What’s In A Name?

Zoë Sharp

How influenced are you by the author’s name on the cover of a book? I’m not talking about the latest bestseller, or those authors you pre-order before you even know the title. I’m talking about new-to-you names. People you’ve never heard of before.

I had the pleasure of interviewing fellow crime author Jaden Terrell for my WildCard Tuesday slot at Murderati this week. Jaden’s real name is Elizabeth―and I’m not letting any cats out of bags with that, as she talks about it on the blog. As an alternative, she chose Jaden from a list of baby names used for both boys and girls. It actually means ‘bravery, fighter and believer’, so it’s a great choice for a writer as well as being non-gender specific.

Elizabeth, as Jaden points out, is a very feminine name, and potential readers instantly pigeonholed her as a cosy writer because of it. I wonder if people did the same thing to Queen Elizabeth I of England when she rode out to make her famous speech at Tilbury before the imminent arrival of the Spanish Armada?

Hmm, maybe not.

Still, with publishing these days seen as much from a marketing-the-author point of view as marketing the book itself, possibly alienating a large section of your possible readers before they’ve even picked up your novel might be seen as unwise.

When I first started writing my Charlie Fox crime thriller series, it never occurred to me that anyone would take my name—or my gender, for that matter—into account. Surely, I thought in my naivety, it’s the book that counts. People either like your voice, or they don’t. They like your characters, or they don’t. They like your stories, your eye on life, your descriptive narrative, or they don’t.

But time and again in the eleven years since I was first published in fiction, I’ve heard opinion voiced such as these:

“Oh, women can’t write thrillers.”

“My husband won’t read female authors.”

“What can a woman possibly write with authority about cars/guns/fight scenes?”

Now, I have always hated being told I can’t do something based on nothing more than the fact I have lumps in the front of my shirt. But, on the other hand, I don’t want to be given artificial prominence (if you’ll pardon the phrase) for the same reason, either.

(Great this, isn’t it? Want one? Find them here.)

I recall having a bit of a verbal set-to in the bar at CrimeFest last year with a particular author who was campaigning for positive discrimination for ‘us wimmin’ and seemed totally taken aback that I would not welcome or accept such help.

OK, so I’d be very upset (think the same kind of ‘very upset’ as Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible I, right before he blew up the aquarium) if I thought I’d been excluded from some prize shortlist, for example, solely on the grounds that one of the judges didn’t like—or somehow disapproved of—female crime thriller writers. But then again I’d be equally annoyed if I thought I’d been included purely because the judging panel felt they needed a token women to round out the numbers. If my work doesn’t stand on its own merits, why would I want such consolation praise?

When I first looked at expanding my repertoire outside the current Charlie Fox series, it was suggested that I might need to use a different pen-name. My first inclination was to plump for something non-gender specific. Not initials, necessarily, but a perhaps name like Jaden which doesn’t give any immediate clues.

After the confusion that the name ‘Zoë’ frequently causes—not to mention the irritating extraneous ‘e’ that people often graft onto the end of ‘Sharp’ like some mutant extra limb—the prospect of a more simple name was quite appealing.

And something short because—as PD Martin pointed out in her comment—it takes up less space on the cover and therefore can be writ larger if necessary. And possibly something that placed me differently on the shelves.

But now I rather think I’ve changed my mind. (Female prerogative, perhaps?)

Some of the comments on Jaden’s post vocalised why.

You see, I don’t really want to succeed in my chosen profession by pretending to be something I’m not—i.e. a man, or at the very least some androgynous entity. Yes, I can shoot, and sail, and ride a motorcycle, and strip an engine. But that doesn’t make me a bloke in a skirt, as this pic perhaps demonstrates.

If, as Jaden mentioned, I was writing a first-person male character, maybe that would be different. I loved Robert B Parker’s books, but the Sunny Randall ones were my least favourite, and I think that had a lot to do with the first-person female protag/male author combination.

But Charlie as a character spoke to me in first-person, so that’s how I wrote her. Other characters are talking to me in close-third, so that’s how I’m writing them. And if I’m going the ‘digital original’ route—a wonderful description for which I can thank ex-Murderato colleague, Rob Gregory Browne—then sticking with my existing name is a positive advantage.

Providing I describe the book clearly, so readers know if it’s part of the Charlie Fox series, a new standalone, a supernatural thriller or the first of a trilogy, does it matter?

What do you think, ‘Ratis? Should authors make their gender plain? Does it matter? Do you find yourself leaning towards reading more male writers, or more female writers? And should authors write under different names if they’re crossing different genres or different series, even?

