What’s in a Name?

Hi. Barb here. Sitting on the porch in Boothbay Harbor enjoying a lovely breeze and a lovely view.

Every year I have a little task I perform for Level Best Books. Our contract with authors asks two questions:

Your name as you wish it to appear in print:

Your story’s title:

So my little task is, I look at the copyright page, the table of contents, the front page of every story and every author’s bio, and I make sure all the author names and story titles match the contracts.

You’d think this would be a simple job, a “no brainer” almost, resulting in few changes, wouldn’t you?

But instead, it often results in a manuscript with so much red ink it looks like it was in a knife fight.

Authors forget their names all the time.

Authors may want their byline to be a formal name (with or without a middle name or initial), a nickname, initials instead of a first and middle name, or a pseudonym. Often, much thought has gone into this choice. They may wish to disguise their gender, or use a different name for short stories than for their novels. Or they may share a legal name with a well-known author or a celebrity from whom they must distinguish themselves.

Yet, authors routinely forget all this and provide one variation on their name in their story byline, a different one in their bio, and a third in the contract.

A rose by any other name…

This is ironic because for crime fiction authors, Author name = Brand equity. Once we have any sort of a fan base, our name is the most important thing we have.

Here is a tiny look at the Thriller Author Audience Expansion Roadmap, presented in January 2014 and commissioned by the International Thriller Writers organization.

  • # 1 determinant of Thriller* bestseller success, by far – Author Brand Equity – the size and loyalty of an author’s audience.
  • Fiction author fans are at least 15 TIMES more likely to buy a given fiction title than a book buyer not familiar with the title’s author.

*Thriller=Thriller, Suspense, Mystery, Romantic Suspense

The author name = brand equity concept is true for all authors, but is even truer for crime fiction authors, because our audience is even more apt to choose books by authors they love than the readers of other types of books are–literary fiction, narrative non-fiction, etc.

So getting your name right would appear to be job one.

So why do the authors I follow use so many different names?

Sometimes I say, “All my friends are like drag queens. They all have at least two names.”

The reasons authors publish under different names are varied.

1) They may write in more than one genre, and be concerned that readers of one type of book will be unhappy if they pick up the other type based on author name.

2) Their publishing contract may prohibit publishing other books under the same author name–even it if is their legal name. My contract actually says this, and I am told the rationale is that the publisher is spending time and money building my brand and don’t want me to go out and squander it by publishing something terrible. They also don’t want some other publisher taking advantage of my brand equity–equity they have contributed to building. For me, this is the most irksome clause in my contract.

3) The work may be “work for hire.” With work for hire, the publisher hires you to write a book they want. They retain the author name, and can hire someone else to write subsequent books in the series if they wish to. Since no one wants to end up in a situation where a publisher owns his legal name, these books are almost always written pseudonymously.

4) The author’s prior books may have under-performed. So supposedly (and I say supposedly because I have no independent way to confirm this–but I have been told it over and over [There is enough myth and legend in publishing to create a new set of Arthurian tales]) book buyers at Barnes and Noble and other chains, like Costco and Walmart, buy books based on the author’s past performance. So a publisher may suggest to an author who is starting a new series, or who has written a potential “break-out book” that they use a different name. Because having no track record is better than having a modest one, apparently.

However, in this day and age, when authors are urged to have a social media presence and cultivate fans, the B&N buyer may be the only person on the planet who is fooled by this second name ruse.

A confession…

So far, all my books and short stories have been published under my legal name, Barbara Ross. This is more a testament to the immature nature of my publishing career than anything else.

I’m glad this is the case, though if I had truly thought it through, and considered how incredibly common my legal name is, I might have made a different choice.

But, otherwise I am as guilty as all those Level Best authors. On this blog, I routinely post and comment as “Barb” even though my author name–i.e. my brand–is “Barbara.”

Why do I do this? I have no idea. In real life, when people ask, “Are you called Barb or Barbara?” I answer, “Either,” though the truth is closer to, “I have no idea.” I think when my name is spoken, my brain hears something akin to “Hey, you!” and processes neither Barb nor Barbara (nor honey, Mom, or any of the dozens of nicknames my mother had for me.)

At some point in life, decades ago, my name became Barbara but I started signing all correspondance–letters, memos, e-mails, “Barb.”

And so I continue. As consistently inconsistent as the rest of us.

About Barbara Ross

Barbara Ross is the author of the Maine Clambake Mysteries. Her books have been nominated for multiple Agatha Awards for Best Contemporary Novel and have won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. She lives in Portland, Maine. Readers can visit her website at www.maineclambakemysteries.com
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18 Responses to What’s in a Name?

