How Far is Too Far With a Pseudonym?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

A controversy over an award-winning female thriller author has broken out in Europe. That’s because the female thriller author doesn’t exist. “She” is really three men who have been writing under the pseudonym Carmen Mola. When one of their novels won a million-euro prize, the trio stepped out from anonymity to claim it.

The men, all in their 40s and 50s, denied choosing a female pseudonym to help sell the books. “We didn’t hide behind a woman, we hid behind a name,” Antonio Mercero told Spanish newspaper El País. “I don’t know if a female pseudonym would sell more than a male one, I don’t have the faintest idea, but I doubt it.”

But this ruse required a web of (shall we be gracious here?) fabrications to create the illusion of a real-life writer whose backstory itself was a marketing tool. They made Mola a “university professor and mother of three, who taught algebra classes in the morning then wrote ultra-violent, macabre novels in scraps of free time in the afternoon.” They even commissioned a noirish photo of a woman, facing away from the camera. It appeared on their agency’s website but has now been scrubbed. The three dudes are there instead, and appear quite happy.

Not everyone is fine with this.

Beatriz Gimeno, a feminist, writer, activist – and former head of one of Spain’s national equality bodies, the Women’s Institute – attacked the men for creating a female persona in their publicity for Carmen Mola books, over several years.

“Quite apart from using a female pseudonym, these guys have spent years doing interviews. It’s not just the name – it’s the fake profile that they’ve used to take in readers and journalists. They are scammers,” she said on Twitter.

Several questions arise. Is writing under a pseudonym always some form of “scam”? Or is it the sex change and fictional biographical details that are the sticking point?

In the “old days” a pseudonym was often used so a writer with a name could branch out into other genres. Agatha Christie was, of course, the most popular mystery writer of all time. Her name on a book meant clues and suspects and sleuths. So when she wanted to do romances she adopted the name Mary Westmacott to keep readers from confusion or frustration. She wrote six Westmacott books and managed to keep her true identity unknown for twenty years.

Evan Hunter (whose real name was Salvatore Albert Lombino!) always considered himself a “literary writer.” To earn extra dough he wrote police procedurals under an alias so the critics would not look at his “serious” work with a jaundiced eye. But as Ed McBain he produced a remarkable run of noir that made him a multi-millionaire. The truth came out eventually, though Evan was probably always a little jealous of Ed.

Some writers wanted to have more books published per year than a single contract would allow. Dean Koontz at one time was writing under nine or ten pseudonyms, including a female guise.

Then there is Stephen King, alias Richard Bachman. When he published under that pseudonym he included an elaborate backstory for Bachman:

Although King initially created Richard Bachman to experiment with literary ideas under the veil of secrecy, the author elaborated on his alter ego’s character to create a more comprehensive author bio. Apparently, Bachman wrote his novels by night, working on his dairy farm in New Hampshire during the day. He lived with his wife Claudia, mourned his son who had died at a young age in an accident, and underwent surgery for a brain tumor that isolated him from interviewers. King also included a picture of his agent’s insurance broker on the inside folds of the books.

Well, a bookstore clerk in D.C. did some digging when he found Bachman’s writing a whole lot like King’s. King was outed, and it ticked him off. He’d been planning to publish Misery as a Bachman. Now that he was “caught” he told the world that Bachman had died of “cancer of the pseudonym.” He went further, stating that Bachman’s widow had “discovered” unpublished manuscripts in Bachman’s attic: The Regulators (1996) and Blaze (2007)!

But what about men writing as women, or women as men? J. K. Rowling wanted to write crime fiction and wanted those books to stand on their own. So she chose a male pseudo, Robert Galbraith. And made up a backstory, that asserted Galbraith was “a former plainclothes Royal Military Police investigator who had left in 2003 to work in the civilian security industry.”

The first book, The Cuckoo’s Calling, received generally positive reviews. But soon the secret got out—and sales of the book jumped 4,000%!

If you go to the Robert Galbraith author page on Amazon you’ll see a photo of J.K. Rowling, and this explanation:

J.K. Rowling’s original intention for writing as Robert Galbraith was for the books to be judged on their own merit, and to establish Galbraith as a well-regarded name in crime in its own right.

