“You must hear name jokes all the time.”
“Don’t you wish you had his money?”
“Were you named after him?”
I’ve heard comments like these all my life. See, the name recorded on my birth certificate is Stephen King, and growing up with a recognizable label has caused all sorts of confusions. Once upon a time, for instance, I bought a plane ticket for a girlfriend to come visit me where I was temporarily stationed. The agent at the airport, though, nearly didn’t let her on the flight, claiming, “I know Stephen King, and I can’t see why he’d buy you a ticket.”
No, seriously, that actually happened. You’d be amazed at the number of silly things people say when they meet someone who bears the brand that someone else has made famous. The top three lines are all examples. “You must hear name jokes all the time”: yeah, every day, especially that one. “Don’t you wish you had his money”: nah, that would be called stealing and would be illegal. Instead, I wish I had a lot of my own money. “Were you named after him”: nope, I was born five years before he became famous, and I was actually named after my father. That, of course, brings up another occasional jewel of reasoning: “Was your father named after him?”
Just can’t win.
Then again, I felt a lot better about my own famous name after running into a fellow Theatre Arts Guild member in college whose parents had christened “Tom Sawyer.” Great guy; wicked name to run around with. Even worse, I was told of a cadet named Buck Rogers who’d attended West Point just prior to my arrival—who, of course, in his senior year made the rank of Cadet Captain.
Considering all the years of commentary on my name, then, it was fairly natural for me, when I began writing, to jump to creation of a pseudonym: Evan Koenig. “Evan” hails to the Gaelic portion of my mother’s ancestry, and “Koenig,” being the German version of “King,” is a nod toward my father’s roots. Sounds good, right?
Only, it didn’t work. I wrote an article and published a web site and, for a while, did a blog under that name. My first novel was queried as Evan Koenig, too. My friends and family all asked, “Evan who?” The only substantive response was from a few agents, who all gave me feedback to the effect of “why don’t you just use your real name?” Thus, once I made the decisions to go small pub and then Indie, I scrapped the pen name and used my middle initial to differentiate, hoping that the fans of the author of Carrie, et al, would recognize the difference, and that my own numerous and loving fans (who, I was sure, would materialize at any moment) would also appreciate knowing me by my own name.
After all, I’m hardly the only Stephen King out there. There used to exist a web site dedicated to all of us named similarly to the great author; the URL was www.beingstephenking.com. I spent hours reading comments from all the other guys who shared the immediate name recognition. Later, after I’d published my first book on Amazon, I did a search for “Stephen H. King” as an author and found that I’m not even the first one published under that name. Nor, I must add, is Evan Koenig all that unique. In fact, every idea I had for a pseudonym had already been taken by someone else. Darn them!
So why use one at all, I thought.
Six months later, I’m not convinced one way or another. As an Indie author, my first sales and publicity were through my friends on Facebook and the two or three people who’d acquiesced to following me on Twitter. They were the ones who convinced me in the first place to go with my real name, mostly by their lack of response to a name they didn’t know. Looking back at it after gaining a skosh of experience, I realize that, as a newbie who was working a very demanding day job and trying to write books at night, there’s just simply no way to have reasonably expected an effective re-branding to happen.
That’s a key lesson, I think, for new Indies. Assuming that you, like I, belong in the set of people referred to as “mere mortals,” your start will be slow, at first. You won’t sell many books to strangers, at first. Your friends list probably contains people who enjoy reading the same books as you, which in turn determined the kind of book that you wrote, at first. Guess where your key market, then, is—at first? Start with that, and keep in mind that your friends know you by your name, rather than by a name that you made up. At first.
It does have its down side, of course. I’ve been ridiculed for using my own name (in an event that, curiously enough, increased my Twitter following by over 20% and doubled my sales, so I have to ask myself if that was entirely bad). I’ve had someone close to me ask why I was okay with people buying my book under false pretense (I’m not—I’ve always believed, even from before I went to West Point, that honesty is a vital part of my being—so the suggestion felt like a dagger). The name issue also brings the “Returns” column in Amazon to a whole new level of meaning to me; every time I see that number increment I wonder if it was someone who bought the book thinking it was by another, much more famous, guy.
And now I look to branch into other genres, while I continue writing fantasy at the same time. Do I, now that I know much more about the process than I did six months ago, go with the ever-present wisdom and use a different name for a (significantly) different genre, or do I continue being TOSK, The Other Stephen King, aka Stephen H. King?
For the first genre switch, the answer must be no. I’m using my own name for fantasy already, and with non-fiction it’s kind of normal for authors to use their real name, so it looks like I’ll use the same name for both genres there. Dr. Stephen H. King it must be, then.
So, fast-forwarding to the time when my works in progress are done, I’ll have already broken the rule by having two genres under the same name. Do I also, then, go wild and crazy in my radical un-conventionalism (*smirk*) and publish a romance book in the same brand?
Readers, what are your thoughts? If you saw an author’s name you recognized and liked from one genre, would you be more or less likely to try that author’s work in a completely different genre? What is it about a writer’s unique voice in, say, fantasy, that would make you want to read, or conversely not want to read, that writer’s voice in, say, romance?
-TOSK (The Other Stephen King)
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Latest posts by Stephen H. King (see all)
- Guest Post: The Trouble with Names – The Other Stephen King - July 16, 2012