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Writing: Using Initials in Your Writing Name

Debbie Young making notes

Debbie Young pretending to write fiction, but actually just playing with her pretty new diary

A practical post today for anyone thinking of using initials in their author name. This may seem like a minor point of detail, but how you format it can make a big difference to your discoverability, as I realised recently when searching on Amazon for an author whose name includes initials. The author was high profile, but none of her books came up until I omitted the initials altogether. It seemed I’d been formatting the name in a way that didn’t match Amazon’s records.

I’m not alone. On ALLi’s Facebook forum, our News Editor Dan Holloway reported:

I experienced exactly that problem a couple of days ago when searching for a friend, R.A. Johns. Until I actually got to the search box and started typing, it had never occurred to me, but I suddenly realised I didn’t know what to type. And Google can sometimes try to be clever (especially if you don’t put the full stops in) and think you’re not searching for initials at all.

It’s less of an issue if you have an uncommon name. Tasmanian author W R Gingell says she’s relatively easy to find online, wherever you put the dots – but then there aren’t many Gingells around.

British author Laxmi Hariharan agrees. “I guess this is one time having a more unique, difficult to pronounce name helps. I often thought of shortening it or using initials but didn’t, because it just felt like I was being disloyal to my name”. I think that’s an important point: it helps if your author name feels like it belongs to you, otherwise you’re going to stumble or sound unsure or apologetic when you tell people what it is – subliminally a negative message.

Which Format to Choose?

J K Rowling or JK Rowling or J.K. Rowling or even J. K. Rowling?

photo of tomato

You say tomato…

Depending on your age and how you were trained in punctuation, some of those will instantly look right or wrong to you. I learned to type when it was newly fashionable to omit full stops (periods) after abbreviations, which still looks right to me after Mr or Mrs but wrong after ie (or i.e.)

I never dreamed of using initials for my author name, not least because I don’t have any middle names (like me, my parents preferred the simple life). However there are plenty of authors who prefer initials to first names in full so as not to be obviously male or female, or so that readers will draw their own conclusions and arrive at whichever they prefer.

Obviously you can choose whichever format you prefer, but beware of potential pitfalls. Australian novelist JJ Marsh (look how carefully I spaced her name!) advises:

I don’t use spaces or points – JJ Marsh – but am not allowed to do that on Goodreads, who insist on J.J. Marsh. But it’s easy enough to distinguish me from the other two JJ Marshes who pop up – one’s a Swedish guitarist and the other’s an American bodybuilder.

Jenny Alexander has a similar problem:

I definitely found this a problem in Amazon when my publisher decided to use my initial instead of my full writing name for my children’s self-help books. They do appear on my author page, but not everyone searching for J Alexander would know my full writing name is Jenny Alexander, and if you search ‘J Alexander’ a mass of random authors with either the initial or the surname seem to pop up.

A Better Way?

US author Karen Myers offers practical advice on how to make it more likely that people will find you, whatever format you’re using for your intials:

Everywhere I could, I would include the whole list of variants:
* as HTML page keywords
* in blurbs (e.g., if main version is “K L Myers”, include, “KL Myers” somewhere in the blurb)
* on copyright pages (e.g., (C) K L Myers, KL Myers)

… anything to ensure that Google search and equivalents can find it under as many variants as possible

If one of the reason you’re keen on initials is that you think it sounds more authorly, it’s worth pointing out that initials are also harder for would-be readers to remember. Alternatively you may choose initials because someone is already writing under your name, as was Paul Murphy’s experience:

I wanted to publish under Paul Murphy but right at the last minute discovered there was already a writer of same name who wrote about travel. Hence the decision to publish under p.d.murphy. Not aware of any problems as such but if you search in Amazon for Paul Murphy, you will not find me easily.

photo of a potato

You say potato….

If it’s androgyny you’re after,  you could always achieve that impression by choosing a name that could be either male or female. Dare I confess it took me a long time to realise which gender Lee Child is? (Please don’t tell him.) Robin (or Robyn), Joscelyn, Rowan – there are plenty of possibilities.

British author Timothy Lewis has been thinking laterally to come up with another solution:

Maybe we should all just publish under a single searchable name, like the Brazilian footballers use…

As with any matters of spelling or punctuation, consistency is obviously important, if you don’t want to look either daft or indecisive. And at the end of the day, as with any decision facing self-publishing authors – it’s your call. Just one more joy of being indie.

OVER TO YOU What’s your take on using initials in your author name? Do you think the benefits outweigh the potential pitfalls? We’d love to know!

OTHER PRACTICAL WRITING-RELATED POSTS

How to Number Your Books in a Series – by Keith Dixon

How to Create a Language for a Fantasy Novel World – by Karen Myers

5 Myths about Writing – and 1 Universal Truth – by Helen Kara

 

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16 Responses to Writing: Using Initials in Your Writing Name

  1. Donna Lucas July 17, 2017 at 2:19 am #

    I’m like Paul Murphy and JJ Toner. My pen name is D. S. Lucas (DS Lucas; D.S. Lucas…)

    I like my real name, Donna Lucas, but the domain donnalucas.com is taken.

    I don’t know who to be.

  2. Shantella Benson April 6, 2016 at 10:48 pm #

    I’m using SF Benson because my first name and my maiden name are long. People frequently misspell both. I’ve never liked my middle name. Going with SF recognizes my first and middle name. It was either go common with Benson (sorry hubby) or use a name which will always confuse people and be hard to remember.

