Who Are You?

Author branding — it’s a thing. You want your faithful readers to be able to find your work, but that’s the least of it. Readers will identify your name as promising a certain type of entertainment product. They will have an immediate expectation when they see your name — ah, here’s a police procedural set on the Navajo Reservation in the Southwest, or a bodice-ripper with vampires. If you write and publish both of those types of books, you really do need to have a separate pen name for each of them, so as not to confuse your customers.

For me, author branding has always been in the “yeah, whatever” category. Maybe I need a bigger ego. (No, probably not.) I write fiction, I write about music technology, and it’s all just me. It’s who I am. But this week the author branding thing kind of rose up and smacked me in the face.

I was filling out a form to join a local writers’ group. The form asked for samples of my writing. So I thought, “Oh, I’ll just give them a link to my Amazon author page.” What could be simpler?

Then I looked at my Amazon author page. Prominently displayed is a 64-page “book” that I wrote 15 years ago. The book is called “Fruityloops: The Ultimate Electronic Virtual Music Studio.” The cover is a remarkably dippy cartoon. And there it is. I wrote it shortly after I was laid off from Keyboard and was looking for ways to pay the bills. It is completely out of date and sells, I’m sure, zero copies per year, but on the Internet nothing ever dies.

The Amazon author interface offers no way to delete a book from your page, so I phoned them. (Great author support, by the way — no waiting on hold!) The support person confirmed it: You can’t delete a book from your page. I could withdraw the book entirely if I were the publisher, but the book was published by a German company called Wizoo, which no longer exists. It’s now distributed (if something that sells zero copies can be said to be distributed) by Music Sales, a giant conglomerate. I have no leverage at Music Sales.

What to do? A couple of people have suggested that I publish my new fiction under a pen name. That’s a manageable tactic, but it’s sub-optimal. Thanks to my 30+ years writing for music magazines, thousands of people know my name. I wouldn’t call them fans, but they’re potential customers for my fiction — as are the people who still have copies of my paperback novels from the ’80s on their shelves. Should I toss all of those potential readers overboard in order to free myself from the stigma of Fruityloops?

While discussing this issue with some folks on the SFWA forum, I realized I have a second, semi-related issue with respect to my Amazon presence. Very few people spell “Aikin” correctly. In what is doubtless a genetic quirk bequeathed them by millions of years of evolution, most people can look at that seemingly simple set of five letters and then promptly type “Aiken” by mistake.

If you go to Amazon’s search field and type “Jim Aiken,” you’ll find another hopelessly outdated book that I edited and co-wrote (Software Synthesizers, 2003) and a bunch of stuff that has nothing to do with me. You won’t find any of my new e-books. If you just type “aiken”, the results are much, much worse — you’ll get a long list of what appears to be gay male porn by author G. A. Aiken. In principle I have nothing against gay male porn, but potential buyers of my books are likely to be a bit confused, and a few of them may be bothered.

Here again, using “Jim Aikin” as an author name seems to present a problem.

I haven’t yet been able to come up with a pseudonym that feels right. A pseudonym just isn’t me. What happens when I start doing author readings of the Anastasia Swift fantasy series and 70-year-old Jim Aikin shows up instead of the doubtless enchantingly attractive but nonexistent Anastasia Swift? Plus, how will people who know me know it’s me when they see novels written by Oscar J. Blivious (listed, no doubt, as O. Blivious in all the finer online search engines)? If I had been using “James Aikin” all along, substituting “James D. Aikin” would work, but “Jim D. Aikin” is just stupid. Nobody uses a middle initial with the familiar form of a name!

I may go for “J. D. Aikin.” But that still leaves me with the search engine problem. Also, there’s a J. Aikin, M.D., on Amazon already. O. Blivious is starting to look better all the time.

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