As I get closer and closer (and closer and closer) to publishing my first books, I’m having a debate-of-one on pen names.
So I thought I’d open it up here.
Should I use a pen name for some, all, or none of my books?
The biggest reason for using a pen name isn’t a desire for anonymity or ambiguity — it’s far less spicy. It’s… algorithms.
I’m publishing across multiple unrelated genres over the course of my 100 books project. There are mystery novels and young adult novels. There are trivia books. Puzzle books. Children’s books. Nonfiction books on a crazy variety of topics.
That’s not great for Amazon (or any other recommendations engines).
The algorithms powering Amazon and co. want to put products into tidy boxes. In my scenario, they want to be able to recommend other books from an author to people who’ve purchased from that author. And, arguably more important, they want to promote that author to people who’ve purchased similar books.
The goal of the algorithm is to sell more. Full stop. And they can do that with targeted recommendations based on how well a recommended book connects to the original purchase, how many people have bought both, and how well the recommended book is selling.
So if someone’s purchasing heist novels, ideally I’d want Amazon to recommend my heist novels.
But it’s confusing to the machines if I’m also the author of a trivia book on ’80s movies, a lyrical poem children’s book, a guide to launching a board game on Kickstarter, a reference book for email marketing, and a series on productivity techniques. Now there’s ambiguity when it comes to recommending my books. It’s a whole lot easier for Amazon to recommend the works of someone who’s a heist novelist across the board.
The algorithms aren’t the only reason pen names have value.
Using one name across multiple (often unrelated) genres can also be difficult for building a fan base.
While some people would be all-in on whatever I write — at least I hope some people would be — we live in an era where everyone’s niche preferences are hyper-served. So someone who loves heist novels would subscribe/follow a heist novel author and be turned off if that author was also promoting nonfiction books, kids books, and so on.
The pen name dilemma isn’t solely the domain of new authors looking to break through — writing to genre has always been a challenge.
Isaac Asimov wrote under the name Paul French when he wrote a children’s book series (a sci-fi one, but still, different than his bread and butter).
Stephen King, JK Rowling, Dean Koontz, Agatha Christie, and many, many others have written books under pen names for various reasons — most commonly to switch genres or experiment with other writing styles without alienating their core fan base.
So I see a few options here:
- Stick with my own name, use it for everything, stop overthinking this, and trust people will find the right books in the right circumstances.
- Use one pen name across everything I’m doing that’s “retro related” — that includes my nostalgic mysteries, trivia books, puzzle books, and a few others. (That could be good because those cross-genre books would feed into each other, recommendations-wise.) Then use other pen names or my real name for other major categories. This would probably lead to about ~3 names total, one of which is my real name.
- Use different pen names for every genre to keep my “verticals” siloed from one another to avoid any potential confusion. This would probably lead to about ~5-7 names total.
One note on multiple pen names as well: It would require maintaining separate mailing lists. Not the end of the world, but extra work.
Thoughts? Hey let’s do another Google survey, they’re getting incredible response rates. And this also includes voting on the preferred pen name style…
Results of last week’s poll on publishing company logos
Since I’m poll crazy right now, last week I asked for votes on a logo for my publishing company.
The results (which are quite clean due to a nice round number of voters):
Which logo do you like best?
- A – 25%
- B – 20%
- C – 50%
- D – 5%
- None – 0%
Which font do you like most for the words “Hanover Webb”?
- A – 35%
- B – 10%
- C – 25%
- D – 30%
- None – 0%
Where does “Hanover Webb” come from?
The answer is I picked two mostly obscure ’80s references that, when combined, I thought sounded like a respectable publishing house.
“Hanover” comes from 1981’s Heavy Metal, from a character named Hanover Fiste. He’s not an admirable character at all but I’ve always loved the pun. And the obscurity of being in the in-club of people who’ve seen Heavy Metal.
“Webb” comes from the basketball player who had me convinced I would dunk one day, Spud Webb.
If you’d like to see what I worked on this past week, my daily activity is available in the December 2022 work log.
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