When Your Book is Not Your Book

image by David Lasky
image by David Lasky

Even before my first book came out, people were already asking about my second book, and the questions haven’t stopped. Which is pretty great — far better for people to be interested than not! But I haven’t been able to give a good answer.

I’m working on it.

The research is taking a while…

I’ll be sure to let you know.

But there were delays and setbacks, and an extended pause for baby-having, and then when the book was ready to sell we took a left turn with it, and so now the answer is both more and less clear.

My second book is coming out within the next year, but I really can’t tell you much about it. At least not in this forum. It won’t have my name on it. Instead, it’s being released under a pseudonym, and this feels both tremendously odd and totally like the right choice.

My first book, The Kitchen Daughter, is set in contemporary Philadelphia and narrated by a cooking-obsessed young woman with Asperger’s whose parents have just died. My second book is completely different — set more than 100 years in the past, with a bold and shifty narrator, zinging with action and plot and unexpected twists. So my agent and I made the decision to offer it to publishers under a pseudonym, reaching out for a different readership (and reserving the option to make the “second Jael McHenry book” more like the first, for continuity’s sake.)

As I said, I think it’s the right choice, and I’m thrilled. It’s another debut, where I can use what I learned from the first debut, but starting with an external clean slate.

It just feels…

kind of weird.

Particularly at in-person events. I was among the 750+ authors signing at BookExpo America last week, under my other name. I wore a name tag with Other Name on it. I got to see stacks and stacks of advance copies of my book… with Other Name on the cover. I thought of myself as Other Name, promoting Other Name’s book.

And now it’s feeling less weird by the minute.

But it’s still hard to figure out exactly what to do. Who do I tell, and when? Close friends and family know the truth, of course, but there are lots of other people to think about. Do I reach out to booksellers who loved the first book and tell them about the second? Book bloggers? Interviewers? Other author friends?

I’m building a new social media presence from scratch, and as far as things go online, Jael McHenry and Other Name are remaining completely separate. There will always be the chance to connect the two later, if I choose to. Right now, I kind of like the mystery.

Would you ever publish under a pseudonym? Why or why not? Do you think you could keep your selves separate?


About Jael McHenry

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at jaelmchenry.com or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.


  1. says

    Actually, it would be kind of fun. I could go to book signings and be a completely different person. Even make up a really cool backstory (parents were international spies…I may actually be the child of a KGB chief). Or I’d have a woman’s name…could I wear yoga pants then? And then I’d write an autobiography about my pseudonym–KGB BASTARD CHILD. Yeah, I think I could do that. I’d want Kiefer Sutherland to play my pseudoself in the movie. Or Sandra Bullock if I go the yoga pants route.

    Not that I’ve put any thought into this…

  2. says

    As long as you’re not publishing under the name Robert Galbraith, I think it’s a great choice. I’ve often thought about a second pseudonym for work that’s outside my genre. I published my first novel under the name CG Blake, instread of using my first name, Chris. Hey it worked for JK Rowling, or was that Robert Galbraith? Publishing under a pseudonym can be liberating. Writers can try on a new genre like a different suit fo clothes. All the best to you with your new book.

  3. says

    Back in the Eighties when I was building my literary agency, I supported myself writing fiction. I wrote romances and young adult fiction, all under pseudonyms.

    As a romance writer there was really no choice. To this day consumers resist genre romance written by men. Although a small number of men work in the field, I cannot recall a single such title with a man’s name on the cover.

    (Literary romance is another matter. Think Nicholas Sparks and a handful of others. The sensitivity of male authors, apparently, is understandable and acceptable when a character dies.)

    In other instances I wrote work-for-hire titles under established or new pseudonyms. There is a certain teenage girl detective, for instance, whom I know especially well.

    Honestly, I’m grateful for the pseudonyms. Not only did I write some lousy stuff (my first romance is especially cringe-worthy), but it was also freeing. I learned in public and nobody minded. I had a party without ruining my reputation.

    I have also represented authors whose best work by far is disguised by pseudonyms. (And also, sometimes, written in shared worlds.) They are no less authors than those whose birth names appear on their books.

    Today I wonder whether I ever would publish fiction under my own name. To dissociate one’s ego from one’s writing strikes me as a good thing. After all, it’s not about us. The point isn’t to fulfill a dream but to tell a story that reflects, affirms or changes the world.

