Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Writing Wednesday: How Much Does Your Name Matter?

Today's post was inspired by this awesome question I got in my contact box,
I'm a young, single woman planning to self-publish in the next year or so. I'm also a traditionalist and plan to take my husband's name, if I ever get married. But that's the thing: it's definitely an IF. It's not going to happen anytime soon-- and if it does it will be well after my publication plans. Obviously I am not putting my career off-track over a cosmetic change (last name), especially for only a vague possibility. (I hope it happens, but it may not!) I know you're known as Aaron and Bach (and I'm aware of the reasons re: Devi's story and genre-jumping). 
My question is this: did you initially publish with your maiden name out of necessity (i.e. not being married yet, it was socially/practically easier or kept business things simpler, etc.) or was it a personal choice? And can you expound on your experience a bit? (Do you have regrets? Does it not bother you at all? Do you know of other authors who have struggled with the same issue or am I the only one who cares?)
You are absolutely not the only one who cares! I actually get questions from questions worrying about their names all the time. With good reason, too, because an author's name is how the world knows us.

Writing Wednesday: How Much Does Your Name Matter?

With the exception of mega authors like Stephen King/J.K. Rowling/Neil Gaiman/etc., we're not known by our faces. Our fame, brand, and selling power is entirely tied to the name on the cover of our books, and that makes it well worth your time to carefully consider which name you want to use.

Which name? You mean I get to choose?

You absolutely get to choose! Aside from the obvious personal benefits like seeing your name on a cover and having everyone who knows you know you wrote a book, there is no reason at all--trad or self pubbed--you have to use your real name on your book. In fact, if you have a name that is very long or is difficult to spell or pronounce (and your ego can stand it), I would strongly suggest you come up with a pen name because, again, your name is your brand
Your name is how your future readers are going to search out and recommend your books. If that name is something people can't easily remember or say out loud to their friends or type into Google, a few of them just aren't going to do it. And while those lost sales might be a small percent, writing is a long game, and those small percents add up over time. It sounds stupid, but when you're fighting so hard for every sale, losing even one potential new reader over something as silly as "they couldn't remember how to spell your name, so they just gave up" is painful in the extreme.

So, clearly, picking a good writer name is a big freaking deal! What qualifies as a "good" writing name, though, will depend a lot on the audience you're trying to reach. For example, if you identify as a Jewish author and the Jewish experience figures strongly in your stories, then having a very Jewish sounding name would be a real plus to your brand because it would give you authenticity. 

Now, obviously, this is a power you should use responsibly. I'm not encouraging anyone to pretend to be someone they're not just to sell books. Readers are very savvy, and any plan that involves trying to fool them never works in the long run. But you don't have to be trying to trick people to be strategic about your author name.

To cite a personal example (and to actually answer the question), I was already married when I got my first book deal, but it didn't matter because I'd already decided I was going to publish under the name Rachel Aaron back when I was eight. I decided this both because 1) having my name on a book would be really really cool, and 2) Rachel Aaron is actually a pretty strategically awesome author. Not only is it easy to read and remember, my last name starts with 2 As, which means I'll always be at or near the top of whatever bookstore shelf I'm on. 

That last part is not to be underestimated! When you walk into any bookstore that carries SFF and you look at the books, I'm right there on the first shelf, often at eye level. That's the kind of placement publishers pay thousands for, and I get it for free because of my name! XD

As eBooks take over, this sort of alphabetical consideration maters less and less, but so long as print books are still a thing, it's a valid consideration, especially if you're planning on trying the trad publishing route. That said, Rachel Aaron is still a really freaking good author name! 

(And for the record, I kept my maiden name when I got married mostly out of laziness/not caring and the faint hope that someday, someone would look at my ID and ask if I was the Rachel Aaron, famous author. This has yet to actually happen, but I still hold out hope! In the meanwhile, I am legally Rachel Aaron and intend to stay as such for the rest of my life.)

All that said, though, Rachel Aaron is more than just my name. She's also a brand, just as Rachel Bach is a brand. This name change was originally at my publisher's behest, but in 20/20 hindsight, I understand why. 

How Author Name as Brand Works

Brands need to be focused. While I think that readers who love my Rachel Aaron books are going to also love my Rachel Bach books, the truth is that they are very different both in terms of the writing and the genres, and troublesome as it might be to manage two names (and it is very troublesome! Many of my readers still don't understand that I have more books out there under another name), they each serve a critical purpose of defining each cluster of my books under its own label. Rachel Bach writes straight-shooting, badass romantic SciFi, Rachel Aaron writes action packed, character driven Epic and Urban Fantasy with huge complex plots. These things are not the same. They're by the same person, but just as a single cook can produce savory and sweet with equal skill, you wouldn't put both of those plates under the same section of the menu. Like every other vendor, authors use names to brand their different kinds of books into easy to describe (and sell!) packages. If I ever decided to quit SFF and go write a totally different genre like cozy cat mysteries, I'd make up a new name to go with that new brand for the same reasons.

