The Pros And Cons Of Pen Names
It’s a question that I’ve had to get used to, over the years. Before becoming an author, I had built up a successful career as a freelance journalist under my real married name of Jane Bidder. However, when my first novel ‘The School Run’ was accepted by Hodder & Stoughton in 2005, my agent suggested I took a pen name in order to differentiate it from the many childcare features I was known for. ‘Otherwise,’ he said, ‘the book might be seen as a ‘how to do’ the school run.’
My publishers agreed for different reasons. They wanted a name which was memorable and clear unlike Bidder which is prone to misinterpretation (Bigger, Better, Bitter – you name it!). So I chose the name Sophie King partly because King is a family name and partly because my daughter Lucy was almost a Sophie.
At the time, however, a well-known author friend warned me against the move. ‘It has its pros and cons,’ she warned. And she was right. On the plus side, another identity gives you a fresh fillip. It can fool you into thinking you are someone else and – if you’ve had a few false starts – this can help you turn a new leaf. In today’s age, where a writer’s past record is revealed at the touch of a button, a pen name can mean a clean slate if past sales haven’t reached expectations.
A pseudonym can also allow you to write different kinds of novels if you have more than one voice. Last year, I wrote my first historical ‘The Pearls’ which had been brooding inside me for more than a decade. My agent took it to Frankfurt where, after a bidding war, it was sold to Random House for a ‘significant six figure sum’. But it went out under my new married name Jane Corry. ‘If someone buys a Sophie King book,’ my agent pointed out, ‘they expect fast-moving contemporary women’s fiction – not three generation sagas.’
At the same time (talk about two buses at once!), I got a two-book deal with Random House in the UK to write fiction for young mums. But my publishers wanted me to write under yet another name, partly because it’s a new series. So we went for Janey Fraser. The first is an affectionate name used by my close friends and family while Fraser was chosen by my editor as it is strong, easy to remember and also reflects my Scottish roots.
Confusing? Not if you get your head round it. The trick, I am discovering, is to smile down those who say ‘Another name?’ as though it’s a negative. Instead, I point out that I am being published (and published well) instead of not being published at all – a fate which is happening to more and more mid-listers.
I have also spent a great deal of time and money in devising separate websites for my names as well as Twitter and Facebook accounts. Already, I’ve increased my readership through cross-fertilisation. In the long-term, I plan on concentrating on Janey Fraser and Jane Corry for my novels and Sophie King for short stories. ‘Bidder’ is virtually obsolete now I am primarily a novelist instead of a journalist. Besides, because it belongs to my first marriage, it’s cathartic to move on. I also enjoy the different mantles which my names give me. As Jane Corry, I am following the lives of three women from the 19th century to the present day, each of whom inherits the same pearl necklace. As Janey Fraser, I am being wickedly funny (a reviewer’s words) in a small town playgroup of yummy mummies. I’m certainly never bored…
Sometimes, one of my genres can give me an idea for another. In Happy Families, it turns out that a ‘father’ knew his daughter was really someone else’s all along. In The Pearls, Victorian parentage is never what it appears. Obviously the plots and the tone are different but rather like a big family, there are more ideas flying around than there might be with a one child set-up.
My own pen names are a bit of an open secret and there are references to each on my different websites. I sought advice on this from other friends in the same situation and they all said the same. A pen name can make the difference between a sale and no-sale at the beginning but when someone gets to like your writing, they are then interested in your other personas.
On the plus side, another name can open up a new you. It’s a bit like giving your permission to adopt a new hairstyle and dress in order to be someone completely different. The amazing thing is that you can find your writing voice changes at the same time purely because you are masquerading as someone else. This might be just the breakthrough you’ve been waiting for! At the least, it’s a very liberating experience.’
On the downside, the practicalities of pen names can lead to complications, including misunderstandings at hotels if you’ve been booked in under the ‘wrong’ name or cheques made out to the name without a bank account! You might also be suspected of being a fraudster. ‘I was mortified,’ said one of my author friends, ‘ when my then-small daughter came the bank with me one day and asked loudly: ‘Which name are you going to use today, Mum?’
