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Mark Twain

Mark Twain is probably the most famous pen name. A special nom de plume can make you stand out, but there are other pros and cons.

Some indie writers operate under a carefully chosen pen name. Is there an advantage to this? Does it increase the author’s ability to sell his or her works? When I set out to become an indie, I thought the strategy had some merit. Subsequently, I had cause to reconsider.

About two months after I decided to become an indie author, I discovered that I would not have, as I confidently expected, exclusive use of my somewhat unusual surname in the fantasy genre. I finally thought to search Smashwords for “Cotterill” and found that one Rachel Cotterill (in the UK) has two fantasy novels already listed on the site. The “Cottrell” spelling of our name is common, but “Cotterill” is much rarer so this seemed a bit of bad luck. It is not that I begrudge Rachel Cotterill the use of the name, naturally, but I had the idea that a unique surname would give me an advantage in making sales. After all, a search that brings up only your books must be better than one that brings up a whole list of books by people with the same name; right?

I began to consider using an artfully designed and unique pen name. Surely, with some careful maneuvering, I could fix it so that only my works came up in a search based on my special surname.

Shortly after discovering the work of Rachel Cotterill, a weeklong ebook promo on the Smashwords site allowed me to acquire the first of her works free. The book seemed well written, had a great hook in the prologue, and chapter one promised a good story. I sadly added the work to my indie reading list. Not only was there another Cotterill out there, but she was good. I worked past my worries by reading and then reviewing the book. I have since read her second novel and reviewed that one as well. She is getting better – and I am no longer the least bit worried.

Here is why. Once I got used to having Rachel Cotterill out there, I started thinking about the situation in a more logical way. I launched a number of quick searches on Smashwords to see if authors who sell well ever find themselves in the same boat. My research revealed that best-selling fantasy author Brian S. Pratt faces a large number of other writers with the same surname; a situation that does not appear to be doing him any harm. I decided that if Pratt can survive a horde then I could survive just one.

Then it struck me: why not look at the situation from the other side? All those other Pratt’s are actually benefitting from Brian S. Pratt’s success. Their books are coming up in the results list whenever someone searches for Brian’s works. As he sells well, his name recognition is inadvertently promoting lesser-known writer’s titles by making them much more visible. Seen from this perspective, having a unique surname may actually be a liability. There is no way for your name to accidentally put one of your works into a results list for another author. In the end, I think Rachel and I are likely to promote one another’s sales.

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