I know all that might sound like a lot of fence building and trouble for no reason. After all, if readers like one of my books, they should like all the others, but the truth is that readers buy by brand. They know what they like, and they want more of it. The entire point of establishing your name as a brand is to make a reader's choice to buy your new title as easy as possible. People know what kind of experience they're going to get when they buy a Rachel Aaron book. If you're constantly jumping genres and switching things up, that confidence get diluted. Readers might like you, but if you go from SF to Westerns and they don't like Westerns, they might not pick up your new title. And once they skip on one series, it becomes that much easier to skip on the next.

But while everyone agrees keeping your brand focused is important, changing your name is not without cost. I have no idea how many readers I lost when I switched my name, or how many of my Rachel Bach readers would have loved my Rachel Aaron stuff and just never realized the two Rachels were the same. This is the risk you take when you pull a change up. Changing your name is also logistically hard. Since my two genres were so similar, I was able to combine my social media accounts, website, and blog, but that wouldn't have been the case if I'd decided to jump from say, Fantasy to Erotica.

The obvious answer is to just write the same genre forever, but most authors don't want to do that. We want to explore and write new stuff that excites us, and to that I say: go for it! Even if it's wildly different, a book you truly love will always do better than a title you're only lukewarm on. But know that the decision of whether to change your name or not is a weighty one that only you can make. There are upsides and downsides to both, and which choice you make will depend on your individual brand, your readership, and just how different your books are.

So What Name Should I Use?

When you find yourself wondering what name you should write under, especially if, like the questioner above, you think your name might be changing at some point in the future, my advice to you is to pick whatever name you feel will serve you best in your career and stick to it. Even if you get married later in life, so long as you're writing books in that brand, your author name will never change. 

Putting your name on a book isn't like putting it on a form or a driver's licence. You're not legally saying "I did this," you're showing readers who loved your book what brand to look for when they go to buy the next one. That's it. That's the entire purpose of writing your name on the cover. Everything else--seeing your name on a cover, having people say they found your book in stores, and so forth--is  just for your own private happiness and ego. Which, by the way, is totally cool! I'm not telling you you can't put your real name on your book! But I do think you should carefully consider the sales impact of whatever name you chose to publish under, because so long as you're writing those kind of books, that's the name you're going to be stuck with.

I hope this answers your question, and I hope that everyone else found it informational, or at least entertaining! If you have a question about writing, you can always shoot me a line on my contact form or on Twitter. If you enjoyed the blog, please follow me on the Social Media of your choice (TwitterFacebookTumblrGoogle+) to never miss a post! Thank you, and as always, keep writing!



Unknown said...

Actually really helpful! Heard a few authors talk brand before, but drawing a distinction between that and ego is a take I haven't heard before. Exactly what I needed. What would we do without you, Rachel?

Dana Delamar said...

Great post! I have one of those impossible to spell or pronounce last names, so I always knew I'd choose a pen name. The problem was choosing one! After months of agonizing, I settled on a name, only to discover upon Googling it that a porn star already had that name. So I picked another that wasn't taken and bought the domain name... only to discover a few months later that the name I'd picked was *very* similar to the name of another already established author in my genre. Back to the drawing board! I like the name I eventually chose, and though it would have been nice to see my legal name on my books, I'm glad I went with a pen name. I knew my real last name would be a detriment, and frankly, it's nice to have some anonymity, considering how many unstable people are out there. It was still a surprisingly difficult task to pick one out though, and I'm glad to hear that I'm not the only person who's struggled with this!

Veronica Scott said...

Good post! I'll try to remember to ask if you're "Rachel Aaron, THE famous author" when we meet for our panel at RT2016 next month LOL!

Shameem Mahboob said...

I agree with you. As far as I know and from my own experiences I have seen that name mattered with his/her personality and also his success. Religion also have said to name in a good way.The article is so much interesting and for any type of essay writing is the link I use.

Shameem Mahboob said...

Funny article. So much logical also I think. Everyone love a good name. And from my experiences it matters.

Anu said...

If I ever publish anything (I'm not going to, I'm a reader, not a writer) I cannot use my own name. Just because my first name and English possessive 's' doesn't mix, at all.