By Any Other Name

Jeffrey Cohen

“You know, part of the problem might be your name.”

The advice came from someone–I won’t name who–in the publishing industry, a person whose opinion I greatly respect, and whose advice I seek out. It was a typical brainstorming session, one where a writer tries to determine how to take the ever-elusive “next step” toward increased success (or in my case, success). And now, my confidante was making a suggestion that might help.

I was a little shaken, I have to admit. “Are you suggesting I use a pseudonym?” I asked.

She said she was. And I took a moment to let that sink in. Apparently, sales of my mystery novels might be stronger if I was only, you know, someone else.

“It’s not your name,” my friend said. “It’s just that women buy the majority of books, and (the manuscript we were discussing) is aimed at women, it has a female protagonist, and sometimes women feel more comfortable if the book they’re reading wasn’t written by a man.”

So it wasn’t so much my name that should be changed as my gender. It was hard to know whether I should be relieved or more worried. I said I’d think about it.

I’ve long blathered on, whether prompted or not, about being mystified at the use of pseudonyms. My feeling always was that if an author took the time and trouble to sit down and write an entire book, s/he should be proud enough to affix his/her name to it. And an author writing “as” another personality was something I’ve never really understood at all. If you’re going to say on the cover that you’re one writer pretending to be someone else, what exactly was the point to begin with?

This reached its pinnacle for me a few years ago when Ed McBain and Evan Hunter “collaborated” on a mystery together. Seeing as how both McBain and Hunter were the same person (and his name was neither McBain nor Hunter), I thought that was quite the feat.

Don’t get me wrong–I’ve written under another name before. I’ve ghostwritten books for people who were clearly not me, and their names were printed on the front cover of the books, which was fine with me. My name was written on the checks, and I was happy to get them.

So it wasn’t just a question of ego that was the issue here. If I could become a more popular writer by putting another name on the cover, that was certainly something worth considering. But I had questions about the philosophy behind the proposed move.

For one thing, if a book has characters a woman can relate to, and she enjoys reading it, why should she care what the gender of the person writing it might be? Are women really so dedicated to reading only books written by other women that they would make that a criterion for their choice of reading material? It didn’t make sense to me. I thought most women were smarter than that.

Furthermore (and the fact that I used the word “furthermore” might give you an indication how strange this whole exerience was for me), what was this assumption based upon? After all, The Da Vinci Code had a man’s name on the cover (two men, if you count Da Vinci), and that didn’t seem to be hurting sales too much. If I could do that well on the charts, I’d be satisfied, I’m pretty sure.

Then, of course, came the inevitable question of what my “new” name would be. My wife suggested I use her name, but then withdrew the suggestion when she realized people would think she’d written my books. She’s read my books, and likes them, but needs to maintain her dignity. I understood completely.

So I started trying to create a name that might clue a reader of my previous works in on the fact that there was a familiar presence behind the new work. Heck, I haven’t spent the last five years building up a fan base that runs into the tens, only to discard it with a new, more estrogen-rich, persona. Maybe I could say the new book was written by Abigail Stein, the lead female character in my Aaron Tucker series. But no. Abby would probably need to maintain her dignity, too.

There’s the old “stripper name” trick, where you take the name of your first pet and the name of the street on which you grew up, but “Peabody Campfield” sounded like someone sitting in an overstuffed leather chair, pulling on his moustache and drinking a glass of port. That guy would really need his dignity, and besides, would be a man, thereby making the whole enterprise pointless.

Sorry to report, I never came up with a decent distaff name for myself, but I might return to the pursuit if I’m ever really convinced it’s necessary. Which is possible. There are days I’d pretend to be a remarkably articulate cocker spaniel if I thought it would help me make a living in this business.

I’m not being obtuse or naive–I understand that there are certain marketing realities in life, and I’m sure they’ve all been researched beyond question. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if publishers found my work more attractive with an androgynous or clearly feminine name as the author. And I might at some point try such a gambit if I were made to believe it would really help. I can be as pragmatic as the next fellow. Or girl, as the case may be.

