Monday, 4 October 2021

What's in a Name? Guest post by Margaret Murphy

I've long been intrigued by authors' use of pseudonyms. Today I'm delighted to host a guest post by Margaret Murphy, crime novelist, award-winning short story writer, and founder of Murder Squad, on this very topic:

'Traditionally, authors will use pseudonyms as a disguise, to avoid reader and/or reviewer bias, or to differentiate various styles or sub-genres of their writing. Think Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, Agatha Christie/Mary Westmacott, and Evan Hunter/Ed McBain – both of which are pseudonyms chosen by Salvatore Albert Lombino after he was told by his editor that he would sell more books under an anglicised pen name. John Creasey, founder of the Crime Writers Association, was a prolific writer who used no fewer than twenty-eight pseudonyms (possibly to disguise the fact that he was publishing seven or more novels in a year!). His most famous series creations, adapted for TV and film, were probably The Toff and The Baron, penned under his own name, while Gideon of Scotland Yard was written as JJ Marric.

Publisher bias

There is an appetite for novelty in the industry, added to which, a midlist author with 2 - 3 books has baggage to overcome in the shape of their sales records. BookScan is a database which compiles information for publishers & booksellers on book sales, and if an author’s previous works haven’t been bestsellers, the big book chains will order fewer and fewer with each subsequent publication. The obvious way to avoid the downward spiral is to be a bestseller with your first book. Simple, yes? Well, no. The USA and UK publish around 500,000 books per year, but only a tiny fraction receive meaningful marketing and publicity budgets. In fact, the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society says the top 10% of earners account for around 70% of publisher spend. Sadly, for the other 90% of authors, BookScan numbers are neither nuanced nor contextualized; it’s a case of ‘Just the facts, ma’am’. Publishers are usually transparent about relaunching authors under a new name precisely because they’re only trying to fool the algorithms, not the reading public.

Gender bias
It’s been true since the Brontë sisters first published their works that there is a gender bias against women in publishing. There is plenty of both anecdotal and statistical evidence that the books readers will choose, or discard – and critics review, or ignore – are skewed in favour of male writers. A 2009 international survey by VIDA, the Association for Women in Literary Arts, found that male authors’ books were reviewed 66 percent more frequently than women’s in The New York Times Book Review and London Review of Books – and the bias was even more pronounced in The Times Literary Supplement. Things have improved since then, but a 2019 update demonstrated that the balance still falls far short of parity.

My personal experience

Sustaining a career in writing takes resilience, grit, and an ability to adapt. For me, that has meant a bit of shape-shifting and name-changing over the past twenty-five years. I wrote nine novels as Margaret Murphy, only adopting my first pseudonym (A.D. Garrett) in 2013 for a trilogy of forensic thrillers. In that instance, the publisher wanted no hint as to the gender of the writer. Following on from that, I wrote a dark-themed duology as Ashley Dyer in consultation with forensics and policing expert Helen Pepper. When my agent called to say the novel was generating real excitement, but my UK publisher wanted another name change, I had only one question: will it sell more books? Settling on the androgynous ‘Ashley Dyer’ was a team effort, and again, the most important proviso from the publisher was that the pseudonym must not be gender specific.

I first wrote Before He Kills Again over a decade ago, and the late, great Reginald Hill read it. He really liked the story and wrote some generous words of recommendation for my agent to use as she touted it around the publishing houses. It was universally praised and unanimously rejected by over a dozen publishers. When I emailed Reg to let him know, he said they were – in his words – ‘fools’ and he urged me not to give up on it.

In the decade that followed, A.D. Garrett and Ashley Dyer took up all my creative energy and writing focus. But in 2019, I rewrote the novel I’d set aside and steeled myself to submit it to Joffe Books, offering it alongside my backlist of ‘Murphy’ titles. You can imagine my relief and joy when they praised it and wanted to commission it! However, my publisher, Jasper Joffe, was perplexed by my use of pseudonyms – what was the point? I went through all the reasons outlined here, but he argued that good marketing should be sufficient to remedy the vagaries of booksellers’ ordering systems, and he wanted me to revert to my real name for the backlist as well as the new novel. He was right: Before He Kills Again became a bestseller in the UK and the USA in e-format, garnering over 1100 favourable reviews and ratings, and a nomination for the CWA Steel Dagger. Of course, algorithms also have their influence on Amazon, as anyone who has ever bought so much as a thumb tack via the tech company’s shop front will know. But perhaps the difference is that readers who buy their books from Amazon can add the nuance BookScan lacks, as they are free – even actively encouraged – to comment and rate the books they read.

So, dear reader, when you discover that an author has changed their name, please don’t judge them too harshly – the reasons behind such decisions are complex and may be beyond the author’s control. Oh, and if you like a book do rate it for, on Amazon at least, there is literal truth in the phrase, per ardua, ad astra!'

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