“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” – Someone.
Evidently, this is another of those bits of wisdom that has no clear origin. The quote is often attributed or misattributed to the usual suspects for witty one-liners: Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Oscar Wilde, etc. Another claim is made that a Madison Avenue ad agency came up with it as part of a campaign for Brooks Brothers suits.
Authorship aside, this quip has worked its way into axiomatic status. People accept the wisdom of the words without question. On superficial examination (which is the most scrutiny the majority of people are willing to give) it just makes sense. It’s sort of like There is no “I” in TEAM.
As authors, we are admonished to make certain we have done all we can do to make our work shine before hitting the big red PUBLISH button. After all, if your book is deficient, you’ll be making a bad first impression. Your reputation will forever bear the stain of this disgrace and people will forever associate your name with an inferior product.
Yet, as true as it may be for face-to-face meetings, this maxim has never really applied to authors. Since pseudonyms are a standard practice in the world of writing, each and every author can make as many first impressions as he or she wishes. Mark Twain, George Orwell, Lewis Carroll, and even Stan Lee – all pen names.
There is a long tradition of female authors using male pseudonyms. It is widely held that this subterfuge was necessary for women to gain access to the male-dominated world of published literature. The Bronte sisters did it. Nora Roberts did it. The latest notable example is Robert Galbraith (AKA J.K. Rowling).
A nom de plume can be used by authors for any of several reasons:
The concealment of identity may be for reasons of personal or professional safety. Books written by political or corporate insiders, or by persons formerly affiliated with undercover law enforcement or intelligence operations may wish to conceal their identities as a matter of safety for themselves and their families.
In some instances, an author’s real name is likely to be confused with that of another author or notable individual. I know of an indie author named Stephen King. It wouldn’t be so bad if you occasionally got the other guy’s royalty checks. (Ahem)
An established author may want to branch out into a different genre that may threaten the brand established by his or her better known name. Nora Roberts writes erotic romance under a different name.
The writer may not wish to be associated with the writing in everyday professional life. Charles Dodson was a respected mathematician who wrote fantasy fiction under the name Lewis Carroll. This is frequently the case with writers of erotica, who may not want their families and co-workers giving them the stink-eye.
The author may feel his or her real name doesn’t have the literary cache desired. If your name is Nigel Sagbottom, you might want something with a little more oomph.
Team writers may assume a single pseudonym to establish continuity of authorship for a serial or series of works. In the same sense, collective names or house names have been adopted by publishers for series like The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Doc Savage.
But my very favorite reason for an author adopting a pseudonym is to see if publishers recognize their talent – to see whether their work stands of its own merit. Publishers rejected Rowling’s work when it was submitted under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith. Once the ruse was up, of course, they were more than happy to sign her.
I don’t know what lessons Ms. Rowling took away from her experiment, but I can tell you what I learned. The vaunted gatekeepers of the printed word can’t tell a diamond from a chunk of coal. They are nothing more than parasites, sucking from the success of people who have already proven themselves to be hard-working and talented. The big publishing houses are unable or unwilling to evaluate talent for themselves. They will not invest in developing an author. They want a finished product so they can do nothing more than stamp their brand on it.
As they add less and less value, so they become more and more worthless. Their time is at hand. None of this is an excuse for authors to put out a shoddy product. If anything, it is all the more important to put one’s best foot forward. Indies are the new vanguard of writing. Do your best to be more worthy of the mantle than our predecessors.