What’s in a (novelist’s) name?

My name is a problem.

I married into the name “Gerritsen”, and to preserve domestic harmony, I’ve used it ever since my wedding day.  But had I known how troublesome it would be as an author’s name, I might have chosen a pen name instead.  I’ve seen many a bookstore clerk struggle to spell it while checking to see if any of my books were in stock.  When I google myself, I find a broad number of spelling permutations — any one of which could cause a reader to not find me.  Among the versions I’ve seen are Gerritson, Garretson, Gerristen, Geritsen, Gerrittsen. 

Spelling issues aside, there are other times when an author’s name can be a problem.  In the Netherlands, the name “Gerritsen” is so typically Dutch that they assume I’m from Holland.  Unfortunately, Dutch writers are given no respect in their own homeland, so Dutch readers are reluctant to buy my books.  (One interviewer I met there said there’s only one worse name an author could have in Holland. And that’s a German name.)  My publisher there even suggested I change my name just for the Dutch market.  I refused.  The result is that it’s taken a far longer time for my sales to grow there.

A similar problem was faced by bestselling author David Baldacci, whose early books didn’t sell well in Italy.  Your name’s too Italian, his publisher said, and Italians don’t trust their own authors.  So they suggested that Baldacci change his name to something more, oh, English-sounding. 

I can think of a number of other reasons a writer might want to change his/her name.  First is gender. If you’re a woman writing men’s action/adventure, you’ll want to write as a man.  First initials will do just fine.  And if you’re a man who wants to write steamy romances, you’ll probably want to write as a woman.  (And you might want to skip the author photo.)

Another problem is the too-long name.  If I had a long Czech or Polish name, for example,I’d certainly consider shortening it.  Long names become problems because of design issues on the bookcovers.  As you grow in popularity, your name gains prominence on the cover, and long names just can’t be printed in a big eye-catching font.  Although no one likes to talk about it, I sometimes wonder if identifiably “ethnic” names are a problem for popular fiction authors.  If I had written mainstream thrillers under my Chinese maiden name would I have been handicapped?  I don’t know.  But I wonder.

Finally, there’s a very practical reason for taking on a pen name: in order to escape a bad sales history.  An author whose last few books bombed might want to sell her next book under a different name, just to fool the industry.  A bad sales record can destroy any hopes of a big print run for your next book, and you’ll have a better chance of resurrecting your career by wiping the slate clean and appearing to be a debut author.  If your later books hit it big, your earlier books can be published again under your new, more successful name. 

Whatever its handicaps, the name “Gerritsen” is the one I’ll have to stick with. Here’s hoping you’ll all remember how to spell it the next time you go to the bookstore! 

23 replies
  1. bob k
    bob k says:

    Tess,

    I must say I chuckled at the “to preserve domestic harmony” comment – I’ve never quite understood why the whole name issue is a big thing for couples (especially the men, it seems). When we were planning to marry – my wife asked if I would be offended if she didn’t take my last name – and my response was basically – well, I am not changing my last name so why would I expect you to change yours?

    As for author names – I can’t imagine an ethnic name seriously hurting sales – but I suppose. I would think, however, that something kind of different and “unique” would help recognition.

    And as for exact spelling of names – can’t people use wildcard searches? If I search Gerr* I should get stuff about you (mixed with a few others) and not have to worry about whether your name ends son or sen…

  2. JanetK
    JanetK says:

    Interesting. Why, I wonder, don’t the Dutch and the Italians respect their own writers? Quite a bit different from the US where it seems foreign writers struggle for recognition.

  3. Tom Young
    Tom Young says:

    well, from a guy who’s not suppose to be reading books by a minority woman anyways… LOL I myself don’t take a whole lot of look at a authors name, I read the inside cover synopsis of the book to see if it’s something I might be intersted in if I’m not familiar with the author.

  4. gregory huffstutter
    gregory huffstutter says:

    Just be thankful you have a surname like Gerritsen when you could’ve *really* lucked out with “Huffstutter.”

    Two advantages of having a non-traditional last name: they can be distinctive and (after enough repititions) unforgettable.

    Schwarzenegger, Evanovich, Ueberroth… they are all mouthfuls, but once you learn those names, you’ll only associate them with a single person. Try doing that with a generic surname like Wilson, Johnson, or Davis.

  5. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    i had a friend who changed his surname-it was “lipschitz”-as you can imagine he had a swell time with that in high school-i bet tess isn’t your original given name-it just sounds too perfect for a romance writer,your original field :)-my son has to put up with an hispanic appearance and jewish surname-my grandaughter who is half afro american will have even more fun-many people in entertainment change their names to “sound” better-do you know that geraldo rivera is really jerry rivers,half jewish half puerto rican and trying to pass himself off as the voice of hispanic america on tv-what an empty suit he is-natsuo kirino writes mystery novels in japan(they’re really not strictly mysteries)-i’d be less likely to look at her books if she wrote under a western pen name,becaus i would suspect the authenticity of the writer’s understanding of the japanese culture from the inside which is the basis of her stories

  6. childofthewilderness
    childofthewilderness says:

    hey(: i have a terrible name myself (chinese name, btw), chances are, i’m going to change it. what’s your maiden name?

  7. Gabriele
    Gabriele says:

    I’m going to use a pen name and I’ve already a blog and website with it. For one, my German last name has an umlaut, and that’s going to be misspelled and mispronounced all the time. Second, same as for Tess, English names sell better in Germany (and I’m writing in English anyway), and third, I want my academic career separate from my writing. There are some people who look down at genre fiction, “you write historical novels, how can you manage to keep that separate from your PhD?” 🙁

  8. april
    april says:

    I tend to think that if I really like an author, I’ll go the extra mile to figure out how to spell it – though I’ll admit there are some that still stump me. Gerritsen is not one of them. Otherwise, I’d never find the blog as I type it out every time.

