Live by the Pen Name, Perish by the Pen Name
Under his own name* he had written some pretty famous novels several of which, like The Blackboard Jungle and Strangers When We Meet, had been made into movies. But The 87th Precinct, the detective series he created under the name Ed McBain, was a huge hit. The irony that his nom de plume eclipsed his vrai nom drove Hunter to distraction. It reached a point where the normally clean-shaven author had to grow a beard for the author photo of “Ed McBain” for which fans clamored.
This is just one of countless stories I could tell you about pseudonyms. They came flooding back to mind when I read how agent Esther Newberg urged her author Patricia O’Brien to use a pen name on the manuscript of her latest novel because publishers, citing poor sales of her previous book, were turning the new one down on grounds that had nothing to do with merits of the work. O’Brien took her agent’s advice. Newberg sold it to Doubleday in three days. With 35,000 copies of her new book in print, the author (now “Kate Alcott”) has a new lease on life complete with a new biography and author photo. Author and agent became anxious when the ploy was revealed, but the editor was cool with it. (For the full story read Book Is Judged by the Name on Its Cover by Julie Bosman)
If you can relate to Hunter’s and O’Brien’s stories, you’ll want to read Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms by Carmela Ciuraru.
In an excerpt published in Salon she touched on the psychological stress that might have tormented these authors. “The merging of an author and an alter ego is an unpredictable thing. It can become a marriage, like a faithful and sturdy partnership, or it can prove a swift, intoxicating affair. A clandestine literary self can be tried on temporarily, to produce a single work, then dropped like a robe; or the guise might exist as something to be guarded at all costs. The attraction is obvious and undeniable. Entering another body (figuratively, ecstatically) is almost an erotic impulse.”
In Hunter’s case it became a kind of addiction that his fans would not let him break. But I have also known authors who loved their alter identity so much more than their own that they had their names officially changed. I have known authors whose careers were rescued by writing under a false name, and others whose careers were ruined by it.
For prolific authors pseudonyms are a must. Too-frequent publication cheapens the product, so publishers are loath to schedule books less than six months apart, and for significant authors it’s twelve. Writers capable of writing two or three books a year will fall further and further behind waiting for their publisher’s green light. Thus a pen name liberates them to write for other publishers or even to double-up for their own publisher. Both Nora Roberts and her pen name J. D. Robb are published by Putnam, for instance.
But there are other reasons besides fecundity for employing a pseudonym. As in the case of O’Brien, authors whose sales are weak will write under a pen name to get out from under the onus of poor numbers. The problem with this ruse is that the newly christened author is unknown, and stores may order modestly. What’s worse, the author cannot easily promote the book under his or her pen name.
Roberts is an obvious exception. So is Stephen King, whose prolificness spawned a successful new identity, Richard Bachman. But King eventually gave the name up. “The author,” writes Ciuraru, “subsequently issued a press release announcing Bachman’s death from ‘cancer of the pseudonym.’ King dedicated his 1989 novel The Dark Half (about a pen name that assumes a sinister life of its own) to ‘the late Richard Bachman.'”
Before becoming a literary agent your faithful correspondent wrote dozens of books. The most successful was the novelization of the John Carpenter movie Halloween. It garnered rave reviews, which you can read on Amazon. But don’t look it up under the name Richard Curtis. I wrote it as “Curtis Richards”.
Read all about pennames in The decline of the pseudonym.
*Actually Hunter’s birth name was Salvatore Lombino but he had it legally changed.
Richard Curtis (a.k.a. Curtis Richards)