Gender Issues In Publishing. Using Initials As A Female Thriller Writer

I have been debating the gender issues in the perception of books for a while now, and I have finally made a decision.

Joanna Penn is now J.F.Penn for thrillers/action-adventure/ anything I write that is in a genre that is dominated by men.

I will use Joanna Penn for my non-fiction and other works I have in the pipeline. Why am I doing this?

Feedback and reviews that I write like a man

Pentecost and Prophecy have some pretty violent scenes. I burn a nun to death on the funeral pyres of Varanasi and disembowel a psychiatric patient in the first few chapters.

It’s not horror but it is thriller with a high body count and I make no apologies for that.

I like action movies. I like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. I love James Bond. In fact, one day, I’d like to be the first female writer to pen a Bond novel – move over Jeffrey Deaver! But apparently it’s worthy of comment when a woman writes this type of thing.

Here’s a comment I received by email about Pentecost.  ‘It seems funny knowing you – I would definitely have thought the book was written by a man…”

and a lovely review stated:

“…this kind of sprawling, globe trotting, religious themed, action adventure thriller is historically the province of men; retired marines, mercenaries or CIA analysts. Or Dan Brown. It’s what you expect. And Joanna is, self evidently to my well trained eye, a woman. So then my not entirely foolish expectation when perusing her first novel was of something a little more, you know, delicate in character….But wow, beneath her pleasant and chirpy demeanour lurks the black heart of a terrorist interrogator, a fearless adventurer.” [Thanks for the great review Phil!]

Thriller novelists need to know how to shoot!

I don’t mind being compared to a man. It doesn’t offend me. In fact, I find it kind of liberating.

But I don’t want any consideration of my gender to come up when someone reads my books. I want them to have a great fun read and escape the world for a time.

So if changing my name to initials stops any second thoughts, then it’s worth it.

Pentecost at #5 on Action Adventure list

Evidence that the categories I want to rank in are dominated by male names

As I write this, both Pentecost and Prophecy are in the Top 100 Action Adventure titles for the first time. (#5 and #82 respectively but you know it changes every hour!)

I’m excited as this is a category I like to rank in. I also rank consistently in Religious Fiction which is a more varied category.

Action Adventure is certainly male dominated. Stieg Larsson, George R.R. Martin, John Locke, Steve Berry, Clive Cussler, Lee Goldberg, Tom Anthony, J.A. Konrath… these are the names from the Top 20 as I read them right now. There are a few scattered female names but it’s an overwhelmingly male group.

I don’t know whether there are more male readers in this category. I certainly buy these authors but I don’t think women readers are that hung up on the gender of the author. But apparently men are and they are less likely to buy from a female name. Feel free to say otherwise, male blog readers!

Men also get more attention and reviews. But I won’t be changing my gender, for now at least!

Evidence of other female writers who use initials or male names

A number of women writers of successful women writers use initials. The reader doesn’t know who they are until they look behind the curtain which, I think, is how it should be.

  • NYT bestselling thriller author C.J. Lyons
  • Baroness P.D. James, whose honours come from services to literature and who is still putting books out aged 92. ‘Children of Men’ seriously rocked.
  • J.K. Rowling. A woman in a man’s fantasy world.
  • Romance author Nora Roberts turned into J.D.Robb for her suspense/crime novels, a more male dominated genre
  • Others include M.J.Rose, J.T.Ellison…I could go on…

Using a male name is an option. A now-famous example in the blogging world is James Chartrand who came out as a woman on after years of writing as a man. Her business is ‘Men With Pens‘ and writing as a man totally changed her business. I’ll be interviewing James on the podcast and we’ll discuss this further.

Does it matter?

The author doesn’t matter. The reader matters.

The author’s gender shouldn’t impact the way the story is read so it’s best to make it a non-issue. Initials are neutral. They have no gender bias and I like that approach.

I know there will be some people who disagree. But I do consider myself a feminist in the truly inclusive sense of the word. Men and women are different but equal and we should all have the same opportunities. I want to be a bestselling, name brand author. This will clearly take some time but I don’t want my gender to be an issue either way as I write the books I want to write.

