“And it’s hard to believe after all these years
That it still gives you pain and it still brings tears
And you feel like a fool, because in spite of your rules
You’ve got a memory
And you can’t talk about it
Because you’re following a code of silence
You’re never gonna lose the anger
You just deal with it a different way
And you can’t talk about it
And isn’t that a kind of madness
To be living by a code of silence
When you’ve really got a lot to say”– Billy Joel, “Code of Silence”
There is one particular blog post I’ve written more than once, and erased more than once. When I write it, I’m typing it up in anger and pain, and I’m usually at a point that’s so low, I can convince myself that by coming forward and saying something, I would be wrong. That I am a bad person for still being angry and hurt. So I always delete it.
It’s a post about my name.
When my first novel, Blood Ties Book One: The Turning was published in 2006, it was under the name Jennifer Armintrout. In 2011, Half-Blood, by Jennifer L. Armentrout, was published, and my life, career, and mental health took a nosedive.
I’ve been pretty honest about the rise and fall of my career as Jennifer Armintrout. I had a great success as a first-time author. My first book made the USA Today bestseller list. The advance on my second contract was in the six figures. I bought a house. I had a wedding. I had another baby. But, I made some stupid choices, and after a failed fantasy series, things weren’t going as well anymore. And then, things started going weird. I started getting praise for the wonderful new book that I’d written. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what the hell anybody was talking about. I responded to one reader to tell her she must have the wrong author; she wrote back to call me “a damn liar”. So, I did a Google search. And then I immediately emailed my agent. I love my agent. She’s very savvy, and a fun person to talk to. She kinda dropped the ball on this one. She told me not to worry about it, since most of my readers knew who I was already. After all, I was the established author, which is why so many people assumed I had written it. Eventually, all the confusion would straighten itself out.
It strikes me as darkly humorous that, when using dictation software to write this post, I had to manually correct “Armintrout” from “Armentrout.” That is how thoroughly eclipsed my former self has been; my own computer doesn’t know who I am.
All of this happened before I became the Jenny Trout you know now. 2011 Jennifer Armintrout was trying to play by the rules. She was trying to sell books for her publisher, and not make waves. If all of this had happened to 2015 Jenny Trout, I would’ve come out of the corner swinging. Today, it happened to 2015 Taylor Law, and I am furious all over again.
2015 Taylor Law is a lot like 2011 Jennifer Armintrout: opinionated, but unwilling to get involved in too much drama, for fear of appearing unkind to other authors or starting trouble, even when keeping silent would be to her own detriment. So when I saw this on my Facebook timeline today, I decided that 2015 Jenny was going to stick up for 2015 Taylor and, finally, for 2011 Jennifer.
Unlike 2011 Jennifer, 2015 Taylor immediately asked for help. This was a great step. 2011 Jennifer wanted to scream out to everyone that would listen that she was afraid of what this would do to her career, but she didn’t. 2011 Jennifer listened to all the bad advice she was getting and played along when people started noticing the coincidence and found it cute and funny.
But, for me, it wasn’t cute and funny. I was angry. I had already established my name as my brand, and now there was brand confusion. I came across a blog interview in which the blogger had asked Armentrout about my characters, because they couldn’t tell us apart. A local bookstore I had previously done signings at contacted me, wanting to know if I wanted to be a part of their YA event, because they thought her series was mine. And, despite reassurances that people who loved my work would still know who the “real” Armintrout was, readers who’d been with me since my first book wrote to tell me how much they loved my new release — not American Vampire, my 2011 novel, but Armentrout’s Half-Blood. My title flopped, hers was an astronomical hit. And that was the end of my career as Jennifer Armintrout. It happen that fast.
The smart thing, at that point, would have just been to call it a loss, and pick a new name. But I didn’t want to do that; it was my birth name. It was how people knew me. It was how all the people who said I was going to be a failure would see how wrong they were. I wasn’t going to give it up without a fight! But the problem was, the fight was over, and I’d already been knocked out. I didn’t get another contract from my publisher (in a spectacular handful of sand in the face, they signed her a couple years later). My sales dwindled. I lost my house. And then I started losing my sanity.
