Lizard Brain is a shared blog about Science Fiction and Fantasy from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

Toward a Unified Theory of Pseudonyms

by Daniel Abraham

I was talking about this a lot over on the Westeros forum, and Ty suggested I post a copy here.  He’s probably right.  He usually is.  And even when he’s wrong, he’s just so damn charming about it, right?

Anyway, here I am on a site dedicated to two and a half different versions of me.  So.  Why pseudonyms?

One of the folks on the Westeros forums posed the perfectly reasonable theory that a single recognizable name crossing several subgenres would drive up demand on all titles, pulling readers from one project to another.  Here’s what I said:

It’s funny, but that’s not really what the numbers show. People (apparently) become fans of projects more than of authors. In my circles, it’s called the Donaldson Problem after something Stephen R. Donaldson is alleged to have said after The Mirror of Her Dreams / A Man Rides Through sold massively less than Thomas Covenant, and The Gap Into sold a whole bunch less than *that*. It went something like “I thought I had a hundred thousand Stephen R. Donaldson fans. It turned out I had a hundred thousand Thomas Covenant fans.” (caveat: I don’t know that he ever actually said that.)

To pull out a couple other examples from my immediate circle, S. M. Stirling’s Embervese is pushing up against the NYT top 10, but his other stuff — some of which I think is even stronger than the Emberverse books — don’t do particularly well. And George’s side projects — Wild Cards, Hunter’s Run, etc. — do decently, but nothing compared to his Ice & Fire stuff.

By comparison, I’ve heard some analysis of Walter Jon Williams — who is for my money one of the most consistently solid authors in the field — and why he doesn’t own the world outright. That one went like this: You don’t know what a Walter Jon Williams novels is going to be like. It could be post-singularity, it could be high space opera, if could be near-future techno-thriller, it could be old school cyberpunk, it could be military space opera, it could be regionalist New Mexican literary SF, it could be New Weird. The man’s done it all. And so, if you’re in the mood for military space opera, you reach for someone who does that — Bujold or Weber come to mind — instead of Williams, even though Dread Empire’s Fall is a freaking brilliant set of books.

The exception to this appears to be YA. Scott Westerfeld can write anything he damn well pleases. My guess is that YA readers are still reading for novelty, where the rest of us read for comfort and consolation. That’s just my take on it, though.

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10 Responses »

  1. I used to wonder whether John M. Ford had the same problem–you never knew what you were getting, which I liked, and most of it was pretty darned good. But most people had never heard of him except for How Much for Just the Planet, and maybe Dragon Waiting.

  2. I think you’re right, although I do a little of both. I think I follow SOME authors through all their different projects, whereas others, I know I just like a certain type of story that they write. As a fan, I’d prefer that everyone just used their names. I can tell the genre from the book, I don’t need them to change names.

  3. OH,and about the Donaldson thing… his later projects might not have done as well because they lacked the cohesion of the Thomas Covenant series. Mighta just been me.

  4. Brenda, that is a perfectly valid personal opinion to hold, but the numbers support Daniel. So much so that publishers are actively opposed to contracted writers writing books outside the field they became famous for. One good friend of mine, who is a bestselling author in one type of genre fiction, actually had to switch publishers because the one she was with wouldn’t let her publish fiction in a different genre under her own name.

    Their position was that when fans of hers, who like her books in genre X pick up the new book in genre Y, they will be confused and angry that they aren’t getting what they expected. Their respective quality factored into it not at all.

    Now, there are people, like yourself, who are fans of writers rather than of specific genres. I’m the same way. I’ll follow a writer I really like almost anywhere they want to go. But it seems that you and I are in the minority on this.

  5. a pseudonym used to distinguish one genre from another is like a brand name. i don’t think it matters much…except for when it does. i don’t think you can discern the cause and effect correctly, nor can you make sense of ‘why.’

    Talking over how to approach gaming the system is useful to feel you have a strategy that’s justified by the reality presented, but it leaves out the fickle and inexplicable. There’s no way to comparatively correlate between books the entire scope of sales, marketing, word of mouth, author, genre, print runs, advertising, quality, and shelf placement in any meaningful way. Although marketing people will tell you differently. Oh, they have numbers and charts, but that’s a model, and the map is not the territory. What they don’t keep track of (or know to keep track of) is equally as important as the data they have on hand to justify decisions.

    understanding the why of success is transitory and ineffable.

    some things are left up to the whim of the great magnet. and the great magnet is not to be trifled with through engineering. that said, game the system whenever possible.