This week’s Word of the week is cavillation, meaning a trifling objection, from cavil, to make petty objections or to quibble.

34 thoughts on “What’s In A Name?

  1. Barbie

    I'm guilty of the contrary prejudice: I'll hardly ever read books written by men, and if you recommended me a romance novel written by a men, I'd probably laugh at your face and be like, "WHAT?" Maybe I have double standards, right?

    I don't think authors should change their names, though, especially when they've already built a career. Your name is your identity, and showing you can write into many different genres can only work in your favor as an author, the way I see it.

    Speaking of names for both genders, there's nothing sweeter than a girl names Charlie. N-O-T-H-I-N-G.

    Also, your picture with the gun, totally kick-ass.

  2. K. A. Laity

    Well done. I can't say that I've ever had any 'positive discrimination' but as the only girl in the family and someone old enough to remember havi g to fight to wear trousers to school, I'm well accustomed to proving there's nothing I can't do. But I go with the initials because I know there are those who won't believe that :-/

  3. Graham Smith

    What does it matter about the gender of the author? Intelligent readers will select a book based on the back cover synopsis, blurbs or familiarity with the author.

    Readers who don't read male or female authors are merely halfing the their chances of reading a great book.

    Personally I read anything that grabs my attention regardless of the gender, race, sexual preference, politics or eye colour of the author.

    It's all about the story for goodness sake!

  4. Sarah W

    I don't pay much attention to the gender of fiction authors unless I'm talking or writing about them and want to use the correct pronouns. I've never passed up a new author based on name.

    As a librarian, I approve of writing under different names for different genres. Public libraries tend to place all of an author's fictional works in one place, regardless of genre, in the assumption that readers won't check more than one place or won't think to check the catalog (or make us look it up).

    But someone wanting a mystery, for example, probably isn't going to bother browsing the romances (unless they want romantic suspense, which is a horse of a different proclivity).

    (library catalogers, on the other hand, hate multiple pseudonyms because it means checking each name and entering extra info in the author records — I'd consider this job security, myself)

  5. Tammy Cravit

    All else being equal, I'll admit that I have a slight preference for mysteries with female protagonists, but the author's gender matters to me not at all if she or he is able to execute an enjoyable story. I confess if I was prone to misspelling your name, Zöe, I'd be inclined to graft an S rather than an E onto the end, but that's because I've had rifles on the brain lately on account of a non-fiction project I just wrapped up. 🙂 And, I totally agree with you – I want to be judged on my merit, sink or swim, and not on my anatomical configuration.

    The real questions are: Where can I get that T-shirt? And what kind of pistol is that in your photo?? (It looks like the unholy alliance of Frankenstein's monster and an older Smith & Wesson semiauto to me., but I've no idea.)

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Ugh, the name question. Mine is a pain (way too long and people freeze up when they have to pronounce it), and also a draw (exotic and some people think, elegant.) I don't know.

    Being a female writer has gotten me recognition in the male-dominated field of horror. I'd prefer it got me sales, though, so I've transitioned into crime writing. Seems to be working!

    I don't pick up a book initially because of anyone's sex; I try authors across the board (except men writing about women being raped/tortured – that's an automatic pass.) But once I've actually read the books, it turns out many more of my favorite authors are women than men.

  7. P.A. Wilson

    I don't care one way or another about the gender of the author. Only that they write an entertaining story. I use my initials for my author name. Not because I'm trying to pass as a man, but because my full name is too long (need big print for the name on the cover) and my first name is Perry -so not much help there.
    As to using pen names for different genres, I did that to start with and it drove me crazy trying to keep two personae going online. I re branded my books and put P.A. Wilson as the author on all. THe cover indicates a different genre and I trust my readers to understand the difference.

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Barbie
    I don’t see why male writers can’t write romance. In fact, many do―but they’re forced by convention to do so under either a female or non-gender-specific pen-name.

    But I’ve read some romance novels by female authors that were genuinely dire, so I’d be tempted to pick up one that openly stated it was written by a man, just out of interest. I confess I have found that the gender of the writer does show in sex scenes almost more than anywhere else, but that’s another story …

    Thanks for the kind comment about Charlie’s name. It arrived with the character and I never really considered until I actually began to write about her that the ambiguity might have its uses.

    And the gun pic is one of my favourites ― as is that coat, still 🙂

  9. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Kate (KA)
    The author I mentioned was campaigning for positive discrimination, something I’m really against and I believe I may have made that clear to her at the time (oops!) because by the end of it she said, “I can tell you don’t like me, do you?” In reality, she’s a very sweet person and like or dislike had nothing to do with it. I simply disagreed with her point of view.

