Hundreds of years ago, Shakespeare’s Romeo told Juliet, “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Well, roses and amorous suitors aside, turns out there is something to a name, especially when it comes to a writing career. Some weeks ago, I went on a quest determine the best name(s) forward for my planned multi-genre writing career.
For as long as those of you reading the blog have known me, I’ve been Nancy Hunter because that’s the name I chose a decade ago (!!!) when I had a book come out with a publisher. At the time, I worked in a very intense and Very Serious career, and needed to keep some daylight between it and my writing life. This was not a deep cover pen name, as co-workers with appropriate googling skills would occasionally uncover my ‘secret identity’. And HR departments always knew it, because I had to claim my intellectual property (IP) at the outset, lest the corporations employing me try to claim writing created on my own time as theirs. (Gotta love corporate America: for the price of your salary, they claim the right to monetize everything you say, do, think, and feel every minute of every day, please and thank you.)
Lo these many years later, I’ve left that corporate world. I swear! Girl Scout’s honor (yes, I was actually a Girl Scout, so you can trust me). And in addition to the freedom to make my own schedule and write whenever and where ever and whatever I see fit, I also now have the freedom to use my very own legal name. If I so choose…
For a while, I was giddy with the thought of just how much name freedom I truly have. I decided to keep Nancy Hunter for writing historical romance, more for my paltry online presence than for any dent my tiny book sales ever made in the world. Then I’d assume my legal name, Nancy J. Yeager, for Women’s Fiction projects. (Take note of that middle initial. We’ll discuss that in a minute.) And finally, for that Nordic Noir series I also swear I’m going to write, I’d do what all the cool-kid mystery writers do and use initials, plus a very Nordic last name, my husband’s. It’s Christensen. Quick, look away and tell me how it’s spelled! Yeah, we’re going to discuss that in a minute as well.
Luckily for me, I have smart friends. Smart, business-savvy, willing-to-generously-share-their-knowledge friends. Enter Mindy Klasky, my long-time friend who knew me before I even chose the Nancy Hunter moniker. She’s also a friend of the blog, and has written in multiple genres, including fantasy, paranormal romance, contemporary romance, YA fantasy, and probably a few I’ve missed. She’s written under multiple names including Mindy Klasky, Mindy L. Klasky, Morgan Keyes, and a super-secret, deep-cover name. As Mindy’s long-time friend, even I don’t know this particular pen name. I’m not kidding when I say it’s SUPER SECRET.
Mindy and I didn’t specifically get together to talk author names. We got together to have lunch and talk our mouths off and catch up on life because it had been too many months since we’d done that. So what follows is not a formal interview; it’s my recap of our discussion, all paraphrased, and the decision it helped me make.
Topic: How great is it that I’m planning to use three pen names?!
The first piece of cold, hard experience Mindy shared with me is that – from her estimation and the wisdom many other writers share – you need to spend 25% of your time marketing and promoting for each name under which you’re publishing. So, juggling three pen names at the same time translates to roughly 75% of my time spent marketing/promoting, and 25% of my available writing time actually spent writing. In three genres. I’m not too shabby at math, so I quickly caught on to the danger of this approach. Okay, totally re-thinking multiple names. Now, which name(s) to pick and which to eliminate?
Topic: So, that middle initial thing is pretty cool, right?
Sure, and lots of writers do it! Mindy did it early on in her fantasy writing career. And then somewhere along the line, she decided to drop the middle initial to make life easier. Oops. That brought with it a whole host of its own problems, not the least of which was splitting her name recognition in search engines. I’m no SEO expert, but even I know the importance of getting Google and other search engines to rank your profile among the highest among all the people in the world named [insert your name here]. And even if I were to keep the middle initial forever and ever, I’m now asking people to remember THREE pieces of information in order to search for me. Lots of people are going to forget and just google Nancy Yeager, or think it’s Nancy K. Yeager, or L., or maybe it was Nancy Jay? SO many ways to screw up search engine results. Perhaps adding to the confusion isn’t the best thing I could do.
Topic: If I’m setting a book in Denmark and the pen name is Danish, does it matter that Americans can’t spell it?
This is not exactly the way I phrased it when speaking to Mindy, but when I mentioned this topic, suffice it to say it’s good she wasn’t sipping her tea or we both might have been wearing it. This snortable question gets even funnier when I look back at my own history of decision-making about that perfectly lovely and recognizable (in Denmark) name. Let’s parse this out a bit.
First, for the record, I did not decline to take my husband’s name to break his parents’ hearts, as they might have you believe. For many, many reasons, I was never going to change my surname to anyone else’s. However, when settling on my daughter’s last name (glossing over my long feminist dissertation about fathers’ last names), I hesitated to give her a last name that is so hard for Americans to spell. And I KNOW it’s hard, having seen the many iterations of its spelling on mail both my husband and daughter have received over the years. If my main readers are in Denmark, I’m probably going to be okay, because although there are variations of the spelling, this is the most common, and Christensen is the Danish equivalent of the English name Smith. So if my main target audience is Danes, we’re good to go. If it’s Americans – and let’s remember, I’m an American, writing in English, and the US population is approximately 60 times that of DK – then I might want to rethink this from a discoverability and searchability perspective.
Topic: There’s something cozy about Nancy Hunter, isn’t there, because it sounds familiar?
Um, yes. In fact, it invokes thoughts of Madeline Hunter, who also writes historical romance. That would mean bookshelf placement would put my books near hers – not a bad thing. And in signings at any conference we’d both attend, I’d most likely get to sit next to her, and she seems like a truly lovely person. But back to discoverability and establishing a name, something that sounds too familiar can be almost as detrimental as something that’s hard to spell. People might well think, ‘I like that historical romance writer Hunter. What’s her first name?’ And guess what google is going to tell them first, at least for the foreseeable future? That her first name is Madeline. (Btw, that’s not at all why I picked Hunter in the first place. I was simply translating my German last name into English, and later remembered that a well-known Hunter was writing in the same field).
That’s a long and winding road to arrive at a final decision, but I’ve come to the conclusion that for discoverability and search engine visibility, ease of remembering, and staking my own claim in the writing field, my author name shall be Nancy Yeager across my currently-planned genres. So don’t be surprised when you see Nancy Yeager turn up here at 8LW. It’s still me, your ever-faithful Nancy, now more myself than ever.
To those of you out there using a pen name or at least thinking about it, I’d love to hear what’s driving your decision. Have you thought through all the implications of being unique but not exotic, discoverable, and searchable? What conclusions have you reached about your own writing name?