The Resnick/Malzberg Dialogues #13: Pseudonyms

NOTE: this article first appeared in the pages of SFWA Bulletin 153, Spring, 2002.

MIKE: There have always been fads and trends in writing, and especially in science fiction. The current trend—and it’s one I find very disturbing—is to use a pseudonym at the drop of a hat.

Changing from horror to SF? Change your name.

Changing from hard SF to soft SF? Change your name.

Want to write a mystery novel? Change your name.

Did your last book tank? Change your name.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes it works. Megan Lindholm (everybody’s favorite example) has to be very happy that she became Robin Hobb. Piers Anthony Jacob has been living on the various bestseller lists as Piers Anthony for more than a quarter of a century.

But I would submit that Lindholm/Hobb is an exception, and Anthony/Jacob doesn’t really qualify since he has always written as Piers Anthony.

This is not to say there aren’t valid reasons to write under a pseudonym. I’ve done it hundreds of times for what I consider the most valid reason of all.

In my starving writer days, I wrote and sold a couple of hundred anonymous novels which we shall euphemistically define as “the kind men like”. I was not proud of them. They were written for editors who didn’t want it good, they wanted it Thursday. (A lot of aging SWFAns—far more than you might think—labored in those fields 30 to 40 years ago.) I never spent more than 4 days to turn out one of these 55,000-word masterpieces; I felt that after 96 hours my brain would turn to putty and run out my ears. I never wanted to meet anyone who bought and read one. And since I viewed these books as “Product” rather than Art—and to me, that disqualifies them from any claim to literature—I didn’t wish to be identified with them by anyone except the person who made out the checks, so I used a pseudonym. I also used one on the seven monthly tabloids (like The National Inquirer, only worse) that I packaged.

To me, that is the single most valid reason for using a pseudonym—because the author has no wish to be associated with the product.

There’s another one, almost equally valid, and one over which writers usually have no choice. It began in the hero pulp magazines almost 70 years ago. Walter Gibson hired on to write a monthly novel for The Shadow, a new magazine that had been created solely to keep the copyright on a mysterious radio show host of that name. Street & Smith, the publishers, decided to use the house name of Maxwell Grant for the Shadow novels, ostensibly to lend continuity on those months that Gibson couldn’t make his deadline.

A little time goes by, and suddenly The Shadow is selling a million copies an issue and is moved up to semi-monthly publication. Gibson walks into the Street & Smith offices and says, “I did that for you. Now you do something for me. I want a thousand a novel, twice a month.” They said No. He said, “You give me a raise or I’ll leave and take my million readers with me.” Leave if you want, said Street & Smith, but next week there will be a new Maxwell Grant churning out Shadow novels and who will know the difference?

So when Street & Smith began Doc Savage, which was primarily written by Lester Dent, all the novels were credited to “Kenneth Robeson.” Rivals saw the beauty in this, and thus The Spider novels, written mostly by Norvell Page, bore the pseudonym of “Grant Stockbridge.” Soon almost all the other hero pulps fell into step.

Fortunately they never insisted on this practice anywhere but the continuing hero magazines—until 40 years later. Harlequin had not yet bought Silhouette, and when 37-year-old Janet Dailey, whose books had sold 110,000,000 (that’s right: 110 million) copies during the previous six years, signed a 60-book contract with Silhouette (and, unlike Gibson’s false threat, did take her readers with her), some exec at Harlequin remembered the good old days and declared that all future novels must be written under house names—a practice that spread to Silhouette when Harlequin bought it a few years later. (My understanding is that the practice has finally been overturned in court.)

Okay, those are the two reasons for using a pseudonym that I would never challenge. But you’ve spent a third of a century, on and off, working for a literary agency . . . and you’ve also used pseudonyms yourself, so maybe your take on it is a little different?

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

BARRY: Plenty more examples, Mike. Plenty more.

John Benyon Harris was a British writer of indifferent reputation and few sales; in the early l950s, as Alexei Panshin said, “He broke a bottle of champagne over the bow and sailed forth as John Wyndham.” Changed everything. Henry Kuttner became famous but only by virtue of the work he published (collaboratively with his wife Catherine Moore for the most part) as “Lewis Padgett” and “Lawrence O’Donnell.” Phil Klass decided that he would save his real name for the non-apprentice work, put the byline “William Tenn” on “Alexander The Bait” (Astounding, 2/46), his first sale, and you know the rest. Benyon Harris didn’t really get going until he fled his previous byline and Kuttner, who was regarded as a debased Marvel Science Fiction bottom-of-the-market hack in the 40’s had to become Padgett and O’Donnell because his own name was close to anathemic. (He published only one story under his own name in Astounding, the top market.)