I’ve been open about my struggles with mental illness. I suffer from chronic depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. These all turned against me to create a paranoid pattern-finding machine. What were the chances, my screwed up brain chemistry asked, of both of us having such similar names, being writers, and writing paranormal fiction, albeit for different audiences? Clearly, there had been some kind of mistake. And the mistake was that she was meant to be a successful author, and I wasn’t. That success had just been delivered to the wrong doorstep. I felt like a fraud. I wasn’t a “real writer”, something I’d suspected since the moment I signed my first contract. My brain found all sorts of proof to feed my delusion, including a freaky twist in which both of us made the USA Today bestseller list at the exact same number our first time (okay, my only time). And nobody around me seemed to think the situation was strange or unfair, so my feeling of being wronged in some way was just an overreaction. It just made sense to me that since everyone liked her more, and suddenly no one like me at all, the universe had put everything back the way it was supposed to have been, and I was the failure I’d always suspected I was.
Coming to this conclusion didn’t make the situation any less brutal. At a conference book signing, an enthusiastic reader approached me to gush about how much she loved my books. It became clear to me (and to the authors seated around me) that she was talking about the other Jennifer. Humiliated, I quickly excused myself to cry in the bathroom. At another event, I introduced myself to an author and an editor from Kensington press. When I gave them my name, their entire demeanor changed, becoming very icy. The author leaned over to the editor and whispered something behind her hand, both of them still looking me straight in the eye. The editor said, very deliberately so that I could hear, “no, I don’t think she is either.” In other words, they thought I was some wannabe who had the audacity to pretend to be another author. My existence had been erased, and everything I was proud of, all of my achievements, had been replaced. I didn’t even own my own name anymore. I wasn’t the “real” Jennifer anymore. I was the “other” Jennifer now.
Obviously the only way to save face after this cosmic misunderstanding was to kill myself. I made up my mind to do this the day my inbox exploded with congratulations for my movie deal. This was not my movie deal, it was the Real Jennifer’s movie deal. On social media, authors I had worked with for years were singing the Real Jennifer’s praises; I decided they were all traitors, or worse, that they’d only ever been nice to me because they’d thought I was her. My husband called Bronwyn Green in a panic, and together they talked me out of my suicide plan, convincing me to just wait until I could talk to my therapist.
These days, I’m a lot healthier. Though I occasionally need to use various Chrome extensions to keep her name or book news from appearing on my social media feeds, this is only at times that I’m severely vulnerable to mental illness relapses. I’ve talked with Jennifer L. Armentrout online, and met her in-person earlier this year. She’s lovely, someone I wish I could have met in other circumstances. I’ve read her Lux series, which is fantastic. If you’re into YA romance and aliens, you should definitely give them a try. And that’s one thing that’s held me back about being fully honest about my feelings over the situation. I ‘m a fan of her work. Despite how I might come off on-line, I don’t want to hurt someone for an innocent mistake or a genuinely misguided choice. I’m willing to risk it now to protect Taylor Law, though, because we have a lot in common.
Like me, Taylor is disabled. Her struggle with chronic physical pain has impacted her mental health, just like mine did. When she reached out to her friends today, she got a lot of support, but some people suggested that she just get over it, that she not focus on it, that what she was feeling was unhealthy. When you reach out in pain and receive an ambivalent response, well. That’s a blog post for another time. Taylor says:
“I may sound overly dramatic, and I’ve been told that I should just get over it. But I was already depressed prior to this happening, because when your body turns on you and you can’t walk or remember your kid’s birthdate some days, things feel pretty damn bad sometimes. But no matter how emotional I am, this is wrong.”
What happened to me and what is happening to Taylor Law has happened to authors before. It happened to Nora Roberts in 2012. When it did, she had this to say about it:
“So if you’re named Michael Douglas and you want to be an actor, you become Michael Keaton instead – by, ironically, using Diane Keaton’s last name (whose real name is Diane Hall). Part of all this is due to Screen Actor’s Guild rules, and there are no similar rules for authors that I’m aware of. But, bottom line, to avoid confusion, if your legal name is similar to an established author’s name, you should go by ‘Michael Keaton’ when you publish. Got that?”
