Breaking Out of the Red with a Pen Name

by Phil Tucker

The Dark Night of the Soul

My wife was pregnant. The snow banks outside our Massachusetts home were at least twelve feet deep, there was no money in the bank and my Kickstarted Urban Fantasy that I’d written as a Hail Mary to turn things around had bombed. Things looked bleak, and I’d taken up a part-time accounting job despite having never worked in finance in my life. I guess I interviewed well.

But things were coming to a head. I needed to figure a way to break through, and with our little one on the way, the pressure was on. One gray morning as I stared bleakly out at the snowbound waste that lay beyond our front door, my wife said, “You need to connect with other writers. Maybe they can give you some advice.”

And the penny finally dropped. At work I set aside my abacus and fired up my browser, where I navigated my way to KBoards Writer’s Café, and there a wealth of information was laid before me. Holy moly if I hadn’t been doing everything wrong. No mailing list, writing stand-alones, terrible marketing, homemade covers – you name the mistake, I’d made it.

Going For It

So I rolled up my sleeves and decided to do things right. Back in 2015, the Paranormal Romance genre was blowing up, so that’s what I decided to dive into. Common wisdom stipulated that you needed a different penname for radically different genres, and that most PNR readers wouldn’t read books written by a guy, so I created a female penname and triumphantly wrote three novellas in rapid succession, commissioned professional covers, nailed the categories, the keywords, created a FB page and mailing list and hit publish.

And bombed.

Crickets.

In my overweening hubris I’d not done my due diligence. I’d assumed I could write shapeshifter romance without doing my research, based purely on my experience playing the tabletop rpg Werewolf: The Apocalypse. So I bought a dozen of the bestselling books (something I should have done first) and read them from cover to cover.

And gentle reader, it was a revelation.

These books weren’t my speed, but they were good. (Of course they were good, they were great, they were being bought by the hundreds of thousands.) I saw what I’d been doing wrong. My tone was off. My focus was on the wrong elements. I was bringing my epic fantasy sensibilities to a new genre, and just plastering them on top. Of course I failed to sell.

Round Two

So I tried again. And this time I slowed things down. I focused on the characters, their interiority, their thoughts and feelings and the back and forth, the chemistry between them all. I allowed world building and plot and all that to fade into the background, and dug into the protagonists. Gave them weaknesses, gave them faults, gave them shining qualities that redeemed them in the long run, that made their eventual romantic fulfillment inevitable in retrospect. I put myself in character school, did my time, and published perhaps a score of novellas over the course of the next year.

And they sold.

Nothing compared to what the big names were making, but I went from $50/month to averaging about four grand.

You can imagine how this changed our lives.

Eventually my enthusiasm for PNR ran dry, but by then I was ready to go back to epic fantasy with my new skills and marketing savviness and try that genre again. But I was bringing something else back with me from the land of PNR: a more profound appreciation for character, for their relationships, for how to connect them and make their friction and attraction resonate throughout the plot.

Use What You Learn

I wrote The Path of Flames in three furious months, and its success allowed me to go full time. I know I’d never have succeeded without my apprenticeship writing PNR. Whenever readers wrote reviews or emails praising my characters or their relationships, I knew exactly what to ascribe that success to.

What’s my point with all this? Writing under a pen-name can really work – but only if you do it right.

Here are my five tips for hitting it out of the park:

  1. Approach your target genre with genuine respect. Readers are wicked smart, and any dismissive attempt to cash in on a hot genre will result in failure. Respect your future readers and respect the authors that are killing it in that genre already.
  2. Read voraciously in your target genre before writing a single word. But read with an author’s eye: what is it about these books that the readers are looking for? What style of writing, what plot elements, how are the characters handled, how important is world building, etc? Get this wrong and you’ll fall on your face like I did.
  3. Analyze the covers in the top 100 of your target categories. Try and find out who the artists are and see if you can commission one of them. A cover’s primary job is to signal to browsing readers that this book is their kind of book, and to do that it must both fit in with the other best sellers yet also subtly stand out.
  4. Check how often successful authors are publishing in that genre. A novella a week? A mighty tome every six months or a year? Readers have different expectations as to the availability of new material depending on their genre, and if you don’t match that pace you’ll make it much harder to keep their attention.
  5. Set up a mailing list and a FB page. You don’t need much more than that, but you do need to be able to capture your new readers for future launches and give them a place to find you so that they can share their joy of your books with each other and yourself. You don’t need a website, Twitter account, or anything else really, unless you find yourself genuinely wanting them.

My Result

For a few years I was happy to write under my own name, but late last summer I decided to try a new genre and created a brand-new penname. Remembering my previous experience with PNR, I did my due diligence and first read a bunch of books that were already doing well, figured out what exactly those readers were looking for, and then brought my own voice and strengths to that matrix, writing a book which I dropped in August and which became one of my most successful launches to date. On the strength of that one book I landed an Audible deal and have since launched a Patreon through which I engage with my readers and solicit their feedback as I publish my chapters as I write them. It’s been fantastic and lots of fun.

***

Phil Tucker, Author

Phil Tucker, Author

Phil Tucker is a Brazilian/Brit that currently resides in Asheville, NC, where he resists the siren call of the forests and mountains to sit inside and hammer away at his laptop. He is currently working on the epic fantasy series, Chronicles of the Black Gate, launched in May 2016. Connect with him at www.authorphiltucker.com.

Sign up for his mailing list here: eepurl.com/uhVc5

Amazon Author page: https://www.amazon.com/Phil-Tucker/e/B0054QPPOQ

6 thoughts on “Breaking Out of the Red with a Pen Name

  1. Phil,
    I went to Patreon to look around and started an account. I’m not sure how it all works, but I’m going to try to figure it out. Thanks for the reference! It’s intriguing.

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