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Gender-Hopping Pseudonyms

We’ve had a lot of discussions on the blog about the use of pseudonyms. Why you would choose to use one, when you would choose to use one, and how best to use it. A question came in recently regarding pseudonyms that we haven’t discussed before. . . .

Now can anyone tell me what’s the situation on gender hopping with a pseudonym? For example, plain old Alfred Churchgate (former plant auto worker), who has written a historical romance set in 16th century Rome and wishes to market his book as Cassandra Castiglione. Let’s face it . . . it actually would sell more copies, wouldn’t it? What are the practical objections to gender hopping with pen names?

One would assume that yes, a romance novel written under a woman’s name would sell more copies or more easily find new readers than if it were published under a man’s name. I also suspect military fiction or a military thriller would have better luck under a man’s name. And honestly, I can’t think of any downsides to gender hopping when it comes to your pseudonym. At some point or another it’s very likely your readers will discover that your real name is Alfred, but is that a problem if you’ve already garnered an audience of devoted fans?

Let me throw this to my readers, though, because I’m curious. Would you be disappointed if you found out that Cassandra Castiglione was really Alfred Churchgate? And would you romance readers be less likely to pick up a book if it were written by a man? What about military fiction readers? Would you be less likely to pick up a tough-guy military, Tom Clancy-style book if it were written by Candy Cane?


Category: Blog



  1. Hmm… good question. I think I’d say that no, it wouldn’t matter to me either way who wrote the book (male or female)… but I do remember a couple of instances where I was VERY surprised to find out that the author was the opposite gender that I thought they were (can’t remember the specific examples at the moment). But ultimately, it didn’t stop me from purchasing their stories again. A good book is a good book, after all.

  2. The gender of the author has exactly zero influence on what I buy or don’t buy. Anyone who cares about that is simply being sexist.

    I only care about the author if I’ve previously read a book of theirs anyway.

  3. I’d read a Clancy-style thriller with a woman’s name on the cover, no problem. Who cares? It just depends if the story is entertaining or not. I wouldn’t care if it said on the cover, “This story compiled automatically by AuthorSoft version 1.10, artificial intelligence story crafting program.” If it’s good, it’s good.

  4. Honestly, I don’t even really look a writers name until after I’ve finished a book and decided I want more of their stuff.

    Or, you know, if I’m looking for a specific author.

    Most of the time when I’m browsing in the book store or online, I’m going by titles and blurbs and first pages. Gender would only matter to me on non fiction titles like… say… “A working mother’s guide to home childbirth with a midwife” wouldn’t do much for me if it’s written by Bob Thomas. Even if he is a doctor.

  5. Personally, I think I would be more intrigued by a romance novel if it had a man’s name on it instead of the typical feminine name. Bravo to the man who uses his own name to sell romance! By the way, there are several men who write romance and write it well.

    As for military thrillers, names definitely don’t matter. If you know your military facts, you can write a convincing book, male or female.

    My 2cents!


  6. Interesting question. Because I like things that are quirky, I might be MORE inclined to pick up a romance novel with a man’s name on the cover, if only out of curiosity.

    If a writer really felt the need to hide his or her identity, he or she could also just go with initials. J.R. Ward is a perfectly strong sounding name that suits the tough vampire world she created. I doubt anyone would think twice about reading the latest military fiction by C. Cane.

    In either case, I think what’s more important is that the name is memorable enough for a reader to look for it again. If I liked Alfred’s book, I would probably remember his name over Cassandra’s.

  7. I’m curious, though, if the name would matter to readers who are not, themselves, writers? Would it matter to Jenny Romance-Reader or Manly-Bob Military-Reader who might be browsing the shelves?

  8. I have a related question, Jessica. How does Alfred, writing as Cassandra, do readings, book signings, and the like? I’m a male who intends to submit a romance novel to your agency this spring and use either a female pseudonym or merely initials (like J.B. Doe). Although I write under my real name as well, and enjoy all aspects of book marketing, I fear an agent or publisher will say, “If your identity is secret, you can’t market, and if you can’t market, we’re not interested.” (Assume of course I have a killer manuscript.)


  9. I wouldn’t be disappointed if I found a romance novel was written by a man or a military novel by a woman…but I might not have picked it up to buy if I had known beforehand. I know that’s entirely sexist of me, and as an author trying to break out I wish the world (and myself) were not that way, but there’s the truth of it, for me at least.

  10. It wouldn’t bother me any. I’ve actually brought this topic up before on a large romance writers’ community, and I was rather surprised at how many of the women responded that they would find it “creepy.”

