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Is Publishing Still a Man’s World? Not If You Write Horror or Thrillers

Don’t be so quick to choose a male pen name

by Noelle West Ihli

Noelle’s two great passions are murder and horses (separately, never together). Noelle is a boy-mom to Luke and Max, and a cat-mom to Michelle. When she’s willing to wear pants (which is less often than she aspires to wear them), she can be found in mom jeans. Her husband Nate is the best person she knows.

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Conventional wisdom (and numerous studies) indicate that male pen names are more successful. One alarming study from 2002-2012 actually showed that books by male authors (or male pen names) are priced 45% higher than female authors (or pen names).

Authors like George Eliot and JK Rowling (female authors who used male pen names) are commonly cited as anecdotal evidence that the publishing industry is and always has been a man’s world. However, reality is a lot more complex. And there’s a lot of evidence that female authors (especially those who write horror or thrillers) shouldn’t be so quick to jump to a male pen name. Here’s why:

  1. Myths vs. Reality. Yes, there IS some evidence that male author names are more successful–but only in certain genres. And some experts believe that the MYTHS about male pen names being more successful across the board are skewing the evidence for this phenomenon. People assume that male pen names are the gold standard, so they are quicker to adopt a male pen name.

But thankfully, the tides are turning. More women than ever are publishing–and publishing under their own names. In recent years, breakout novels have overwhelmingly been written by female authors writing under their own names. In fact, over the past decade, eight out of the ten best-selling books were written by women. 

  1. Indie vs. Traditional Publishing. The study that showed a 45% price disparity between books by male and female authors found different results when indie books were taken into consideration. When authors had the ability to price their OWN books, the price disparity shrank from 45% to 7% across all genres.

Larger, traditional publishing houses, like other powerful industries, can be slow to change. Old-school publishers may still harbor fears about female authors being less successful and encourage male pen names or price books written by women less equitably. C. Spike Trotman, who founded Iron Circus Comics, says, “I don’t trust the intentions and motivations of a lot of large publishers. I think a lot of people at the top especially are extremely resistant to change. They have to be dragged kicking and screaming to expand the scope of their publishing even slightly.

Monique Duarte, CEO of FicShelf, says, “More and more female writers are seeing success in self-publishing. It’s a level playing field.

  1. Women Rule in Horror and Thrillers. If you write horror or thrillers, a female or gender-neutral pen name can actually BOOST your success. In fact, many male authors, including the author of the wildly successful Final Girls (Todd Ritter, pen name Riley Sager) have adopted a female pen name to drive sales. This is particularly true of thrillers or horror novels with a female lead.

And if you haven’t heard, novels with a female perspective are FIRE. Over the past ten years, the publishing industry has seen a significant increase in female protagonists in crime fiction and thrillers. The list of male authors who adopt gender-neutral or female pen names has exploded in tandem.

  1. Female-Sounding Author Names Can Temper Challenging Topics. Readers tend to bristle less at challenging subject matter (e.g., books that include themes of kidnapping, sexual assault, murder, etc.) when they’re written by authors with female-sounding or gender-neutral names. There are many theories about WHY this phenomenon happens, but the prevailing theory is that society tends to view women as more nurturing and maternal, earning them the ability to cover some darker topics without coming across as creepy.
  1. Female Authors Bring Unparalleled Perspective. Overwhelmingly, the victims and potential victims of the scariest things in this world (murder, kidnapping, assault, to name a few) are women. This fact alone allows female authors to delve into subjects with the kind of nuance and realism that may be harder for their male counterparts to access. The central themes in thrillers and horror novels are our stories. And over the past ten years, we’ve stepped up to claim them.

“The world can be monstrous for women. Those of us who write horror invent monsters to fight and defeat because we’re often powerless against the real ones. In doing so, we change the expected shape of the genre, making it bigger. Making it better.” -Damien Angelica Walters, author of The Dead Girls Club.

There’s no question that pen names can be useful for anonymity and for establishing a new brand identity (e.g., if you already write children’s fiction under your own name, it can be ill-advised to write horror under the same name). But for writers in the horror and thriller genres, there’s no reason to adopt a pen name simply to disguise your gender. In fact, owning your female perspective can give you an edge—especially if you are an indie author.

Growing up in the 90s, I read a lot of thrillers written by men—which means I read a lot of flat, stereotypical female characters. There was the beautiful, innocent victim. The sexy goner. The emotionally unavailable detective. The hysterical mother. I couldn’t really find myself in any of them. It wasn’t until I picked up a book by thriller writer Tana French that I thought, “Whoa, she gets it. That character thinks like me.

In my own YA thriller The Thicket, writing from a female perspective was a natural choice for me (I’m a woman). There was something cathartic and empowering in creating protagonists who were thrown into one of the scariest situations I could imagine. And yet when it came time to publish, I still grappled with the choice of whether to use a male pen name. I had Dean Koontz and Stephen King’s names stuck in my head as the titans in the industry. But when I thought about the thrillers and horror novels I had enjoyed most as a reader over the past ten years, my list was overwhelmingly female (I still love ya, Dean and Stephen. But there’s room at the top).

Ultimately, I chose to publish under my own name with an Indie Press (Dynamite Books). And I’m glad I did. Women are a force to be reckoned with across ALL genres, despite the sometimes frustrating realities of biases and pay gaps. And in some genres, like horror and thrillers, women are definitively leading the charge. Times are changing, and so is publishing.

Check out Noelle’s book, The Thicket, now on Amazon!

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