Another Reason for Pseudonyms?

The other day, I read a reader review that gave my new book a one star rating, and the reader declared that she was terribly disappointed, that she’s read all of my books, and had loved them all, but that Solar Express was dull and boring, not at all like the Imager Portfolio books.

I would be astounded if she has indeed read all of my books, but she likely has read all of my fantasy novels. Some of my science fiction is very different in subject matter and depth of technical aspects from my fantasy, and while I would like all readers to devour everything I write, in the real world that doesn’t happen. I know that I have readers that do indeed read and generally enjoy everything I write, but there are also those who only read and like the fantasy, those who only read and like the science fiction, and there are even those who only truly enjoy the Recluce novels. This is anything but surprising, because I do write a wide range of speculative fiction, including near-future political thrillers, very hard science fiction, and of course four very different fantasy series. I’ve also written technical non-fiction and published poetry as well.

I’m one of a comparative handful of writers still publishing both SF and fantasy (and everything else) under my own name and not a pseudonym… and that reader review, and others like it, is exactly why there are only a few of us who do.

When readers of a certain mindset read a work of fiction that they like, they tend to want that author to write everything else that way, and if they pick up another book by the same author they automatically assume the next book will be like the last one they read. And they get disappointed, sometimes even angry, if the second book doesn’t meet that expectation, even if the dust jacket describes the book accurately.

Publishers and editors are well aware of this tendency, as are writers, and that’s why the majority of newer authors tend to end up with pseudonyms for books or series that are markedly different.

Solar Express is a very science-oriented novel. All the events in the book are constrained by reality. No simple faster-than-light travel, no instant video communications anywhere and anytime, because that technology doesn’t exist, and probably never will… and if it does the costs and energy requirements will likely make it prohibitively expensive except for the highest priority communications, something that another reader didn’t seem to understand. The book is focused on people who live in that future and their problems. So far, at least, most of those with a solid science background who have contacted me have enjoyed the book. It’s also clear that some readers without such a background and without a true interest in real science have not enjoyed the book. It’s fine with me that different people with varying interests and backgrounds respond differently to dissimilar kinds of books.

What does bother me is when readers pick up a book that is obviously different in scope and approach from my other books and then complain that it’s not the same. Of course it’s not the same. The cover copy and dust jacket indicate that. So does the very first sentence. I don’t mind it if readers don’t like certain kinds of my books, but I can’t help getting annoyed when they post horrible reviews, not because the book was bad, but because they thought it was bad because it didn’t meet their personal expectations, especially when they’ve been warned that it might not.

But the fact that people are tending more and more to see authors as predictable purveyors of the same sort of satisfaction, rather than actually reading the cover copy and the dust jacket, is one of the main factors behind the proliferation of pseudonyms.

15 thoughts on “Another Reason for Pseudonyms?”

  1. Daze says:

    Still a useful signal even when unmasked – eg Jo Rowling vs Robert Galbraith – but even then there are still people who review the Galbraith novels with complaints about them being very different from the Potters.

  2. Robert The Addled says:

    If you say, wanted to write something so radically different from your past works as say ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ trilogy (Anne Rice as Anne Rampling), I’d be astonished if you didn’t pseudonym it.

    Sometimes its even to get over publisher (and reader) bias (real or perceived) over Gender/Race/Nationality – One example – The Late David Eddings was a husband-wife writing team from early on – but she didn’t get billing until very late in their writing career. And ‘localization’ or ‘simplification’ of names has been going on since the concept of immigration was developed in antiquity.

  3. D Archerd says:

    Ultimately it all comes down to how you want to market the L.E. Modesitt “brand”. You appear to have made a deliberate attempt to distinguish yourself from most other writers in the SciFi/Fantasy genre by representing yourself as a writer who does both SciFi and Fantasy. Readers who become at all familiar with you as a writer know and understand this, but there is going to be a tradeoff inasmuch as you will inevitably have readers like the one you quote in your post who are surprised and disappointed that your SciFi works aren’t Fantasy.

    You just need to decide if the benefit you derive from your rather unique position as a writer equally facile in both genres outweighs the benefits from avoiding misperceptions by those less familiar with your works. If you believe that they do, then maintain present course and speed; if not, you should consider a pseudonym for one genre or the other.

    I’m not recommending the latter. I think you have worked far too hard for too many years building up your current “brand” and to try to start over with a pseudonym would be counterproductive.

    That’s my two cents.

    1. And, obviously, I have to agree.

  4. Terry F says:

    I have read both you hard SiFi and fantasy and have both very enjoyable for very different reason. You depth and detail on Sifi and compelling stories make for a very good read. And your fantasy with unique magic systems and great characters and was as the far reaching at times stories. In the process of rereading the imager portfolio as I just finished the solar express which was a very believable near furfure.

  5. JakeB says:

    It is odd, though, how much it’s changed from the old days. I was just thinking about one of Theodore Sturgeon’s short Western stories a couple of days ago . . . it’s hard to imagine successfully selling a story like that as a fantasy author these days (even if there were any magazines to sell it to!).

