
  3. An author is re-establishing herself/himself - starting over.
  4. An author’s real name is unattractive, difficult to pronounce, etc.

These are all good, sound reasons to choose a pen name under which to publish your work.

From ancient times up through the present, many female authors have chosen to use a male pen name. During the Victorian era, the Brontë sisters used the pen name Currer Bell for some of their works, and George Eliot was actually Mary Ann Evans. Louisa May Alcott used the pen name Andrew J. when she published some of her thrillers. Many women writers like the Brontës and Ms. Evans chose to publish under a man's name because publishers, reviewers, and readers were more likely to accept a story written by a man, and because many people believed women should not write at all.

While readers may still hold a certain prejudice against female-authored books within certain genres – action/adventure, murder/mystery, science fiction – agents and publishers should not. As an acquiring editor, I can promise you, if a good story crosses my path, I’m going to make an offer – whether it’s written by a man or a woman. I can only hope and imagine agents and other editors feel the same. Agents and editors are professionals, in business to make a profit. If your story is entertaining, original and well written, they aren’t going to reject the story simply because you’re a woman.

In closing, there are three very sound reasons for not submitting your work to an agent or a publisher under a false name.

First, I assume you would like to be paid? :-) Agents and publishers must know your full, legal name in order to issue advance checks and royalty payments, and in order to report your income to the Internal Revenue Service. The only way I know for an author to get around this is to legally incorporate under their chosen pen name, and have all monies paid out in the name of the corporation.

Second, any agent or editor who reviews a submission is thinking along two different lines. First, is it a good book? Will it sell? Second, how can we promote this book? If you are a woman writing under a male pseudonym, will you be able to do book tours? Book signings? Radio interviews? Television interviews?

And finally, I personally believe lying to an agent or an editor is a poor way to begin a business relationship. Sooner or later, the truth will come out.

Jill N. Noble

Jill N. Noble is the Senior Editor with Noble Romance
Publishing, LLC.
She worked for Loose Id, LLC as a senior editor for about a year, and has been writing erotic romance novels for over ten years. Ms. Noble is published with Ellora's Cave and Highland Press, under the pen name Jill Noelle.

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  1. Well said. The comment about doing book signings when writing under an opposite-sex gender made me wonder about Nora Roberts' publicity strategy. It would be difficult to promote those books.

  2. I seriously considered a male pen name to start with...and ultimately decided against it, because - as you say - the truth WILL eventually come out, and I know there are a lot of readers who would feel betrayed by that.

    It seems to me that with the internet bringing greater transparency, being who you say you are has become a bigger deal.

  3. L.J. - what made you decide to use initials instead of your full name? It had crossed my mind to use an alternate name or initials, but with the last name Ginger, the initials wouldn't have changed perception.

    Helen Ginger

  4. I chose Morgan for my pen name since it could be a man or woman's name. I thought that way both sexes would feel comfortable about reading my books.

    Two Wrongs was written from 2 male points of view,but also contained a love story thread. I did achieve my purpose since my friends said even their husbands read the book.

    Girl of My Dreams was obviously different. Since it's a romantic comedy and the cover reflects that only a few guys have read it.

    Anyway, I agree it doesn't pay to try to fool the person who pays you.

    Morgan Mandel

  5. Ah, yes, well my name is Harriet, and long ago it became Hank. I'm a TV reporter, so there's no confusion, of course, because people can see me.

    Now, in my additional life as an author, people have no idea. Is that good or bad? My books are romantic-suspense-mysteries, and I assume people think a man is writing them.

    Let's hear it for author photos.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.