Wednesday, 11 August 2010

What’s in a Name?

Have you ever looked to see where your surname fits on the shelves in your local book-store? Which other authors surround you? Whether your surname will be a help or a hindrance?

I had a very interesting conversation with a member of staff in my local book-shop today about surnames. (Actually I hate the term ‘member of staff’. My thoughts fly to ‘member’ – phallic object, and ‘staff’ - long wooden stick for aging Druids. They do not fly to nicely helpful shop worker. This could be because I am blessed with a mucky mind though.)

My question to the nicely helpful shop worker was which letter of the alphabet works best as a surname for authors amongst the shelves. He didn’t even bat an eyelid (which is why I love and adore the folk who work in book shops). Without hesitation he told me that surnames beginning with ‘A’ do well, as do ‘M’ and ‘S’ – however he said this was because there are a lot of authors with surnames already beginning with those letters so people often head to that part to look for a specific author, and maybe pick up other books while they are there.

The reason for the question is that I was musing on which name I would publish under when the great day arrives (sings as in Gospel choir – Great Day). Now a few of you already know that I actually write this blog under a pseudonym.

Don’t be dismayed that my name is not Jayne
I did not mean to be a pain
Or to confuse, or to lie
You see the reason is I’m really quite shy

But the name ‘Jayne Ferst’ is dear to me, not just chosen at random. That will be a post for another day. But I didn’t think about whether or not it would be good on the shelves - damn, missed a trick! Had I but thought about it I could have been Jayne McFerst. Or Jayne Serst (which sounds like Jayne’s Erst – erstwhile life, maybe?)

Nicely helpful shop worker said he thought ‘F’ wasn’t a bad letter for an author’s surname; he reeled off a list of literary dignitaries that jostle around that area. If I keep with ‘F’ I would be in good company. No one else has the same surname, unlike the real one, which is already glorified by three other authors already, and whose web-domains went with the beginning of the Internet.

Where do you sit on the shelves? Do you think your surname will be a help or a hindrance?

I will draw the results of my contest this weekend - either Friday or Saturday. Sorry - week has been hectic!


Suzi McGowen said...

The only thing I would worry about is is when the customer comes into the shop and looks for "Jayne First".

I'm trying to remember how my grandmother would have said Ferst to see if it would be an issue in the UK, but I'm sure it would be a problem in the US. They might get the spelling of the first name right, but I wouldn't bet on the surname.

I can't tell you how many times I have asked booksellers if they have a book by Rosemary Edghill and they say "no" because they looked for Edgehill.


Talli Roland said...


I chose my pen-name because I wanted something unique - and something that would come up quickly in Google as the first result. It was fun to throw around name combos!

Unknown said...

My writing name is not a pen name (the first or the last name)though it sounds like one. It is actually my married name - whereas in my day job I use my maiden name. The first name stays the same though.
But if what you say is right - I am pretty happy Swan starts with S. But, unlike my mother, I do not think my name alone is going to make someone pick up the book.

A Certain book said...

Intriguing. I tried to think of someone whose Surname begins with G. Took a while. Maybe I need to change it. Thoughtful post.

Slushpile Slut said...

My writing name is not a pen name and once I get published(notice the optimism)I'm hoping google search spell check will help my readers find me :)

Cruella Collett said...

*giggles about members of staff*
As a book shop worker, as you so non-innuendoish put it, I feel the right to butt into this topic... In my shop a name that starts with an A isn't all that beneficial at all, because the shelf is quite high, so the A-authors are often out of reach. If you know what you're looking for, you can of course ask one of the sta... shop workers to help, or climb, or use a lasso. Customers that pick a book at random, though, are much more likely to look at the ones between E and S (the lowest shelf is not as popular either, for some reason).

I agree, though, that a name with an obvious spelling is an advantage.

Donna Hosie said...

I'm off to change my name to Anna Aardvark!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Don't think many famous authors reside around my name. Just glad my name doesn't begin with Z, because I know where that resides on a bookshelf!

Anonymous said...

I have often times thought of changing my entire name and writing under a pseudonym, but not because I'm shy, but because my name is hard to pronounce and people will butcher it even after I'm dead. Vatche Yousefian doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, now does it? However, I think people should treasure their names and I want to be known by my real name as a successful author. (Plus, I don't want to screw up with a stupid pseudonym that I want to change right away. I am never satisfied...)

Anyways, I would be placed probably at the bottom of the shelves next to the Z's and W's. Not many authors on the top off my head come to mind that start with any S's.