Now Robert Galbraith’s true identity is widely known, J.K. Rowling continues to write the crime series under the Galbraith pseudonym to keep the distinction from her other writing and so people will know what to expect from a Cormoran Strike novel.

So…is making up a backstory for a pseudonym out of bounds? Or is it just another aspect of marketing? Does it matter if the author is using a persona of the opposite sex? Do readers care if the ruse is discovered? Didn’t seem to hurt King, Rowling, or the Spanish guys.

What do you think, TKZers?

69 thoughts on “How Far is Too Far With a Pseudonym?

  1. Very interesting post, Jim. I was unaware of the controversy regarding Carmen Mola. Good for them. As for “her” critics…they can go perform an impossible anatomical act upon themselves. Writers have different reasons for using pseudonyms and any of them —including and maybe especially getting a work past an editor who is checking off “woke” boxes — to my mind is acceptable.

    There was back in the day a science-fiction author named James Tiptree, Jr. who after ten years of writing award-winning stories was revealed to be a woman named Alice Sheldon. Everyone pretty much shrugged and said, “Wow, that’s great.”

    Here’s a knock-knock joke for Beatriz Gimeno:

    “Knock knock.”
    “Who’s there?”
    “Beatri-”
    “THAT’S NOT FUNNY!”

    Have a great day, Jim!

    • Your knock-knock joke gave me a needed chuckle first thing this morning, Joe 🙂 Thanks! I And great call back to Alice Sheldon and her award-winning SF pen name.

    • Joe, next time don’t hold back on your opinion!

      Thanks for mentioning Sheldon/Triptree. There’s a biography about her by Julie Phillips that I may have to read.

  2. Interesting question, Jim. In this age of gender fluidity, this scenario is likely to become more commonplace.

    Remember George Sand? She wrote under a male pseudonym b/c in her era women authors had a hard time getting published.

    As to Beatriz Gimeno calling them “scammers”, I disagree. A scam is where someone intentionally cons another out of money but doesn’t deliver the promised goods. If readers paid money and received the books (and presumably enjoyed them since they won awards), that is not a scam. Readers received fair value for their money.

    However, it is lying. Fiction writers do that all day long.

    I doubt this controversy will hurt the three dudes. In fact, it probably increased sales to readers who bought the book simply out of curiosity. That in itself is smart marketing.

    So…I guess it’s time for me to come out: I’m actually a cigar-chomping former pugilist from the Bronx.

  3. Didn’t hurt Nora Roberts when she wanted to move to writing futuristic police procedurals as JD Robb.
    After all, “What’s in a Name?” (ok, a little BSP in there.)
    Happy whatever day it is, whatever time it is. 8 time zones take a long time to recover from.

      • Nora Roberts: When we first began to publish the In Death series in the States, we didn’t announce that J.D. Robb and I were the same person. It wasn’t what you’d call a deep secret, but both my publishers and I wanted the series to build on its own. And we were pleased when the series found a readership.

        As readers have discovered we’re the same person, I haven’t met with shock. In fact, there are many who read the Robb books without having read a Roberts, and who tried me because they enjoyed the In Death series.

  4. I chose to write under a pseudonym because my real name seems to be a pronunciation stumbling block for most people while Cooper presents no problems. RLM, however, are my own initials. As a reader, I have never cared what the author’s name was, nor what she or he looked like. My publisher feels that a photo is necessary, though, much to my chagrin as I am not nearly as pleasant to look at as I once was. Hmmmmm…..would it be okay to photo-fib and use a much younger version?

  5. Much ado about nothing. I’ve written under several pseudonyms: the main ones were Nick Porter for action-adventure, western and SF; Gervasio Arrancado for Latin magic realism; Eric Stringer for severe psychological horror; and A. François (female) for erotica. I even wrote one story about the demise of one of the pseudonyms when I realized his was the voice I wanted to write under my own name.

    For each pseudonym I created a full backstory (including a promo photo) and a logline that pointed to the sorts of stories that “author” created.

