Let’s Argue!

By John Gilstrap

I thought I’d pull y’all in on a running argument I’ve been having with my writer-buddies.  Spoiler: I’m finding precious few to take my side.

Here’s the hypothetical: Let’s say successful thriller writer George Schwartz decides to write a historical romance novel through traditional publishing outlets.  To keep the marketing department happy, and to avoid confusing his existing audience, George decides to write under the pseudonym, Amanda Thomas.  (Apologies if there is a real Amanda Thomas in the romance space.  I couldn’t find her in my 30-second Amazon search.)

Just to get it out of the way, I believe that honesty is king.  Lying to anyone about anything is wrong.  Hard stop.

Here’s my argument:

Since George is writing FICTION under a PSEUDONYM, I don’t see anything wrong with him creating a fabulous, seductive, relevant bio for Amanda Thomas’.  She led a hardscrabble life in the Midwest, raising her three younger siblings because Mom and Dad disappeared in a twister.  As she worked her way toward a management position in some unnamed factory, she never took her eye off her real goal of becoming a writer.  This FIRST NOVEL is the culmination of her life’s dream.  She’s only thirty now, with nothing but future ahead of her.

Her cover photo would be gorgeous, that of a model who has signed a scary non-disclosure agreement.  Amanda flat-out does not do interviews.

Okay, you get where I am going with this.

One of my best friends in the writing world, a very successful author, was horrified at this possibility.  What if the readers found out?  They would feel betrayed, and no one would ever buy another Amanda Thomas novel.  And when they found out that George Schwartz was the purveyor of the betrayal, they’d never buy another of his books either.

But where’s the betrayal?  Where’s the lie?

Amanda Thomas is NOT REAL, and her book is FICTION.  There’s no analogy James Frey and A Million Little Pieces because his reprehensible action was to misrepresent a made-up story as nonfiction.  Amanda’s book is a novel–no one expects a word of it to be true.

If there’s a lie, it’s in the fact of the pseudonym.

To me, to object to a fictional bio for a pseudonym is to object to a pseudonym itself.  The only honest pseudonym in this case would be “Amanda Thomas, who is really George Schwartz.”  We don’t expect that, so why, if it’s okay to misrepresent the fact of authorship, is it not okay to give the fake author a fake background?

What say you, TKZ family?  Is it wrong to misrepresent a pseudonymous writer as a real person?  Should readers know that the name on the cover is not the writer’s real name?  Where are the lines that shouldn’t be crossed?

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

43 thoughts on “Let’s Argue!

  1. I have to agree with your logic. Would “Robert Galbraith” be an example in your support?

  2. I agree with you. In my time, I’ve written under several pseudonymns and under three or four personas. (For me, there’s a difference.)

    I didn’t bother with a bio for the pseudonyms. I DID write an elaborate bio for each persona though. (Only one is still active. He writes magic realism.)

    For me, the pseudonyms were only that. A name to hide behind.

    The personas were more real, with their own writing style, their own voice, and even their own (static) website with their books listed. One wrote SF, one wrote action-adventure, and one wrote weird, twisted psychological suspense (read “horror” but without the slash and gash).

    A few years ago I took back the works I’d written under the names of all the personas but one (the magic realism guy) and most of the pseudonyms, republishing them under my own name. Mostly I did that to increase discoverability. It worked.

  3. I hate pseudonyms. They’re dishonest. The only exception for me might be if you’re an insider writing an expose. (my new phone apparently doesn’t speak French).

    They all seem to leak out anyway.

    There actually are successful male romance writers.

  4. In general, I agree with Cynthia, pseudonyms are pointless. Traditional publishing should let you write different genres, especially since you wouldn’t be working with the same publisher. But i’ll give you this John, I see no problem with coming up with a fake bio at the back of the book. It’s only two lines long, and no one puts much stake in what it says about the writer. I would put the line at a social media presence; Amanda can not pretend to live an active life outside her books, though I’m not sure how’d you pull that off nowadays.

  5. I thought about using a pseudonym when my former boss told me he wouldn’t read a thriller written by a woman. I rejected the idea, because it’s not very practical in this age of social media. I don’t think a fake bio and phony photo would last long. Nowadays the truth comes out. Remember “Anonymous” a few years ago? To deal with the misogyny, however, I might use initials.

  6. Only a problem for me if his publisher pushed him into it because he’s (hypothetically) launching an imprint by and for women but doesn’t think women can write.

    Then I’d call it sexist.

    • I would too, Ovidia. Women have worked too hard for too long, and we’re still paid less than male writers. If you’re right about the publisher’s motivation, then shame on them.

