The publisher warned her that boys might be reluctant to read a novel written by a woman, thinking it was intended for girl readers, and advised her to use her initials.
Did it help? We will never know, but we can be pretty certain it didn't hurt.
That got me thinking about pen names. I'm just about to submit my first YA novel to agents and/or publishers and thinking about doing so under a pen name, instead of Jurgen Wolff, for a couple of reasons.
NAMES AND PERCEPTION
Multiple studies show that someone's name influences how they are perceived by others. Dictionary.com references one such study conducted in the US:
"Participants of the study were asked to guess the success of students with various names on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being the most successful.
The highest scoring names turned out to be Katherine, scoring a 7.42, and Samuel, scoring a 7.20. With a score of 5.74,
Amber ranked lowest among female names while Travis ranked overall lowest with a score of 5.55.
As John Waggoner, a researcher from Bloomberg University, points out: “Katherine goes to the private school, statistically; Lauren goes to a public university, and Briana goes to community college. Sierra and Dakota, they don’t go to college.”
In the UK, Richard Wiseman conducted a study, asking 6000 people about their perceptions of names. The most successful sounding ones were Elizabeth and James, the most attractive ones Ryan and Sophie.
Writers often take this into account when deciding on names for their characters, especially for their protagonist and, if applicable, their villain. They don't usually think of it in terms of their own names.
Research suggests that people decide alarmingly quickly whether or not to pick up a book (or in the case of online listings, whether to click the thumbnail image). They base this on the title of the book, the image on the cover, and the author's name.
I wasn't able to find any studies specifically on the extent to which the name of an author who is not famous impacts sales.
This kind of test has certainly been done on possible titles for a book. Timothy Ferriss tried out several names for his first book. He put ads online that described the book in exactly the same way, varying only the title. The clear winner was The Four Hour Work Week. Since the book wasn't actually available yet, the people who responded where told they'd be notified when it was.
It would be interesting to do the same thing, but varying only the name of the author...If I give that a try, I'll report the results here.
The factor that seems most obvious to me is that it helps if the author's name is congruent with the genre of the book. I'm guessing if one thriller cover featured an exciting image and the author name Mortimer Feeney and another version was exactly the same except that the author's name was Jack Chase, the latter would outsell the former (apologies to any Mortimer Feeneys reading this).
There may also be cultural factors. My first name, Jurgen, is German, and although the recent World Cup win seems to have created a blip of goodwill toward Germans, overall I think there's some negativity associated with German names in the UK, if only subconsciously.
One additional factor based on your surname is that in book stores novels usually are shelved alphabeticalliy by the last name of the author. If your surname starts with W, your books tend to end up on the bottom shelves, where it's less likely to catch the eyes of browsers.
ON THE OTHER HAND...
Of course there are lots of exceptions--authors who have unusual, unpopular, or foreign-sounding names whose books became best-sellers. In fact, it can help to have a somewhat unusual name because it will be more memorable.
IF YOU USE A PEN NAME
Based on a bit of quick research I've done, it seems that the etiquette of submitting material to agents and publishers suggests using your real name in your query letters unless you've already had something published under the pen name.
In a way this is too bad because probably agents and publishers are just as much influenced by names as anybody else. Some sources do say that it's OK to add your pen name on the title page of your manuscript, like this:
written by Mortimer Feeney
(writing as Jack Chase)
THE BOTTOM LINE
Ultimately it's a very personal decision--some authors feel that it's a betrayal to thei family name to use a different one--but compromising paid off for J K--I mean, for Joanne.