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When "What's Your Name?" does not bring an automatic answer

May 6, 2017

 

 

Readers are often surprised to learn that authors don’t choose the titles or covers of their books. Sometimes, if they are lucky, their publisher will ask for input or listen to their suggestions, but in the end, these decisions belong to the publisher. And here’s an even more startling fact—the author’s name isn’t always his or her choice either.

 

            In most cases, when a writer switches genres—for example, he normally writes science fiction but has started writing mysteries—the publisher wants a new name. Why? It protects readers from disappointment when they pick up another book by a favorite author without realizing the genre has changed. This way, publishers reason, the reader won’t be surprised or angry. Think J. D. Robb who writes detective fiction and Nora Roberts who writes romance—they are one and the same. (She also writes under Jill March and Sarah Hardesty.) Agatha Christie, the greatest mystery writer of all time, wrote romance novels under the name of Mary Westmacott. In my case, I had already published hundreds of nonfiction history articles and a dozen nonfiction books under Mary Miley Theobald before I started writing historical mysteries, so my publisher wanted a new name for my new genre. I was proud of my books and didn’t want “someone else’s name” on their covers, so I asked if I could use my maiden name, Mary Miley, instead of an entirely fictitious one. They agreed.

 

            Of course there are other reasons authors choose pen names. Think of J. K. Rowling, who wanted to test her abilities in a new genre with a new name, Robert Galbraith. The book sold modestly until word leaked, then it took off. Historically, some people were ashamed of being a writer, so they disguised their identity with a pseudonym. Women writers had so little respect in the past that they would often use a man’s name or androgynous initials—think George Elliot (Mary Ann Evans), A. M. Barnard (Louis May Alcott), and the Bronte sisters: Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily), and Acton (Anne) Bell. ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

 

 

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