Interesting thoughts and I can't believe you're real name isn't Jayne. It is a fine name, I believe.

Write on!

Old Kitty said...

See now I'm going to refuse to say "member of staff". Ever.


Jayne Ferst is a great pseudonym - look at that lovely poem that's come out of it! Yay!

I've never thought of using a pseudonym for my stories - it's for all the world to see. I guess it's because it's one of the most common names on this planet (seriously google it and you'll get millions!) so I sort of think it as a challenge to make MY name stand out and be unique by what I do. One day! :-)

Take care

Karen Jones Gowen said...

Well, can we allow for the fact that bookstores are disappearing...and soon there may be no books on the shelves? No shelves? No books? Just ebooks? Wonder how this works for the Kindle store?

Aubrie said...

This is a very interesting post! I have a D as the first letter of my last name. So I think I'm okay.

Jenny Beattie said...

When I got married I went from an S surname to a B. Husband promised me that I would find this hugely beneficial when in fact, I just have to read out loud first.

I suspect I shall use my married name because it's my husband that has supported me, encouraged me, picked me up when I've cried and said I would give up. I sort of owe it to him.

At the moment I'm blogging as JJ Beattie but I suspect I will change that very soon as I'm no longer trying to be anonymous.

PS I've managed to avoid all references to 'members.' Oh damn.

Heidi said...

Well, my last name is rather uncommon (in the general world, I guess - not in my community, because we all have the same cultural heritage), with an uncommon first letter too.

Carolyn V. said...

Oh, good question. I often wonder that since my last name starts with a V. I'd be the end of the book shelves. That just makes me sad.

Anonymous said...

I'm mildly disappointed that you are not a Jayne; the name seems to suit...

Last year, when I sent off a few stories to women's magazines, I used a pseudonym, something that I thought 'fitted' the mags better.

I think that an unusual name can be helpful (I used to work in a library). 'Niffeneger' was remembered because it was unusual.

Rose said...

I think Jayne Ferst would be easy enough to remember which is my main requirement when I'm going into a book shop- I'd remember Ferst not First. As for random shoppers picking up the book your bookseller probably has a point- but on that basis the whole shop would be filled with authors whose names started with an A or S.

I think my surname would be a hunderance in some ways because it's weird! but on the other hand it's memorable. Tricky stuff!

Ann said...

I never thught of using a pseudonym. I even refused to change my name when I got married. Just stuck the name onto the end. I still refer to myself as Ann Ormond. Doesn't sound like that will be be very helpful to me on the shevles though...that is if I ever get there!

Jayne said...

Hi Suzi – That’s an interesting point. The name ‘Ferst’ is pronounced the same as ‘First’, although my great-granddad (never met) anglicised the name when he left Poland at the turn of the century – originally it was pronounced ‘Fesht’ but he thought that would be too hard for English ears. I am shaking my head at myself now as I hate it when words are misleading with their spelling, and inadvertently I have chosen a pen-name that does exactly that! Food for thought, thank you.

Hi Talli – I do love your pen name. Your real name is lovely too. I didn’t throw any combos around – Jayne is my middle name (which I did use on rare occasion) and Ferst is a family name. I didn’t even think that hard about it – and now I wish I did!

Hi Ariel – Your name is lovely, and sounds so author-ly, if that is a word. And yes, according to that one bookseller, you are off to a flying start, although totally agree that the words inside are what really matter. Aw your mum sounds fab!

Hi Joanne. G, G... I’ll do some research for you today. I don’t think you need to change it though!

Hi Slushpile (Hee!). Google search check would work wonders I am sure, and optimism is the name of the game around here – we’re all going to be published, yee-hah!

Jayne said...

Hi Cruella – I am awful for innuendo! Thanks for joining the topic with your book shop knowledge. Yes, each shop layout will be different, and of course it all depends on how good the words are inside rather than the name on the front (unless you are a celeb, perhaps?), but that is interesting what you say about ‘A’ being high up (the shop I went in puts ‘A’ rather midway, come to think about it) and the lowest shelf not so popular (folk bending down, I suppose). A name with an obvious spelling though... oh dear; might have to re-think should the happy day ever arrive!

Hi Donna – Hee! Worryingly I can see Anna Aardvark on the shelves... sounds like a top children’s writer!

Hi Alex – Your name already sounds perfect. Will have to do some research to see who is around the ‘Z’ shelf! Maybe I am missing a fabulous author down there.

