What’s My Name?

by J.D. Rhoades

Pseudonyms, pen names, noms de plume–whatever you choose to call them, they’re everywhere in the literary world. Lee Child‘s real name, for example, isn’t Lee Child, although that’s what he answers to.

Ed McBain, author of the archetypal police procedural with the 87th Precinct series, was a pseudonym used by “serious” author Evan Hunter, who was actually born Salvatore Albert Lombino, but who legally changed his name to Hunter in 1952, thus making McBain, I guess, a double pseudonym. And of course we have our own Rory Tate, Chaz McGee, and Gallagher Gray, who, if they wish, may tell you their secret identities here.

(Our Sparkle, BTW, insists that “Sparkle Hayter” is her real name. I have no reason to doubt her. I don’t know about this Shaber person, though, and “Gary Phillips” is clearly a name assigned by Witness Protection).

Actually, I guess you could say “J.D. Rhoades” is a pseudonym, even though my last name is indeed Rhoades and “J.D.” are the initials of my “birth certificate” name. But everyone calls me “Dusty” and they have all my life. My first editor, however, felt that “Dusty Rhoades” lacked a certain, shall we say, gravitas for the way they were trying to position me, so “J.D.” it became.

Most often, a writer adopts a pseudonym because he or she has had a poor sales record under one name. In this era where bookstores only have to go to the computer to see if your last book tanked, it’s easy for your name to become poison. But there are other reasons writers adopt pen names.

Sometimes a writer puts a pseudonym on something he doesn’t want to have any public connection with. The famously contentious Harlan Ellison has been known to demand that he be credited as “Cordwainer Bird” on projects he feels he’s lost creative control over and wishes to disown. That’s a partial tribute to another famous pseudonymous author, Cordwainer Smith (born Paul H. Linebarger), with the added implication that he’s “flipping the bird” to the project. Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ pulp serial “Under the Moons of Mars”, which later became the novel A Princess of Mars (and the recent “John Carter” movie), was originally published under the name “Norman Bean.”

Burroughs chose the name because he was afraid his associates in the business world would laugh at him for writing a book about a sword swinging hero transported to Mars where he hooks up with a red-skinned hottie who wears little other than strategically placed  jewelry and whose people are hatched from eggs, even though she still possesses truly amazing hooters.  You can sort of see his point.

(Actually, Burroughs had originally chosen the name “Normal Bean,” to proclaim he was still in his right mind, but a typesetter figured it was a typo and printed it as “Norman.”

Perhaps an author uses a pseudonym when writing in a different genre, as romance writer Nora Roberts (born Eleanor Marie Robertson) does when writing her Eve Dallas sci-fi/mystery hybrids. Everyone knows that “J.D. Robb” is Nora Roberts. It’s right there on the covers.

So why bother? I understand that when the series started, no one knew Robb was Roberts was Robertson. By now, I guess it’s a branding thing: when you buy J.D. Robb, you know you’re getting a futuristic mystery; when you buy Nora Roberts, you know you’re getting romance. This avoids the problem Tess Gerritsen reported when her publisher re-released some of her old romance novels “re-packaged to look like [her] more recent thrillers.” A few irate readers, she reported, bought the book, “discover[ed] it’s a romantic suspense novel, and feel the need to tell me how horrible I am for having perpetrated this crime against them, the consumer.” Because let’s face it, some fans, when they get irate, can get really irate, am I right?

Dan Simmons, on the other hand, seems to have no problem genre-hopping under his own name. He’s written huge, galaxy-spanning sci-fi (The Hyperion Cantos and the Ilium/Olympus cycle), chilling horror tales (Children of the Night, The Terror, and many others), and one of the best hard-boiled PI series I’ve ever read with the Joe Kurtz books.

Which leads me, finally, to today’s question. My most recent work (which is in, I hope, the final editing stage) is very different from anything I’ve written before. It’s a big, galaxy-spanning, science fiction vampire revenge tale, in which the last survivor of a unit of genetically engineered vampire Special Ops soldiers travels from planet to planet, seeking revenge on the people who ordered the destruction of her platoon at the end of the last war. It’s sort of crime fiction, since my anti-heroine and her slightly-more-than-human lover make their way as criminals on the fringes of society, but they do it in space. Be advised, the vampires do not sparkle.