    None of my readers have ever mentioned they were annoyed or upset when they discovered the author was actually only a pseudonym, and if they had I would have asked whether they were certain Harvey Stanbrough was my real name.

  6. Fantastic post, Jim! I love the intrigue and scheming that go into this pseudonym business. We write fiction, why can’t the author be “fictional” also? It isn’t illegal.

    Plus, you’ve mentioned several writers where the whole chicanery proved profitable. I particularly like the aspects of marketing, being able to create buzz, but staying out of the limelight. I’d like to see one of these successful “scam artists” write

    And the idea of working with a team, combining talents, and collecting the loot…Hmm. That deserves some serious consideration…TK Zorronas writes early 20th century Western, Mystery, Romantic, Thrillers. Anybody want to join the TKZ team?

    Thanks for a post that really gets the creative juices flowing. Have a great day!

  7. This post hits home for me, Jim. I publish fantasy under my real name but have decided to publish my library cozy mystery series under a female pen name, since the vast majority of cozy mystery authors have female names, and also to distinguish between the gritty, thriller vibe of The Empowered and the lighter, humor-filled one of my 1980s library cozy series.

    I’m not going to create a fictional bio but rather will write up a gender neutral one, along the lines of Miranda James of the Cat in the Stacks library mysteries (pen name for Dean James) that will of course mention my library career and interests.

    I feel that creating a complete fictional persona is where the problem lies, rather than having a biography that doesn’t necessarily indicate your actual gender.

    Thanks for a very timely post!

      • That’s something I’m still mulling over. A newsletter, absolutely, and the newsletter might be a bridge to my own social media presence. I have my fantasy “reader group” newsletter and I also have a tiny mystery “reader group” newsletter, both under my own name. I might change the latter to a pen name and use that as my main connection to my cozy mystery readers.

        That still means either a persona for the cozy NL or revealing myself from behind the cozy pen name. Hmm…

  8. Guess I’m odd (wo)man out here. When I first read the article about the three dudes, it pissed me off. Women used male pseudonyms at a time when readers trusted male writers more than females. Now, the scales are finally starting to balance, but men still earn more than women (hence the basis for Sisters in Crime). I guess the whole situation angered me because it seemed like one more way for women to be shoved down the ladder a rung or two, when we’re finally clawing our way up. If this trio had nothing to hide, then why not choose a gender neutral pseudonym?

    • I’m with you. After years of struggle we seem to have lost ground. Woman of the year – not a woman. 1st female admiral – not a woman. Girls are losing at track due to boys competing as girls.

      I’ve never liked pseudonyms. They seem silly and people always find out anyway. Unless you’re a nun writing porn.

  9. There are a lot of reasons to use pseudonyms, and there’s nothing wrong with that. A whole fake autobiography is a little hinky, but not wrong. Even switching gender for a pseudonym has a long history – especially among women at a time where they weren’t taken seriously as writers and wouldn’t have been published under their own names.

    Then there’s the controversy of Yi-Fen Chou, aka Michael Derrick Hudson, whose poem “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve” had been rejected 40 times under his own name, but only 9 times under the Chinese female name before being published in a “Best of” anthology. He was correct in assuming that the poem would be looked at more favorably in some markets looking for more diverse writers. Since the purpose of diversity in publishing is to showcase voices that have been underrepresented, his use of the pseudonym was decried as fraud and “yellow-face”.

    Michael Derrick Hudson was already a published poet, even having won some minor poetry prizes before this happened. He didn’t have to take on the female Chinese pseudonym to be heard. He did it because he wanted to take advantage of the diversity trend, despite being a member of the majority. He even admitted to it.

    I don’t have a problem with pseudonyms. Names are names. I’m a little more uncomfortable with fake biographies. But if the purpose of a pseudonym is to take the place of an underrepresented minority, that’s flat-out dishonest.

  10. Love it. However, maybe those guys went a bit too far. I would think posing as the opposite sex can crush your reader’s expectations. It has to be creeping for a woman to get emotionally attached to a book and then have the floor ripped out from them when the female author is a bunch old men. Mental invasion perhaps?