Hi Vatche – You know, I think your name ‘does’ roll off the tongue, and sometimes having an unusual name is a complete advantage – easily memorable, easy to search for. My real name, on the other hand, is ten a penny – the sort of name where you end up having to put 1759 on the end of it if you want a hotmail or yahoo account. It is quite discerning to think there are thousands of other ‘you’s’ out there in the world. As for Jayne, well it is my middle name, so it is part of me already – thank you for saying it is a fine name!

Jayne said...

Hi Old Kitty – Hee! Aw thank you, so glad you like ‘Jayne Ferst’ – it has history for me! Your name sounds like my real name – also one of the most common names on the planet! But I LOVE how you think of it as a challenge – that is perfect, and exactly how it should be. I was so fed up and miserable with ‘being me’ when I started this blog – too many unpleasant people in my life back then – hence ‘Jayne’ and being anonymous, but the name sort of stuck!

Hi KarenG – you are totally right – it doesn’t really work for ebooks does it? As all that matters there is typing it in, which makes me think of First/Ferst problems! Oh well... got to get a deal first anyway!

Hi Aubrie – I think ‘D’ is fine. And I love your first name – you are the only ‘Aubrie’ I know! So I’d always spot you on the shelves.

Hi JJ Beattie – Oh that did make me chuckle – having to read out loud first! But that is such a nice tribute to your husband – aw, he sounds the perfect bloke for a writer. I look forward to seeing your real name on your blog! It must feel so liberating to come out from under the anonymity cloak – one day I shall do the same *she vows*

Jayne said...

Hi Heidi – An uncommon name sounds fab, as it will be easy to remember when we order your books!

Hi Carolyn V – Don’t be sad – it’s all about the words inside really, so I don’t think it matters too much where you are on the shelf to be honest. If you are a good writer then folk will go to find you no matter where your books are placed. I’d seek you out!

Hi Christine – Jayne is actually my middle name, so it is still a part of me – maybe that is why it suits? And the surname ‘Ferst’ was chosen to honour my Nan; she had a tough life and was an amazing lady in many ways. So perhaps that cancels out the mild disappointment? I hope so. Thanks for the insight from working in a library – I think unusual names can stick out more in the memory. If you are prolific then that probably helps too!

Hi Rose – Thank you for saying you’d remember it! Yes, easy to remember is a good point, and also about the bookseller – if I go in today and ask someone different I wonder what if their answer would vary? If you surname is weird then I think it would be a bonus – I’d remember it! I have problems more with folk whose names are so similar – like David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) and David Nicholls (One Day). I always get those two confused.

Hi Ann – I actually think Ann Ormond is easy to remember, so ‘when’ you get on the shelves (this blog refuses to think any other way – it is all about optimism!) I think you will be fine. :)

Boonie S said...

Somboon means Perfect - which I'm most definitely not. But I feel like it's a perfectly good name.

Enjoyable post.

Have a good day, Boonsong

Laura Eno said...

I love your mucky mind... :)
If you write a good book people will know your name, whatever it is. And when a mem-, sta-, bookstore person hears the name they'll know the shelf you're on.

Anne Gallagher said...

The name that I'm currently using on my blog is a pseudonym, for all practical purposes, you can't pronounce either my first or last names and it's not that I hate it, it is so unusual I'm just sick of people not knowing how to say it.

Anne Gallgher belonged/s to my great-grandmother, my aunt, my mother and my daughter so I feel it has a lot going for it already.

And I love Jayne Ferst. It's so quick and easy.

Rose said...

I get those 2 David's so muddled- and their work muddled- which isn't ideal as quite different!

I'm reading One Day right now because they are filming near me- it's rather good hey?

Unknown said...

Yes, names are important and I have checked with bookshops and the library before using my own name! And I named the sailing ship in my story after my dear Grandmother...

Jayne said...

Rose - I haven't actually bought One Day yet, keep picking it up and meaning to though. At the moment I have ten books in the 'to be read' pile and cannot add to it as too many in the pile gives me brain ache! Oh but how interesting that they are filming it near you. Wonder who is acting in it... spot anyone famous?!

Carol Kilgore said...

Dear Jayne, who isn't Janye,
I enjoyed this post. Our names are something to think about. Sometimes I think publishers decide for us if we should use a pseudonym. It's good to know where we should concentrate our search for maximum benefit.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Interesting post! I've never even thought of where my book might sit on a shelf. I HAVE thought about the fact that there are a lot of Elizabeth's out there and have taken solace from the fact that there are no Varadans, so that should make it stand out. Alas, now I realize that my books will be on the bottom shelf, and to the far right. Bitter news for a liberal like me!