Now, I had a blast writing this, since SF was my first love, dating back to the days when my mom would take me to the library downtown and I’d devour all the Robert A. Heinlein, Lester del Rey, etc. that I could get my hands on. But it’s about as far from my previous “redneck noir” books as you can get. So here’s my query, my conundrum, my quandary, if you will: use a pseudonym and basically start over as a complete newbie in a genre where I’m known little, if at all? Or use one of my “real” names, and trust to the fact that there’s a considerable overlap between the mystery and the SF communities, and hope that people who loved Breaking Cover or The Devil’s Right Hand won’t pick it up, read a few pages, go “WHAT THE HELL IS THIS CRAP OMG WE ARE BETRAYED!!!!”, toss it across the room, and swear vendetta on me and my work forever?


Thalians and fans, your thoughts?


12 thoughts on “What’s My Name?”

  1. Yep, that’s what I was thinking. Make sure it says both names on the book cover. And inside in a little forward has a short note explaining this story is sci-fi–hence the different author’s name.

  2. I say stay with JD Rhoades. Your fans enjoy your writing, your ability to spin the story, the genre is not going to change your ability. If people are so snobbish, that they can’t wrap their mind around the fact that good writers can switch genres and still be good writers, that is their hard loss. Remember Stephen King did the whole Richard Bachman thing in his early career because he was writing books too fast, but later on he we wrote outside the horror genre that people cast him in, he stuck with his own name and “The Eyes of the Dragon” was a huge success with everyone.

    So stay with your name, you will succeed.

  3. I agree, either keep your name or use a pseudo-pseudonym. Laurie R. King wrote a futuristic story under the name “Leigh Richards” following her publisher’s advice, operating under the assumption that if it tanked, it wouldn’t affect her “brand”. But because no one knew it was Laurie, it tanked, and when her fans find out (and I tell them all the time, since we still sell it), they’re a little upset that they didn’t know.

    So I’d say either stick with your name or do the pseudo-pseudonym.

  4. Rory Tate, er, the other me checking in.
    I tried my first pseudonym last year. The book, Jump Cut, is a standalone thriller but didn’t really change genres from my other mystery/crime novels. (Although I have taken to calling it romantic intrigue which isn’t really anything, exactly.) So here’s what I’ve found, in this new age of e-books. Nobody really wants to buy a book by a writer without a backlist — or *something* to reassure them that you’re not a precocious 12-year-old with no (adult) life experience or an illiterate wannabe. The age of pennames, when you used one to out-fox the Barnes & Noble computer files on your previous sales or to be shelved in a different section of the bookstore, are over. You will have to explain in the book description exactly what this new book and its genre are, but your fans want to find you! They can’t if you use a pseudonym! Jump Cut was selling very modestly, even with KDP Select giveaways, until I re-did the cover, put “Lise McClendon – writing as Rory Tate.” It’s still not breaking any records but the one-day giveaways went from 1000 to 9000.
    Go with your real name, Dusty! Your people will follow. Maybe you’ll convert a few to vampire sci fi! 🙂
    Lise aka Rory

  5. Lise, thanks for sharing that experience. Of course, this begs the question of whether I’m going to be shopping this one to traditional publishing or going straight to indie. I’m leaning towards the latter, because frankly, I’m too old to be thrilled about the idea of waiting a year and a half to see it in print and receive a crappy advance in three installments. But a traditional publisher will no doubt demand a pseudonym.

    1. Yes, Dusty, after I wrote that I wondered if you were submitting it to NY or going solo. I’m having the same debate with myself. But after the last year I think I’ll stick with my indie plan. The wait is part of it, but also the small number of shekels involved. I’m making more on my own! It takes work but at least *somebody* is doing something for you (even if it’s you yourself.) Good luck, and let us know what you decide!

  6. If you decide to go with a pen name, how about Dusty Draper? It uses one of your names and is a play on Henry Draper, an American astronomer who made the first photograph of a stellar spectrum and later photographed over a hundred stars and… discovered stellar dust clouds! Fitting for a sci-fi nom de plume, I think. Or you can be the Don Draper of the stars, if you prefer.

    Why don’t you see if amazon’s new publishing arm will take it? You’ll get it out fast, but they will likely promote it way more effectively than you could. Might be worth giving up part of your e-book royalties for that!

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