Taking a new name in early (or mid-) career or assuming a false name from the outset are tactics which can be seen as quite explicable and defensible. Michael Crichton’s first novel, a mystery, was published as “John Lange,” creating endless consternation for bibliographers because, of course, “John Lange” is the real name of a writer known better under his pseudonym—John Norman. Crichton, like Klass, wanted to reserve his own name for non-apprentice work; his apprentice work was good enough to win an Edgar but it was with The Andromeda Strain as by Crichton with which, of course, he broke his own bottle over the sales. I was told in l979 by my then literary agent that if I wanted any kind of continuing career, I would be best advised to take a pseudonym, my “real” name, such as it is, already having little other than negative commercial value. (My reluctance to take this advice, in fact the very existence of this advice by a sensitive and intelligent agent, was an important factor in my decision to look for something in my future other than ostensibly “full-time” writing.)

There’s that and there’s also the issue of house names which have a long and scandalous history having converted authors of some of the most successful novels into work-for-hire, interchangeable, contemptuously treated hacks. Pinnacle Books, in fact, sued Don Pendleton when, in l972 he attempted to take his enormously successful Executioner series on the open market; Pinnacle had paid him $2,500 US advances for the eight to ten extant novels and no royalties, and when Pendleton attempted to leave claimed that his name as well as the series were theirs. (This was settled, ultimately. Pendleton was forced to walk away from a 4-book $250,000 US offer from NAL but Pinnacle did disgorge an enormous amount of royalties and matched the NAL offer.) That case set some kind of informal precedent; a writer’s “real” name cannot be used as a house name, regardless of the nature of the contract signed.

As a generalization, a writer is best advised to publish everything under her own name unless there is reason of the most compelling sort not to. That was the dictum of the late Scott Meredith and it appears to be yours as well. But there are a whole forest of exemptions and exceptions, many of them in the last decade intimately tied to the sales force and their computers. The generalization could for many writers be dangerous.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

MIKE: OK, so much for the valid reasons. The problem I see is that (some) writers are changing names with the frequency that they change, well, not clothes, but let’s say automobiles. It seems to be this year’s fashion.

I’m on a few professional listservs, and one in particular is adamant that there are dozens of reasons for changing your name. Problem is, I don’t agree with them.

1. You change your name when your sales dip. Why? Because distributors have incredibly complex computers, and if you drop 10%, they may lower their orders for your next book. (I think we’ve explained “ordering to the net” in a previous Dialogue.)

Well, that’s all very well and good, but no two books sell alike. If the second book of your trilogy drops 17% from your first, as happens frequently, are you supposed to write the third under a pseudonym and hope the readers can figure it out?

Forget trilogies. You’ve spent 5 or 10 or 15 years building a readership, making your name worth something. Do you just throw it away because one book didn’t sell as well as the other? What the hell does a writer have except his name and his audience?

2. You change your name when you write for small presses. Now this I find totally ridiculous. You sell, let’s say, 25,000 copies of your latest novel in mass market paperback. Then Wildside Press or Obscura Press or Golden Gryhpon Press or Farthest Star sells 1,204 copies in trade paperback of a reprint of a book you sold in 1983. Does anyone out there really and truly believe the distributor doesn’t know the difference between new and reprint, between mass market and trade paperback, and between major New York publisher and specialty press? That’s such a stupid assumption that I see no reason to answer it, despite the number of pros who cling to it as if it came from God’s lips to their ears.

3. You change your name when you sell collections or anthologies, since they never print as many copies as novels. Again, this presupposes that distributors cannot differentiate between collections/anthologies and novels, and I don’t buy it for a second. I think it also guarantees that you’ll never sell a collection. Let’s hypothesize for a moment: you have these stories, and you want them out there in book form. Mass market hates collections if your name isn’t Bradbury or Willis. Small press will take them, because it’s the one way for small press to get something by Big Name A or Hugo Winner B that hasn’t already gone to mass market—but it’s worth nothing to them if you disguise it as being by Total Nonentity C.

4. You change names when you change categories, because not all categories have the same basic print runs, and a low print run in mysteries can hurt your science fiction, just as a low print run in Westerns can hurt your romance novels.

