Dissolving Boundaries – II

Last week, we talked about the disappearance of territory as a real boundary in the distribution of digital books. That was one boundary inherited from traditional publishing that doesn’t make a lot of sense in our brave new world of e-books. My thinking is that the real barrier is now language.

Today, we’re going to talk about another dissolving boundary: that of the author brand. It’s not disappearing, but it’s mutating.

So, let’s talk about traditional publishing and how authors ended up having pseudonyms in the first place. From there, we can see how those reasons might not apply anymore.

There are several reasons in traditional publishing for an author to use a pseudonym:

• The author might wish to hide his or her real identity.
This has been a traditional reason for authors writing erotica to take a pen name, and that remains true. I know a lot of erotica and erotic romance authors who would prefer that their friends, families and neighbors don’t know what they write.

In the age of the internet, though, such secrets are tough to keep.

• The author might have a name that is either too common to be easily remembered or too unusual to be readily spelled (or remembered.)
Actors take stage names for this same reason. Some authors undertake this decision by choice, while others have it suggested to them by their publisher. US publishers of commercial fiction prefer authors to have short names – so they can be printed in larger type on the cover – and names which are easily pronounced by English-speaking Americans. Long names are perceived to be complicated and non-Anglo names are perceived to be ethnic.

In the age of digital publishing, though, we’re seeing a lot of different names in the marketplace. People are using their own names or names that are deliberately chosen to be exotic (or even improbable). This can help an author to stand out from the pack, and also to ensure that the domain name is available for sale for that author’s website.

• A pseudonym can be used to rebrand an author making a new start.
In this case, the suggestion traditionally has come from the publisher. Publishers perceive that the author name is part of the author brand, which is part of the marketing for the book. An author changing subgenres might be encouraged to take another name, to “start fresh”. Names are generational, so an older writer named Caroline who is publishing her first contemporary romance featuring characters in their 20′s might be encouraged to use the name Cara on her new work. In that way, the target audience might believe that the author was “one of us”.

Again, this is less of a concern when we focus our careers on long tail marketing instead of driving for those high sales numbers in the first week that the book is available. Over time, an overlooked work might come into it own, times might catch up with the farseeing author, or ideas in a book might mirror concerns in society better than when it was published. Having books available more or less permanently in digital and POD formats means that we don’t need the sharp spike of first week sales, which makes rebranding less relevant.

• Pseudonyms can be used to divide the author’s work for contractual purposes.
When an author writes for more than one publishing house, the option clauses must be constructed so that it is clear which house has the rights to which categories of the author’s work. This can be defined by genre, by sub-genre, by length and/or by author brand. Sometimes the easiest short form is to define the work by the name under which it will be published. So, an option clause might say that the house had the option to review “the author’s next paranormal romance over 90,000 words written as Suzie Q” or even “next romance written as Suzie Q”. Different houses have different ideas about how much of the author’s brand they wish to control, but it’s not uncommon for an author to be encouraged to take a new name with a new contract at a new house, just to give that house an author brand that is entirely their own. It simplifies the option clause, too.

This reason will continue to hold for those authors doing business with publishing houses. For those who choose to indie-publish, however, these kinds of contract clauses are not a concern. That’s because these parameters are really an artificial construct. They’re not the ways that readers distinguish between different works, even works by the same author. Would you read an 80,000 word work by an author but not a 110,000 word one? You’d read them both if you liked the author. Length of the work is only concern for readers when it comes to setting expectations and pricing.

Similarly, readers might read everything by a given author, independent of whether it is a paranormal romance or a contemporary romance, independent of the name under which the name is published. Readers might like the way Suzie Q mixes suspense with romance, or the kind of heroes Josie B portrays in her books.

So, there’s a lot less reason for dividing the work of any given author by author name in our Wild West of Publishing.

I think there is still a place for using different names. If there is no potential crossover of readership between different branches of an author’s work, it makes sense to delineate the work by author brand. There is a lot of crossover reading going on, though, maybe more than publishers have ever thought. There aren’t that many examples of two genres that wouldn’t mix and mingle. An author writing erotic romance and middle school magical adventures might want to use two different author names, based on the expectation that the two audiences would be mutually exclusive. But for all the sample author knows, there might be women in their 20′s reading her middle school magical adventures, readers who might also like her erotic romances. Once upon a time, the two brands would have to be kept secret or at least veiled from each other, but I don’t think that’s the case anymore. It’s more a case of ensuring that the reader knows what to expect from any given work by using author brands, if indeed the author chooses to use any.

What do you think? Are there authors you only read in one subgenre, or do you follow your faves no matter how their work is classified in the virtual bookstore?

2 thoughts on “Dissolving Boundaries – II

  1. I think there are a lot of people follow authors more than genres. Look at Stephenie Meyers – do you think anyone would have read “The Host” if she’d published it under a different name?

    Also, something I’ve wondered about how authors choose pseudonyms: do you think there’s any thought of who they’ll be shelved next to with a particular name? I used to work at a bookstore and I noticed that, even though they were sorted by author, similar types of books tended to be near each other. Or maybe it’s just that 50% of everything is vampires. :)

    • Oh yes, Kim, some authors have been very strategic about choosing pseudonyms – particularly when everyone shopped in physical bookstores and books were filed alphabetically by author in the appropriate section. I’ve met a number of authors who have congratulated me over the years for choosing Delacroix, as that would ensure my books would be racked beside Jude Devereux. That never occurred to me, but there you go!

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