      You may have touched an unintentional nerve with this argument, John. 😉

      • But in this hypothetical, the presumption is reversed: that men are incapable of writing for a predominantly woman-oriented market. Thus the female pseudonym. Right?

        • If that’s the case, then I still say shame on the publisher. Why can’t men write romance? I’m sure there are plenty of talented male romance authors. My advice would be to use initials, so he’s gender-neutral on the book. But using a fake bio and pic will cause more harm than good, IMO. Readers always discover who the author really is, and they’ll feel deceived. Interesting discussion, though.

    • I find the above post insulting. Calling names like sexist is a cheap PC trick intended to shame and it is judgmental of a whole group of people you don’t know. I reject your argument. There might be good reasons to use a particular pen name. In the case of J.K. Rowlings, the belief was that using her own name would hurt her brand.
      As writers, we must keep our minds open and not corralled by faux-norms created by television and Facebook.

  7. You bring up something I hadn’t thought about. While I can see the creative validity of the argument, I wouldn’t like the deception. There is enough of that out there already. And if I became attached to the hypothetical “Amanda Thomas'” writing, I would feel I was getting to know her–and then if I found out she was a fake, I would think the real writer was an A*&hole for creating the deception–especially when it was quite unnecessary. I prefer people to be straight up with me. It’s different when it’s common knowledge it’s a fake–aka Franklin W. Dixon or Carolyn Keane.

    But then I don’t understand the use of writing under another name in the first place. Are people really that incapable of understanding that a single author might like to write in more than one genre? Talk about a closed mind. The only way an author writing multiple genres would be a problem for me is if they didn’t make it easy to distinguish one genre type from another when looking at their books–and if they are paying attention to their cover art and copy, that shouldn’t be an issue.

  8. Even in fiction, many readers are interested in the REAL author and information on his or her background and writing career. So, in this instance, both the phony pseudonym and bio/persona, whatever you want to call it, is misleading and misrepresentation, unfortunate evidence of what I see as an increasing race to the bottom in our culture and our values. In my view a pseudonym is okay with the disclosure you see sometimes see of” X writing under the name of Y”.

    Witness the increasing use of “fake news” in social media and in publicity, make that propaganda.

  9. To me, this is okay on Schwartz’s part so long as he was honest with the publisher. Olivia’s point above is well-taken if the publisher requests the pseudonym for the reasons she suggests.

    Pseudonyms have a long and distinguished history; the man who was possibly America’s most beloved writer used a pseudonym. While one may think it’s unnecessary and deceptive, readers DO make decisions irrationally. With author name recognition the primary driver in most book sales, the last thing any successful writer wants is for his–or her–readers to wonder which genre this book is in, because they don’t like one or the other. Again, it WILL cause confusion, no matter how clearly the book is marketed. We think this should be obvious but we’re looking at it from the writer’s perspective and we are, by definition, outliers among the reading population.

  10. First, I object to a man writing under a woman’s name. Writing under a pen name, using initials to hide the author’s identity, is different, IMO. Women used to do that in order to be taken seriously in a male-dominated profession. A fake bio is wrong on so many levels. If fake bios are allowed to exist, why can’t all fiction writers claim accolades they haven’t earned? By your logic, since we’re writing fiction, then the reader should expect us to lie in real life. What does that say about genre-writers?

    The reader-author relationship is too important for lies, betrayal, and deception to exist on the author’s part. If exposed, I, for one, would never buy another book from the real or imagined author. Not ever.

  11. Several of my favorite authors are not the names on the covers. History is full of pseudonyms that have sold thousands of copies. One way or another, the truth usually comes out. I have yet to see the outrage.

    It is sad that people can’t readily accept SF and Romance from Jane Smith so her alter ego needs to write the space operas, but it is what it is, and it works for them. The same for my friend whose fictional detective does not use the legal textbooks he also writes.

    I am with you.

    Now, I think it may be time for me to read that medical mystery of the “pre-Roe” days written by that Harvard medical student, Jeffery Hunter. Or as his mother called him, Michael Crichton.

  12. I believe you’re on the wrong side of this argument, John.
    I start from the premise that the author is the brand and the book is the product. That said, I might decide to create a brand that’s just a pseudonym. It can sit quite happily alongside my “John Gilstrap” brand. I would likely even tell my readers that it’s a pseudonym (for someone else, obviously.) And I would leave it at that. THAT, in my opinion, would be honest. And probably create a bit of buzz.
    But once you start making up histories and displaying pictures of someone who never was as someone who is, you’re slipping into what I would consider very deceptive territory.

