26 July 2016

And this week in the publishing industry...pen names...again

A certain young man wrote a blog post in which he makes a lot of decent points I agree with...to some extent. 

Unfortunately, as sometimes happens, this set off a fire storm of people complaining about ANY author who takes a cross-sex pen name, who doesn't tell readers the full and complete truth of themselves... You get the idea. The old "pen name bad"..."author bad"...deal. So, I decided to share my post on the subject.

Should an author have to use a legal name? No. Pen names can be traced back to at least Regency era...and probably earlier. Heck, it's even legal for people to copyright their work to the pen name, to file a DBA (Doing Business As) so you can get a bank account and PO Box in the pen name... It's common business practice to use one, if you want to.

It's no one's business why someone HAS a pen name. I've seen authors take them to avoid being fired from businesses that have Draconian rules about writing, to avoid being skewered for writing horror or romance or (God forbid!) erotic work in their Bible Belt areas, to avoid stalkers, to separate genres they write, because their original pen name or legal name is held up in some ridiculous old contract that says that name can't write for another publishing house, because their own names match a personality or well-known writer they don't want to be confused with, or even because their own names are hard to spell and pronounce and are not memorable. Pen names solve many issues.

Moreover, there are still some biases, especially in conglomerate press, when (for instance) a man writes romance or a woman writes hard science fiction. Or, in some circles, women who write MM. Rolling eyes. Even when you luck out and find reasonable publishers who don't care (and some still have the dinosaur editors who do), some authors have built up an audience over decades with a cross-genre name, from back when it mattered more, and do not want to change now. A good example was a gent I met who worked for Harlequin under a female pen name for well over a decade and was afraid he would lose his audience if he published under his own name and outed himself. It's a valid point, IMO.

Should the person have to tell you their real sex? No. See above for one good example why. We could get into James Tiptree, but let's stay in this century for a bit. Remember that Rowling was told to use her initials to hide that she was female, or she would have no audience for Harry Potter, since it was a YA with a male lead, and she was a female author. Beyond all the things I've said so far, I've seen trans authors who were skewered for presenting themselves as their own identity (IOW, the one they live and present as at all times). To me, this smacks of bigotry and nothing more. This person has M on IDs, has a male name, presents as a male...but we're going to call him a female to complain about the pen name? In a sentence to show my disgust... Some people need to grow up.

Should you have to tell the full and complete truth in your bio? No. Bear with me here. I'm NOT saying to claim you won awards you didn't or have degrees or experiences you don't or something similar. And don't put yourself out of your depth; stick with things that are essentially true or close to the truth. For consideration, if you live in a small town in the Bible Belt and need to hide that? Don't say you live there. Say you live in a large town closeby. Somewhere you've visited often and can find your way around. Or say you live where you were born and raised. You don't want to give enough information for someone to figure out where you work? Say you hold a job (no details like company) that you actually HAVE held in the past. You live with your two kids, and you don't want some nutter coming after your kids or trying to use them to find you? There's nothing wrong with saying you take long walks with your dog, which you still do, and not mention the family. There's nothing wrong with any of this.

Is it okay to use a fake picture? This one is stickier. DO NOT use pictures of someone without their express permission to do so, and take NEW pictures of them, so people can't Google that precise picture. Why is this permissible at all? Seriously? Conglomerate press has been doing this for decades or more, hiring on models to "be" the author for photos, and no one complained before now. Some people are private. I don't begrudge them having a fake picture, but do something like getting your spouse or a friend to agree to be your model, for pities sake.

Now, mind you that this limits your ability to do personal appearances, but it doesn't KILL it. Remember the Harlequin author I mentioned? He had his wife be his public face in pictures. When he did signings, he would sit at the table with her, playing the role of her husband and biggest fan, to answer any questions she couldn't remember off the bat. She "officially" was the author for the signing. It worked well for them, and readers still got to meet the "author", in a manner of speaking. Personally, I wouldn't feel catfished at all, in such a situation. He wasn't given a lot of options when he started out.

CAVEAT... I'm thinking of the so-called "autobiography" by James Frey (A Million Little Pieces?) that caused a stink several years ago. If you are writing something that is supposed to be TRUE, don't outright lie. It should be common sense, but it seems it's not. Now, in the case in question, people tend to forget that the only way the publisher would sign the book was if they billed it as autobiography and not as fiction, so they forced the issue of the fake sex and history. That is completely unethical, of course.

Oh...and if you don't want to use a photo of yourself on social media, use one of your book covers...or switch your book covers off once in a while. Or use a picture of your cat or dog (especially if you write children's/YA books about animals). Or use a piece of artwork made by a friend...with proper permission and attribution, of course. There are ways to make it clear you are not the photo you are displaying.  

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