What is in the name on a book cover?

One of the key decisions I faced when Without Rules was being prepared for publication this Autumn was whether to use my real name or make one up.

There were two reasons for me to consider using an alias.

The first was because my real name is also how I trade in the business world as a PR, marketing and communications consultant. Existing clients are happy with my work and won’t worry too much about me writing crime novels, unless they mistakenly see themselves somewhere in personality traits of one of the characters (they won’t). New clients might be a different matter. Fact and fiction can have a habit of becoming very blurred. Do I really think like ALL the characters in Without Rules (nope, they are real but imagined)?

The second was because my real name didn’t have the crime fiction stamp of authenticity of an Ed McBain, an Evan Hunter, an Alex Marwood, a Lee Child or a John le Carré.  Their names sounded gritty, uncompromising, full of hard-boiled noir promise.

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?!”

As you can see, I would be in good company if I decided I wanted to use a different name as my crime fiction brand. And after a long and successful career in PR and marketing, I could see the strategic value behind switching to a killer name that packed a more powerful punch than Andrew Field.

The challenge would be to find a name I liked sufficiently, without it being too crass or contrived. My second and third  names jumped out at me for a moment or two: Julian Charles was great for a literary writer such as Stanley Martin Liebe, who found fame and fortune as comic books writer Stan Lee (and stuck with his alias) … but were possibly a bit too middle class for the crime genre.

Constructing an alternative would be like naming any product: writing down as many names as possible and then eliminating them one by one until you get a short list for feedback. If you had the time and inclination you could play with the typography … see how each name looked on dummy book covers (Madcap music producer Guy Stevens picked the name Mott The Hoople because of way it looked on record sleeves and posters — my first introduction to the band was because the name was so weird and wonderful).

Once you picked the name, you would have to make sure nobody else was using it. I liked the idea of a surname such as Stone – but Stone is already popular and well road tested used. Vic Rhodes was another choice – named after an Aussie I met in Valencia on one of the funniest nights of my life.

My partner Catherine, on the same page Serena, has pointed out that there is a gender imbalance with the crime authors I like. Male, American, now mostly dead unfortunately: Jim Thompson, James M Cain, Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.  She suggested I should go for a female brand, an alliterative name mirroring Ruth Rendell. She said she could see me as a Barbara Budd, Kelly Knight, Magenta Moon or a Rita Rock (who is a currently a character in my next book, provisionally titled Truth Hurts).

Picking the name wasn’t really the issue — because ‘brand’ names only ever succeed when familiarity translates into affection and long term loyalty. And that process normally involves a big marketing spend in cash and time terms. However, the biggest problem with changing from my moniker was simple: I am proud of Without Rules and didn’t see any reason not to want to use my real name.

Yes, it contains sex, violence and adult themes but they are there for a reason as the people who get the book will fully understand. Nothing is gratuitous and written for shock jock value.

Yes, there are multiple points of view, but that’s how I want to show the story. You see what is happening exclusively through the point of view of each character as the action unfolds … rather than having an omnipresent narrator telling you what you’re seeing and why. The writing reflects their own individual voices. Extreme violence and quipping like Groucho Marx are rarely complementary skill sets!!

At the moment, if people don’t understand Without Rules, that is fine with me. After all, we disagree on lots of things from politics and global warming to football and tennis to pop and movies. Why should books be any different. If we all agreed on everything life would be very dull – and we’d have nothing to discuss down the pub or in a restaurant.

But I also want to shift units so everything, like life itself, is fluid in the future – now how does Julian Charles look in a Big John typeface?


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