  1. MCWriTers says:

    Barb, Barbara or BA? You know, I’ve often wished I’d published the Joe Burgess series under a male name, or initials, because it still seems to be the case that men buy books by men. Have gone the “change your name for the breakout book” route for Steal Away, which was published as Katharine Clark. Still trying to wrap my head around “branding” which I think is harder when I write fiction and nonfiction, short stories and co-written books. Often wonder if “crime” is a sufficient connector?

    Fun post, whatever your name is. Will you do a post on branding one of these days?

    Kate (Katharine, or K.C. and considering Casey Clark?)

    • Barb Ross says:

      Decisions, decisions. Clearly you have devoted fans. Would they find you if you were somebody else?

      Happy to share my thoughts about branding, if you don’t mind some theorizing and bumbling around. I find I understand more all the time as I go on this journey, and what I “knew” last year may appear to be insightful or embarassing going forward. But I guess that’s part of the fun of blogging.

  2. I love that they put you in charge of that critical task, Barb/Barbara/B.A. I like all your names (and Kate, I like all yours, too.)

    As for myself, I have never considered writing under another name. Brenda Buchanan works. I enjoy the alliterative aspect of it. And the rhythm of the syllables. But perhaps I lack imagination.

    • Reine says:

      Brenda, I was just going to say that about your name. I swear I was about to write how much I love its alliterative quality, when I saw that you had written it! Do you realize that we’ve been posting on the same blogs, since Louise Penny wrote Still Life?

      • Barb Ross says:

        I find your name very easy to remember, Brenda. Which is also critical to an author. I say stick with it as long as you can!

      • Thank you, Reine, for your kind words about my alliterative name. It is true! We are now squarely in the category of longtime friends who never have met. (Need to remedy that!)

  3. I’ve just finished reviewing the page proofs of “Devious Doings in Dallas”, my story which (wonder of all wonders!) was actually accepted for Red Dawn. Since I’ve always said that everybody except my mother calls me “Sandy” and when she called me “Sanford” I knew I’d done something bad, I had this decision to make. This could well be my one and only publication ever, after all. I also worried (a little!) that the good people of Dallas Plantation, ME, where the (hopefully amusing) story is set might get a little bent out of shape thinking I was making fun of them (which I am most definitely not). I finally decided to go with my birth name, which honors my great grandfather, Justis Sanford Emerson of Bangor, who provided my parents, newlywed veterans of WWII, with a roof over their heads under which to conceive and birth both me and my little brother. Thanks, Grampy!

  4. Edith says:

    I’m one of those three-name authors, with Tace Baker and Maddie Day as the alternatives, for two different reasons: Tace for reason #2, and Maddie for reason #4. Sheesh. But they never said I couldn’t link the names, and I do everywhere I can!

    No idea how in the world I missed Steal Away, Kate! Off to buy it.

  5. Reine says:

    I have struggled with this my whole life. I was born Kathleen and according to my parents was referred to as “Kathleen or Daniel” until I was born and then called Kathleen. One day my mother announced, that my name was not Kathleen but Maureen. There is a long story attached to this name change. It includes the nickname challenge in my multi-cultural family in that I could be called Reen, Rain, or Reine that would keep everyone happy, except the Russians (who insist were really Polish). But really it all boils down to my mother not wanting anyone to call me Kate. I don’t know why. Kate is my favorite name. Kate Harrington. Perfect.

    • Barb Ross says:

      Personally, I like Reine. It’s so regal and French and you stand out in the crowd.

      That being said, my daughter is Katharine called Kate, so I like that name, too!

    • I love Reine. My mother’s name is Irene, and when we were kids we would tease her by calling her (phonetic) Reeney. It would make her laugh and laugh.

      • Reine says:

        Brenda, my mother’s sister was named Irene and was called Reenie for years. One of the last conversations we had was around our names and how much she loved that we were both called Reen or Reenie… or Reine. Until then, I hadn’t known that she was ever called Reine.

        Yes, we must meet after all these years! Maybe you will come to the Tuscon Festival of Books. It’s HUGE. I hope all my writer friends here will come.

  6. As near as I can tell, and I’ve done some research, I am the only one in the world with my unique name. I have my parents to thank. Has it helped me become successful as an author? Hell no, so I suspect it has more to do with promotion and good writing. I think I have failed in one or both categories. So, what’s in a name? I have no idea.

  7. Daron Sito says:

    They are doomed from the start as members of two warring families. What’s in a name?

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