    Considering that many female romance readers are liable to be suspicious of a romance written by a guy (given how many males think that romance=porn), I think that it’s actually a wise move on the author’s part to either use a female pseud, or a gender-neutral one….. as was common in the past for female SF/F writers.

  11. After I’d read and enjoyed the first book, I definitely wouldn’t care about the author’s real name or gender. But I have to admit the name might influence my initial choice. If it were military fiction, I’d want to check out the author’s credentials. If Candy Cane had spent two years in the mountains of Afghanistan, I’d pick it up expecting a unique perspective.

  12. I think that it’s a good marketing ploy and there’s no harm in doing it. It’s like the adage of it being better to ask for an apology after the fact than permission before.

  13. Very interesting… I buy very few books by men–just some choice fantasy (Jim Butcher/Simon Green/Robert Jordan/KJ Parker) I bet I could name the male authors I own on both hands actually–but even with fantasy I look for female authors.

    And in Romance, I prefer women, I actually avoid the male authors… including the ones with femme names…

  14. Although he’ll deny it, my dh only reads books written by men. Definately a Tom Clancy kind of guy.
    I read anything that looks good, but Alfred wrting a romance? Probably wouldn’t be the first one I’d grab, but might read it anyway if it had good reviews or was recommended by someone I trusted. The voice of the book is usually what pulls me in. I’ll read a page or two before I buy.
    I thought this was why some authors used initials?

  15. Elizabeth Moon writes with a military slant in her fantasies and science fiction and I love her. I do like all things historical and military, however. Her military points are very realistic, probably because she’s a marine.

    Years ago, the 70’s, we were going to build five miles of fence through dirty, rotten rough badlands. I quipped to my stepdad, “I’m a girl. Girls don’t build fence.”

    He replied without skipping a beat. “You’ve been liberated. You’re building fence.”

    I would hope our libertation has extended to males also.

    Frankly, if I found a male author who wrote romance novels that appealed to me, I would put him on my list of people I want to meet and I’m not much of a stargazer.

    I find men who are really good at reading women often understand them better than they do.

    I wrote a rough scene for Paladin I call captive. I think I nailed the predator and prey aspect fairly well and it’s largely because of feedback from one of my male friends, who is a “woman reader.”

    A man who can read and understand a woman would make the perfect romance author and an interesting man.

  16. I’ll never forget writing a book report on The Outsiders and having my teacher point out that Mr. Hinton was actually Ms. Hinton. It was shocking! I’d read a ton of her books, thinking they were written by a male, and then that teacher totally threw me. But it actually made me consider S E Hinto a better writer, because she, being female, wrote male so completely well. At least I thought so.

  17. If I were planning to pick up a book, by an author I’d never read, I wouldn’t pick up a male author for romance.

    I would have no trouble choosing a book in any other genre by a female author, though. 😉

  18. I’m an avid romance reader (and a writer) and, yes, I would be less likely to pick up a romance written by a man. I think it’s because romance readers (such as myself) like to think of men as being the typical alpha male and there’s nothing masculine about a male romance writer in touch with his feelings. Just my thoughts. Although I don’t mind Nicholas Sparks writing a “love story”. Funny how my mind works. As for a female writing a military novel – I think it’s great. I know, double standard, but what can I say.

    Great discussion!

  19. “Would you be less likely to pick up a tough-guy military, Tom Clancy-style book if it were written by Candy Cane?”

    Sorry, but I don’t think I’d read anything, military fiction or romance, written by someone named Candy Cane.

  20. It would certainly be a shocker at the book signing.

    I’ve met a few authors at conferences that gender hop. I know more that take the route of using initials to mask gender.

    I’ve heard diehard romance readers tell me they can tell when the author is a male. To me, it makes no difference if the writing is good and believable.

  21. I think the initials route is the smarter choice any way you cut it. If I’ve assumed an author is one gender and it turns out that their initials are for the other, then in my mind it’s a “Whoops, I’m bad.”

    If Larry shows up to sign books as Margaret, I just feel a little lied to.

  22. Disappointed? Nah.

    However, I think a male might not be inclined to pick up a military, etc., novel written by a woman. I’ve read some police and mystery novels written by women which are accurate and exciting, so for me I don’t care about gender when it comes to reading either of these.

  23. I actually think it’s interesting when an author is a surprise. I remember reading Brett Lott’s “Jewel,” specifically the part where the main character is describing first realizing she is pregnant. I remember being amazed — even skeptical — that a man had written it. I kept thinking, how did he know?!

  24. I have to say that I look less at the name on a cover than I did even a few years ago. Being visual, the cover snatches my attention first.
    I read then the back cover blurb, deciding from there whether to buy.
    Few exceptions, unless I hear that everyone dislikes a book, then I’m likely to read it and see why.

