Tuesday, July 18, 2017

On Pen Names, Cover Art & Reader Betrayal

By Gail Carriger, @gailcarriger

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: With more and more writers writing in more and more genres and markets, how to distinguish which book is which is a growing problem. Please help me welcome back Gail Carriger to the lecture hall today, to share her thoughts and reasons behind why an author might choose to use a pen name to maintain brand and book integrity.

Gail Carriger writes comedies of manners mixed with paranormal romance (and the sexy San Andreas Shifter series as G.L. Carriger). Her steampunk books include the Parasol Protectorate, Custard Protocol, Supernatural Society, and Delightfully Deadly series for adults, and the Finishing School series for young adults. She is published in many languages and has over a dozen NYT bestsellers. She was once an archaeologist and is fond of shoes, octopuses, and tea.

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Take it away Gail...

Recently I was faced with a decision many authors come to in their careers. Do I change my brand? In my case this meant specifically switching pen names and cover art. This is an interesting dilemma, since many authors spend years fighting for consistent branding and name recognition. So, why decide to abandon it?

I was switching from a major well-established universe involving multiple book series, to something completely new. There was some cross over: humor, urban fantasy. One might think I'd keep the same name, because that way I could capitalize on name recognition. But my Gail Carriger books (urban fantasy steampunk) contain mostly sweet civilized romances, and four of them were YA. My new series is decidedly none of these things. Sex and blue language, if present, always seems to complicate matters.

I dithered for a while about what to do about this. You see, I worry about reader betrayal… a lot.

Reader Betrayal

Reader betrayal can take many forms. At its root, it's that sensation a reader gets if the book she’s reading does something unexpected in a bad way. For example: a romance novel that doesn’t have a happy ending. Any voracious reader will have experienced this sensation at least once, probably multiple times.

Why does reader betrayal happen?

Well, it can be a flaw in story: she is reading one thing when the author suddenly takes a dive and turns it into something else. That is the author’s fault. (This is what I call the “scream and hurl” scenario.) Or it can be a flaw in established expectations: the reader thought it was one kind of book, despite the cover and blurb trying to tell her otherwise, and she read it anyway.

Far more common these days, is betrayal caused by a failure in the books visual markers. This means that the reader picked up a book expecting one thing because of the cover art and author name and then got something completely different from the words within.

Controlling these expectations is a serious business. It’s done many ways: visually through cover art (image) and design (color, layout, font, title, series title, pull quote, etc..), but also via author name, and cover copy/blurb and sales description. (There are also things that can’t really be controlled like algorithms offering “similar books you might like” AKA the dreaded alsobot.)

For example, if I showed our hypothetical reader this cover:

She is probably going to expect a dark gritty urban fantasy, possibly noir tropes in use, likely violence. If that’s the kind of thing she enjoys reading, she might then take a look at the book description and decide to buy it.

But if I gave our reader this one:

She would expect something else: something upbeat, cheerful, youthful, pulp-ish.

Both of these covers are based off of photos. Both are single person images with saturated color use. But the kind of image chosen, from dress to facial expression, and the tweaks then made to it by the designer, from color choice to treatment and type of font, all tell the reader something about what is inside. What to expect.

If a reader picked up Fairy Debt and did not get a fun light-hearted read about a fairy in silly times, she would be angry with me as the author. She would feel betrayed. And rightly so.

The reader may not be able to articulate exactly what she is being told, or how to control her own response, but she is reacting. The thing that worries a savvy author the most is NOT “does this cover depict what’s inside my book” but “does this cover accurately portray the spirit of my book?” AKA...

The Pretty Is The Enemy Of The Effective

Most of the time, covers come first. Covers are the single most important thing when selling a book or establishing a brand as an author. Initially. After that, of course, it's up to the author to pull the reader in and make them want more.

Which brings us to name recognition.

After a certain point, if lucky, an author starts to accrue loyal readers. These are the readers who write to say thank you. Who regularly leave book reviews. Who vow to buy “anything you write.” These readers follow an author’s newsletter and get excited when a new book comes along.

Cover art plays into this name-branding too, keeping a theme going is pretty darn important, here’s is what my traditional publishers did with my series:

Here’s how I played with my own themes for my indie ties in to this universe:

Romancing the Inventor draws from my first series, but is LGTQ. Poison or Protect draws from my second series, but is way more sexy. Can you understand why I might want to make some of the changes I did for these covers and why I keep some elements quite similar, like font?

One of the things I’d encourage you to notice is that I made my name bigger than the title for the first time when I produced my own stuff.


