Why can't a memoir author be anonymous?

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Lone Wolf

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I know this has been addressed in previous threads but the answers just leave me confused.

In other genres pen-names are used all the time and it seems very rare that anyone has a problem with this. Why does all the advice about using a pen-name for a memoir seem to say it’s impossible? Or are the nay-sayers referring more to calling the author anonymous rather than using a pen-name? If you say it's by "anonymous" I can see that could create a mystery that makes some people want to find out what must be a juicy secret (they assume), but if you use a pen-name is it really an issue?

I've read: It’s difficult to remain anonymous in today’s world. If your memoir is published and becomes even moderately successful then it is highly likely that your true identity will be revealed. Changing names won't protect you. Using a pseudonym won't protect you.

Can anyone support or squash this claim with real facts? How does it come out? Do publishers give away the real identity to maximize their profits or do they put your ID on some readily available website? Do they not have any obligation to keep your ID secret? Could it not be part of the contract that they do?

If you tell your friends and/or family about your memoir I can see it might get out, but discounting that are there other ways my identity will likely come out?

I read that when J.K.Rowling tried to publish under a pseudonym her lawyer leaked the info – but I can’t see anyone bothering to leak the real name of a completely unknown nobody. If a memoir is written by a nobody about nobody famous and not about any known event, why would anybody really care whether the author’s name is really Jane or Jennifer or Esmeralda?
 

Lakey

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I think sometimes anonymity gets compromised because people are generally curious and also, sometimes, not that respectful of the preferences of others. Look up the story of Elena Ferrante for an instructive example. People have done investigative research and written academic articles full of Holmesian deductions about who she “really” is - regardless of the fact that she obviously does not want her pseudonym uncovered.

Some of it is no doubt hostility toward a successful woman trying to control the terms of her own success. Some of it is the desire to prove oneself smarter than anyone else, to solve the “mystery” as a way of demonstrating superior intellect. Some of it is just plain curiosity.

Ferrante’s agent and publisher have refused to confirm any of the speculations, so perhaps that answers your questions about legal (and moral) obligations. But most people don’t have any such duty toward the writer, and so they can say whatever they want. (In Rowling’s case, I suspect the information was “leaked” because without it the The Casual Vacancy would have received far less attention.)

To address your last question, unless you’re of Elena-Ferrante level fame, you probably don’t have to worry about that kind of aggressive disregard toward your anonymity. But if your anonymity rankles or intrigues people - anyone, really, for any reason - there’s nothing to stop them from investigating you to the extent they are able and publishing whatever they happen to speculate about you. And it’s in the nature of memoir, isn’t it, that the very content of it provides rich clues to an intrepid investigator determined to uncover the author’s identity.
 
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I know this has been addressed in previous threads but the answers just leave me confused.

In other genres pen-names are used all the time and it seems very rare that anyone has a problem with this. Why does all the advice about using a pen-name for a memoir seem to say it’s impossible? Or are the nay-sayers referring more to calling the author anonymous rather than using a pen-name? If you say it's by "anonymous" I can see that could create a mystery that makes some people want to find out what must be a juicy secret (they assume), but if you use a pen-name is it really an issue?

I've read: It’s difficult to remain anonymous in today’s world. If your memoir is published and becomes even moderately successful then it is highly likely that your true identity will be revealed. Changing names won't protect you. Using a pseudonym won't protect you.

Can anyone support or squash this claim with real facts? How does it come out? Do publishers give away the real identity to maximize their profits or do they put your ID on some readily available website? Do they not have any obligation to keep your ID secret? Could it not be part of the contract that they do?

If you tell your friends and/or family about your memoir I can see it might get out, but discounting that are there other ways my identity will likely come out?

I read that when J.K.Rowling tried to publish under a pseudonym her lawyer leaked the info – but I can’t see anyone bothering to leak the real name of a completely unknown nobody. If a memoir is written by a nobody about nobody famous and not about any known event, why would anybody really care whether the author’s name is really Jane or Jennifer or Esmeralda?

The issue isn't that writers in other genres do it without problems, so why not memoir writers; it's that when writing memoirs, you usually have more to lose if your family and friends realise you've written about them. It can lead to all sorts of legal trouble, and allegations of libel are very expensive to defend. You only need one person to take offence at what you've written and the book could be dead in the water, with your publisher having to pull it from the shelves--and that could end in you being liable for their costs.

I've worked with several memoirs where the subject wanted to remain anonymous, and it's always been really tricky to achieve. Because there are so many ways in which someone's true identity can leak out.