But there’s something a little insulting to the suggestion. More to the reading public than to me. I really want to believe that women–and men–will read a book if it offers a compelling story line, likable (or at least interesting) characters and a point of view the reader might enjoy. I’ve never put my hand up to take a book off the shelf at a bookstore or library and then pulled back upon realizing the author wasn’t the same gender as I am. Why should it be assumed a good many people of either sex would?

Sometime in the future, it’s entirely possible that a book will appear in stores and libraries whose byline suggests it’s written by–I don’t know–Jeffronica Cohenstein, and maybe you’ll buy it, and maybe you won’t. I like to think the author’s name matters, but for different reasons. Like that you’ve enjoyed that author’s work before.

Of course, after Ms. Cohenstein’s book became an international best seller, launching a series that established “her” as a sly writer of enjoyable novels, I might be proven wrong. I’ve been wrong on more than one occasion in my life. Cohenstein could become a household name, a veritable synonym with “riotously funny mystery book.” Then, perhaps, one day I could collaborate with “her” on a new novel.

It’s been done before.

18 thoughts on “By Any Other Name

  1. JT Ellison

    A great topic, Jeff, one that’s especially close to my heart. I think you’ve hit on some important points. I’d love to see what Murderati readers think — are the author’s name and gender a selling point?

  2. Pari

    Oh, wow . . . Georgina Morrow; that sounds like a romance writer’s name.

    Maybe I should go with it.

    As someone who has suffered a bit with my decision to use my own name, I can relate to the issue, Jeff.

    I remember the author escort (Ken Wilson–he’s great, btw) I hired in L.A. greeting me the first time we met with, “Pari, you have real pronunciation issues.”


    Everyone expects me to be exotic . . . but I’m just a soccer mom with an attitude.

  3. Lorraine T.

    An amusing post. I enjoyed it. As one of the women who buys books, it matters not a whit to me if the author is man or woman, IF a male writer with a female protag can get into a female psyche.Take Robert Parker, for example. Love his Spencer mysteries, tried one Sunny Randall, think he may have written others, not sure, cause one was enough for me to know that Parker doesn’t know how women think, act, etc.Name, pseudonym business is trickier. IMHO, whatever the choice, I prefer the writer stick to it, not be publishing under 2 or more names. If I like someone’s work, I tend to want to read all their output — harder to track with more than one name.Lorraine

  4. Elaine

    Ah, Jeff! To be or not to be, huh? What’s that song “I Gotta Be Me’?

    Hey, Pari – look at it this way – there are NO OTHER writers with your name. I’d call that instant recognition – pronunciation or not.

  5. Andrea Maloney

    It doesn’t matter to me if a book is written by a man or woman. If it’s good I read it…that’s it. 🙂

  6. Mark Terry


    Truth is, my agent just started marketing a manuscript written by me (a guy) who has published a couple books under my own name (Mark Terry) and has another one coming out in October (under the name Mark Terry), and this manuscript, which I hope will be part of a new series, does, in fact, have a name other than my own on it, and it is a woman’s name.


    Multiple reasons. One is, the character is a female, so I thought a female name might be a good idea, plus that thing I heard about more women buying books written by women, although to me it’s entirely anecdotal and probably nonsense, but what the hell.

    I wanted to distinguish it, if possible, from the new series beginning in October.

    More importantly, I wanted to distance this manuscript from my previous novel, Dirty Deeds, which was published by a small (tiny ) independent press with no distribution whose sales are, shall we say, tepid. Had they been able to actually, you you, get the book into, um, what are they called, oh, yeah, bookstores, then perhaps all my marketing efforts and positive reviews might have resulted in, um, sales. Or at least moved from “tepid” to “lukewarm.”