Because when self-pubbing I’m banking on name recognition. Because it’s more common in romance to do this for well known authors, and my indies lean more heavily into romance. I'm hoping to attract more romance readers that way.

All this work, and then I had to go and decide the new series should be under G. L. Carriger instead.

So, why go through all this trouble to establish name recognition, only to change my name… slightly?

We are back to the first part of this discussion: reader betrayal.

My new non-steampunk m/m urban fantasy is just different enough for me to worry. Even knowing that I’m giving my readers a very different cover with different font, colors, images, and everything, I worried that the “Gail Carriger” name was strong enough to sucker readers into expecting things: gentleness, historical manipulations, sweet romance, Victorian food & clothing.

I worried that if it said “by Gail Carriger” readers would expect exactly the kind of thing they had gotten from me for nearly 10 years. The Sumage Solution is just different enough for readers to get angry with me. Not because I didn’t write and fun paranormal romance, but because it’s not what they expected from Gail Carriger. Which isn’t really my fault.

Except that it is.

It is certainly my responsibility.

A great example of this is the author Ian Banks, who’s sweeping sci fi was published under Ian M. Banks, while his more literary works dropped that middle initial. A simple change, but most of his readership followed along with this conceit quite happily.

The last thing any author wants is for a reader to feel betrayed by her book. Changing an author name (even if only a little bit) is one way to prevent this from happening.

So there you have it, why switching a pen name is part of protecting your readership from emotional pitfalls. Just one more thing to consider.

About The Sumage Solution

Can a gentle werewolf heal the heart of a smart-mouthed mage?

NYT bestseller Gail Carriger, writing as G. L. Carriger, presents an offbeat gay romance in which a sexy werewolf with a white knight complex meets a bad boy mage with an attitude problem. Sparks (and other things) fly.

Max fails everything – magic, relationships, life. So he works for DURPS (the DMV for supernatural creatures) as a sumage, cleaning up other mages’ messes. The job sucks and he’s in no mood to cope with redneck biker werewolves. Unfortunately, there’s something oddly appealing about the huge, muscled Beta visiting his office for processing.

Bryan AKA Biff (yeah, he knows) is gay but he’s not out. There’s a good chance Max might be reason enough to leave the closet, if he can only get the man to go on a date. Everyone knows werewolves hate mages, but Bryan is determined to prove everyone wrong, even the mage in question.

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  1. This sort of reminds me of the 'Typecast' thing you hear about with actors. It makes total sense though. I have played around with this thought a lot, but never considered how the artwork and font on the covers would tie in. Thanks for that little nugget of thought. Although, in the genres in which I would consider writing, many of them would necessitate varying covers of wildly differing styles, since there aren't many cross pollination like tie-ins between them. (With the exception of maybe Sci-fi and Fantasy.) The differing styles in which I like to write, require different mindsets when crafting the story. I find myself taking on a different attitude, almost a different persona as I go through story development and through the stages of writing. So yeah, it makes sense to want to try a different pseudonym for each. Wow. This is a lot to think about. Great posting!

  2. "Reader Betrayal" is a big deal. I read a novel in a preferred genre once that began with a strong alpha-male POV character. We saw him as the hero through most of the book. He had conflict with another guy (who really came off as a beta male); they used to be friends but had a falling out over a girl. Said girl comes back into play, and the ubiquitous love triangle formed. We rooted for the alpha the whole time, and at the very end, she chose the beta, and the alpha was okay with it. I'd have thrown the book across the room, but it was an eBook and I didn't want to break my Kindle. Needless to say, I'll never read another of her books.

    You touched on something very important that (I think) few people consider. Great post.

  3. Rita Mae Brown is best known for her no-sex cat POV mysteries, but she also has written sexy Lesbian mainstream under the same name. I am ALWAYS careful about telling blue-haired little old ladies who want a good cat mystery to be certain that the co-author Sneakie Pie the cat is on that book. I wouldn't want to induce a heart attack.

  4. Great post and I love Marilynn's response. I write lesbian themed mystery fiction. I spun off a cozy series that features the two moms of my lesbian protagonists but I used the same name. I'm running into some of the same thing. At a recent conference (about lesfic) I sat in a two hour class on branding and everything Gail talks about here was brought as was what Marilynn mentioned. I have some work to do...

  5. You mean I can't use the same name for my romance as I do for my suspense, sci-fi, and horror? :D It's something I've been thinking about a lot lately, but it's a scary proposition to try to build more than one brand. Do you create a whole new website, or just single pages for each author name on one site? Do you create a new author bio? A new photo? There are a lot of questions about the switch-over that have made me stay under one name for probably too long. Thanks for making me think today, Gail (and Janice)!