    There are so many authors, and even the seasoned authors who have written in a particular romance genre for a long time are– due to various demands– changing genres, or blending genres in their romance writing. Some keep their names, and others choose a pen name.
    As more blending of genres occur, the line of gender writing is becoming less and less distinct,IMO.

    Like someone said-a good book is a good book, after all. If I’m going to spend hours at a B& N, likely I’m looking for a good story.
    Now I will admit, that if I read a story marketed as ‘romance'(sub-genre/elements or gender-hopping names notwithstanding) and it turns out without the HEA,(historical romance fiction based on real life- exempt) I might be a bit miffed. No, make that, I throw it against the wall.

    Which I suppose is another topic, for another time-has the requirement for the HEA Happily ever after) changed in the romance genre?

    Amanda McIntyre

  25. Anon 10:18 thanks for that laugh!

    In the YA market it actually does matter. Female authors that write “boy books” often use their initials and last name as opposed to putting a feminine name on a book cover.

  26. Based only on the people I’ve met and spoken with, men seem to have more trouble with it than women. I’ve met men who won’t read books written by women, no matter what genre. A few of them seem proud of this, which is interesting, seeing as that bullheadedness isn’t usually considered an accomplishment.

    And I could see some women shying away from romances written by men. It’s less familiar. Still, I think you could miss out on a lot of good books with either attitude.

  27. I suppose if the author was really worried about public image, he or she could simply use initials until the book is well established, then show up at the readings.

    After all, Norah Roberts did just fine as J.D. Robb.

    p.s. my husband said he’d go straight for the back cover to see what Candy Cane looks like.

  28. I have been surprised–and shocked, I guess–at the number of times on listservs that I have heard–typically women–say, “I won’t read a book written by a man.” Or, “I won’t read a book with a female main character if it’s written by a man because men can’t do it.”

    I haven’t heard men say this, though I don’t doubt it’s true. So there probably are good reasons to put the gender-bending pseudonym on it, although it seems to me that the initials are a dead give-away.

    J.K. Rowling
    J.A. Jance
    J.A. Konrath
    J.A. Kerley (this one is new; Jack’s early books have his name on them, but he notes that his British publisher is requesting the J.A.. Sure are a lot of J.A.’s there, which brings me to).

    P.J. Parrish
    P.J. Tracy
    P.J. O’Rourke

    To which I can only plead: if you’re going to go this route, please, please avoid the initials PJ or JA.

    Hmmm. J.K. Terry. Got a nice ring to it.

  29. It doesn’t make any difference to me. When I’m reading something new the gender of the author doesn’t really register with me until I come across a scene or piece of dialogue that makes me think, sounds like a woman/man wrote this book. Then I check the name of the author to see if I’m right. Pseudonyms really throw a monkey wrench into the works but it’s all fun.

  30. This reminds me of a story a friend who was a romance editor a long time ago told me. She had a male writer who wrote under a female pen name. He/she was invited to do an interview, but didn’t want to reveal his identity–or maybe the publisher didn’t want him, too,I don’t remember–so my friend, the editor, had to pretend to be him. As I say, this was a long time ago–maybe the early 80s.

    I don’t know any gender hopping authors personally, but one of my friends who writes under a pen name mentioned one interesting pitfall of pen names in general. At first when people at conferences or large book signings would call her by her “first” name, she wouldn’t respond–she didn’t realize they were talking to her. So the next friend who took a pen name, keep her first name the same, to avoid that confusion.

    If I ever gender hop, I think I’ll stick to initials. Signing a man’s name would be a little too schizoid (sp?) for me.

  31. To pen name or not to pen name–I debated with that question on the eve of my first book hitting the e-shelves. My real name doesn’t slip trippingly from the tongue, so I took the initials route with a combination of my first and middle names. It wasn’t to conceal my gender, especially since my picture is on my website.

    The gender of an author is immaterial to me when I read a book. I’ll give any author a try.


  32. It wouldn’t matter to me at all, but I do remember an interview with P.D. James where she said she went with the initials because she didn’t think Patricia James would be taken seriously as a mystery writer when she started. I believe JK Rowling echoed the same sentiments.

  33. I think some people have misunderstood what I meant by a man who understands women. I don’t mean someone who can discuss fashion with me. I mean a man who can read women and knows what buttons to push to get the reaction he desires. The man who knows the hot spots. The man who can immediately sense or within a short time sense, what will drive a woman insane.