    LOL on the school trousers. I *knew* there was a really good reason I didn’t go!

    And you’re probably very smart on the initials thing. It so took me by surprise―the whole gender issue in crime thrillers―that I didn’t think to do that when I started. Besides, what other initial goes with Z?

  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Sarah
    Interesting about the library cataloguing/shelving. I hadn’t realized that at all. I suppose there’s always the possibility to add a middle initial, like Stuart B MacBride or Iain M Banks.

    So, where do you put romantic suspense, or do you have a section just for that? I’m always amazed by the sub-genre categories in US bookstores. Over here we tend to have ‘crime and thriller’ and ‘true crime’ and that’s about it. Unless you find someone in the bookstore is really into the genre and they’ve split it down further.

    “Horse of a different proclivity.” Nice line ― I may well steal that … 🙂

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Tammy
    Hmm, you’re just winding me up now with the whole ‘ö’ thing, aren’t you? :))

    Seriously, the gun is just a little Walther <evil grin> and I included a link to the T-shirt retailer with the pic, although if you put ‘I’m up here T-shirts’ into Google you get quite a lot of hits, funnily enough.

    Yeah, I agree that an author’s gender *shouldn’t* matter, but so often it seems that … it does.

    The non-fiction project sounds interesting, by the way!

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex
    Your name IS exotic, and your author photo doubly so, if I may say so 🙂

    Interesting that you’ve found things tougher in horror than in crime. I’ve always worked in male-dominated fields ― when I started out as a freelance journalist I was about the only female specialising in motoring in the UK. And even twenty-ahem years later, there are very few out there.

    There was quite a bit of discussion a little while ago about certain female crime authors writing about greater levels of graphic violence towards their female characters than male authors, and how if male authors wrote something similar, there would be uproar. Don’t know if that argument made it Stateside.

  13. Zoë Sharp

    Hi PA
    EXCELLENT point, and one which, if I’m honest, is probably the biggest reason for keeping to my existing name for whatever future projects I want to take on. Just keeping up with Facebook and Twitter and Goodreads takes up enough time without doubling my workload in that area.

    Thanks for providing me with the best piece of ammunition yet!

    I’ve just had the drafts back from my cover designer ― Jane at NuDesign ― for my standalone crime thriller, THE BLOOD WHISPERER, and although it still has a recognisable Zoë Sharp feel to it, it’s very different from the Charlie Fox covers.

  14. P.A. Wilson

    Hi, Zoë, I guess another point of differentiation is that I do market the series differently. I look for different reviewers, I put them on different lists. I try to keep in mind that there are only three ways a reader should know I wrote the different series.
    they go to my website or author page
    they are family
    they are friends.
    I read across genres so I think it's okay to write across them.

  15. Sarah W

    Zoë–in the libraries around here, romantic suspense is kept in the romance section, but *only* if the books are stand alone or a series in which each book features its own couple with a Happily Ever After ending (though plot arcs or secondary couple arcs within the series is acceptable).

    If a romantic suspense series features an ongoing romance that doesn't quite make the HEA in the first volume, then it's not romantic suspense no matter what the publishers say — it's a mystery series with romantic elements.

    In our library, if a book is a toss-up, the mystery selector and the romance selector (and sometimes the SFF selector, in case of vampires or furry folk) will each read the story in question, debate a little, and then arm wrestle for it (or against it, sometimes — we've limited budgets).

    (steal away!)

  16. lil Gluckstern

    I find myself reading reviews when I find a new author. The gender of the author doesn't matter to me, the quality does. And sometimes, I read a little froth just to lighten my mood. I will stop reading a must read when I lose interest, which sadly does happen. So It still comes down to quality. And that is a great picture 🙂

  17. David Corbett

    Dear Zoë:

    You're point about marketing the author, not the book, being increasingly the norm is sadly true. I wonder what Edna St.Vincent Millay or Flannery O'Connor, both of whom abhorred publicity, would have done in these times. And think about the loss to literature if we didn't have their work.

    I love the advice that Sarah has provided — who knew?

    As for picking a writer — I seldom if ever choose blindly, unless a cover grabs me (he says sheepishly). Otherwise I need a review or word-of-mouth to cue me in. In the end, though, it's always the voice that grabs me, and I find that neither women nor men have a monopoly on uniqueness or quality of voice.

