Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Multiple Pen Names: Good, Bad, Ugly

by Suzanne Johnson, er, Susannah Sandlin

There are really good reasons for authors to take on multiple pen names. First, they might have a day job and want to keep their writing life separate from it, or write in a genre that might bring them negative attention from family or friends. Perhaps they’re switching genres and want to differentiate between the writings of one name and those of another. Or perhaps their career as Writer A has stalled out and they want a fresh start as Writer B, without any baggage.

Mine is a cautionary tale, of taking on a pen name and ending up with an illogical “brand” that might never be salvageable.

It started out as a seemingly good idea, back in 2010. I had sold an urban fantasy series to Publisher A and while cooling my jets waiting for the books to be published, I wrote another book and my agent sold a paranormal romance series to Publisher B. At that time, Publisher A and Publisher B were in a pretty public feud, and we worried that “Suzanne Johnson” might get some negative treatment from Publisher A if they learned about the deal. “Susannah Sandlin” was born. 

As things would have it, Suzanne’s first book came out in April 2012. Susannah’s first book came out three months later, in June 2012. Because of the different names, I was essentially a debut author twice in the same year, unable to parlay the readers of one series to boost sales for the other series even though urban fantasy and paranormal romance share about 99.9 percent of their readership.

First lesson learned: Don’t take on a separate pen name if you’re writing in the same or a similar genre. All you do is double your workload to reach the same readers twice. I had a full-time, high-stress day job, sole caregiver duties for a disabled parent, and suddenly found myself with two websites, two blogs, two Facebook accounts, two Twitter accounts, and zero time.

After five books published in 2012 under two names with two publishers, I was a burned-out wreck. So, second lesson learned: Unless you really enjoy marketing, have unlimited amounts of time, and enjoy the chaos and uncertainty of being a debut author more than once, don’t try to keep your pen names separate. Unless, of course, one name becomes inactive. When J.R. Ward began writing under that name, her previous writing name of Jessica Bird went inactive, so there was no need to keep them both current and actively marketed.

At that point, my “brand” was still salvageable. Suzanne wrote urban fantasy with romantic elements while Susannah wrote paranormal romance. Then those markets crashed, and I found myself turning to writing a new genre altogether—romantic suspense. Because it was with the same publisher as the previous romance series, I kept the Susannah Sandlin pen name.

Third Lesson Learned. Keep the genre lines clean between your pen names. Suddenly, in 2013, I had a branding problem. I had Susannah writing both paranormal romance and romantic suspense while, caught in a contract vise, Suzanne continued to write only urban fantasy. Here’s the problem: there is virtually zero overlap in readership between paranormal romance and romantic suspense. So people who read and liked Susannah Sandlin’s suspense novels went looking at backlist and found—eek—yuck—paranormals. Likewise, Susannah’s paranormal readers felt abandoned when she dropped her popular vampire series and began writing all-human suspense novels. She got a lot of emails telling her so.

Fourth Lesson learned: Fixing a broken brand takes a lot of time and money, and might not even be possible. I spent a lot of time and money in 2013 and 2014 consolidating Susannah and Suzanne into a single website, a single blog, lots of social media messaging, and the task of working toward a single Facebook author page. (There are still two FB and Twitter accounts but I duplicate posts.) It initially led to a lot of confusion among readers, and even now I get at least one “Wait…I didn’t know you also wrote (fill in name of series)” email or message a week.

Honestly, I have no solutions as to how to fix the brand. In time, if I simply quit writing under one pen name MAYBE it would work. Suzanne has the most loyal fans, but Susannah has BY FAR the most readers. Currently, I’m working on a new book proposal and have no clue whether Suzanne or Susannah should write it.

So, sure, go ahead and take a second (or third) writing name. But think through:
·      Why you want it;
·      How you’re going to publicize multiple pen names and juggle any separation, taking into account the time it takes to actively market two or more names;
·      How the pen names fit into where you see your long-term career plans going.

If you don’t answer those questions, take it from Suzanne and Susannah: what can seem like a good idea could turn bad—and downright ugly. (If nothing else, you have to often refer to yourself in third-person.)


Alicia Coleman said...

Thank you, Suzanne, for this informative post. Lesson learned: no pen name for me, at least in the foreseeable future.

Carla Swafford said...

I've seen authors do something like this, Nora Roberts writing as J.D. Robb. In this case Nora writes with her husband, but you get the drift.