The problem is that there are so many people involved in the path to publication that somewhere along the line, word will get out.

I know of an agent who worked with one writer on a brilliant but difficult memoir: the agent and author agreed that the author would work with a pseudonym, and that no one outside the agency would know who the writer really was. So the publisher only ever dealt with the writer via email, never spoke to them, never met them, nothing. All went well until someone at the agency referred to the author by their real name when talking to a publisher--just once, and only in passing--and that was that. The publisher realised who the author was, told a friend, and before a week had passed everyone knew.

I don't know any publishers who have given away an author's true identity in order to maximise profits on a book: for a start, if the author was keen on remaining anonymous that would probably be covered in their contract, and publishers do not want to break contracts. It's not in their interests to do so.

If you've written a memoir and are trying to work out how to publish it without anyone finding out that you wrote it, then think about why that is. What would you lose if your family and friends read what you'd written? Could you afford to defend yourself against a legal action? Would it damage your relationships with anyone? Because if those things could give you trouble, consider if you'd happily risk all that happening with only a little name-change to protect you.
 

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A memoir will typically disclose enough to identify a person, whether they use a pen name or not. If you start changing facts to avoid that it loses the truthfulness important to the genre.
 

Siri Kirpal

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A memoir will typically disclose enough to identify a person, whether they use a pen name or not. If you start changing facts to avoid that it loses the truthfulness important to the genre.

Sat Nam! (Literally "Truth Name"--a Sikh greeting)

This is the key issue for me. The more you distort your story to avoid disclosure, the less a memoir it is. It is sometimes possible to leave certain data out without distorting the facts. This is the way to go if you need to keep certain other people out of your story for legal reasons. But leaving yourself out misses the point of what a memoir is.

Blessings,

Siri Kirpal
 

Lone Wolf

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I appreciate all your replies :)
It seems that Ferrante’s publisher (or someone involved) leaked details of the publisher paying her. It's very disappointing that people are so selfish and immoral.
But as you say, I very much doubt my memoir would become famous enough to warrant such curiosity.

I know of an agent who worked with one writer on a brilliant but difficult memoir: the agent and author agreed that the author would work with a pseudonym, and that no one outside the agency would know who the writer really was. So the publisher only ever dealt with the writer via email, never spoke to them, never met them, nothing. All went well until someone at the agency referred to the author by their real name when talking to a publisher--just once, and only in passing--and that was that. The publisher realised who the author was, told a friend, and before a week had passed everyone knew.
I appreciate having concrete examples. This one shows how easily a slip can be made, yet I still feel I would be safe for if my agent let slip my real name it would not mean anything to the publisher.

A memoir will typically disclose enough to identify a person, whether they use a pen name or not
I don't think this would apply to my memoir which is predominately about the secrets we keep, especially sex. My immediate family might suspect by the clue of my sister's anorexia, if they happened to read it. My friends don't know about anything that will go in the book and any recognizable details like my profession, where I live etc are quite irrelevant to the memoir.

So the chances of being discovered seem very small unless the book becomes a best-seller. The bigger risk is probably that it won't be good enough to publish.
 

Emily Winslow

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I don't think this would apply to my memoir which is predominately about the secrets we keep, especially sex. My immediate family might suspect by the clue of my sister's anorexia, if they happened to read it. My friends don't know about anything that will go in the book and any recognizable details like my profession, where I live etc are quite irrelevant to the memoir.

Maybe so, but the lack of concrete detail seems like it could make it much less interesting and readable. Even if your themes are universal, grounding them in a specific reality is usually needed to make a story feel vivid. If your story is floating in space, with the protagonist having no discernible job and taking place in a blank setting, that would likely lower the quality.

Good luck with it! My advice is to write it for yourself, being free with detail, and then consider after what may be too much for publication.
 
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nadja1972

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If you want to use a pseudonym, self-publishing will probably be your only option. A traditional publisher would require you to help promote the memoir by doing public readings, appearing on podcasts, being featured in newspapers, etc. It's tough to sell a debut memoir right now even if you're willing to open yourself up like that. I think it's good advice to write the thing first and then worry about privacy and publication later.
 

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If you want to use a pseudonym, self-publishing will probably be your only option. A traditional publisher would require you to help promote the memoir by doing public readings, appearing on podcasts, being featured in newspapers, etc.