    • says

      I like the idea of using a pseudonym if you can handle multiple personalities/names. I doubt that I could keep up them straight. I get too involved and it always feels like me. But no doubt there are days I will wish I had used a different name.

      I do agree that female consumers may resist genre romance written by men.

      But you seem to be doing really well and that is the bottom line, succeeding at something you enjoy.

      Good luck with your next genre.

  4. says

    I publish under a “nom de plume” for a couple of reasons; mostly because my last name is too hard to remember and spell. Keeping it simple.

  5. says

    I’ve heard of using a pseudonym for a second genre. Seems quite sensible. I’d do it in a heartbeat.
    As for keeping my “selves” separate and remembering which one I am at the moment… maybe my high-school acting practice would kick in, and I could be “in character” as my other self. I’m not overly optimistic about that, though. I can’t keep my sons’ names straight. And I only have two. In their twenties.

  6. says

    The mystery is great, Jael. I know as a reader I love a good puzzle, especially when the writing is very, very good and I know so little about the wizard behind it.

    I also think with a pseudonym builds on reader expectations. There’s something about being your pseudonym that strains all sort of “me me me” elements from your platform, and this, I think, draws readers to your work – after all, you’ve created the pseudonym for the express purpose of branding what you’ve done, and thus your energy is invested deeper in your work, rather than in proving yourself.

  7. says

    This is such old-school publishing. It seems very complicated and time-consuming and authors have little time to waste or repeat what they’ve already accomplished. An author’s body of work should belong to that author. With Indie publishing and hybrid publishing on the rise, more and more authors will be able to indulge in writing the kinds of books they want under their own names and readers will find them. Contrary to what traditional publishing would have us believe, most readers tend to read in multi-genres, and may embrace books from an author that are not similar to one another but are of excellent quality. Also, in this day when authors no longer live in obscurity but are easily found and contacted by readers it seems unfair to them to use pseudonyms or to pretend to be two or more people. Of course, if you are writing in a genre that may not be compatible with your lifestyle or profession it may be beneficial to use a pseudonym.

  8. Dana McNeely says

    I agree with the others so far, that when publishing in different genres it makes sense to use a pseudonym. It helps readers know whether they’re buying your literary or historical work. But as both a writer and reader, I wonder if it’s necessary to keep the separate identities ‘secret’. Most readers read in multiple genres. If they enjoyed your contemporary and they read historicals as well, it seems likely they’d appreciate knowing you’ve published one.

  9. says

    I just read an interview with Joanna Penn. She writes under two names, and she tried to keep two websites and two social media accounts, but she ended up consolidating them. It became too much work.

    I think the different names make perfect sense–booksellers and readers know which author writes which genre–but when it comes to your fans, I think they will enjoy being in on the two names, if not now, eventually.

    Ann Rice, Stephen King, JK Rowling, etc. they all write openly under their various names. It’s an ancient literary tradition! Maybe think what’s going to be easiest for you to manage in the long run. I think an authors time is best spent writing new books!

    Good luck with your projects!!

  10. says

    I’m two months away from publishing my debut novel, a romantic comedy. I considered publishing under a female name for about ten seconds. I know 99 percent of romance authors are females and the majority of the readers are female too. Still, I didn’t want to do it. I know Donald Maass said consumers resist romances by men. I think it may be different, though, when you add comedy to the romance. Nick Spalding (an author from the UK) sold almost three hundred thousand copies of his romantic comedy, Love From Both Sides. There may be more acceptance with romantic comedies from men because of the comedy portion. At least, that’s what I’m banking on! :)

    • says

      “I think it may be different, though, when you add comedy to the romance.”

      Wanted to chime in quickly and say I think you’re right. Now, back to the comments…

  11. Denise Willson says

    I don’t know, really, I’m on the fence with this one.
    I love to write. I love to tell stories and share myself with the world. How I do this is up to me, of course, and could change at any time, given the circumstances. But I cringe at the though of pretending to be someone other than myself.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth and (coming soon) GOT

  12. says

    I’m still hoping to publish my first novel (for which I’d use my own name) so I’ve not really thought about this. At the moment I write mostly fantasy, but my other favorite genre is literary and it’s my ambition to write a literary novel at some point in the future. If I succeed, then it might be useful to publish it under a different name, perhaps because a fantasy author trying to write literary could be frowned upon. I believe fantasy is a modern form of mythology and as such could be literary (and I’m desperately on the lookout for literary fantasy to read, YA or A) but I’ve also seen other people look down on fantasy as an inferior genre, for immature people.
    It wouldn’t be my choice to use a pseudonym, because I’m not ashamed of my writing and other people’s elitist thinking or thinking in boxes is not my problem, but of course in other cases, using a pseudonym might be desirable.

