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Sunday, May 31, 2015

What’s in a Name? On Author’s Names and Creating an Author Brand


When I taught novel and short story writing for Writers Digest Schools back in the 1980s, many of my students asked me if they should change their auctorial names. Either they had very common birth names that wouldn’t stand out on bookstore shelves or they possessed very unusual names that revealed their religion, ethnic heritage, gender, or were too long to easily fit on a book’s cover and spine. Since I had only recently begun using my own name after employing a variety of pseudonyms on much of my published work for a variety of reasons, I urged students to choose one name, preferably their own name, and stick to it throughout their careers. I had learned that what matters more than the name itself is the quality and quantity of work associated with a name. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but a bouquet of bright-colored sweet-smelling roses matters most of all.

Literary history, like music history, is filled with one-hit wonders. Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee come immediately to mind. Some writers pen a masterpiece first-time out and never write anything again because they feel nothing else they would write could surpass or even come close to their masterpiece. Some writers have only one story to tell, and that’s okay.

But the publishing game depends on selling lots of books. Publishers, like readers, seek out brand names they can trust to deliver consistent product each and every time. We choose those brands we know over no-name generics from displays in bookstores, grocery stores, and online retailers. We know what we like and we like what we know.

Two of my favorite writers are Henry Kuttner and Catherine Lucille Moore. Both were prolific authors who wrote under pseudonyms for a variety of reasons. Not unlike Alice Bradley Sheldon who wrote under the pseudonyms of both James Tiptree, Jr., and Raccoona Sheldon, Moore chose the androgynous name of C. L. Moore to disguise her gender in the male-dominated genres of science fiction and fantasy. Moore proved that a woman could write sword and sorcery as well or better than most men regardless of name. But Moore and Kuttner would be better remembered today if they had penned everything under their own names, or one consistent pseudonym, than writing under so many different names.

Some brand-name writers choose pseudonyms when writing outside their genre or writing in styles different than their fans expect. Stephen King wrote novels as Richard Bachman, Dean Ray Koontz as D. R. Dwyer, Leigh Nichols, Brian Coffey, Owen West, and Richard Paige, and Joanne Rowling wrote novels as J. K. Rowling and Robert Galbraith. Their already-established reputations were enhanced when it was revealed they were capable of writing outside their known genres. Though their pseudonymous novels sold reasonably well on their own, they became best-sellers only when the authors’ true names were added to the covers. Brand names sell books. Period. End of sentence.

My own birth name is too long to fit comfortably on book covers. There are far too many Paul Andersons in the world, and I don’t want to be confused with the legendary Poul Anderson (I was once on a panel at an sf convention where Poul Anderson was GOH and I was listed on panels as “the other Poul Anderson”). I have writer friends named Paul Michael Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson. When I was a kid, I was teased for having the same name as Olympic weightlifter Paul Edward Anderson. I now use my full birth name on books, and my current publishers break up my name into two lines on book covers to accommodate the length. I no longer deal with publishers who won’t.

Friends like Mort Castle call me P. D., and Wayne Allen Sallee affectionately calls me PDA. My parents called me “Dale” or “Paul Dale” because my father was Paul Anders Anderson. Most of my male cousins on the Anderson side of the family were given Dale as a middle name to commemorate our Dalecarlian or Dala heritage from the Swedish province of Dalarna. I set my Instruments of Death series of police procedurals in the fictitious town of Riverdale in Dale County in honor of my Dalecarlian heritage. In Mysterious Ways, the forthcoming sixth novel in the Winds series, I honor Dalecarlian magic and explain the origins of the Dala Horse.

Paul Dale Anderson disappeared completely from bookshelves for twenty-some years while Paul Dale Anderson, MS Ed, MA, BCH, CI did medical research, wrote journal articles, and worked on doctorates. When I reappeared as a fiction author after the death of my wife, few genre readers remembered my name.

That became painfully apparent when I began book tours last year. Although some fans and book collectors asked for autographs on old copies of my published novels and anthologized stories and John Everson and Bill Gagliani even asked me to read one of my published stories at their late-night panel on erotica and horror, some fellow panelists had no idea what I wrote. Despite serving as an elected Vice President of HWA and as a trustee who signed the original HWA charter, HWA members at registration couldn’t find my convention name badge and gave me an anonymous blank attendee badge. My name was misspelled on the mass signing list and on panel placards. It took nearly the duration of the entire World Horror Convention for people to begin recognizing me. Only two people asked for my autograph during the Friday night mass signing, but by the end of the convention a few dozen more asked me to sign copies of my books (including one collector who had acquired copies of all my out of print titles).

I am the invisible man, the man nobody knows. My name is too long and too confusing with other writers to remember. Many of my contemporaries have died or no longer make the convention circuits. I am a ghost.

Part of the problem is I’m shy. I’m a writer whose comfort zone is sitting alone at the keyboard. I don’t aggressively ask people to buy my books. I’m the quiet guy who observes. I know you, but I don’t want you to know me.

I write about you. Sure, some of me appears in my writing, but I’m really writing about and for you. See if you don’t recognize yourself in my stories.


            I’ll be signing trade paperback copies of Abandoned and Darkness at the Nebulas in Chicago next Friday and at the Printer’s Row Lit Fest on Saturday. Paul Dale Anderson is prominently displayed on the covers of both titles. I don’t care if you remember my name. I do care that you read and remember my stories.

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