    I’ve found a lot of new authors actually by how close they are shelved next to my current favorites so I suppose names are important to a certain extent.

  9. wendy roberts
    wendy roberts says:

    I’ll search under the title when I’m unsure of the spelling of the author’s name.

    I’m often asked if I chose Roberts so that I’d be shelved next to Nora but I married into it.

  10. struggler
    struggler says:

    Madonna got round this problem by just dropping her family name completely. You could just call yourself ‘Tess’ and surely there’s only one way to spell that! OK, there’s Tes, Tesss and so on….

  11. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    To be honest when I write Ive never thought about it but I suspect that I’d like a pen name. What would I go for? Probably a combo of my grandparents names to keep things easy as it would add some unusual flavour into things. As to Italians Im not sure why they dont trust thier own, but Manfredi is very popular in the UK although I do wonder if part of the problem is that a lot of the books they get have had a lot of time spent on them polishing the translation. Whereas internal stuff if just thrown out. I could be wrong but its an interesting question to ask your publisher over there.

    As to your own surname dont worry about it. Its nice to have something exotic, Wilson really doesnt smack of much. Look at a name like Henry Church doesnt sound too cool does it, yet in Spanish its Enrique Iglesias and that sounds a lot better. Still I suppose its swings and roundabouts. LOL

  12. NightTrain
    NightTrain says:

    In reference to Struggler’s comment that you could just go by “Tess,” I have to say that I’ve heard people screw *that* up, too. A woman in my local, of all things, “friends of the library” group insists on calling you “Terry Gerritsen.” (Or maybe she spells it “Terri” =:o) I’ve politely corrected her, but I think she’s got a mental block. Sadly, I have more sympathy for her confusion as I’m aging and screwing up names now, too.

  13. JD Rhoades
    JD Rhoades says:

    Don’t ever change, T. Just remember, it could be worse…you could be named Swierczynski. Duane’s own PUBLISHER spelled his name wrong on the first print run of THE WHEELMAN.

  14. Tess
    Tess says:

    Dusty,
    I’ve often wondered how Duane manages to spell his OWN name right!

    and NightTrain … um, your friends-of-the-library acquaintance actually calls me “Terry” for a very good reason. “Tess” is a pen name I adopted years ago when I got started as a romance author!

  15. Jude Hardin
    Jude Hardin says:

    Everyone in the real world knows me by another name. Jude is actually my middle name, and I chose it as a pen name for a variety of reasons. For one thing, it’s not gender-specific. When I was a kid, I hated it for that reason. Now I’m hoping it will work to my advantage.

  16. Patricia Wood
    Patricia Wood says:

    Guilty!
    My name was hyphenated (well it still is) but my agent and editor thought that Patricia Wood was best — easier to find on the book shelf and easier to remember.
    At first I was a bit disappointed but now I’m glad — it gives me an element of privacy. BTW My UK publisher REALLY loved my hyphenated name!
    By Jove!

  17. Astrid
    Astrid says:

    And here’s your first dutch reply!
    I’m from the Netherlands and I love to read your books. And I know I’m not the only one here in Holland (I recommend you to everyone and they all fall in love with your books too). At first I also tought you were from Holland, because it is a common name here, but if you read the cover it seems to me you will soon enough find out that it’s not a dutch writer you are dealing with here.
    I must confess that I don’t like to read Dutch author’s books, because of the way they write, (almost everything is artistic literature or drama) which isn’t anything like your style. But I never would have tought that your sales here would suffer because of your last name. It does explain however why I’m having so much trouble purchasing your books in the stores here (Although it is getting better over the years).
    What I would like to say is…be proud of your last name and I’m sure that your books are so good, they will even conquer the Netherlands!

  18. Meike
    Meike says:

    Funny you should mention that. I’m Dutch, and back in the days when I was a lowly bookstore employee, that used to be my sales pitch – “she’s not Dutch, honestly”.

    Sales of Dutch authors, although I’m not a big fan, are starting to pick up, though. Saskia Noort is selling like crazy.

  19. Tatiana
    Tatiana says:

    I actually just went through this with my mother. She was going to look you up on the web since my grandmother has run out of Nora Roberts books to read (I cannot believe that she is a single person) and she kept saying wrong. I finally had to write it out for her.

    I’ll need a pen name. My last name is hyphenated (through no choice of mine, it entirely my dad’s) and my first name is 1) unpronounceable for many and 2) impossible for most to spell. I should start a support group for all ten of us on the Internet who have the name. 😀

    Too bad you can’t copyright a pen name.

  20. cin1972
    cin1972 says:

    I don’t have any problems with your name. But maybe it’s because I’m dutch 😉

    Just recently read my first book and I’m a big fan now!! So I’m buying your books. In The Netherlands, but not the translations. I hate reading translated books.

    I’m now telling everybody about your books. How good they are (and I only read one so far …). Vanish grabbed me and I finished it in a couple hours. Now I started reading the Surgeon. The Apprentice will be the next.

    Like I said, I’ll make sure lots of Dutch people get to know about you and I’m sure they’ll become fans like I did.

  21. Vanessa F
    Vanessa F says:

    I’m not a published author (yet) but I can relate. I’ve seen me name spelled every imaginable way. I’ve seen:

    Vannessa
    Venessa
    Vanesssa
    Venesa
    Vinesa
    Vinessa
    Vaanessa

    Personally I think Vanessa looks the best and makes the most sense but I suppose I’m biased 🙂 I’m always surprised when I go to Starbucks and my name is spelled correctly on my cup! I don’t know if this’ll be an issue when I’m published or not.

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