  13. says

    Definitely think this is an intriguing dilemma. And I can certainly see writing under a pen name if you write in a variety of genres and want to keep your readers from getting confused. Good luck with the second book!

  14. says

    I’ve thought a lot about this. The first two books I wrote are both humorous and erotic romance / women’s fiction novels. But the first book to be published will be my memoir “On Hearing of My Mother’s Death Six Years After It Happened: A Daughter’s Memoir of Mental Illness.” Serious stuff, no? Needless to say, I can’t possibly expect for readers who enjoy my novels to want to read my memoir, or vice versa. In fact, there’s even a chance that readers of one type of my work may be put off by the fact that I’ve also written the other. Very tricky, and the idea of separating myself for publicity purposes into two distinct authors was tremendously appealing. Ultimately, however, I decided against it, mostly because the ideas I have for forthcoming projects will be again very different from the ones I’ve completed so far, and I don’t want to have to start from scratch every time I foray into a new genre.

  15. Scott M says

    I did almost 10 years in rock radio with an “air name” so the concept isn’t foreign to me at all. However, I don’t think I’ll be releasing any writing under a pseudonym unless this first offering completely bombs.

  16. says

    Wonderful post. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, but from the opposite perspective. My debut is being published in August under my real name. I’m beyond thrilled as well as out-in-the-wind vulnerable.

    At a cocktail party the other night, people kept asking me about this book of mine. I worked tremendously hard on it. I’m proud of it. That being said, it’s gritty, violent. I wonder what my friends and neighbors are going to think of me.

    Scary. Exciting.

    Thanks again, great post.

  17. says

    Interesting question. I have both a thriller and a non-fiction book about writing it out now and am bringing out a comic novel in the fall. But before I decided to publish the comic novel, I’d already listed it in the “forthcoming” page on my two published books so that made the decision easy. And that’s fine with me because the challenge of constructing a second platform is daunting!

  18. says

    Jael, it’s very funny to see you up here today, because recently I was thinking about The Kitchen Daughter and wondering when your next book was coming out. :)

    I’ve heard of other authors doing this exact same thing. I read one time about an author who was very midlist and then lost her contract and couldn’t find anyone to publish her next novel because of her so so numbers until one house offered to do it as long as she created an entirely new persona and didn’t use her real name.

    Publishing is such a strange business sometimes. The interesting part will be when someone mentions your new book and how much they enjoyed it and you have to sit there stone faced and pretend someone else wrote it. ;)

  19. says

    Pearl R. Meaker is a pseudonym and is what will be on my book when it’s released in November. :-)

    I decided to write under an assumed name when I Googled my real one and, even though I had some stuff already online under it, got to the bottom of the second page of listings and none of it was me.

    Pearl R. Meaker . . . I’m the only one! :-)

  20. says

    I have published a novel under a pseudonym, even though I also write under my own name. I wonder sometimes whether it has been worth it, because I have to promote both personae on social media.

    I’m proud of the novel, and want to talk it up. But because of some valid marketing reasons, I have to be careful when I can promote it and when not.

    My advice to anyone considering a pseudonym is to think really hard about it. Then think again. Then do what feels right, recognizing that a pseudonym takes work.

  21. says

    We all wear masks to a certain degree … but the older I get, the less I feel the need to. I know many who use a different name for their WFH or a different genre, but I do wonder whether it mightn’t be tough keeping up several personas.

    I am pegged as a science writer but I also write fiction and have won an award for it. Unless there was something I wouldn’t want my readers to read, I wouldn’t use a pseudonym. I often fall in love with authors, and I appreciate the breadth and depth of their work. A great example is Jane Yolen.

    Congratulations on your new book, Jael.

  22. Poeticus says

    I’m of several minds about using pseudonyms. Nicklefritzes have banged on my door intending harm for my published works offended their sensibilities, and harrassing phone calls, letters, e-mails. I attract emotionally damaged boneheads like misplaced gold and diamond jewelry on a beach. Not that I write especially offensive material–people take exception to the most trivial nonsense.

    Literary award culture sets its sights on a writer’s body of work, not only on the artistic quality, but also the social caliber of the work. How’s the Nobel committee going to find me if I use a pen name for each genre I write and endeavor to publish in? Literary, romance, mystery, thriller, western, horror, fantasy, science fiction, creative nonfiction, poetics, other.