  13. My impressions (skip if you want facts and argumentation–I don’t have any):
    -Pseudonyms seem good for marketing: Robert Galbraith is a great case in point. Most use of pseudonyms in fiction seems to be for the purpose of “product differentiation.” I think it rare that effort is made to hide the true identity of the author. If those dark mysteries were marketed as by J. K. Rowling, there’d be lots of “bad” results.
    -Given that true identities are not hidden, I think developing the “persona,” to use Harvey’s term, could add a fun, interesting layer to the project. I’m thinking even of something like newgracenews.com (which I can’t seem to load right now). Robert Galbraith even has her own website.

  14. I agree with Sue. As a reader, I have no problem with a writer using a pseudonym. The fake bio disturbs me. I think that crosses the line.

  15. I write under a pen name as my real last name is Smith. There is no combination of initials, middle name, etc that would have given me a unique name as an author. So I invented a gender-neutral name to write under. In 2012 when I started writing, the evidence at the time was that male writers do better than female writers in the mystery genre. This is unfortunately still mostly true (bestsellers list, awards, reviews). That said, in the Indie world a lot of that no longer matters. The first three books did not include my picture and I think the first two book bios said Alec is a male author, then I think I decided it was a waste of time and ran with my bio being female.

    If I had it to do all over again, I would have chosen my first name or initials and invented a last name as a pen name. Everywhere I go in the book world I answer to Alec and people that know we well feel weird calling me that knowing it’s not my real name, but I don’t feel weird answering to that name as it’s my brand.

    • So funny because my real last name is also Smith, so I write under several pen names with different surnames.

  16. I 100% agree with your position. In fact, I’ve done it myself (man publishing under female pen name for 50-shades style romance novelettes). Readers are looking to escape, and part of romance branding and the fantasy is that the author is a fellow woman.

  17. If you claim to be someone else, you are telling a lie. It’s really that simple. Maybe you write under a pseudonym because you want to maintain privacy for yourself and your family. Okay, but then how do you deal with a bio for your fake self? Most readers would like to know a little bit about the person whose work they’re buying. If I bought a novel by a writer who claimed to be a woman, saw “her” bio and found it very interesting, and that bio plus the work enticed me to buy more of “her” work, and then found out the she was a he all along, and everything from the name on down was faked, I would definitely not buy that person’s work any longer, under whatever name they choose.

  18. As I said in another comment, pen names have their uses. If you write sweet romances and raunchy erotica, you shouldn’t write them under the same name. Rita Mae Brown writes cozy cat mysteries and lesbian mainstream. I’m sure that some little old lady has had heart issues when she picked up a copy of RUBYFRUIT JUNGLE and discovered another meaning for pussy.

    Pen names also offer privacy, if done correctly. That means incorporating the pen name so you can copyright the work to the pen name corporation. Also, friends must be told to keep their mouths shut about who the author really is.

    Readers are more sophisticated than given credit for here. I doubt many would care if they found out that the writer X was really writer Y. During the JK Rowling/ Robert Galbraith identity reveal, my online reader communities were sympathetic for JKR. No one was outraged except at the woman who couldn’t keep her mouth shut.

  19. First, I agree. I don’t see anything wrong with making up a fictional background to go with a fictional name.

    Second, if there’s any doubt, then surely making up a fictional background that is really over-the-top ought to head off this kind of complaint? That detail about the twister ought to clue in anyone that this background is not real. If that doesn’t seem sufficient, then throw in a trip to Oz. THAT should do the trick.

  20. Hmmm. I think the problem is with the expectation that everyone has to be a brand, and that brand/writer can write only one type of fiction. That said, pseudonyms have been used for pretty much all eternity. I don’t object to the false bio, but the picture of a totally different person is where I draw the line.

    This scenario brings to mind Dawn Cook/Kim Harrison. Dawn Cook wrote some fantasy novels. They, er, failed to reach an audience. So she developed an urban fantasy series (the Hollows), completely different from what she had written before. Her editor picked out the Kim Harrison name, and she added a long red wig for her author photos, and a pseudonymous brand/author was created. The Hollows series did extremely well. The fake persona took over. The Dawn Cook books had the Kim Harrison name added. After several years of the red wig the short blonde hair is back in her author pics, but the fake name persists.

    So, in your scenario of the hot model pic instead of the real man, whaddya do when the fake persona becomes more famous than the original?

  21. Pseudonym? Fine by me. I write romance, and am looking to publish one of my first novels. I plan on going with a pseudonym because I want to put a thick, black line between my personal life and my writing life. Some authors want that. That’s cool.

    Making up a biography for your pseudonym, and using a photograph of some random model with an NDA? I can see the pros and cons of it, but I’m on the fence.