    I prefer artists that do the unexpected. I like to be surprised.

    ‘the audience knows what to expect, and are unprepared to accept anything else.’ tom stoppard

    • Agreed. At the base, anyone trying to make a living from writing or art is, at base, a professional gambler. If we knew how to make success, we’d do it every time.

      That said, we disagree about artists and the unexpected. I like to have artists and writers who do the unexpected when that’s what I expect them to do. I love Grant Morrison and Alan Moore, ferinstance, because I expect them to give me a Grant Morrison-y or Alan Moore-y kind of experience. If I picked up the new Alan Moore project and it was a straightforward, unsophisticated story — even if it was a pretty good one — I’d be disappointed. I like fireworks when I’m prepared for fireworks. I like to be surprised within the error bars. And one of the great neglected toolboxes of art is (IMHO) how you go about placing the error bars.


      Dude! Where are you these days? Where have you been? What are you up to? When are you going to come visit?

  6. While I see your point, I don’t know that I agree with it, at least on a personal basis. It’s the “people don’t buy enough Williams because he varies too much in style and sub-genre” aspect that galls me a bit: it seems to assume a lot of dimness on the part of readers, as if they might skip a book based on what it appears to be about, or read & dislike one and never even glance at another because the first was not to their taste. I’m more intelligent than that; I do a lot of research, reading reviews and excerpts, to decide on books. I don’t pick up anything based solely on genre, and, conversely, I don’t need pseudonomic separation to protect (or prevent) me from, I don’t know, disappointed expectations? I could tell straight off that I wasn’t going to like Martin’s Fevre Dream as much as A Song of Ice and Fire (it was slim and I prefer large when it comes to sf/f; generally burnt out on vampires) but, because I like him, I read it anyway and enjoyed it more than I thought I would (steamboats are cool! who knew!?).

    As a bookseller, I can say with certainty that I’m know the only one. Oh, sure, there are plenty of people who might be put off by an author doing different things, but, if you’ll allow me a moment of genre snobbery and oversimplification, these tend not to be sf/f fans or readers of general or literary fiction; rather, they’re more often die-hard western readers who aren’t interested if it doesn’t have spurs or staid old women who are angry and betrayed that Nora Roberts sometimes dips her toes into the paranormal. The majority of folks, self included, who enthusiastically enjoy an author will seek out the rest of their work. I’ve read everything by Neal Stephenson and China Mieville (except his newest, which, actually, I began this morning but put aside in favor of A Shadow in Summer) regardless of wildly varying genre tendencies; I’ve read the complete works of Robin Hobb/Megan Lindholm under both names (but probably won’t pick up the upcoming short stories volume because I definitively don’t care for short stories and would rather save my time on novels–I don’t need a third pseudonym of hers to protect me from that reading preference); I enjoy Bujold’s fantasy just as much as her scifi–in fact, probably would not have read the scifi had I not liked the fantasies as I am not superbig on military space opera. I’m not wild about urban fantasy, but I’d consider reading yours, as well as the SF book, after the excitement of your fantasy. The common theme? Author recognition and loyalty…

    All that said, it doesn’t make a whit of difference of the pseudonyms are public knowledge; any interested party can easily find an author’s complete works, regardless of what name they’re published under. Pseudonyms DO certainly simplify shelving woes, neatly cutting away the perennial bookseller’s dilemma of whether to keep an author all together or split according to genre–I’m not saying I hate them and wish they were never used! I just felt a bit chafed at your stance, at a perceived/implied snub at reader intelligence.

    • I understand and respect your opinion. Myself, I don’t see it as a question of intelligence so much as a reflection of the way we (myself very much included) make patterns of association. It’s not that I think we’re too stupid. It’s that those of us who read for comfort feel more comfort when we know what we’re getting in to. For instance, I’d get any Dorothy Sayers Peter Wimsey books, but I’d be less likely to pick up one of her non-Wimsey books.

      For what it’s worth, the “no one knows what a Walter Jon Williams book is” analysis came originally from booksellers at a genre-specialty bookstore. I’ve adopted it as my own because they convinced me.