Ed McBain, Evan Hunter, Alex Marwood, Lee Child, John le Carré. Their names sounded gritty, uncompromising, full of hard-boiled crime promise as the novels that made them famous. Except, of course, they are all crime fiction pseudonyms.
Flick through Barry Forshaw’s brilliant Rough Guide to Crime Fiction and you will discover that former teacher Salvatore Lombino traded as Ed McBain and Evan Hunter; John le Carré was really called David John Moore Cornwell and Lee Child was plain Jim Grant (actually a better name) from Coventry, best known for the Jack Reacher movie/book franchise.
Serena Mackesy, the best-selling crime author of The Wicked Girls and The Darkest Secret, recently explained to me why she changed her name to Alex Marwood. “It was an inevitability for me after my career was driven into the ground by lousy packaging and various other things. There’s a thing called Nielsen’s bookscan, that gives previous sales data, on which most of the retailers rely rather than actually paying attention to the trade. Once you’ve had a sales dip (and I know people who, for instance, had books come out the month after 9/11, which was a disastrous month for the books trade, whose careers have never recovered) most retailers simply won’t stock you. You’ve got a better chance of getting well stocked by retailers as a “debut” author. I know loads of people who have changed their names frequently because of this sad fact.”
Serena is equally upfront about about why she changed her name to Alex Marwood (she liked Alex and the Marwood was her great-grandmother’s surname). “I have a name that is a) hyperfeminine and b) apparently unpronounceable. True statistically established fact 1: men generally only buy books by other men, and particularly shy away from anything, including the writer’s name, that suggests “feminity” (yes, honestly, this is true) whereas women will buy books by anyone. As Serena, I had barely any male readers or social media followers; as Alex they’re roughly 40/60 men and women, I think. I didn’t like the fact that a name I’ve never particularly enjoyed having was radically reducing my appeal to a large chunk of the market. True fact 2: people shy away from asking for things they can’t pronounce, and those names are generally, because said less, are harder to remember. I’ve had people argue with me that I was pronouncing my own name wrong all my life.”
J.K Rowling is not only one of the world’s richest authors but she has a wonderful sense of irony to go with her social conscience — “J.K.” is a pen name because Joanne doesn’t have a middle name. Robert Galbraith is her crime fiction name but clearly wasn’t chosen randomly. According to writer Charlotte Ahlin, writing for Bustle,”Robert means “bright fame,” and Galbraith is from a Gaelic word for “British foreigner” or “stranger.” So Robert Galbraith loosely translates to famous stranger. Get it?!”
The challenge would be to find a name you liked sufficiently, without it being too crass or contrived. Watch this space.