Why Use a Pen Name?
There are a number of reasons why an author might use a pen name (pseudonym, nom du plume). Considering using one yourself? Not sure if you need one? Read on to learn all about why an author might choose to use a pen name and if it’s the right choice for you.
The most obvious reason for choosing to use a pen name is plain old anonymity. Maybe you don’t want readers to be able to track you down or you simply have a desire to keep work and your personal life separate. Feeling the need for privacy is a perfectly legitimate reason to use a pen name.
For some people the choice is made out of necessity. It is the sad truth that some authors attract stalkers, both online and in the real world. Using a pen name can feel like a shield against the potential dangers of having a public persona. However, strangers aren’t the only danger. For some people family members or former friends, lovers or spouses can pose a significant threat. It would be much easier for someone from your past to find you if a quick pass through a search engine would turn up plenty of information about your writing, book deals, tours or signings, all associated with the name they know you by.
Protecting the innocent
Writers need to get their inspiration from somewhere and more often than not we get it from our own life and the people who surround us. Sometimes the protrayals are flattering, but more often than not they're honest and honesty tends not to be particularly flattering. Choosing a pen name is a good option if you have a habit of writing about friends, family, clients or colleagues and you would rather they didn't find out about it.
I don’t know about you, but when I pick up a book by Michael Crichton I expect a sci-fi. When I pick up Nora Roberts I’m expecting a romance. If I picked up a Crichton book and started reading about a woman’s ruined love affair minus robots or plagues or technology gone haywire I would be pretty disappointed. For this reason many authors who write in multiple genres (including Roberts who actually writes Sci-fi as J.D. Robb) use a different pen name for each one so as not to confuse old readers, or put off new ones. That being said there is a big camp of writers who feel strongly that you should maintain one name for everything you write but I’m inclined to agree with Roberts, Rice and the many other authors who have successfully evaded confusing me for years.
Establishing a brand
No matter what form your writing takes, novels, plays, blogs, articles etc it's a good idea to establish and maintain a brand that your readers will associate with you and the work you do. Using different pen names for different styles and mediums can allow you to create different personalities that your readers will be able to relate to. For example: Maybe you'll pick a friendly name like Millie Rae and create a bubbly persona for your craft blog, but you also write hard-hitting articles about poltics or health care, maybe you'll pick a name that sounds grave and proffesional like JS Himes. Of course you are a complex enough person that these two traits can coexist in you perfectly but your readers might get a little confused, and you don't want that.
Strange/Boring real name
I have a weird name. It’s uncommon, strangely spelt and pronounced and generally pretty confusing. I don’t want to confuse anybody, especially not my lovely readers. So, I simplified. You may have the opposite problem. If your name is James Smith or Jennifer Brown you may want to spice it up a bit so that readers are more likely to remember you or pull your book of the shelf at a glance.
In some cases it’s required that you change your pen name. I have spoken to authors who have switched publishers and have their new publisher require a name change. Sometimes this is to distance the new publisher from poor sales or reviews. Sometimes it’s because the two publishers have very different brands and it’s important for them to maintain that. Whatever the reason, you may have to submit to a name change in order to sign a book a deal. Is it worth it to start over fresh? In some cases it certainly is, but in others (the brand separation in my opinion) you may want to move one. In either won’t want to take the decision lightly.
Gender neutral names
Unless you’re writing fiction marketed specifically to women and girls such as chick lit, romance, erotica or certain young adult genres it’s a sad fact that readers are more likely to give a book a chance if the author has a male or gender neutral first name. This can affect you at every level. With a very feminine name you may have a hard time landing an agent and a book deal simply because professionals know your book is not likely to sell as well if your name is Emily or Sarah than if it’s Jordan or Taylor.
Maybe none of the above is true for you but you still want to use a pen name. There’s nothing wrong with that. Maybe you have a name in mind that you have always loved and if you can’t have it you want your alter-ego to. You don’t need a reason to choose a pen name, it may just feel right to you.
I chose to use a pen name for a few of the reason’s above. Firstly, my real name is strange and frequently mispronounced. I didn’t want people to have to say, “Hey, did you read that book by…uh…well, I don’t know how you say the name but let me show you.” That’s never good. Secondly, I write in three different genres and use three very different names. Thirdly, two of my names are very gender neutral so that people wouldn’t be discouraged from picking my book up, which, as I said above, is a very real possibility.
You may relate to one or many of the reasons on the list above. You may have a reason that I’ve left out (in which case feel free to let me know so I can complete the list). Choosing whether or not to use a pen name is a very personal decision for a writer. You need to take a look at your life situation and decide what is the best option for YOU. Don’t make the decision because someone else is doing one thing, or your writer friend thinks pen names are dishonest. This is your career and your decision.