    Part of me wants to say that readers won’t be *that* outraged if it turns out that Schwartz is outed as Thomas. Readers are generally a pretty forgiving lot. The other part of me says that it’s wrong for Schwartz to misrepresent himself to build credibility and relatability within another genre (whatever that genre happened to be).

    I reckon Schwartz should do what he feels comfortable with, but he also needs to be prepared for the fallout.

  22. I see it as no different than making up a back-story for any other fictional character for the most part. But…that said…
    If you or I, being writers of military fiction, were to make a pseudonym and claim that pseudonymous person had certain skills that could land us in hot water in many ways I think.
    For instance:
    Basil S Gilstrap, Colonel US Army Ret, rose from the enlisted ranks to become one of the most infamous Special Forces commanders in all theaters of the War on Terror. Starting as a Weapons Sergeant with 7the Special Forces Group he hunted cartel leaders in the jungles of South America, served as Operations Officer for 10th SFG in the Balkans in the 90s and spent nearly ten years in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan with 1st SFG from which he retired as deputy commander in 2011. He consults with DoD and private security contracting firms and is a regular advisor to Hollywood movie sets to make sure they get the portrayal right. Col. Gilstrap lives on a small, sustainable paw-paw farm in the hills of Eastern Kentucky where he and his wife share a love of their grandchildren, Asian cuisine, and horses. He runs a private charity for veterans who need to decompress after combat tours in a safe environment.”

    While a reader would be truly impressed, someone like Don Shipley may pop out of the woodwork and beat the crap out of us for making such claims.
    …Of course, I guess that is only if he could figure out who we really were.

    • Well, okay. There are lines that can’t be crossed, and anything that even approaches stolen valor is off the table. Ditto degrees that were not earned–unless, perhaps, said degrees were “earned” from schools that don’t exist. A PhD in medieval history from Faber College, for example, would be pretty entertaining. Or equine veterinary studies.

      This whole thread has been rather eye-opening. I didn’t expect the levels of passion on the subject.

      So, for people who are still reading, what about an author photo that shows the actual author, but thirty years and twenty pounds ago? Still deceitful?

      • The photo thing I think is fine, especially since there was a time when (at least in still photos) I looked like I could be one of the kind of guys I write about…as long as they didn’t see my waddly limp when I tried to run.

  23. Oh, I think we see those author photos all the time. I’ve seen a few where I would like to go to the author’s signing, and make a point of looking down at the photo, and then looking at the author, and then bursting into very loud laughter.

    Every person is going to age. If you pick up a used copy of a 15-20 year old book, then it’s completely normal that they author may look a tad bit older than the original jacket. But to use that 15-20 year old pic now? That’s vanity gone ridiculous. It’s not like they’re for dating apps.

  24. I really appreciated the topic & reading everybody’s views on this subject whether in agreement or not. As Mollie mentioned above, authors have to make choices all the time, and they also have to be prepared for the fallout. We already know we’re not going to please everyone all the time. That’s the way it rolls.

  25. Writes use pseudonyms for a lot of reasons, and that choice should be left to the writer. However, bios that fabricate information are tacky. Be vague about your identity or choose details from your own history that might not identify you to people who know you, if that’s important to you.

    I think you should completely avoid creating a persona different from your gender, ethnicity, general background, etc. Disguising yourself as a member of a marginalized community is unacceptable, though we have enough recent examples. Editors and readers look for writers outside their cultures and it’s wrong to take advantage of something that should be a net positive.

  26. Writing under your initials and your real last name isn’t a pseudonym is it? I plan to do this but I will keep the bio and pic honest. If I remember correctly, didn’t Stephen King do the entire fictional bio and photo while writing as Richard Bachmann? I don’t recall any outrage from his readers when it came out that he was actually Bachmann. Maybe it depends upon how successful the pseudonym is.

  27. Pingback: Author Inspiration and This Week’s Writing Links – Staci Troilo

  28. ‘About the Author
    Tania Carver lives in the south of England with her husband and two children. She is the author of The Surrogate, The Creeper, and Cage of Bones, all available from Pegasus Books.’

    ‘Tania Carver’ is Martyn Waites

  29. I’m fine with pseudonyms, for whatever reason. Even x-gender pseudonyms. A big no on the fake bio or photo. Discovering a favourite author had done this would be a massive turnoff.

    I think authenticity is important, more so now than ever. It’s delusional to think you can hide behind another name forever. Not in this day and age where crazy fans will make it their full time job to find out who you are.

    My sense, perhaps faulty, is that readers are becoming more accepting of writers working in multiple genres. Especially when authors (and publishers) take pains to design their websites and marketing to ensure readers know what they’re getting.

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