It's "trade publisher", not "traditional". And no, trade publishers really don't require authors to do any of those things if there are good reasons not to--such as having published a memoir which required their anonymity. So long as you're clear upfront about what you can and can't do, publishers are remarkably accommodating.

It's tough to sell a debut memoir right now even if you're willing to open yourself up like that. I think it's good advice to write the thing first and then worry about privacy and publication later.

It's always tough to sell a memoir.
 

nadja1972

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I'm familiar with the terminology but I meant "traditional" as opposed to modern ebook self-publishing. Can you give some examples of memoirs published under pseudonyms? The only scenario I can imagine is if the writer is a political figure or celebrity. And of course memoir is always tough to sell, but from what my agent says, selling debut memoir is harder at this particular moment than it's been in her 20+ years in the business. That's anecdotal evidence but I've also heard that lots of agents aren't even considering memoirs from unknown authors right now because editors simply don't want them.

Not trying to rain on your parade, Lone Wolf! Self-publishing can be a really great option, or you could always write the story as a novel, which is easier to sell under a pen name than memoir. Best of luck with it.
 

Siri Kirpal

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Yep, debut memoirs aren't what agents want at the moment. I have a virtual stack of personalized rejections that amount to: I'd love to, but...

Blessings,

Siri Kirpal
 

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Can you give some examples of memoirs published under pseudonyms?

I know of several, because I ghosted them, but I can't tell you which ones they are because that would be a breach of my contract. Why did you want to know? I might be able to fill in a few gaps for you, even though I can't answer your question fully.

The only scenario I can imagine is if the writer is a political figure or celebrity.

Or a woman who has escaped her abusive partner, or a person who had abusive parents, or someone who was involved in criminal gangs... there are lots of reasons someone would want to hide their true identity.

And of course memoir is always tough to sell, but from what my agent says, selling debut memoir is harder at this particular moment than it's been in her 20+ years in the business. That's anecdotal evidence but I've also heard that lots of agents aren't even considering memoirs from unknown authors right now because editors simply don't want them.

Most memoirs are from celebrities. But there are authors who have broken through. I read An Abbreviated Life last year, which is an exceptional book; I've just finished The Life Of Stuff, which was also good. Agents will consider books which have a good chance of getting published regardless of the author's status: they always have. That doesn't mean that it's easy to get an agent, or a publishing deal: just that if your book has strong commercial potential you have a good chance of getting it published.

Not trying to rain on your parade, Lone Wolf! Self-publishing can be a really great option, or you could always write the story as a novel, which is easier to sell under a pen name than memoir. Best of luck with it.

I'm wary of memoirs disguised as novels, and of novels disguised as memoirs. I don't think they're any easier to sell, and they often have an edge to them which stops them from working properly as narratives in their own right. I would guide most writers away from taking this route, to be honest.
 

nadja1972

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I know of several, because I ghosted them, but I can't tell you which ones they are because that would be a breach of my contract. Why did you want to know? I might be able to fill in a few gaps for you, even though I can't answer your question fully.

I asked so that Lone Wolf could see if any were similar to her situation. Also, with so much emphasis on an author's "platform" these days, I was curious about recent examples of unknown writers who managed to get a memoir deal under a pen name and not have to do any of their own publicity. How were the books you ghosted promoted? Are publishers really okay with an author not doing a book tour, interacting with readers on social media, etc.?
 

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I'm wary of memoirs disguised as novels, and of novels disguised as memoirs. I don't think they're any easier to sell, and they often have an edge to them which stops them from working properly as narratives in their own right. I would guide most writers away from taking this route, to be honest.

Why? Once a memoir gets that fictional edge, the adding of details which could have happened but didn't, it gets more interesting, it has more plot and various angles. And telling the story without letting the characters be recognized as real life people (any similarity is just a coincidence) adds value and safety too. I would like it more as a novel, I think.
 

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I would say there are some life stories that are better told as fiction so you can be more creative with them. I think some memoirs have added value in the fact that they are true because they would seem too unbelievable as fiction and because they can tell us about people or things that we would not have thought existed otherwise.
My story is one that would lose much value (& credibility) I think, if it was presented as fiction - some crazy fantasy that is meaningless because it's so unlikely.

I have an example of an anonymous memoir on my desk - "The Secret Life of A Submissive - a true story by Sarah K", published 2012. Names & details have been changed to protect privacy.

If the market is not good for memoirs right now, that's okay because it will probably be a long time before my memoir would be finished and who knows what the trend will be by then?
 