    The mysterious appeals of pen names hold strong attractors, yet how much anonymity can a pen name really enjoy in today’s Digital Age ready information access? Pen name writers locate a chokepoint or two between their alter ids, intentionally or otherwise, yet a determined investigator can upset the applecart with one fell stroke. Even a bulletproof doing-business-as, aka, trade name, assumed name identity can be no practical bar to a determined investigator: a writer’s writing voice distinguishable among the babble. The cost, effort, and time needed to maintain an assumed name’s integrity might not be worth the hassle.

    Yet one or more assumed names may separate writing ids for practical reasons: publisher jitters, name branding brand naming benefits, assumed writing persona flexibility–one a hardboiled cynic, another a compassionate arbiter, another a confused and troubled mind, another a rational argumenter, etc.–keeping the fan horde at arm’s distance. Who needs all the celebrity hardships of rabid fans? Although the latter may be more desirable than bitter obscurity, preparations for success must account for the horrors of fame.

  23. Markéta says

    That would be fun. At our market – sci-fi/fantasy Czech authors, everybody knows everybody personaly, often even readers knows many of authors personaly, so such hiding could be really funny :)
    But I could go with being mysterious author, but I think this position is also taken :)

  24. Terry White says

    “There will always be the chance to connect the two later, if I choose to. Right now, I kind of like the mystery.”

    Good for you, Jael. I think such mystery could be fun……

    I’m quite a ways from facing any decision of that sort, but even at this early stage I’ve given it some thought.

    When writing my memoir of the creation and licensing of my board game MadGab, currently licensed to Mattel, I’ll be Terry White, the madgabman. That story is far from fun and games, but I’m also writing fiction that is far darker, eerier. Each writing has a spiritual slant, but in opposing light.

    And I “see” myself differently when I’m writing either one.

    It’s as if, I suppose psychologists would say, they are written by different “parts” of me.

    The point is, I’m thinking of using a different name not to hide my identity, but rather to reveal it.

  25. says

    Sure, I would use a pseudonym. As-a-matter-of-fiction I’m using one now. My picture is fake too. Yes! That’s it. The pseudonym will be the focal point of my web of lies I call FICTION.

  26. says

    I did publish short fiction under a pseudonym when I was still working full time as a serious scientist, whereas the stories were not particularly flattering to the enterprise of science. Now I’m retired, have two nonfiction books under my name (J.A.V. Simson), and am thinking of doing a collection of those stories. I can’t decide which name to use. I did a blog on the dilemma a while ago. http://vpascoefiction.blogspot.com/2011/08/jo-anne-valentine-pascoe-simson-smith.html

  27. says

    It’s funny because I find this idea really scary! Being just one of myself is enough, never find 2 or 3 more of me! Guess I will stay with who I am in my writing and be different in my life!

  28. says

    Love the idea of being able to start over, with a clean slate, but I’ve worked so hard for the small group of followers I have, I can’t imagine having to do it all over from scratch. I like my peeps!

  29. says

    I write children’s stories.I use my real name But, I also write erotic too. I use my fake name for these.
    I don’t think I should use my real name on both and take the chance that a child would pick up the wrong book. So, I think it’s fine to use either.

  30. says

    Good luck with the one pen/many hats trick! On a bookseller’s advice I published my first book using my androgynous middle name instead of my feminine first name, so as not to immediately alienate male readers who, according to said bookseller, often will not pick up a book if they know it’s written by a woman. So first book, a bucolic natural history, was written by Baxter Trautman. The second book was a gruesome mystery and friends said fans of the first book would be horrified by this one, so I should think about using a different name. Okay, made sense. I published five mysteries as Baxter Clare, so now I had 3 names. It was a branding nightmare, and I never knew who I was! At functions I was Miss Clare, Miss Trautman, or Baxter, and at home I was Vicki. When I wrote my 6th, non-mystery novel, I used Baxter Clare Trautman and that’s the name I’m sticking with! Period. But Jael, for what it’s worth, I’m sure you’re smarter than me and can handily juggle different names. :)

  31. says

    My first book was non-Christian, but it was close to one. I’ve been advised to switch genres and wondered if I should switch names as well. At this point in my unknown career, it doesn’t matter. But later on, when I’m successful, will my readers get upset buying my book when they expected a Christian theme and did not get it?