I’ve sold mystery novels under my own name. It never affected my science fiction print runs. I currently edit two reprint series of classic adventure, one African, one worldwide; the print runs are minimal, maybe a couple of thousand per title, and they haven’t affected any other category I write in. When a distributor sees a private eye complete with trenchcoat and gun on the cover of my novel, he knows right away that it’s not a sequel to Santiago or Kirinyaga. He doesn’t even have to be a member of MENSA to figure it out, or to know that its print run and sales have nothing to do with the field where I’ve spent 35 years building an audience and a reputation.

5. You change names when you write a different type of story than you’ve been known for—say, Arthurian fantasy rather than hard-science far-future—so as not to confuse or disappoint your readership.

I think that shows a total lack of confidence in and respect for your readers. If a reader were to come up to me to complain that my latest story wasn’t what he expected, wasn’t at all like the last couple, my only conceivable reply would be: “Good!”

Those are my logical arguments, and I think they’re valid. But there’s also an emotional argument, and that is that I am proud of what I’ve written, and I don’t intend to hide who I am because of the fluctuations of the marketplace. I’ve written some bestsellers, and I’ve written some worstsellers. I would never deny authorship of any of them. They have all been under my name, which is the only way anyone 50 years from now will know I was ever here. (Remember what I said earlier? As long as I view what I do as Art—even failed Art—rather than Product, then I want my name on it.)

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

BARRY: Mike, everything you write is valid and pointed and almost unexceptionable if regarded from the perspective of a successful career. You have had a successful career. You have had your lows and your highs and your middles as would be the case with anyone who has been publishing for money for almost four decades and who has produced an enormous body of work . . . but your career is by any measure, critical, commercial, aesthetic, practical, a success. A successful writer has no reason to hide or flee from his name and you haven’t.

But it looks a little different here because while you write from the authority of success, I write from what I have long called the authority of failure. The phrase is not mine: it’s F. Scott Fitzgerald’s and it is (for him) autobiographical, comes from private correspondence posthumously published. “Ernest wrote from the authority of success,” he wrote his daughter; “I write from the authority of failure.” Budd Schulberg took the phrase with proper attribution for his Sports Illustrated coverage of the Ezzard Charles/Rocky Marciano championship fight in the mid-l950s and I have with similar attribution appropriated it in these latter years. (“Marciano fought from the authority of success,” Schulberg wrote; “Charles from the authority of failure.” Which reminds me of A.J. Liebling’s description of Harold Johnson, Archie Moore’s eternal and only good challenger for the light-heavyweight title: “Johnson wasn’t cowardly, just pessimistic.”)

The authority of failure commands me to remind you that volume three of the trilogy is likely to never get published if the new author’s sales on the second volume slide 97% from the first. It commands me to remind you of what has become an editorial truism, “It is easier to sell a first novel now than a second.” A first novel represents—in however illusory fashion—a field of possibility; it is a new romance. The second novel like life together after the decision to become roommates can be sourly possessed of history. First novelists with poor sale figures stand to remain first novelists. The all-powerful computer, the tutor of the sales force, remembers and records everything. If the new writer has a passionate or very strong editor or is so brilliantly accomplished as to make initial sales figures of lesser interest, she may be able to elude inevitability. Most new writers however, faced with 75% returns and mass-market sales in the 8,000 copy range (not unusual figures by any means) are unable to overcome such obstacles.

So, the authority of failure commands me to remind you, the adoption of a pen-name may not (as you suggest) come from false vanity, artistic timidity or poor judgment. It may well be a necessity and, at that, an imposed necessity. Agents and editors may demand this. I have already noted that Clyde Taylor, my agent for a few years in the late l970’s, recommended in all sincerity and helpfulness that I adopt a pseudonym and start my career anew. My refusal to do so—my unwillingness to even consider this although I respected his advice and knew that the man was right—was part of a number of decisions I was compelled to make at about that time which have led me at this moment to the trembling verge of my Golden Years. (Which for all I know may be well embarked, perhaps even sere and yellow as I speak.)

We are talking, Mike, of what are often compelled decisions. Also, apart from this, it is often a good idea to use another name when writing in another genre. Isaac Asimov didn’t but when he published his first mystery in l956 he was already ISAAC ASIMOV (and that Avon paperback original was nonetheless a complete failure, sunk out of print for twenty years). John D. MacDonald didn’t. But Kristine Kathryn Rusch—who is embarked upon a brilliant career—has and there are strong reasons for this.