Even before this pronouncement from the undisputed queen of romance, writers were advised to check before using their pen name–whether or not it was their real, legal name–before choosing it. Before my first book came out, I searched my name. Ironically, I found a Jennifer Armentrout. She edited cookbooks, and my first agent advised me that it wouldn’t be a faux pas to use my name on my paranormal romance/urban fantasy novels. If I knew then what I know now, I would have contacted her directly to make sure she was okay with me using the name (as it turns out, she was; we’ve been Facebook friends for a while now).
But Taylor W. Law doesn’t edit cookbooks. He writes romance novels, just like Taylor Law does. Nora A. Roberts wrote romance novels, too, and her inclusion of the “A.” was used as evidence that she not only knew who Nora Roberts was, but was also aware that it would be advantageous to use the name while legally differentiating herself (she proudly admitted it was a marketing strategy; her name isn’t really Nora). And Taylor W. Law’s Amazon bio says he works in television, so surely he must have at least heard of the Screen Actor’s Guild law and the very practical reason it exists. When Taylor Law confronted Taylor W. Law, he acknowledged that he was using the middle initial intentionally, to “avoid confusion.” So someone has advised him on this, the same way I was advised that Jennifer Armentrout’s cookbooks wouldn’t be confused with my vampire novels. This is bad advice, and we have to stop handing it out. The average reader isn’t going to take the time to figure out if Taylor W. Law is Taylor Law, or if the Jennifer Armentrout who once edited cookbooks switched vampire novels before becoming a YA superstar.
That’s not the only bad advice going around in Taylor Law’s situation. She’s receiving the same guidance 2011 Jennifer received when she talked about her feelings over the name mix-up. To ignore it, that her readers know who she is, that she’s the better known Taylor. What are the odds that, like Jennifer L. Armentrout, Taylor W. Law will become a #1 New York Times bestselling author? That he’ll get a movie deal? Stranger things have happened, and a career in television might mean Taylor W. Law has access to channels–no pun intended–that Taylor Law has no hope of accessing. E.L. James worked in television, too. And right now, Taylor W. Law’s romance novel is the third result that appears when you search for Taylor Law on Amazon.
Do I think Taylor W. Law is doing this on purpose? I won’t say that, because I don’t know. I do know that I received the same advice about Jennifer Armentrout, editor, that Jennifer L. Armentrout probably got when she found out about Jennifer Armintrout, author. It appears Taylor W. Law has considered the situation from the same angle. But how important is the intent, when Taylor Law was left feeling like this?
“I was gut-punched. My name is my brand. My brand is me and my name. When people think of Taylor Law, they think of me. I may not have that many books out but I’ve spent the past 5 years building my brand, networking, and making connections, and those cross over into the general romance world, too. It wasn’t just like someone having the same name as me. It was like someone had stolen me and my work, all at once.”
When Taylor and I discussed it, she mentioned feeling alone. I know exactly what she means, because I felt it, too. I felt I couldn’t say anything back when it would have mattered. I sat through presentations at conferences where authors, editors, and agents hammered home how important your name is, that it’s your brand, that you must protect your brand. Some of these were the same people who’d cautioned me to stay quiet and not make waves, that it was just a name, that it didn’t matter. It mattered to me. It mattered to me after I changed my professional name, but still had a sick feeling in my stomach every time I signed my legal name. It mattered to me when I changed my legal name to try to get away from those feelings, only to have my grandmother tearfully ask me why I was ashamed to be a part of the family. But there was never, at any point in this, a moment where anyone in the industry (except very close friends) cared about what I was going through. The expectation was that I would sit quietly and Be Nice, because for all we talk about protecting our brand, when it comes time to actually do it, it’s “mean” or “jealous” or “unprofessional”.
If we’re going to keep telling authors to guard their names and protect their brands, then accuse them of paranoia or cattiness if they do, there should at least be some acknowledgement from the bookverse that name confusion can cause actual psychological damage to authors. Even though it’s done without malice, it can destroy a person. It almost destroyed me. I don’t want that for Taylor, and I don’t want that for anyone else, either. I’m happy now as Jenny Trout. It fits me. But Taylor Law fits Taylor Law, and it’s hers. She did the work to build that name, to build her brand, and now she’s being advised to step back and let Taylor W. Law use it. I don’t want to see her lose her hard work. I don’t want to see her erased, the way Jennifer Armintrout was erased. Taylor W. Law has one book published. There’s still time for him to rebrand himself. If he has any compassion or sense of professional ethics, he’ll do it.