    • You bring up a good point, Ben. When readers become fans they do identify with the author and that’s author’s “struggle” to get published, etc. It’s not easy finding the right boundary lines in all this.

  11. Some great comments here have given me much food for thought this morning–since my real first name “Dale” is at least somewhat gender neutral, I may go with that and use my middle name as my cozy author pen name’s last name. Thanks to everyone who has commented, and especially to Jim for his great post on this today.

    • That’s exactly why I brought this up, Dale. It’s not a one-size-fits-all decision.

      Funny, your “gender neutral” name reminded me of a 60s commercial for Grape Nuts, as a way to keep trim. A teenage boy in a swimming pool makes a playful pass at a slim female. But is surprised to see it’s not who he thought it was. “Mrs. Burke! I thought you were Dale!”

  12. I don’t care if an author uses a cross-sex pseudonym, but I must admit, I find it irritating when they create a backstory aimed at making them credible. I could understand why Rowling, for example, wanted to use a male pen name for the Galbraith books, but giving “him” a military background that was similar to the background of the main character felt like cheating. Not as bad as if the books were non-fiction – I really hope that all the books by Dr. So-and-So are actually written by doctors – but still misleading.

    • That’s really the main question in my mind, Karen. How far is too far? In some ways perhaps it can be playful. But if a fake background is used to convince buyers of added authenticity, it’s more problematic.

  13. I can see why a prolific writer of different genres would want to use a pen name to lessen confusion for readers, but I also think there is a line to be crossed that smacks more of deceit. Strangely Lilli Manilli leaped to mind. If the line is crossed then the risk is that readers will feel betrayed and turn away.

  14. This is so common in the romance industry no one would raise an eyebrow at it. Men write romance under a female or gender neutral name. They do promotion as their male selves. No one, including readers, cares. (It’s a throw-back tradition from the early days when readers and booksellers couldn’t tell the difference between historial novels and romance novels so a female name was used to show it was a romance. “Important” historical novels were obviously superior, so obviously only men wrote them. )

    Almost everyone writes erotica under a different name for their own safety. For many years, category romance writers weren’t allowed to write under their own name until authors made such a stink that Harlequin/Silhouette caved in. One of the most successful authors in the industry writes under three different names to differentiate the types of romance she writes. No one cares.

    Authors and publishers in other genres need to get over themselves.

  15. I don’t swing either way. I never liked nicknames, let alone pen names, but obviously there’s benefit in them. A biography for the back cover, I think, is fine. But in this day and age, I don’t see why the bio can’t just say, this is a pseudonym, follow me here.

    As for the women equaling the scales thing, it’s a hangnail you’re all chewing. Don’t you ever consider that men usually put on female names for the exact reason women used to? Because women dominate said genres. Also, consider how much faster women could have gained rights in Europe if they had banded together and written under female names.

    I think the issue is really in the ownvoices movement and everyone’s scramble for authenticity. Yes, we want to hear from people who have gone through those experiences, but that shouldn’t diminish the writing of those who didn’t. We’re building walls here with our “only these people can write about…” and not building bridges.

  16. Now you’ve done it! I’m trying to think up a pseudonym that will send the loudest twits into convulsions of well-reported indignation. I could use the publicity.

  17. The use of gender-switching pseudonyms doesn’t bother me. Everybody knows there are a lot of pseudonymical (?) authors out there, and it’s kind of interesting to find out XX is really XY. However, IMHO making up a fake author bio is going too far. That’s just lying to the reader in order to sell more books.

    The thought of having to come up with additional social media accounts and book-seller author pages will keep me from ever writing under another name. On the other hand, I was thinking about writing a western … 🙂 What do you think about Frampton White?

  18. The example presented seems overboard and deceitful to me but as others commented, many readers don’t care. My favorite author, Zane Grey, was born Pearl Zane Grey. If he had chosen to publish his books under “Pearl Grey”, chances are I would not have picked up his books. When I became interested in his books, I tried to find out other info about him. If he had gone through the trouble of such great fabrication as in the example of this post, he would have been less likely to make a connection with me because the reader/writer relationship would have been built on false pretense. Some readers care. Some don’t. I do care.