One can be proud of one’s work and yet unable to sell it. Artistic “integrity” does not have to lead, necessarily, to the trap of silence but it can do so and used in a misguided fashion it can do so very quickly.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

MIKE: Flattery will get you almost anywhere with me—but it stops shorts of getting me to agree when I think you’re wrong.

Let’s take an example. Author X had sold some science fiction, has even built a bit of a following. He sells a fantasy novel as Y, so as not to give his loyal readers something they’re not anticipating. Then he sells a mystery short story as Z. And a Western novel as Q. And now he’s considering selling a mystery novel as M. (Why M? It’s a “cozy” mystery, and his short story, written as Z, was colder and bleaker than James Ellroy.)

Brilliant planning? I think not.

Let’s remember: he has a bit of a following as X. Enough so they might buy a few thousand copies of the fantasy he wrote as Y—but they don’t know he wrote it, and they’re disinclined to spend $6.95 US on a paperback by a new author.

Let’s say his SF and his fantasy both get great reviews. There’s absolutely no carryover to his mysteries or his Western. Even within the mystery field, the people who liked his Z story have no reason to look at his M novel, and vice versa.

In other words, what begins as a (usually) futile attempt to fool the distributor frequently ends in a (usually) successful attempt, however inadvertent, to trick the reader—almost always to the writer’s detriment.

And let’s be honest: there are a lot of reasons for changing names in mid-career, but 90% of the time it is an attempt to trick the distributor who is aware of your poor sales (and not coincidentally to fool the reader who has sampled your work and decided not to buy it again.)

As far as I am concerned, there is only one inarguably valid reason for changing your name in mid-career, and that is when your agent comes up to you and tells you that she cannot sell you anywhere if you don’t change it. All the other reasons seem to be career strategies based on current fads and a few incredibly fortunate examples, and I happen to think that the most valid career strategy is Write Good, and if that’s not working, Write Better. Certainly putting the effort into improving your writing rather than your strategy, especially when it depends to some extent on duplicity, has to be more productive.

That’s the bottom line, I suppose. I am not convinced that subterfuge—and when all is said and done, that’s the purpose of name-changing nine times out of ten—helps you to become a better writer.

(As for writers who changed genres without changing names, let me just name a few who didn’t starve to death: John D. MacDonald, Brian Garfield, Fredric Brown, Lee Hoffman, Joe Haldeman, Isaac Asimov, Tom Disch, John Sladek . . . need I go on?)

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

BARRY: Sladek is not a good example, Mike. (Nor for that matter is Lee Hoffman; famous fan and fanzine editor but a very narrow profile in science fiction. Won the Spur Award from the Western Writers of America in the l970s for best novel as, interestingly, did the science fiction writer Chad Oliver, but her Westerns never had to compete with her science fiction.) Sladek, a wonderful writer with great ambition, faded out of print due to collapsing sales and was pretty well undone by the l970’s. He published little in the last two decades of his sadly abbreviated life (l937-l999).

Sladek wrote mysteries, he wrote science fiction, he wrote mainstream novels, he stubbornly or bravely maintained his name through all of this and his audience, such as it was, utterly fractured. He was certainly unable to carry over the audience for his science fiction to the mysteries and after several mysteries failed commercially, he found himself virtually unable to re-enter science fiction. If he had used a pseudonym for the mysteries the situation might have been different but he refused to do so. (He and Tom Disch did use a pseudonym for some Gothic novels on which they collaborated in the late l960s.) All of this is very sad because Sladek was a wonderful writer and his early career showed enormous promise; he sold Playboy a couple of stories in the l960s and his collaborative mainstream novel with Tom Disch, Black Alice, sold better than Doubleday expected and has become both a cult and collector’s edition. But ultimately, at least in his lifetime, Sladek’s career came to nothing.

But as we turn from Sladek, Lee Hoffman and the reproductive system, we get to the heart of the issue: we are not talking of aesthetics, of pride in one’s work, of artistic achievement, of artistic integrity. We are talking in the case of the struggling writer with a sheer issue of survival. You say that “As far as I am concerned there is only one inarguably valid reason for changing your name and that is when your agent . . . tells you that she cannot sell you anywhere if you don’t change it.” And this, Mike, is precisely the case with many writers. (You could have noted that the word “editor” can be substituted for “agent” in that sentence with equal validity. The problem is that when your editor tells you to get another life, your editor is rarely in position to smuggle you into the house under another identity . . . it’s an act of subterfuge which could cost an editor her job.) It’s a Hobson’s Choice which is to say—remember Isaac Asimov’s essay on the subject—no choice at all.