    I once had a discussion with one of the three guys such as this I bounce ideas off. We were discussing a scene and I was floored by the emotional and even erotic aspects he tossed out. I think he probably understands what makes women tick better than women do. I told him he ought to be writing romance. He responded he has, he just really doesn’t enjoy them. He’d rather practice than write about it.

    When you find a talented, in more than one way, man like that who reads women and can go into a romantic scene with an understanding of what is going on with both partners, I would think that is magic.

    I wish I understood men as well as these guys understand women. I would switch from fantasty with romantic undertones to romance with fantasy notes.

  34. Many years ago, my brother was horrified to learn Andre Norton was a woman. When she started writing, people believed no one would buy science fiction by a woman. Well, despite the revelation, my brother kept buying her books. The funny thing was, I’d been reading the books after him (I was maybe ten or eleven) and I assumed “Andre” was a female name because it seemed clear to me the author was female. In any case, an author’s gender means nothing to me. I just want to read a good book.

  35. My first point I’d like to bring up is it isn’t necessary to utilize initials. There are also countless uni-sex names from which to choose, which again puts the reader into an “oops, my bad” scenario, and does offer more freedom to choose. Another option would be to make up a name. When I say my first and middle initial for instance, I hear an inventive opportunity in its sound, and have considered it as a possible flip.

    If we are going to be expressive as writers, we might as well keep up the good name…maybe one that is so unique it will cause the reader to remember!

  36. zzCrapshooter, can you say without a trace of doubt the “male” writers you prefer are in fact male?

    Years ago, there was an author by the name of VC Andrews. The majority of her audience was female. And there was no surprise to find out this initial-toting writer was female.

    The interesting twist to this story is—no one knew she was DEAD.

    After she passed away (1986), her family hired a ghostwriter to keep both her memory and her unique stories alive. (No unkindness intended, but I imagine the royalties didn’t hurt the cause either.) There were more VC Andrews books written after she died, than were written by her while alive. I’m not certain at what point it was announced she had passed away and a ghostwriter existed, but it was a solid stretch at any rate.

    If our glorious industry can make millions of people believe someone is alive, rest assured they can make at least a hundred believe a woman is a man—or vice versa—and you might just be one of those hundred.

    In addition, a man carried her legendary “female author” career forward through time. Kudos to her for bringing such fame to a name, and to him for having the capacity as a writer to keep her alive in the hearts of her fans.

  37. As a guy, I don’t have any trouble reading books by women, no matter what the genre. And if the techno/spy-thriller is strictly man territory, someone forgot to tell Gayle Lynds that before she took over the reins from Robert Ludlum and then started writing her own best-selling thrillers.

  38. I couldn’t care less about a writer’s gender if I enjoy the book, but I always wonder about the practical aspects of assuming not only a different name but a different gender. How would Alfred promote his romance novel? Attend the RWA conference in a dress? Hire a beautiful, romantic-looking young actress to do signings for him? What if his book became a runaway success and everybody wanted interviews with “Cassandra”? What if that beautiful young actress decided she wanted to actually *be* Cassandra and old Alfred was in her way? Good plot for a mystery — but I think somebody’s already written that story.

  39. Mmmm…interesting. I think names are important and do help sell a book. The gender wouldn’t put me off: I would read romantic fiction penned by a man, or military fiction by a women. However, I do think the name itself is a trigger in the selling process. I am a female and write horror/fantasy. I have chosen the name Akasha Savage as my pen-name, I feel that my real name, Debi Sands, doesn’t lend itself comfortably to that genre.

  40. I would only assume a pen name if I decided to write a memoir and the chances of that happening are zilch.

    I could care less about names on a cover unless they are so contrived it makes me wonder if the writing is so bad the author needed a gimmick.

    The movie Don’t Tell Her It’s Me features a romance author with a poetic name. The no-nonsense reporter is positive the name is made up, but it really is her name.

    I want people focusing on my writing, not wondering how long it took me to come up with the name I.C. Fingers for my zombie romantic mysteries.

  41. As a man who has tried to find a home for several women’s fiction novels I know more about this subject that I ever thought I would.

    I will say querying with only initials as oppsoed to my full masculine name, raised my “Interested-send me more rate” from about thirty percent to just over fifty.

  42. I’m sorry Travis…

    But I can’t help it, but I don’t want to read romances or women’s fiction written by a man. I don’t feel that women are portrayed correctly by men, and sometimes I’ve even noticed books that felt off…I didn’t bother to research them, but I suspected the use of a pseudonym. I’ve even been put off by some mainstream novels where women characters are written with far too much machismo.

    So yeah, stick to the pseudonym and hope your readers can’t tell!

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