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Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Talking Shop

“To Be, or To Be Someone Else” • by Bruce Bethke


As new books move into the copy-editing and production phases, an old question keeps coming back up. “Should I use my real name, or a pseudonym?”

The answer, as is so often the case, is, “That depends.”

When I first started writing, I made the decision to publish everything I wrote under my real name, mostly because my ego was very tightly tied up in what I was doing. For many years that seemed to work well. I wrote; I published; my ego saw my byline in many places and was made glad.

In retrospect, though, I wish I’d used at least one pen name. This is because:
  • I never envisioned there would come a day when I would be embarrassed to have my children find and read certain of my early stories.

  • I never envisioned there would come a day when I would work for a VP who was a biker wanna-be on weekends, and who actually had some of that borderline biker-porn I wrote early in my career, thought it was cool, and brought it in to the office to share with the rest of the executives.

  • I actually did envision cyberstalking—it was integral to my never-finished second cyberpunk novel—but never envisioned how easy it would someday be for just any putz to make the leap from your name to your home phone number, street address, map and directions, and a satellite photo of your house clear enough to show the color of the doghouse roof.
Further, I did not understand until too late that a byline is a brand name, and while I really hate to repeat myself, most readers prefer to find books and stories just like other ones they’ve already read and enjoyed. When they opened up a can of Bruce Bethke™, though, they could never be sure of what they were going to get. Funny? Serious? Hard-clanking cyber SF or dark contemporary horror? While this led to some entertaining fan letters (e.g., “I had a hard time appreciating the humor of ‘Interior Monologue’ at first, but...”), it made me hard to pigeonhole, and loathe it or hate it, the market loves pigeonholes.

In fact, the entire Amazon push-marketing scheme is pretty much a system of using state-of-the-art algorithms to find exactly the right pigeonhole to shove a writer into, and then of making sure he or she is never able to crawl out of it again.

Ergo, if I were starting out now (or trying to reanimate a dead career), I believe I would not just use a pen name, but use at least seven of them—one each for mystery, comedy, horror, hard SF, fantasy, political/social commentary, and apolitical non-fiction—and freely switch back and forth between identities as my various “careers” waxed and waned. If nothing else, it might firewall off my fiction sales from any damage I might inadvertently cause by expressing a controversial opinion in public.

Your thoughts and/or comments?

~brb

4 comments:

Guy said...

Hmmm...I never thought of it quite that way. I DO write a bunch of different stuff. OTOH, I'm not going to writing for another fifty years, so unless I start becoming "wildly popular", name identification might be important to my career. I agree, that in your case, you WOULD have benefited from at LEAST three names (RM and WWW might not have taken such a bite out of your spirit if they'd had nondescript, throw-away pseudonyms...)

Mark Keigley said...

As I wrote you earlier last week, I was sort of forced to use a pen name for a season, because I didn't want folks accusing me of being THAT Mark Keigley. Now that things have cooled down, I'm attempting to get used to using my real name. With screen plays, I've owned the moniker since the get go.

Eric Dontigney said...

I've wondered over the years if I might not have done a little better with a pseudonym or two. I didn't initially because I never assumed that my non-fiction writing would end up paying the bills. I did want the ego stroking of seeing my name on novels and short stories. Now, looking at the cross-section of the fiction I write, I see at least two or three distinct streams. I suspect I could have built a better following by creating a persona for each stream and saying to hell with ego stroking.

Judith said...

I did think of doing this but, as I don't suppose people search for my writing by name, I don't think it really matters. It's probably a bit late to start. If I did start writing in new genres then I suppose I could.