  6. Joe says:

    I have the opposite problem. I often enjoy the first few books of your series, but the others all seem to be too similar and I lose interest. I often have this problem, for instance with Raymond Feist, Janny Wurts and Katherine Kerr. The fact you do break the mold from time to time ensures I pay attention to your latest releases.

  7. Raeann says:

    I have read many of your books and while my favorites remain anything in the Recluse and Imager worlds, I have also enjoyed some of your other series/stand alone books. Both Lois McMaster Bujold and CJ Cherryh have created fantasy series as well as SF (Elizabeth Moon is another such author). My attitude is that if I don’t enjoy a book by a favored author because I don’t enjoy the story, then it is simply a matter of taste and I move on to next book that author releases. I seldom give “bad” reviews unless the book seems poorly written (grammatical errors and such). If I have mixed feelings about the book or I didn’t enjoy the story but feel it was well written then if I review it at all, I will give it a mid-range review. I just don’t believe in trashing books in a review. I guess I figure there are enough other people willing to do so. I would rather move on and find another book to read.

    Thanks for all of the hours I have spent engrossed in your worlds!

  8. Jim S says:

    You present different styles in different books and different series, sometimes even within the same series. (I think there are probably 2 or 3 different styles or presentations within Recluce, for example, and there are differences in style in the Spell Song books, too.)

    But there are some pretty common ideas and themes — and those are what I like about your books. You make me think and question some of my own ideas. Your protagonists often have to balance their own choices with consequences and responsibility. The role of religion in society, as well as morality, are common themes, I’ve noted. Environmental responsibility — or the consequences of failing to be responsible are also things that come up frequently.

    So… are your books “the same”? No. But what I like about them most certainly is.

  9. Mary says:

    I think I counted 68 of your books in my collection as I recently packed them for moving. I read the Solar Express on Kindle (we are down-sizing) and enjoyed it tremendously. I do have experience in astrophysics, which probably helped. I also have a Utah connection, which helped me read between the lines of a few of your other books (Parafaith? Ghost of the Revelator?). To be honest, though, I don’t bother checking much on the subject of one of your books before ordering it–I’ve enjoyed all of them.

  10. RM says:

    I enjoy both your fantasy series as well as a lot of the Science Fiction stuff. Not every book of yours that I have read resonated with me, and there are some I clearly liked far more than others, as well as a couple I bought and read but didn’t care for.

    I appreciate that you have a wider scope in your “brand” than other authors. I started out reading the Recluce books, and once I learned you had a lot more available, I began picking up other books as well. Since most of your SciFi books (at least the ones I run across) tend to be stand alone novels, I doubt I would have even considered purchasing them, had your name not been attached.

    I tend to read authors, and series, rather than individual books, since I don’t have nearly as much time to read recreationally as I would like. While I agree that your content varies wildly in theme, style, and other ways, knowing you wrote it provides me with at least a minimum quality level I can count on. Buying a standalone novel from an author whose work is unknown to me is a crapshoot. Do I really want to spend my valuable time reading a novel that could end up dry and annoying even if the overall plot is interesting, or that is overly reliant upon some gimmick? Maybe, depending on the book, and maybe, if I had a LOT of free time to spend reading.

    But I don’t. So I choose to make my purchases based on a known quantity. Not that I expect the books to be like others I have read previously, but more that I expect the writing to be solid and the protagonists compelling, which is what I like, even if there are huge differences in how the book is laid out, whether the topics covered are easier or harder to digest, and whether the framework is fantasy or science.

    For what it’s worth, I think your choice to preserve your “brand” was the right one, also.

  11. alecia flores says:

    I finished the book several days ago, and I liked it a lot – I think you did an excellent job of extrapolating a realistic future, including the political, economical, environmental, and media aspects of such a future: it all felt logical and holistic. I can understand that those who like shoot-em-up types of SciFi would not enjoy this book, it is way too thoughtful. I know that authors must pay attention to readers, otherwise they don’t stay in business, but I hope the types of reviews (I read several on Amazon that had a similar theme to the one you mentioned) don’t discourage you from writing these types of books. There are very few realistic books in this genre and they are truly needed. I’ve found every hard scifi book you’ve written to create a reasonable, logical universe, and operate within the logic of that universe. Please don’t stop.

    1. You and my editor share the same viewpoint, and you can rest assured that I will continue to write science fiction. Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

  12. Joozer says:

    I have enjoyed your fantasy series very much, but your scifi series make me think of current political/religious and cultural beliefs.
    The Forever Hero seemed like a combo of both scifi and fantasy with a lot of questions I asked myself – especially with life, and death. Did the ‘Captain’ win or finally lose because he was alone. Did the ‘devil kids’ win because they worked hard to re-develop earth but all died.
    Similar questions in the Solar Express – the political maneuvering going on between Noram, Indian and Sinese with the lack of strong leadership was very interesting and thought provoking.
    I found your books late, but am looking for your old ones.

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