The Pen Name Game

Agatha Christie is a household name. It’s understood that she wrote ground-breaking mysteries.

Mysteries are not the only stories she wrote. Under the nom de plume of Mary Westmacott, she also wrote romances. Six to be exact: Absent in the Spring, A Daughter’s Daughter, The Burden, Giant’s Bread, Unfinished Portraitn, and The Rose and the Yew Tree. These are difficult books to get a hold of, but through the auspices of Google books (all controversies aside, it’s pretty handy to have around) I managed to get a preview of one of them: Absent in the Spring.

While looking at the book, it struck me that Christie shifted her writing style, along with the genre, but only slightly. These books were not as popular as her mysteries, and it would be easy to point to the genre shift as the dominant reason that the books didn’t do as well. But part of the questionable popularity may be because of Christie’s use of a pen name.

Popular recommendations (like these from Kristin Nelson, Nathan Bransford, and Miss Snark) say that a writer should use a pen name in the following cases:

1.) Sales of current books aren’t going as expected and your name would influence future sales negatively.
2.) You have an ugly name. (Okay, I made that one up.)
3.) Multiple authors working together.
4.) You’re trying to get a job.
5.) You are writing in a genre that is different from your ‘regular’ genre.

All those reasons seem to me to be legitimate, and I don’t question that these six books were definitely a shift for Christie. And reason number five seems to be the reason that Christie used a pen name – and I’m gonna run with that assumption. Which makes me wonder if using a pen name was necessary.

After all, Christie was a bestselling author, I don’t think that shifting genres would have cost her too much. It probably would’ve assured selling more copies. The jump between the romance genre and the mystery genre is not a huge leap, as evidenced by hundreds of books on the shelves today. Janet Evanovich, Catherine Coulter, J.D. Robb, Tami Hoag, and Charlaine Harris are just a tiny sampling of writers who blend and split those two particular genres. Catherine Coulter doesn’t use a pen name when she switches it up. But J.D. Robb is known in the romance world as Nora Roberts. And J.D. Robb’s sales jumped when Roberts was ‘outted.’

The trick to keeping all the work under one name is to establish trust with that name. No one’s gonna laugh at James Patterson for writing a romantic novel because they know his brand. His fans trust that he’ll tell a good story. Same with John Grisham switching out of the lawyer world to the sports world.

Agatha Christie is probably the most trusted author of the century – especially if we’re going by sales. I think that readers would’ve gone with her if she wanted to tell a different kind of story.

So, have you guys played with pen names? What was your reasoning?

*** In response to a couple questions by my buddy Deb, I have found out the following information:
According to Hercule Poirot’s website (it’s a good one, you should check it out if you’re a Christie fan!) Mary Westmacott was revealed to be Agatha Christie in 1949. That’s quite a few years after her first published Christie novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles(1920). And I have no idea what sales-impact that had on either the Christie books or the Westmacott books.

Also, according to the same website: “The Westmacott novels were simply written for “fun,” to put it loosely. Christie had said in her autobiography that she wanted “to do something that is not my proper job,” i.e., writing detective novels. She said she wrote the first, Giant’s Bread, with a “rather guilty feeling” and enjoyed the project she had undertaken.

Other spots to check out regarding Christie and her nom de plume: 

Rosalind Carr, Agatha Christie’s daughter talks about her mother’s use of a pen name.

A bibliography of Agatha Christie Writing As Mary Westmacott with descriptions of the six Westmacott novels.


5 thoughts on “The Pen Name Game

  1. Jenny, do you know when Westmacott was first “outed” as Christie? I would have thought she would have received the same reaction as Nora Roberts.

    The main reason I've always heard for using one is #5.

    I once thought about using a nom de plume (love that term) to just plain hide my identity in case reaction to my work was embarrassing. But if it's that bad, it wouldn't get published in the first place.

    I can also see doing it if your work is fairly autobiographical and there are relatives still alive who might not like what you're writing about them.

  2. My parents had a copy of The Burden; I remember it being rather dark, but I was young when I read it. Maybe I'd get more out of it now. I wonder what sorts of discussions went on in 1949 when she was “outed”?

  3. I do so my family doesn't get crap. Many people say terrible things about writers once they get famous especially about their families. Imagine how much crap JK Rowling must get from people who accuse her of witchcraft. She has two kids and I bet they get the same stuff as well. At least with a pen name u can write with a certain type of freedom. I like to write about everything but doing that will make people acutomatically assume it's part of my real life but that is never the case. So I think there us a level of sense in a pen name.

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