My sister recently met one of our favourite authors, Lionel Shriver – an author whose output either catches the zeitgeist (We Need to Talk About Kevin); is a really good read (Big Brother, So Much for That) or (for me) completely unreadable (The Post-Birthday World). But this blog is not about her as such, it is about her name.
For Lionel is a female writer – changing her name from Margaret as a teenager, simply because she wanted a boy’s name. Lionel is what she is known as, called and goes by, rather than a pen name – but it probably has not done her sales any harm at all to be thought of as a man. No one would call her a writer for women. Or look at the Just William series, wildly popular (in their time) with boys – would they have had the same impact had her male readership known the author, Richmal Crompton, was a woman?
Pen names of course have long been the choice of women writers for a number of reasons. Acceptance – Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte wrote as men to give their work more of a chance of publication. George Sands and George Eliot, both women, for the same reason – when they were writing, if you wanted to be successful, you were male.
Genre is another. Some women wrote as women for some of their novels, and as men for others – Louise May Alcott is one example. The Little Women books and some others (similar in tone) are attributed to her; but she also wrote gothic novels, much less ladylike, under the more ambiguous name of A M Barnard. Mary Shelley published the quintessential horror Frankenstein anonymously, and when the second edition bore her real name, people doubted she had written it, attributing it at least in part to her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Today, no woman writer need hide behind a male pseudonym to be accepted. But ambiguous names, in order to attract a wider viewing public, are another matter. Ambiguity through the use of initials is seen as a way of appealing to both sides of the gender gap, particularly in the thriller/crime/horror genres. P D James (a woman writing crime), S K Tremayne (a man writing psycho-thrillers); E L James (a woman writing, well, Fifty Shades of pornography) – are all successfully gender neutral in order to appeal to all. Another example is J K Rowling – her name is Joanne, and she has no middle name beginning with K or otherwise. She was simply advised to become ambiguous so that more boys read the books.
So what’s in a name? An important element of your marketing mix. Choose carefully.