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A.J. Walkley

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Androgynous Pen Names

Posted: 04/10/2012 6:34 pm

We've all heard the old adage, "Never judge a book by its cover." But what about judging a book by its author?

When I prepared to publish my first book, I considered what I should call myself -- Alison Walkley, Alison Jane Walkley, Alison J. Walkley, A. Jane Walkley.

As you can see, I ended up going with A.J. Walkley and for a very specific reason: using only my initials instead of my first and/or middle name(s) could potentially draw in more readers at first glance.

Women writers have used initials and male pen names for centuries to cover up their gender when publishing their writing, knowing that for some readers (namely male), simply seeing a female's name on the cover of a book would dissuade them from even cracking the spine.

The list of famous female authors who have disguised their gender includes Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte (Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell); Nora Roberts (J.D. Robb); Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot); Louisa May Alcott (A.M. Barnard); and, of course, there is always "Anonymous," who is historically assumed to be female in most instances.

Now that I have a greater presence online, it almost seems nonsensical to have done this. My photo is easily accessible and, other than the front covers of my books, I don't hide the fact that I am a woman. Nevertheless, I still believe I may have more male readers with the use of "A.J." instead of "Alison" under my titles and bylines -- and this is troublesome.

Regardless of the fact that some female authors tend to write on subjects that might be more interesting to female readers, there are plenty of others who write books that should be readily accepted by the masses. It is interesting to ponder whether Harry Potter would have received the same fanfare if J.K. Rowling had published as Joanne Rowling instead.

Before you get to the readers, however, there are publishers to consider as well. Some women feel the need to submit manuscripts under androgynous or male-seeming pen names simply to get their work read and potentially accepted for publication.

According to VIDA, last year, Alfred A. Knopf published nearly twice as many books by male authors as female; Little, Brown published three times as many men as women; and The New York Review of Books published over four times as many reviews of male-authored books as female.

To play Devil's advocate, however, book-buyers may not be as prejudiced as they once were -- or were once thought to be. Among the Top 10 of the USA Today Best-Selling Books list are Suzanne Collins, E.L. James, J.R. Ward and Danielle Steel holding a whopping eight out of the ten spots. The New York Times Best Sellers list isn't too far off with six out of ten being women, adding Karen Kingsbury to the mix.

One might argue that James and Ward are using their gender-neutral, abbreviated pen names to their advantage here. It's just as likely, though, that their books would still be on that list if they had published under "Erika" or "Jessica," respectively. It's hard to say.

The case may be that publishers and their choices for which authors to print are not reflecting the desires of the market. But, until overarching publishing statistics start to skew more to the 50/50 mark, it is unlikely women writers will feel less pressured to hide their genders. If anything, many of these numbers indicate the further need to do so in order to be successful in the publishing industry.

 
 
 

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