What's in a Name? Using a Nom de Plume

Yesterday’s piece in the New York Times about the author who used a pen name to sell a manuscript is piquing the curiosity of authors, literary agents and publishers. After Patricia O’Brien could not sell her sixth novel to a publishing house she and her agent decided to shop it around under a pen name and got a respectable deal from Doubleday.

Using a nom de plume to find a new audience is nothing new. Romance authors together with their publishers change pen names when they feel interest in one name has waned, to accompany a new series/subgenre, or to reach a new audience. What’s different about this case is that the publisher wasn’t told about the pen name until the book was about to be published. This could have ended badly, but luckily it seems that those misled have taken it all in stride.

This doesn’t seem like the best way to approach a relationship with a business partner—remember, a publishing house is an author’s business partner and it makes a serious financial investment in the business venture that is a book. There could be reasons why a publisher might not want to work with a particular author and it seems fair that they should know who they are collaborating with on editorial, production and promotion.

But this article is really about an author and agent seeking a deal. The point of an author getting a book published is (hopefully) not to only sell your book to a publisher but also to sell book to readers. So what we should really be asking ourselves is should a broader section of the industry be looking at pen names as a way to promote a new novel that might be held back by less effective author branding? The NYT article doesn’t really focus on that, and there aren’t any sales yet to indicate whether the pseudonym helped this book. (The mention of a print run makes it sound like the book has sold well, but it’s too early to make that claim.)

The author and her agent to have a legitimate complaint, though: a good book wasn’t considered only because of the name attached. Ideally the publisher would have thought of trying out a nom de plume, but new ideas can come from anyone working a book. Clearly, the pseudonym idea was worthwhile here, but it wasn’t necessary to keep the true identity of the author a secret after acquisition.

This type of story, no matter how rare, is a PR problem for publishers as a whole. Sadly, no one ever publishes stories about all the times when someone submits a great book and many publishers recognize it’s potential, then one pays an appropriate advance and publishes it well, and then it goes on to sell well too.

Aside: It is also argued that BookScan is the reason that the book wasn’t acquired. I’d like to argue that most good editors and publishing teams more often than not base their decisions on much more than just sales history. BookScan, like SalesData, was never meant to be the only factor in making acquisition decisions. Sales tracking (which is primarily a stock management tool) can give publishing teams a look at the market. No one should argue that an author’s sales history guarantees a repeat performance, good or bad.

I think if there’s anything that should be taken from this article, it’s that mainstream publishers should take a second look at pen names. (It clearly works on some people!) Perhaps Ms. O’Brien’s book is an interesting test case to follow. Will her sixth novel do better under a pen name? If so, will it be because of that pen name, any increased promotional spending, a new direction in the packaging and positioning, the topic, or maybe even a combination? It’s worth investigating.