    By the same token, I can say that as a reader, I filter my fiction choices partially by author name. That’s because I know what types of books I’m looking for (and I don’t fit in with the majority of the market). I love historical, primarily. But I know that odds are very good if a historical is written by a female author, it will be romance that happens to be historical, rather than focusing on the nuances of the historical period and exploration of other relationship types among people in general.

    Although I have not yet published, I had planned to use merely my initials, as “BK Jackson”. But I had no plans to create an elaborate false author story. Aside from the fact that it is unappealing to me, I don’t have time for creating a ruse.

    But if I co-author (specifically fiction) with another writer—there again you have to decide what to do. Use a pseudonym to make life easier on the cover of the book? Or list both real names?

    So pseudonyms without going to extremes is where I fall.

  19. Stephen is my real name but Wholesome isn’t. So Stephen Wholesome is a pseudonym. I published my first book (of poetry) with the name and intend to keep using the same for my subsequent nonfiction series. Everything written here today has been about fiction. Has there been any occasion where someone wrote (not creative) nonfiction under a pseudonym?

    • That’s a good question, Stephen. I don’t know the answer. There have been some non-fiction books written as Anonymous, to try to hide the identity of the tell-all author. But eventually the truth comes out.

    • I wrote a piece on how-not-to-do-product-design while working for a small manufacturer. It was based on blunders I’d seen during the previous year. I chose to remain anonymous under the pen name of “Paul Pendragon.” The work is still easily found by search engines. It was picked up by Production Engineering, probably the only piece of fiction they ever bought.

  20. Most actors use a pseudonym — largely to avoid confusion with others of the same name who work in the theatrical business. Do theater and movier goers think any less of actors when they discover their real names? Viz. John Wayne /Marion Michael Morrison. (Marion is a female name in the U.K.). Also actors, or their agents, have been known to cook up an interesting backstory or two. So what? But, what about politicians? The U.K. current Clown-in-Chief is known to the world as Boris (Johnson) — reason being a focus group thought it summoned up a cuddlier, cuter persona than Alexander de Pfeffel Johnson. So he uses his second name, Boris. His family, and close friends call him Alex, but the great unwashed are supposed to refer to him as Boris. (Which, incidentally, was the artist, David Hockney’s nickname at school). I use a pen name — there are just too many persons with my real name. An old writer friend told me when in my twenties to adopt a pen name, and make sure the last name appears somewhere before, or around the middle of the alphabet. Reason being, he said, that as a new author your books will never be shown face out — and when readers are scanning bookstore shelves their necks will get sore before they get to the end of the alphabet!

    • During the Falklands War of ’82 I changed my name to Stanley Sidewinder Goosegreen Sandwich. My friends called me Stan Sidesand.

    • And, in the 90s there was a militant enviromental activist who officially changed his name to Norty Rascal — even managed to get an audience with the Pope using that moniker.

  21. Now that I’m more awake, I recall that when I was first starting out with my first published books, one of the first questions people asked was, “What name do you write under?”

  22. I’ve never cared one way or the other if an author uses one real name or 10 fake ones, as long as the story’s good. I think I draw the line, though, at false bios.

    This, Jim, has been one of the most entertaining and thought-provoking posts this year.

    Thank you, sir! 👊

  23. Late – again – to the banquet, folks. I have no problem with a pen name, pseudonym, alter ego, or hidden identity. If the work is “good” then who cares about the signature except for the artist who needs to capitalize upon it. Seems to me Samuel Clements did well as Mark Twain and Lee Child is not Lee Child just as Tom Cruise is not Jack Reacher.

    I hear Sue and Cynthia’s views on the three amigos who wrote as Carmen Mola and won a prize, but I never heard about this, so I’m staying out of the discussion. The reason I never heard is because I rarely get out of the house and, when I do, my wife keeps me on an extremely short choker chain. Rita is a very responsible wife who steers me away from traffic and always has her plastic bag ready to pick up after me.

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