I trashed my Amazon book recommendations in the pursuit of name science. Again.
Romance novels are a source of endless name fascination, both for the names of their characters and the names of their authors. It’s a genre dominated by pen names. Even as the authors determine the names of their characters, the characters help determine the names of their authors.
A decade ago, I dove deep into the world of romance author pseudonyms to figure out what makes them tick. For months afterwards, Amazon and Google were convinced that I was obsessed with domineering billionaires and stoic yet soulful cowboys. But the sacrifice was worth it: I came up with a formula for a desirable romance pen name.
That formula, though, was based on straight romances. In the years since, the LGBT romance genre has exploded in popularity. I realized that a new dive into the pen name pool was in order, Amazon recommendations be damned. As it turns out, pen names for authors of LGBT romances follow an intriguingly different pattern.
The M/F Pen Name Paradigm
The preferred name style for an author of M/F (male/female) romances can be described as middle-aged, middle-of-the-road, and female. The formula is surprisingly consistent across subgenres such as Western and Regency. For first names, writers lean toward familiar choices that feel well-worn and comfortable. The names are distinctly female, regardless of the authors’ own genders. For surnames, short British choices are favored. Nothing “ethnic” beyond Irish or Scottish. Pen names like Diane Perkins, Sharon Long and Deborah Martin are typical.
The heroines of these writers’ novels often bear more dramatic and evocative names, but as I explained when I first wrote on M/F pen names:
“The goal of a romance author name isn’t to be romantic. It’s to be warm, approachable, and above all trustworthy. You’re putting your fantasies in the author’s hands, and you want a cozy confidante. If she sounds too fake, or haughty, or judgmental, you back away. Yes, the author has to sound believable even when the book itself is called something like The Playboy Sheikh’s Virgin Stable-Girl.”
The M/M, F/F Pen Name Paradigm
On the LGBT romance shelves, author names show more a bit more stylistic variety. One aspect of style, though, is notably over-represented. Take a look at this selection of popular authors of same-sex romances. Most write in the most popular category of M/M stories, a few focus on F/F, and a few write across the gender and sexuality spectrum.
|E.E. Ottoman |
|River Jaymes |
Nary a Diane or Deborah to be seen here. Between faceless initials and unisex names, these authors are declining to signal anything about their gender identities. Age cues, when present, mostly point young. And most of the non-initial names are reversible: the last names could just as easily go first. These pen names are trying to accomplish something very different from the likes of Diane Perkins.
The real-life writers behind the youngish, gender-neutral author names appear to be a diverse lot. They’re black and white, straight and gay, cis and trans, old and young, and many combinations of points in between. But the large majority of them are female, just like the straight romance authors—and just like the readers of all romance novels. Even M/M romances are mostly created and consumed by women. Unlike the M/F romances, though, these books prefer not to say so.
The authors may have various reasons to avoid gender-specific names. They may wish to free themselves, or their readers, from constrictive preconceptions about gender and sexuality. They may feel an especially strong need to protect their personal or professional identities from association with their literary work. But I suspect that one key motivation is the same as for authors of M/F romances who call themselves Sharon and Deborah: selling books. To succeed as writers, authors tailor their names to the marketplace.
A gender-neutral identity can offer practical advantages for an LGBT romance author. First off, M/M pairings dominate sales. Some writers feel that a distinctly female author name can harm the perceived “authenticity” of such a narrative. A distinctly male pen name for a female author, though, could be seen as deceitful. So authors may opt to simply avoid gender indicators instead.
A unisex name is also flexible and portable for authors who write about varied gender pairings. Choosing a single name compatible with any romantic fantasy allows devoted fans to follow wherever the author’s pen goes, without alienating readers of any given romance category.
As for the relative youth of the LGBT pen names, that might say something about the age of the target audience or about rapidly changing social mores. Or it might just say something about names. Realistically, familiar, time-tested unisex names are a rare breed. (The few examples, such as Lee, do turn out to be well represented among LGBT romance authors.) That means that the generic cozy confidant character created by M/F author pseudonyms isn’t readily available. As a result, authors have moved in two opposite directions.
Some of the LGBT authors’ pen names are crafted like the names of their romantic characters. The “reversible” names where the given name and surname could fit either role fit this category. River Jaymes sounds breathlessly contemporary and dynamic and is the pen name of an author of steamy M/M romances in that mode. Cat Sebastian pairs a unisex but traditional nickname with Sebastian, the ubiquitous name of choice for Regency romance heroes. Sure enough, the author writes historical romances set in 18th and 19th-Century England. Author Harper Bliss, meanwhile, writes sweet but explicit F/F stories. Seeing these names on book covers sets readers’ expectations and draws them into the specific fantasy being spun.
The other direction is pen names crafted for invisibility. A name like G. Benson or N.R. Walker is no cozy companion, nor does it summon a swoon-worthy setting or genre. It says “move along, nothing to see here.” Rather than presenting themselves as trustworthy confidants, these authors are simply getting out of the fantasy’s way.
This could all change moving forward, at least for top writers. The commercial success of the 2019 M/M romance Red, White & Royal Blue made publishers rethink the market. We’re starting to see the most promising romantic LGBT novels released as trade paperbacks with first-rate cover design and marketing campaigns. That scenario makes the author’s name more valuable, and anonymity more difficult to achieve. But for now, the solid bet is to craft your name as carefully, and as fictionally, as your story.