Should you use a pen name? Why might you? What problems might it cause? I rounded up a quiver of authors with noms-de-plume and asked them to answer some practical questions.
First of all, why?
An author name is a brand, of course, and traditional publishing has a long history of strategic pseudonymery. Names or initials might make a writer sound more exciting, more serious, more like an already famous author (JRR Tolkien and George RR Martin, anyone?). Androgynous names might do you favours if your readership is gender sensitive. A new surname might put you at a more visible part of the bookshelves or next to giants of your genre (George RR Martin again).
Even a change of nationality might send interesting signals to the reader. Earlier this year I was at an event with Sophie Schmidt, head of author relations and marketing at Epubli, and she told me that German erotica authors often choose English pseudonyms. More tea, vicar?
Multiple identities for separate markets
Deborah Swift (@Swiftstory) has published four historical novels under the name Deborah Swift, and one novel, Past Encounters, under the name Davina Blake (here’s her Undercover Soundtrack). ‘I use a pen-name for Past Encounters because it has a narrower focus, being a close study of two relationships. My publisher was not keen on me changing to a more modern genre (WWII), and rejected the book. I did not want to go through a long submission process, so I self-published to be available for the 70th anniversary of the filming of Brief Encounter and the bombing of Dresden which feature in the story. I thought Past Encounters would attract a different kind of reader, and this has proved to be the case.’
Do you always need to separate yourself so much? Maybe, maybe not. Read on.
Conflict with professional role – a tale of two doctors
Wolf Pascoe (@WolfPascoe) is an anaesthetist as well as a poet and playwright, and you might have seen the Undercover Soundtrack for his poetic memoir, Breathing For Two. ‘I decided in writing about anesthesia to use a pen name for patient confidentiality. Of course, I don’t use real patient names, and I take pains to change any identifying details, but I wanted an extra layer of security. Also, as I’m still practising, I didn’t want there to be a chance that I’d encounter a new patient who might worry I’d be writing about them in the future. And finally, I’d rather not have my hospital knowing about my writing activities — this gives me more freedom to say what I want to say about the medical establishment without fear of retribution.’
In the opposite corner, though, is Carol Cooper (@DrCarolCooper) (also an Undercover Soundtracker). Carol writes parenting books, fiction, tabloid journalism – and practises medicine – all under her real name. ‘From time to time, I’ve been advised to use a pseudonym for different types of writing. After all, I still see patients and teach medical students, so I need to be taken seriously. But my name is part of me, part of my brand. In the distant past I’ve used jokey pen names like Saffron Walden and Cherry Hinton, and written a column pseudonymously as a nurse called Rosemary Sharpe, but nowadays I want potential readers to find me.’
But these days… is there anywhere to hide?
In these superconnected times, a pseudonym is easily busted. Kristen Lamb makes some good points here about the realities of using pen names, particularly if you’re trying to keep your writing activities secret.
Basically, the internet will outsmart you. Real-life friends will innocently post pictures of you on Facebook, and even if they don’t think to tag you, Facebook’s facial recognition software will prompt them to. People who know you as two names may use the wrong one at an inappropriate moment because they didn’t know it was important to keep the distinction.
The double-named life has lighthearted challenges too. Elizabeth Spann Craig (@ElizabethSCraig) who writes three cosy mystery series, one under the pen name Riley Adams, was on a book tour and didn’t notice a bookstore employee calling out ‘Riley? Riley?’ until she was prodded by another author on the tour. Then you have to form an autograph in the alternate name: ‘My signature for the Riley Adams name is appallingly indecipherable…and I had to buy a book or two when I accidentally signed stock with the wrong name.’
Selfpublishing under more than one name = multiple accounts?
On Amazon this isn’t too tricky. KDP and CreateSpace allow you to associate your real account with any pen names you want, so all the revenues can flow to you. There’s no need to set up separate bank accounts. Kobo allows you to enter any name you like in the author field when you upload a book.