A pen name can also be a practical ‘must’ if your real one isn’t particular suitable for a cover. My original publishers didn’t care for my first married name Bidder because, as they put it, it could be confused with ‘Baeder’ or ‘Bigger’ or ‘Bitter’. Much better to have a clear crisp name that readers can remember.
Then there’s the privacy issue. If you write under another name, your family won’t need to know you wrote those sex scenes……
Legally, you can choose any pseudonym you want although you might find yourself in hot water if you start writing under the same name as a best-seller. If you’re not sure what name to choose, think about family names or go through the Births, Deaths and Marriages. Choose something which is clear and memorable. I have heard that publishers like names which begin with a letter around the middle of the alphabet because bookshop browsers tend to start off there. But I’m not sure that’s been proved….
But the final word should surely go to the publisher. Gillian Holmes, my editor at Arrow, Random House, says .’If the book is light-hearted and written for a younger market, then we will try to reflect that by choosing a name that is common for younger women eg Holly, Amy, Lulu etc. Equally, if the book is aimed at a slightly older market, then it often helps that the author name feels familiar and not too exotic – like someone you might have been at school with. Another consideration, is how it will look on the jacket. Is it too long? Too short? Too twirly? I don’t think there are any statistics to show that the author name makes that much difference to the success of the book, but it can send a message, just like the title and jacket image, about what the book actually is.”
Meanwhile, if you happen to bump into me in the street, just call me Janey. Then we’ll both know who we’re talking about!
JANEY FRASER is a journalist and novelist. She attended North London Collegiate School and then read English at Reading University before joining the Thomson Graduate Trainee Scheme as a journalist. Janey then went onto writer for Drapers Record, Parents and Woman’s Own magazine before turning freelance after the birth of her first child. For the next twenty-five years, she contributed to numerous national publications including The Times, Good Housekeeping and Woman & Home. She was also a regular columnist for Woman and The Daily Telegraph where she wrote about the humorous ups and downs of family life.
As Sophie King, she had five novels published by Hodder & Stoughton, including The Wedding Party which was shortlisted for Love Story of the Year in 2010. She now writes as Janey Fraser for Arrow (Random House). Titles so far have included The Playgroup, The Au Pair and her latest novel Happy Families. Fay Weldon has described her novels as ’unputdownable’. Her novels have won various prizes including the Elizabeth Goudge Short Story Trophy in 2005. She was also a runner up in the Harry Bowling Prize.
As Jane Corry, she writes historical novels for the European market. Her first novel The Pearls went to auction at the Frankfurt Book Fair and was bought by Newton Compton in Germany and also Newton Compton in Italy where it reached number eight in the book charts. Her next historical novel THE RUBY RING has been bought by Italy, Germany and Spain.
Janey has also written numerous non-fiction books including “Family Memories” (a series of children’s books); How To Write Short Stories For Magazines And Get Published; How To Write Your First Novel; How To Write Your Life Story; Tidy Your Room! How to get kids to do jobs they hate; Everything a Parent Needs to know before their Child goes to University; Everything a Parent Needs to know before their Child goes to Secondary school.
In addition, she has had hundreds of short stories published in magazines such as Woman’s Weekly and My Weekly. She also gives regular talks / workshops at bookshops and literary festivals including Winchester and Guildford. Until her recent move to Devon, she tutored at Oxford University and West Herts College. For three years, she was writer in residence at HMP Grendon, a high-security male prison where she helped lifers to write their life stories as well as poems, novels and short stories. Janey also invited in fellow writers such as Colin Dexter to give talks to prisoners.
Janey has appeared several times on breakfast television and Woman’s Hour, including a recent Christmas programme on rivalry in the kitchen! She is a regular on local radio and presented a writing clinic for Radio Oxford and Radio Three Counties.
In 2013, Janey was elected to a Fellowship at Exeter University by the Royal Society of Literature.
Janey Fraser lives in Devon with her family and a study that looks over the sea. Her hobbies include walking, tennis, belly dancing and painting.
‘Happy Families’ by Janey Fraser is published by Arrow (Random House). £6.99
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