    So I thought it might be worthwhile to make it less easy (or more difficult, if you prefer) for an editor to say, “Hmmm, Mark Terry, let’s just put his name and title into the computer via my Ingram account and look at his sales history…”

    Does that happen? I don’t know. My agent read the manuscript, loved it, and got right on it. But she called me first and asked if it was okay if she told them who I was. I told her it was up to her and my rationale. She said she understood, but since under my own name she had gotten me a two-book contract with Midnight Ink/Llewellyn Worldwide, she wanted to mention that, feeling it would carry at least some weight to indicate that, “Yes, this guy is a professionally published writer with a track record, albeit a somewhat unproven track record.”

    I left it up to her. She’s supposed to be the pro at selling and I’m supposed to be the pro at writing.

    Will it work? Don’t know. Time will tell, I suppose, and I don’t really think that having a female name on the manuscript will be a make or break point. But I do know that editors seemed programed to receive a manuscript and expect to say no. And if there’s ANYTHING I can do to tip that toward YES, then I suppose it’s worthwhile. I guess. Maybe.

    Best,Mark Terry

  7. Tenbrooks

    If a story pulls them in, addicted readers don’t care if it was written by Killer Yapp.

    The casual readers I know can be fussy. They tend to identify authors with their main characters. If Barry Eisler and Lee Child weren’t men it might have been a lot harder for them to achieve bestseller status. (I actually suspect men are more likely to be influenced by author gender than women, although if either of the above started turning out chick lit there might be resistance.)

    I think it would be fun to have a pen name, or several.

  8. Daniel Hatadi

    I think the key here is whether the readers are casual or not.

    Personally, I only rarely browse bookshelves with the aim of finding a new author. I usually get recommendations or read reviews.

    But if I was strolling through and picked up a book by an author I’d never heard of, the name, the cover, the blurb on the back, would all be a factor in my decision to buy the book.

    Do you have a middle name? You can always do the good old “using my initials” trick. Seems to work for many, and it’s not a lie, just a dash of creative misleading.

  9. Pari

    Hey, Lorraine,I agree about Parker’s Sunny series. I read about 40 pages and got so irritated at his fantasy about how women think and act that, well, let’s just say my copy of that book is no more.

    And, Jeffronica, thanks for thinking I’m exotic. I’d use the word, “wierd,” myself.

    Now I’ve gotta write my post for manana.

  10. Deborah P

    I’m one of those women who are more likely to purchase an unknown woman mystery author than an unknown man mystery author. That’s because with women mystery authors, I can usually count on 1)not much gunfire and no automatic weapons, 2)a lower body count (presumably because of #1), and 3)a woman character not being included just for the male protagonist to have sex with.

    At the library, I’ll take more of a chance on unknown male authors. However, when I have less than 10 minutes to dash into a bookstore somewhere to grab something to read when I haven’t had time to “re-stock” and I can’t find something new by a known author, I’ll go for the “more of a sure thing” and pick up a book by a woman mystery author before a man mystery author to check out the blurb on the back.

    The previous comment about using your first and middle initials for your “first” name is a good idea because those of us who purchase this way would at least pick up your book and give it a chance to sell us.

  11. Carstairs38

    Funny, I boy mostly female mystery authors for the same reason as Deborah. Although I’ve found plenty of male characters who exist just so there can be a sex scene or two.


  12. Allison Brennan

    Fascinating post. I’ve never heard about this from the other side of the issue. I’ve heard ad nauseum about WOMEN writers needed to take a gender neutral pen name if they’re writing thrillers or suspense, but never the other way around. I know many, many published and unpublished women writers with initials because they feel they won’t get the push if they are perceived as women writing in a “man’s” genre. And I’ve heard of several men who write romance under a female pen name.

    I’ve never bought a book based on gender. I read a lot of mysteries/suspense, and Dean Koontz/Michael Connelly get the same amount of respect and purchases as, say, Tess Gerritsen/Linda Fairstein.

    It’s true that women buy the most books out there. I think I heard 80%, but that might be a little high.

  13. Pat

    Jeffrey, having read 3 books by men in the past 2 weeks, I can say I will read anything by anyone as long as it is well written.

    There are female authors I love and male authors I love. I’m often surprised to find how well a male author has climbed into the head of a female character (Memoirs of a Geisha).

    It’s all about the writing.


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