Or look at it like so: for most of us in or once in what Scott Fitzgerald (in his authority of failure) called the freelance racket, it’s mostly been an issue of staying ahead of the Sheriff; that’s what freelancers do, those who aren’t named Grisham or Steel or King or Resnick, they try to stay ahead of their sales figures. In the pre-computer days this could be done; you could buy off the Sheriff (Sheriffs were for sale like everyone else) or make an arrangement with the boys in the back room who knew where the Sheriff’s bodies were buried. That’s what freelancing was; it was an exercise of cunning.

But that’s no longer possible. Computerization has drained the mystery from the distribution and sales process; now they know how many copies you are selling a week and exactly where they are being sold and how those raw numbers compare to last week’s. Those numbers are available to everyone with a computer and they tend to be fixed and inalterable.

Cunning can still prevail in this subjective business but it must take different forms and one of its most important forms is in the election of a pen-name. Let me note again: this is not an aesthetic, philosophical or emotional manner, it is often beyond choice. It is a way—an important and in some cases the only way—to deal with an onerous situation.

I wouldn’t deal with it. We know what happened. I wouldn’t overgeneralize from my situation, certainly. But I wouldn’t ignore it.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

MIKE: Okay, let’s take Sladek since a) he’s dead, and b) you didn’t argue with Garfield, MacDonald, Disch, or the others.

Let’s grant that, from a monetary point of view, he didn’t have much of a career, brilliant as he was. Let’s further grant that he sold equally poorly whether writing science fiction, mysteries, or mainstream.

Are you seriously suggesting that he would have broken out and made piles of money just by writing his mysteries as John Smith or his mainstreams as John Jones?

Come on, Barry—here’s a guy who, even though I personally loved his writing, proved he couldn’t find an appreciative audience of any size no matter in what field he labored. Are you saying all the readers who gave Sladek one chance in mysteries or science fiction before abandoning him would have picked up a disguised Sladek book and decided that this guy was worth buying every time he had a new book on the stands?

Leave Art aside. I’m suggesting that in a Best Case scenario, you’ll pull some of your readers with you when you move to another category, and in a Worst Case scenario you won’t. But if it is your writing that has put them off, be it because of plotting, characterization, or simply the way you push a noun up against a verb, I can’t see that a change of name is going to make them love what they were predisposed to hate or ignore.

Exceptions? Sure. There are exceptions to everything. I already mentioned a major one. Here’s another: you’re a starving writer who has to pay his bills and put food on the table, so you do some TV novelizations, or some sharecrop books. Yes, your sales will be far better than if you’d written your own books—but you are also expected to write in a certain style which is probably not your own, and you are writing for an audience which may very well not appreciate the kind of stories you want to tell when you’re free to do so. (How many Star Trek fans really want to read, say, Hyperion or A Deepness in the Sky or Herovit’s World?) Under those circumstances, you might consider a pseudonym—but simply from an economic point of view, that may be counter-productive, in that you may start all over with a beginner’s print run under your own name after selling six digits’ worth of books in someone else’s universe with your true name hidden behind a house name or a pseudonym.

It’s not an easy decision, but it’s one that I think is being made far too easily and far too often these days.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

About my counterpart: Barry N. Malzberg‘s Beyond Apollo was in 1973 the winner of the first John W. Campbell Memorial Award for the best science-fiction novel of the year; he twice won the LOCUS Award for nonfiction books of critical history and commentary on science fiction. Several short works have been final-listed for the Nebula and Hugo and Engines of the Night and Breakfast in the Ruins, the nonfiction works, were on the Hugo final ballot for Best Related Nonfiction as is his collaborative book with Mike Resnick, The Business of Science Fiction. He was sole judge of the 1980 Writers Digest Short Story Contest.

About Mike

According to Locus, I am the all-time leading award winner, living or dead, for short fiction. I have won 5 Hugos (from a record 37 nominations), a Nebula, and other major awards in the USA, France, Japan, Spain, Croatia, Catalonia, and Poland. I'm and author of 74 novels, over 260 stories, and 3 screenplays, and the editor of 42 anthologies. My work has been translated into 27 languages. I am currently the editor of the Stellar Guild line of books, and Galaxy's Edge magazine.
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