Lone Wolf

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I also think the idea of publishing what is essentially a memoir and calling it fiction so you can use your real identity is not much protection. You may be able to change enough so you are legally protected but with certain stories, particular anything to do with sex, people do tend to wonder or assume there is some truth to them. I'm thinking of a novel about a wife whose husband is a complete dud in bed so she has torrid affairs. The authors friends and associates still suspect that it was based on truth and that she's having affairs.

If I published it as a novel my husband, sister and best friend would recognise enough truth in it to know it's not entirely fiction and therefore would suspect the rest is true. So then I would have to leave out anything that would hurt their feelings - thereby diminishing the story. Even if my parents and brothers believed it was all fiction they would not believe I could write about BDSM and group sex without having at least an interest in them.

If I told my family and friends that I had a book published (fiction or memoir) they would be sure to read it - that's the last thing I want. If I can get my memoir published under a pen-name (that includes the 'if I finish it' and 'if it's good enough to publish') then I would have to be strong and never tell them I was published. Then they are unlikely to read it and even if they do, there would be little reason to associate it with me. It would be torture to not tell anyone I was a published author, but the only other alternative is to never share my story that begs to be told.
 

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I asked so that Lone Wolf could see if any were similar to her situation. Also, with so much emphasis on an author's "platform" these days, I was curious about recent examples of unknown writers who managed to get a memoir deal under a pen name and not have to do any of their own publicity. How were the books you ghosted promoted? Are publishers really okay with an author not doing a book tour, interacting with readers on social media, etc.?

Platform is generally a requirement for writers of non-fiction, not for memoir or fiction. It's an indicator of expertise and reputation which shows that the author is qualified to write the book.

Very few writers get sent on book tours. Book tours are not very effective ways to sell books unless the writer is already established and successful.

So long as you're up-front about your reluctance to use social media, good publishers won't care. They have other ways to promote books which are far more effective. If you doubt me, then consider Steig Larsson, who wrote The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. He couldn't promote it or engage on social media because he died before it was published. And yet the book was a huge success.

Why? Once a memoir gets that fictional edge, the adding of details which could have happened but didn't, it gets more interesting, it has more plot and various angles. And telling the story without letting the characters be recognized as real life people (any similarity is just a coincidence) adds value and safety too. I would like it more as a novel, I think.

Because, as I said, memoirs converted to novels and vice versa don't work very well as books, in my opinion. They lack integrity. They're round books forced into square holes. And Lone Wolf made a very useful point:

I also think the idea of publishing what is essentially a memoir and calling it fiction so you can use your real identity is not much protection. You may be able to change enough so you are legally protected but with certain stories, particular anything to do with sex, people do tend to wonder or assume there is some truth to them. I'm thinking of a novel about a wife whose husband is a complete dud in bed so she has torrid affairs. The authors friends and associates still suspect that it was based on truth and that she's having affairs.

If I published it as a novel my husband, sister and best friend would recognise enough truth in it to know it's not entirely fiction and therefore would suspect the rest is true. So then I would have to leave out anything that would hurt their feelings - thereby diminishing the story. Even if my parents and brothers believed it was all fiction they would not believe I could write about BDSM and group sex without having at least an interest in them.

If I told my family and friends that I had a book published (fiction or memoir) they would be sure to read it - that's the last thing I want. If I can get my memoir published under a pen-name (that includes the 'if I finish it' and 'if it's good enough to publish') then I would have to be strong and never tell them I was published. Then they are unlikely to read it and even if they do, there would be little reason to associate it with me. It would be torture to not tell anyone I was a published author, but the only other alternative is to never share my story that begs to be told.
 

nadja1972

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Okay, now I understand that it's something you don't even want your closest loved ones to know. I had been thinking in terms of privacy from the public. Sounds like you have the right idea - write the thing to the best of your ability and then worry about the rest later.

But in my experience as someone who queried dozens of agents before finding representation for my memoir, platform is an important factor. Many agents won't consider manuscripts by writers without a certain number of twitter followers, an essay that's gone viral, etc. They want a solid indication that a built-in audience exists for the book. I don't think that used to be the case when the memoir market was more open, but it's a concern I've run into again and again.
 

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Many agents won't consider manuscripts by writers without a certain number of twitter followers, an essay that's gone viral, etc. They want a solid indication that a built-in audience exists for the book.

This goes against so much that I've been told by agents and editors that it makes me boggle. Are there really agents who specify this? Can you give me a link or two? Because what I've always been told is that it's the book that counts. That publishers employ publicists for a reason.
 