Smashwords, however, can’t accommodate more than one author name on a standard account. It offers an upgrade for publishers, agents and other bodies who might want to publish more than one author. Notes are here.
What about social media?
Now this is where the double life becomes a strain.
Elizabeth Spann Craig: ‘There are only so many hours in the day for us to promote our books. After a few mistakes, including Facebook and Twitter accounts under the pen name, I decided to promote as myself. I mentioned my pseudonym and other series in my bios. On social media sites and in my newsletters, I direct readers to my website, which lists buy-links for both series.’
Deborah Swift: ‘I have two Twitter accounts and two websites. It also helps me when networking with other independent authors if I am clear that Davina Blake is an independent author, whereas Deborah Swift is not. In a sense, the boundaries are artificial, but they help me maintain a more honest relationship with my readers and with other authors.’
Wolf Pascoe: ‘Both Wolf and real-me have Facebook accounts. This is against Facebook rules. I probably should have just had an author page for Wolf, but I’ve left it that way for now. I have a regular Google account for both real me and Wolf. This is probably also against the rules. I don’t really take the rules of corporations seriously.’
A tale of two Twit(ter)s
I’ve messed about with multiple Twitter identities myself. When I launched my first novel, I decided I had to keep my fiction identity separate from the writing tutor identity. I wasn’t using a different name, but I was aware I might have two distinct audiences. This was the post where I explained the grand plan. Note the updates from 2014, when I finally decided it was too much. When I returned to just one Twitter handle for both strands of my writing life, the firmament didn’t crack.
Times change. Readers are now more interested in the real people behind author names. Might pseudonyms be less necessary or more necessary than ever? And why?
John Dugdale recently wrote in the Guardian about a decline in the use of pseudonyms. On the one hand we have Robert Galbraith very famously unmasked as JK Rowling. On the other, we have Jeanette Winterson (among others) venturing into new quarters of publishing that, in years gone by, might have been cause to launch with a new name. Today they’re flying as their undiluted selves.
Elizabeth Spann Craig: I think it depends on your motive. Some choose pen names because they’re concerned about upsetting family with their content and they want to be completely anonymous. This approach can be especially tough since discoverability depends so much on online interaction between author and reader. But I think pseudonyms can still have their uses — especially if we explore other genres and our dedicated reader base might be resistant to something strikingly different.’ (Indeed, since this interview, Elizabeth has released her first cosy zombie book as Liz Craig.)
Elizabeth again: ‘The last thing we want to do is create more work for ourselves. If we’re absolutely sure we need a pen name, and we already wrote under a different name, we can limit the social media in the pseudonym’s handle. But if you’re starting out fresh as an author and are only writing under a pen name, it will be easier to have extensive social media platforms for the name. In that case, the only problem for the author who wishes to be anonymous may be the author picture – also a vital part of online presence.’
Some writers find that a separate identity has other benefits too. Here’s Wolf Pascoe again: ‘It’s fun being Wolf. I like Wolf Pascoe as a name better than my real name. But I had a sort of reputation as a poet and playwright as real me, and starting over as Wolf writing narrative, I may have lost some career momentum. This was a drag. Also, I had originally used Wolf’s name when I started blogging, and thought it might free me up to be more open about my darkness. But enough people know about the connection between Wolf and real me that I’ve had to censor my darkness as Wolf, just as I would as real me. On the other hand, Wolf will occasionally say lighter things that I wouldn’t, so in that sense, it’s been freeing. At some point in the future, when I stop practising medicine, I’ll probably make the connection between the two names more public.’
One becomes two; two become one. Has the pseudonym ever been so fluid before now?
Thanks to my interviewees Deborah Swift, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Wolf Pascoe and Carol Cooper. And to JenFoxd for the Penguin Superman pic.
Over to you. Have you used, or considered using a pen name, or publishing under more than one name? Do you have any experiences to share or questions you’d like to put? Let’s discuss.