  18. KDJames

    I've been debating this question lately. I want writers I enjoy to keep the same name if they write in a different genre, because I want to find them. And I read across many genres. On the other hand, I wonder about readers who have more specific tastes in reading and might associate a name with a genre they dislike and never realize there are (or be willing to try) books from that writer in another genre, one they might enjoy. I don't know how best to resolve that in general, but for myself I'm leaning toward different names. Perhaps it depends on whether the genres are drastically different.

    And yes, I chose to use initials because I've heard many people say they won't read books in certain genres if an obviously female (or male) name is on the cover.

  19. Alexandra Sokoloff

    >>>There was quite a bit of discussion a little while ago about certain female crime authors writing about greater levels of graphic violence towards their female characters than male authors, and how if male authors wrote something similar, there would be uproar. Don’t know if that argument made it Stateside. <<<<

    Wow, that would make for an interesting blog. I suppose people meant Karin Slaughter, but what she does is so far from exploitation it's not even funny. I wouldn't trust ANY man to have the cred to write that graphically about sexual violence against women. Sexual violence against men, sure, I wish more male authors WOULD write about it.

  20. K. A. Laity

    Hi Zoë, I should add that I originally went with initials because in the back of my mind, that's what writers did (PL Travers, MR James, EB White…). I also write under other names (C. Margery Kempe and Kit Marlowe) but they lead quite transparently back to me so it's no secret. Sometimes we argue on Facebook, though.

    And yes, Sarah,I can imagine it creates headaches for cataloging! Oops.


  21. Rachael Howard

    Interesting. I have never thought I couldn't wiite something because of my sex, the gender of the writer has never crossed my mind when selecting a book, film or play and if someone informed me I couldn't do something because I'm a girlie they only dared say it once. People can only limit you if you let them.

  22. Reine

    Hi Zoë,

    The only gender in reading thing that bothers me is with audiobooks: when a man reads a book with a female protagonist, something you often find in Recordings for the Blind and Physically Disabled. I get over it quickly enough but find it disconcerting at first.

  23. Zoë Sharp

    Hi PA
    Thanks for coming back to me on this. And you’re quite right about approaching different reviewers. Readers who look at the Also By section of sites like Amazon will also find your other books, regardless of genre.

    I read across genres, too, so I don’t see a problem 🙂

  24. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Sarah
    Wow, I now have visions of librarians throwing down gauntlets and choosing seconds for a dawn duel 🙂

    I can see how something that crosses boundaries might give you problems. But, as David said, “Who knew?”

  25. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Lil
    I have to say that these days it very much depends on where the review comes from and how in-depth it is. Praise is wonderful, but insightful comment is an absolute delight. I recently had a brilliant review from Seeley James for KILLER INSTINCT (not bragging, honest, just using it for illustration) and he’d picked out parts of the narrative that illustrated the points he was making about the book. That I find so useful when I’m looking at reviews, but it helps if I read a review on a book I’ve already read, too. Some reviewers seem to have read an entirely different book to the one I picked up !

    PS – and thanks about the pic 🙂

  26. Zoë Sharp

    Hi David
    I wonder about that too ― all those great but reclusive writers who would have been lost to literary greatness. Mind you, times move on. Think back to when, if a woman wanted to write a book at all, she had to do so under a male pen-name or she simply would not have been published.

    I agree totally about voice. And I know if I’m going to be hooked on a writer’s voice by the time I’m halfway down the first paragraph.

  27. Zoë Sharp

    Good point, KD
    I think it depends on the genre, but how many of these multiple names are due to publishers wanting to start again with an author, bypassing sales history. If the big chains cannot look up the previous sales figure for an author and see that their books did not do particularly well, they might order more generously than otherwise.

    But if you are an indie, I would have thought it’s a positive disadvantage to dilute your message, and your efforts, with more than one name. As long as it’s clear in the jacket copy and the sales info what type/series/genre of book it is―and perhaps a warning of anything graphic as per movies or albums might be worthwhile including?―then does it matter?

  28. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex
    Karin Slaughter was one of the names mentioned, but by no means the only one. Violence by and towards women, written by male or female authors is a fascinating subject, and one which probably deserves a post all of its own?

  29. Zoë Sharp

    Well said, Rachael
    LOL, yeah, people only tend to say things like that to my face once. And my sister once kicked a bloke on the shins for daring to tell her it was “a waste a girl having a motorbike like that.” She was drag-racing a tweaked-up 750cc Suzuki at the time 🙂

  30. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Reine
    I agree about audiobooks. Even the wrong accent or tone throws me out of the story. I’ve been very lucky with my audiobooks. Claire Corbett who reads them is terrific. I hear her voice in my head for Charlie now. And for Sean, strangely enough.

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