Branding confusion

Dean Wesley Smith once did a post on pen names where he made up a list of reason to use one.

On the list was:

-Your Real Name Is Stephen King

Let me think… Oh, yeah, write under a pen name. That name is taken.

If your real name is Stephen King, Smith's advice may strike you as unfair. Stephen King is YOUR name, after all, and maybe you're like me and Stephen has been a traditional name in your family for centuries--centuries!--and who is this dopey little horror writer to come along and make it so you can't even use your own damned name!!!

But none of that matters, because if you write under the name of Stephen King, you will quickly discover that there are only two kinds of people willing to talk about your book. The first kind are the people who bought your books expecting a Stephen King horror novel, who are going to be very upset that your book is not that. The second kind are the people who figure out before they buy your book that you are not the Stephen King they were expecting, and they will assume that you are some kind of horrible scam artist who is trying to take advantage of fans of the horror writer.

The same thing applies to titles. I recently saw a book--well, let's pretend that the book was a murder mystery set in the fashion world, and the title of the book was Murder in Vogue.

Why would you do this to yourself? If you're really unlucky, Vogue is going to sic their lawyers on you. If you are slightly less unlucky, you are going to find that there are a lot of readers who either, 1. buy your book thinking it has something to do with Vogue magazine and get really pissed off when they realize it doesn't, or 2. realize by looking at your non-Richard-Avedon cover that your book has nothing to do with Vogue magazine, and take a pass on it because they think you're sleazy.

(Yes, I realize Madonna released a song called "Vogue" and did just fine, but at the time she was one of the most popular singers on the planet. She had her own brand, which was extremely strong, strong enough to basically eclipse the Vogue brand. She wasn't some unknown.)

Instead, you could have brainstormed a little more and given your book another, equally snappy title, like, say, Dead Is the New Black. You could have titled the series the Fashion Avenue Mysteries, and behold, you are building an independent brand with a life of its own! (And yes, there's another Dead Is the New Black out there, but it hasn't been around for over a century the way Vogue magazine has.)

I realize there's this desire to piggyback onto something--hence the many [Random Number] Shades of [Random Color] titles--but nobody takes that kind of book seriously. It's like Shaving Ryan's Privates: It indicates to readers that your book is not meant to be anything lasting or significant.

Or it might indicate to readers that, like Nora A. Roberts, you're a scumball who is seriously trying to mislead them. That sort of thing can really hurt your career--you can change a pen name, but as people have noticed, having your account blackballed by retailers like Amazon is indeed a serious handicap.