Pen Names – 2022 Update.

This is Part 4 of an informal series about Pen Names. See Part 1 or Part 2 or Part 3 or Part 4.

A PIFW reader reached out to me a couple of days ago, asking questions about pen names, branding and genres, and in particular, how they impact the Amazon algorithms.  My response to him made me realize how much has changed.

It’s been a couple of years at least since I wrote a post about pen names.  In the meantime, the indie publishing scene has shifted in near-revolutionary ways.  Publishing wide, publishing on fiction apps, crowd-funding, AI foreign language editions, AI audiobooks, selling books as NFTs in bit currency marketplaces…   

Indie authors have so many options these days.  It’s dizzy-making.

It’s time to update the whole pen name decision matrix, as this informal series is one of the most heavily trafficked on the site.

My previous position on pen names was that you must use them if you write in more than one major genre, to avoid messing up your Also Boughts listings on Amazon and to pacify the other algorithms, so that your books’ rankings could be kept as high as possible. 

This approach to pen names was based upon a major assumption:  That your primary method of achieving visibility is within the bookseller’s site (i.e., rankings, search results, recommendations, and inhouse advertising).

If you’re still publishing via Kindle Unlimited

Even a couple of years ago, using inhouse promotion methods, and striving for “clean” Also Bought listings was a standard model for indie publishing.  If you’re enrolled in Kindle Select (more casually referred to as “KU”), this is still true.  Your promotion efforts are artificially (and contractually) contained within the Amazon ecosphere.

KU authors writing in multiple genres have no choice.  You must use pen names.  You must avoid contaminating one pen name’s book pages with readers from another pen name, who will mess with the algorithms.  This means keeping your pen names secret, and maintaining separate sites, email lists and other platform elements for each pen name. 

And you must continue to publish new titles as swiftly as possible, for all your pen names.

Unfortunately, KU authors cannot use the revolutionary changes and mind-blowing options available for Wide authors.  This means that for KU authors, everything I’ve said about algorithms and 30 day cliffs, etc., in previous posts for this series still applies.   

For wide-publishing authors, none of it applies.

If you’re a Wide author

If you’re publishing your titles as widely as possible, then you can safely ignore the Amazon algorithms and the entire inhouse promotion system.  In particular, publishing wide means your rank on Amazon will always be artificially depressed, because Amazon favors KU titles (each free download counts as a “sale”).  

Trying to achieve visibility on Amazon using inhouse methods is doomed to failure.  And it doesn’t address visibility on the other retail sites, either.

Wide authors instead use the dozens of promotion strategies and tactics available outside the retail sites, to catch the attention of readers and send them directly to their book’s buy page;  BookFunnel promos, newsletter advertising, group promos, newsletter swaps, Facebook advertising, BookBub advertising, BookBub Feature Deals, direct sales, Kickstarter campaigns and much more….  The rank of the book doesn’t matter, when the reader is going straight to the book via your links.

The other retail stores also use algorithms, although not as aggressively as Amazon.  Here, too, wide authors can use the full phalanx of external promotion and platform to drive readers directly to their book on those stores.

If you’re no longer worried about screwing up algorithms, that removes the need to keep discrete pen names and multiple sites/platforms running.

So why bother using pen names at all?

There still remains a very good reason to continue to use pen names:  To avoid reader confusion.

Readers of popular fiction tend to stick to their preferred genres and sub-genres.  Whale readers, in particular, will read anything…as long as it is within their chosen sub-genre.  

Readers rarely cross over and try a completely different genre, even if it was written by their favourite author.  

Therefore, it pays to make sure for all the genres you write in, each book in that genre clearly signals it belongs there.  This allows readers to easily find what they want to read.

The converse should also be avoided:  Annoying a reader who buys your book, expecting to read a gentle historical and instead finds themselves in the middle of a slasher serial thriller.   Or worse:  One of your middle grade readers picks up one of your horror novels by mistake…

Pen names are a means of making sure the reader is properly clued into the genre of each of your titles.  

But because you’re not worried about algorithms, it means your pen names can be “open” — you can host them all on one site, if you want, and each pen name can refer readers to your other pen names.  This gives you an additional means of promotion denied the KU authors:  you can cross-promote yourself to all your pen names’ readers.

If you decide to keep just one site, rather than a site per pen name, you should consider structuring your site so that the genres are the first thing the reader sees when they arrive. If you check out my publisher site, you’ll see what I mean: The front page directs the reader to choose their preferred genre right out of the gate, which saves them from stumbling from title to irrelevant title, and possibly leaving the site in confusion.

An alternative to pen names

If you really would rather publish all your work under one name, regardless of the genre , there is an alternative means of making sure readers know what genre they’re dealing with:  Branding, packaging and imprints.

You can use the look of your covers, logos, slug lines and more to brand each pen name and each genre you write in. If you browse through my Tracy Cooper-Posey site, where I write under multiple sub-genres, you’ll notice that each series has its own look, but I also break up my booklists into sub-genres, too.  You don’t have to brand every series, but instead, differentiate your books based on the genre – each genre should have its own “look”.

In addition, you can create imprints for each genre. Then you don’t have to write in series, or brand by series. You brand by imprint. If, say, your SF imprint’s logo/title appears on every SF book, and the covers have the same look, then readers will quickly recognize them, and know to buy/avoid them. The perfect example of this is the way Harlequin manages their romance imprints. Each Mills & Boon book has a “look” and a logo. So do their Harlequin Presents imprint, and the Harlequin Suspense imprint, etc….

It all takes work.

If you write in multiple genres, there is no easy way to avoid confusing readers.  Either you must use pen names, or use very careful branding, plus clear site construction, so readers know exactly what they’re looking at, at all times.  It takes work, no matter which way you go.  And it will take continuing work to maintain it all.

However, not using pen names, and choosing to not differentiate your genres to help readers find what they’re looking for — in other words, just throwing all your titles up on your site and letting the reader figure it out for themselves — is a self-sabotaging short cut.  Readers are impatient.  They want to find something to read now.  If you ask them to wade through a morass of books, most of which are of zero interest to them, they will quickly move onto another author’s site, and forget about yours.

Help the reader out.  Take them by the hand, via pen names or via brand/imprints, and lead them to the book they want to buy.

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