Everybody’s Doing It

John BarlowI know a writer. He’s not a committed indie. In fact, he has a pretty big London agency behind him and is actively seeking a traditional deal. However, he’s writing in a very crowded market (crime), and until he gets a publishing contract he’s busy self-publishing his novels. He regularly has two or three titles in Amazon.co.uk’s top 1000 eBooks, and at least one of these has peaked at a sales ranking in the single figures. By my reckoning, he’s earning a pretty decent living from these eBooks, so you might argue that he doesn’t really need an agent or a trad deal at all.

That’s as maybe, but what really intrigued me was that he let slip that he also (self-) publishes under a ghost-name.


Ah, well… bit of a secret… testing things out… just a bit of fun…

Different genre?


And no, he wouldn’t say what.

Then it struck me. I know another author who is secretly (ok, not that secretly; I know) publishing eBooks under a pseudonym, again in a different genre, and again as an experiment. Then there’s the case of the Fifty Shades of Alice in Wonderland¸ first in a trilogy of erotic novels by Melinda DuChamp, purportedly the pseudonym of a long-serving writer of romances (or should that be ‘thrillers’?).

Point is, everybody’s at it. And it’s not surprising. Most writers, I guess, have an MS or two which, for one reason or another, they would prefer not to publish in their own name. Perhaps the genre represents too great of a leap: if Barbara Taylor Bradford had a techno-dystopian sci-fi adventure under the bed, she’ll probably never publish it as a BTB title; and that bisexual cowboy slasher-horror novella that Philip Roth is rumoured to have penned right after Portnoy was never going to hit the shelves under the author’s real name.

An author might also be embarrassed to be associated with a piece. This doesn’t necessarily mean the work isn’t good within its own parameters. Many of us have worked as ghost-writers, and one is not always terribly proud of the genre into which a commission falls. You can pour all your literary talents into ghosting the biography of a twenty-five year-old TV soap opera starlet, for example, but all you have at the end of the process is another 200 pages of ephemeral stocking-filler, to be stacked high in Wal-Mart for a few weeks then pulped. (You have the fee as well, obviously.)

In this sense, self-publishing your own material is a bit like having yourself as a client. You can stay at one remove from what you produce, just as you do after you’ve sat in a Holiday Inn for fifteen hours with Lucy McDaytime then cobbled together her fascinating life-story. Getting a bit of distance between you and what you write is not for the stuff you’re most proud of, clearly, but then again writers have to eat. So, if an opportunity arises, anonymity might not be a bad thing.

How many writers sprinted to their laptops in 2012 and churned out 50 Shades rip offs? There’s nothing wrong in trying to make money from fiction, but you don’t necessarily want to stake your entire reputation on the slim chance that your ham-fisted stab at mommy porn will make you rich. Self-publishing allows a writer to make this kind of stab in the dark (which, incidentally, is the title of my own erotic novel), and as such is potentially a new means of supporting yourself as a writer.

In fact, I think writing and self-publishing under an assumed name should be obligatory. Like one of those assignments you get on a writing class, we should all choose a genre that is completely different from our normal area of work and force ourselves to produce a finished piece of work in that genre; then stick it on Amazon and see if/how ranked lovers of that genre respond. Your customer review average would, naturally, be your grade on that module of your MFA.

So, get to it. I know I have. Or perhaps I haven’t. In any case, I’ll never say. That’s the point. I think.

Author: John Barlow

John Barlow writes both fiction and non-fiction, publishes occasional food journalism and also works as a ghost-writer. In addition, he is a translator, and has a side-line in eBooks for language learning. His John Ray / LS9 crime thriller series is currently exclusive to Amazon. If you'd like a review copy of The Communion of Saints, please contact John through his website.

11 thoughts on “Everybody’s Doing It”

  1. I know that trad publishers would often encourage authors who wrote a not-in-their-genre book to pick a pseudonym, so as not to confuse readers — and, of course, as you say, to keep the author from being embarrassed if the topic was a little racy or something. (Stephen R. Donaldson began writing a series of mysteries under the name Reed Stephens. Reed Stephens’ biography was hilarious to anyone who knew what was going on. The mysteries have since been re-released under Donaldson’s real name. /random fact)

    I’ve never thought about this myself, John, but…hmm….

  2. Love this idea! And, as soon as I have the time or drop one of the series I’m writing, I’ll definitely look into this. Hey–it worked for Nora, right?

  3. I had thought about writing under a pen name. Then when I got going, I realized how much of a pain it could be with royalties and such. So I decided to keep K. Rowe and write whatever genre made me happy. So far I’ve had a best seller in contemporary romance, an award winner in military thriller, a potential movie deal for a supernatural thriller/ horror, and an Amazon top 10 placing for a sci-fi. My erotica short stories help pay the bills, and everything is neat and tidy under one name. Naw, I think I’m past pen name time…

    Great article though.

  4. Kind of clashes with the whole concept of platform building, etc. But I’ve certainly done it.
    There are a lot of reasons to use pseudonyms. Your mention of tax and money problems could be important.
    I see four levels of using a nom du plume.

    1. It’s an open secret. Just to divide brands, everybody knows about it. Donald Westlake/Richard Stark, etc.

    2. It’s a secret from the public, but known to your publisher. This makes the money thing simple. My feeling, only a matter of time before it’s an open secret, too. And the more successful you get, the shorter the time. Consideration: you’re asking a whole company to lie for you.

    3. Secret from public and publisher, but known to your agent. Again, the money thing works since revenue is paid to agent, then to you, minus commission. You are now asking only your agent to lie for you–to a publishing company.

    4. Secret know only to you. Now you have problems getting paid. And have to be careful. And tough to pull off if you get really big. Problem if you’re writing as a big muscular black guy and your publisher wants you to speak at a conference and you’re really a 100 pound white woman. I think being on Kindle, CreateSpace would make this a lot easier. They aren’t really publishers and don’t really give a damn. Of course, being amazon, that could all change next week and they wouldn’t say why.

  5. Great post 🙂

    I can’t decide what I think. I like the simplicity of writing everything under the same name, but I totally understand why someone would publishing something “totally out there” under a different name.

    Sounds like hard work to me. LOL. But I guess I shouldn’t rule it out completely 🙂

  6. Let me point out that lots of writers DIDN’T pick new names for new lines.
    Ian Fleming didn’t use an alias for “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”
    Elmore Leonard switched from westerns to crime without an AKA
    John D. MacDoald had a SF title
    Donald Westlake did “Kahawa”–an Africa thriller caper–under his own name (might be his best book)

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