Siri Kirpal

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Eric Myers is the first one I can think of. But I've axed half a dozen agents off my potential list because they want memoir "with an established platform."

Blessings,

Siri Kirpal
 

nadja1972

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This goes against so much that I've been told by agents and editors that it makes me boggle. Are there really agents who specify this? Can you give me a link or two? Because what I've always been told is that it's the book that counts. That publishers employ publicists for a reason.

Here's a smattering of tweets from agents talking about rejecting memoir queries for lack of platform: https://twitter.com/search?f=tweets&q=#tenqueries memoir platform&src=typd

An article in which agent Regina Brooks says platform is a "must have" for memoir: https://www.lisatener.com/2011/02/l...ooks-on-how-to-publish-a-memoir-3-must-haves/

From Andrea Hurst Literary Management’s Querytracker page: "Non-Fiction: Only accepting nonfiction submissions from authors with a substantial platform who have already developed a solid, highly polished proposal "“ this includes memoirs."

Rob Kirkpatrick from the Stuart Agency’s guidelines. What he is seeking: “I am interested specifically in memoirs from authors who bring significant media platforms or institutional connections that would enable publishers to project a substantial target audience.”

Asked "What do you need to see in a new memoir submission? Anthony Mattero from Foundry: "A large platform from which to sell the book. This doesn’t just mean a large number of followers on social media (though that never hurts) but that the author is an expert or specialist in a certain field or can otherwise prove that there is a large and engaged fan base or audience that is primed to buy something written by the author.

The former slush-pile reader for agent Kate Epstein talking specifically about memoir submissions: "I learned about the platform concept immediately, because it was often Kate Epstein’s reason for rejecting an otherwise well-written pitch (“this would be hard to place without a substantial author platform”). It took some getting used to, especially if I’d enjoyed an author's sample chapters."

My aspiring memoirist friend who queried
Christopher Schelling: "I sent him my first two chapters and he loved my writing but said he wouldn't be able to sell it because of my lack of platform. He said that he has an SNL writer's memoir that is bogged down with the big publishing houses over platform - hard to believe."
 

Siri Kirpal

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And then there was the lady at a writing conference I attended. She'd written a memoir about her experience as a cook on a scientific exploration sea-going vessel, which sounds mighty interesting. One of the agents she spoke with didn't even ask for sample pages because he didn't think her platform was up to snuff. And no, her experience didn't count as platform in his eyes.

Blessings,

Siri Kirpal
 

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He said that he has an SNL writer's memoir that is bogged down with the big publishing houses over platform - hard to believe."

Sat Nam! (literally "Truth Name"--a Sikh greeting)
She'd written a memoir about her experience as a cook on a scientific exploration sea-going vessel, which sounds mighty interesting. One of the agents she spoke with didn't even ask for sample pages because he didn't think her platform was up to snuff. And no, her experience didn't count as platform in his eyes.

I think this becomes clearer if you think of 'platform', not as people who follow you, but as people who would actually lay down money to buy the book.

Is the SNL writer one of the big-name writers? Big enough to be known on their own?
Is this memoir likely to be a book about how they became a TV comedy writer? Not likely to be of interest to anyone except a few beginning writers.
Is the memoir about the goings on in the writer's room, and behind the scenes in general? Might get a few more people, but, again, as specialized audience.
Is the memoir a lurid tell-all of shenanigans by the SNL cast? The sort of thing the tabloids would kill to get their hands on? Oh, yeah, there's an audience for that kind of thing, but you have to balance that out against the backlash from ex-friends and future employers.

As for the cook on the scientific vessel, why are people going to read her story? Is it a cookbook, either about seafood, or large scale cooking in tight quarters? Again, specialized interest.
Is it about her experience on the voyage? Unless she's the sole survivor of the ship's sinking, I assume it would be chiefly working (down below, in the kitchen) sleeping, with occasional forays on deck. Not terribly interesting.
Maybe the ship had some major problem? Sinking, mutiny? Okay, but why is she telling it?
Also, if anything was discovered, or important scientific work done - is she the best person to tell the story?

I would think all this could be overcome, if the writer was brilliant, preferably funny, and the reading public knew it. That kind of platform. But, barring that, what would sell this story?
 
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Yeah, I'm not sure agents mean 'number of twitter followers' as much as 'potential audience' when they talk about platform. At least, I hope so, cos if the two are considered the same now then God help us all.
 

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