  3. Val Wineyard April 6, 2016 at 8:56 pm #

    Why not just use your name? As it is.

  4. Glen R Stansfield April 6, 2016 at 7:54 pm #

    I don’t use a full stop in my name but I only use an initial for my middle name. It seems to come up fine on Google and Amazon, with or without punctuation or initial. The problem lies in only having one R as a middle initial. Success seems to come from having two, J R R Tolkien, George R R Martin. I blame my parents for not having the foresight to realise I would need another R.

    • Maya April 6, 2016 at 8:20 pm #

      Ha!! 🙂

  5. Judith Wolf Mandell April 6, 2016 at 5:10 pm #

    What about middle names? For example, me: Judith Wolf Mandell. It would be unthinkable for me to omit “Wolf” but some forms don’t easily accept it. If there’s no slot for a middle name, I usually have good luck when I type in “Judith Wolf” as my first name and “Mandell” as my last. I surmise people would search for me using “Mandell” — I hope. I’ll find out when my book is published (summer, I hope): a children’s book, “Sammy’s Broken Leg (Oh, No!) and the Amazing Cast That Fixed It.”

  6. CJ Browne April 6, 2016 at 4:56 pm #

    I use CJ after the character in West Wing and because agents I have pitched to have told me it sounds good for a crime writer. I never gave the issue of consistency of format a second thought, so I am CJ and C J with a space on different platforms but never C. J. It doesn’t seem to make any difference as I turn up OK in both guises on search engines.

  7. Carol Cooper April 6, 2016 at 2:53 pm #

    Thanks, Debbie. I would use initials if my first name were very long, but otherwise will stick to what I do now. I tried using my first two initials (LC) once, but got called Elsie, which wasn’t the effect I’d hoped for.

  8. Tessa Stockton April 6, 2016 at 2:10 pm #

    Although I had once considered the option of utilizing initials for my own writing platform, I decided against it. As a reader, I find initials somewhat irritating. I have searched online for authors, trying to catch a closer glimpse of current work, and the task often took much longer than it should have due to the fact that I couldn’t remember exactly if there were periods, spaces, etc., between the initials. Searching the Internet isn’t always user-friendly in that regard, and authors aren’t always thorough. So I admit, more than a few times I have lost interest in finding an author in question due to the process. Not lazy, just busy. And I suspect I’m not the only one. K.I.S.S. (or is it KISS?), as they say.

  9. Simon Denman April 6, 2016 at 1:07 pm #

    I’ve noticed an increasing number of the author profiles being created on Readers in the Know use only lower case letters in the author names. I’m sure the vast majority are either a result of sloppiness or else they assume it’ll be corrected for them automatically.

    But since a small number actually do it intentionally, I purposely coded the author form to allow any variant of upper and lower case and full-stops.

  10. Jean Reinhardt April 6, 2016 at 11:24 am #

    I was going to use initials in my author name to differentiate between the two genres I write in but a post by another author made me change my mind. He writes in three different genres and said he made the decision to use his full name and trust that his readers would look at the book blurb before buying. I thought that was a valid point so followed suit. Hasn’t done me any harm yet, (fingers crossed as she types this – digital gymnast or what!)

    • M. Ruth Myers April 6, 2016 at 3:24 pm #

      I greatly appreciated this post and the various comments since I’m currently deciding which name to use on the reissue of a back list title. Eight of my nine books from traditional publishers were under the name Mary Ruth Myers and were largely romances — some quite lusty. My works as an indie are under the name M. Ruth Myers because A) I use my middle name and B) most are in a series featuring a gritty woman detective and the shorter author name felt more appropriate.

      Since my current readers, in their reviews, mention with some frequency that they like the fact my books don’t have sex and profanity, I’ve been planning to do the reissue (which has both) under the original Mary Ruth Myers moniker. Of course I’ll also try to make it clear in my product page blurb the type of book it is. Any thoughts on this use of two names to indicate two types of books will be appreciated. I’d especially welcome input from Jean Reinhardt.

      • Jean Reinhardt April 20, 2016 at 2:43 am #

        When it comes to readers who don’t like sex or profanity I think you need to be careful not to lose any through them mistakenly buying some of your books in the ‘wrong’ genre. I think in this case you are on the right track by using two different names and having a clear description in the blurb.

  11. JJ Toner April 6, 2016 at 11:16 am #

    I had the same problem as Paul Murphy. Seconds before I published my first book (Ovolution) I discovered another author with my name. In a flash-panic I invented the pen name JJ Toner and the rest is… historical fiction. I also ran into the problem on Goodreads. They insist on putting dots and a space in there. I don’t. I prefer JJ with no punctuation.

  12. Philippa Rees April 6, 2016 at 11:15 am #

    I was persuaded to use P.A.Rees for my book because the authority who offered that sage last minute admonition to a very naive author said ‘Men won’t read a book on science written by a woman!

    I accepted the idea because it improved the design of the cover ( already too many words!) but I now regret it for many reasons. Mostly because I like my name (Philippa) and there are not that many about except for Philippa Gregory who heads the first three pages of most search engines, but mostly because it now feels a complete betrayal of everything the book is about. I would change it if I ever republished, but everything else uses my full name.

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