What do you think about gender in publishing? Are initials acceptable for women to write under? Are male buyers influenced by a female author name?


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  1. Melinda says

    Love this post! I think it is sad that women still have to disguise their gender to sell in certain genres. I write in one of those genres too. I’m still trying to figure out the name I want to put on my books. I don’t think Melinda Primrose will evoke killers in the hearts and minds of anyone who picks up the book.
    Thanks for explaining why you did it!

      • Melinda says

        Love M.P. Rim. Also considering Mel Peters. Peters is my maiden name. Still trying to write a printable book lol. I have one that I hope never sees the light of day. Working on 2 other ones now. I hope to have at least 2 MSs done by the end of the year. Wish me luck lol.
        Thanks for everything.

  2. Krysta says

    Awesome post, and I just found out about Robert Galbraith from you. Thank you for your advice!

    I don’t think I really considered the gender of the author when choosing a book to read, and I honestly can’t recall the authors names of some of my favorite books growing up. But when it comes to specific genres, like thrillers and action adventure, it can definitely be helpful to have a name that flows and makes people think the author’s work will be as interesting as the genre. :)

  3. Rick Castagner says

    Love to read your genre.. just finished an old Cussler, The Serpent”. I have no problem with a female writing these type of books, if I enjoy them. Will check out one of your books.
    Just published a rather timely book on a related subject.. the Evolution of the Modern Male and Female. The book is basically a guide to bring the male and female back together again. Check out my blog..
    First book.. really appreciate the sharing of your publishing and marketing knowledge.
    Cheers from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

  4. Karen says

    Doesn’t writing under a pseudonym make it more difficult to market your book? Do you maintain seperate websites and social media accounts? What about convention appearances? In considering a male name for a work of political fantasy I’ve heard two sides to this issue.

  5. says

    I know this is an old post, but I’m making this decision at the moment, so I’d like to add my two cents.

    I’d decided a while ago to publish under my initials, Z. R. Southcombe, partly just cause it sounds nice. (I know, terrible reasoning, but I like beauty, even if it’s sound beauty!)

    A few friends had suggested publishing under my full name, Zenobia Southcombe. It’s a pretty unique name, and has a bit of an exotic ring to it. Another part of that persuasion is that it is my work, and I should proudly be sharing as such.

    I have decided to go with my initials, though. In the end – like you’ve said – I think my gender is unimportant. Gender neutrality is a theme that’s coming up in my books as well (totally unintended, I might add) and it’s not about being judged as a female, it’s about the fact that being a female is not important to the story, and shouldn’t make a difference either way.

    Love your work, Joanna. Your interviews are so helpful as well!

    Zee x

  6. says

    Hi Joanna! Great insight. If you could go back and do it all over again, would you still have done it the same way (with three years more experience)?

    I’m wrestling with the same problem right now. I write plot-driven, violent, epic fantasy, and have a debut novel publishing soon that I can’t decide whether to put out as “Alexis Radcliff” and “A.R. Radcliff.” I’m having lots of discussions about it and getting feedback both ways. See:

    There just doesn’t seem to be an easy answer. :/

    • Joanna Penn says

      I’m very happy with the outcome and I LOVE having separate brands for my two sides – fiction and non-fiction. I think the initial thing is a good middle ground – as you’re not denying who you are, just using a different version of your name. You could use Alex Radcliff, which is also gender neutral. Better than initials as it’s easier to speak out loud on a podcast :)

  7. Rick Castagner says

    You totally have my support amiga for your thrillers, have read 3 of them, they are very good.
    Love the genrie.. just saw Fast and Furious 7 tonight… emotionally drained… WOW..
    hang in there and count your blessings.. I am an author myself (non-fiction) and still waiting for my series to take off..


  1. […] Gender Issues In Publishing. Using Initials As A Female Thriller Writer (The Creative Penn) — “I don’t want any consideration of my gender to come up when someone reads my books. I want them to have a great fun read and escape the world for a time. So if changing my name to initials stops any second thoughts, then it’s worth it.” […]

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