Private said...

My surname is rather uncommon, so perhaps it will be easy to remember... I checked my local bookshop, I'll be next to Ian Rankin. Not too shabby, eh?

Janet O'Kane said...

Have no fear: up here in Scotland Ferst will be pronounced ‘Fairst’ anyway, so no chance of folk looking for ‘First’.
When I’m not worrying about my work in progress I start asking myself if having an apostrophe (not recognised by many people these days, let alone by computer systems) in my surname would be a handicap.

Anonymous said...

I'm W so I think it will hinder me, usually the end of the alphabet is on the bottom shelves. When I actually sell a novel, I'll worry about it then! Thanks for stopping by and following me!

Susan Fields said...

I never would have thought of that! I have a friend who always tells me I have a perfect author name, but I think something a little more unusual might be better. At least it's easy to spell. It's nice to know "F" is a pretty good letter. :)

Tabitha Bird said...

Hmmm... very interesting. I thought a little bit about what to publish under, but so far I am sticking with my real name. I may have to think later about a pen-name though.

Maggie May said...

I think most of us are writing under pseudonyms.
I don't think my real name would grab anyone's attention.

I found this post fascinating and must admit that I hadn't given any thought whatsoever as to which letter of the alphabet would draw prospective buyers to a book.
I suppose if I was starting at *A*, then I would have more energy & interest than if I had to plough through the whole lot to say, *P*.
However, in the end I would be drawn to the back cover and if the book appealed after reading that I would then open and read the first page. So the content would be the most important thing.

I will never be able to say *Member of Staff* again!!!!!
Maggie X

Nuts in May

Katie Anderson said...

I was lucky enough to be born with an 'A' surname - which I've always thought is good for a writer (top of the bookshelf, right?!)

I always wondered about using a pen name - but vanity over wanting to be known has always won out! It's definitely an interesting idea to pick a surname that hasn't yet been taken by any other writer.

Mise said...

I guess a suitable name depends very much on what sort of book you have written - I'd subconsciously associate Victoria Bellingham, say, with aged grandeur and mildly heightened emotions, whereas Anneka Flock would have written something pacier, containing a revolver. Knowing you slightly from your blog, I'd guess you've written an Augusta Carney book, but I could be wrong. (All names made up).

Theresa Milstein said...

I'm Milstein so - YAY! I wonder if it's big in YA too.
Now to get a book contract. And an agent.

Since the contest entries are done, I'll take the contest off my sidebar. Can't wait to hear the winners!

Eddie Bluelights said...

Hello Jayne,
I'm Eddie and Maggie May's brother. Nice to meet you and I love your blog.
I always thought the term "Member Of Staff" was OK but not from now on! LOL
I loved your post and my first thought was that if someone said Jayne Ferst, the "member of staff" may highlight Jayne First first and Jayne Ferst second so you might lose your place in the pecking order LOL.
Talking of book stores I have a very funny You Tube for you to watch:
John Cleese, Connie Booth - Bookshop

Just google and you'll find it LOL

You will gather that my name Eddie Bluelights is also a pseudonym. I am an ex ambulanceman.

I also run a weekly interview column called The Sunday Roast. A(A gentle slow cooking actually!) and I would like to invite you onto the show. I would be honoured if you featured and I wonder if you would kindly email me on:

and I will send all the details.
Meanwhile if you look at my blog you will be able to see past interviews and current ones.
Best wishes

J.C. Martin @ Fighter Writer said...

Interesting post! I wrote a similar not too long back here about the reason for choosing a pen name:

In any case, mine is just a combination of my initials and my soon-to-be-married surname. Fortuitiously, the surname starts with an 'M', but the downside is there must be hundreds of authors with the surname Martin out there!

The Words Crafter said...

Hmmm, that's something I'd never considered but appears to be something to think about....I would be in the M's....unless I wrote under another name.... said...

Wow I love this idea. I actually changed my name by deed poll because everyone kept getting my given name wrong and then were incredibly rude when I tried to correct them, so I decided on a name that had initials that went better together. Now I'd be an MSM on the shelves, so fingers crossed I'd be picked ;O) How brilliant that would be!Thanks for the fun notion.

Priya Parmar said...

i really thought about publishing under a pen name. My name is tough to spell at first.

i had the one i wanted all picked out--my great grandmother's name. it would have put me on a wonderful shelf with wonderful authors. I haven't checked out who I will be next to. must do that..