This week it was revealed that the popular romance author Jessica Blair was in fact an 89-year old war veteran named Bill Spence. While this might seem down right fraudulent - and just a little bit amusing - Bill had in fact been asked to adopt this feminine moniker after his publishers suggested that an elderly male romance author stood no chance of becoming a bestseller. Personally, we rather love the idea of reading soft erotica by such an esteemed elder statesman: it would have made us buy the books in the first place! Lovely Bill Spence isn’t the only author to have adopted another persona in the pursuit of commercial prosperity: Stephen King felt that his real name - Richard Bachman - just wasn’t catchy enough; Mary Anne Evans had to adopt the more masculine George Eliot at a time when the idea of a woman having the intellectual capacity to actually write a novel was laughable; and playwright Arthur Laurents was actually born Arthur Levine, but changed his surname to hide his Jewish heritage. Using a pseudonym because it’s slicker than your real name or which, historically, enabled an author to avoid a particular stigma is one thing, but is it right that contemporary authors should still have to pretend to be someone else in order to sell their books?
It’s not just names and personas that authors have been known to sacrifice in the quest for commercial success. There are many, many instances where authors have been encouraged and even cooerced into writing a book within a genre that’s especially popular at the time: literary fiction writer Kim Wright, for example, is currently writing a mystery novel after her agent suggested it might sell well. British sports journalist and bestselling eBook author Kerry Wilkinson is determined to break free from such shackles; in an interview with The Guardian he urged fellow authors to “write for the right reasons - i.e. yourself”. Self published author Barbara Morgenroth shares Kerry’s sentiment, stating on her blog that she likes indie publishing because she no longer feels pigeonholed into a certain genre. While she suggests that she is now free to write as she likes, we wonder whether she would have been able to sell so many titles on subjects of her choosing without having initially written for the market, rather than for herself. Both independent and traditionally published authors seeking commercial success feel compelled to adapt their subject matter so that it is in-keeping with the current reading trends. Is it any wonder then that there has been a recent boom in the output of romance and erotic fiction since 50 Shades of Grey turned it’s author into a multi-millionaire; in fact romance authors typically earn 170% more than their peers. So there’s a thought. But please don’t read that and then promptly abandon your plans to write a gothic horror novel. It’s rather depressing that such commercial concerns can still limit an author’s freedom, but it’s an important factor to consider when you’re writing and pitching a novel to the industry’s gatekeepers.
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