59 thoughts on “Should you write under a pseudonym? Pros, cons and practicalities in a digital world”
Reblogged this on Annette Rochelle Aben and commented:
A great article, sharing food for thought!
Thanks, Annette – nice to meet you here as well as on Twitter!
Reblogged this on Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life and commented:
An interesting article on writing under a pseudonym.. the pros and cons..as the article points out where as in the good old days you could get away with anonymity, if you are marketing your book on social media it is difficult to do so without giving the game away. As an author in a sea of others I am even more aware that people buy people first. I respect that there are professional reasons for maintaining some distance between a day job and writing certain genres of books but generally most backgrounds add credibility to a writer. Anyway what is your opinion and head over to the post and leave it there for discussion.
Thanks for the reblog!
Like the way you explored so many aspects of this topic. Good reasons for and against.
Thanks, and I have to say you win the prize for cutest pseudonym!
Reblogged this on Kim's Author Support Blog.
Thanks for the shout-out. It’s really a tricky issue and much goes to MOTIVE. First of all, I can’t say what is “right” for anyone else. I will, however say that do not complain to me about social media being too much work if you have more personalities than Sybil running around unattended.
I think a lot of the reasons writers used to need pen names has gone away. For instance, PLEASE keep that difficult to spell/pronounce last name. I have run across all kinds of writers with a name that is a search engine DREAM change it and I am all NOOOOOO!
DO NOT change Skjolvich to Browne.
In the case of Skjolvich, we just have to be able to remember “Skj” and google will supply red slanty letters to correct us if we oops it. There are a GAJILLION “Brownes” and that is a nightmare to brand.
Also, we no longer need pen names to separate genres and keep readers from getting confused. Most people do not religiously read one genre. Rather, they follow the AUTHOR.
I think we can actually hurt ourselves with a pen name because we make assumptions for the reader we have no way of making. I read all kinds of genres. I read everything. In fact, readers who hard core read only ONE genre are actually fairly rare.
Thus it is fairly presumptuous on our part to say that “Well I used a different name because my fantasy wouldn’t appeal to the same reader as my thrillers.” The thing is, maybe it doesn’t but we gave them no choice. We made the choice for them.
I put the same name on everything and if from the cover, title and the book description it doesn’t appeal? Then they don’t buy it. Simple. But I don’t just assume a reader won’t want it. I am not a mind reader and I have better things to do than build separate platforms for every different genre I want to write. The digital age is WAY more dynamic and artists have far more flexibility.
Whenever we consider a nom de plume we do have to consider it WILL be a pain. It is extra work. I write using Lamb. That IS my name. It is my MAIDEN name. I was a branded writer before I married.
You have no idea how many times I’ve gone to a conference and they screwed up the reservation because my driver’s license didn’t exactly match my reservation so I had no room. You have to have extra steps and the bank and social media and on and on and sure. Do it. Have fun storming the castle. But Lamb is MY name and it can be a pain in the @$$.
So I just recommend writers think long and hard because it IS a business decision and one we should not take lightly 😉 .
Hey Kristen – great to see you here, and thanks for that common sense. Especially about the search engine typo adjuster!
Some people consider my brand – A. Marie Silver – to be a pseudonym but it’s not. Allison Silver – my full name – was shared by someone else who dominated the search engines under that name. So I abbreviated my brand to stand out.
Hi Allison! I remember your name because I mistakenly called you Amarie when you commented on a previous post!
No worries! I’ll respond to just about anything as long as it’s not crude. Unless it’s a really original crude name and then I might….
Reblogged this on J.A. Stinger.
Thanks for the reblog!
Thanks for featuring me and my alter-ego! Actually, since writing the article I have found the pseudonym more difficult to manage, because doubling everything you do is not easy. Especially producing quality historical fiction for two different pen-names. What the separation does do, however, is to focus my attention on the sort of reader I am writing for in a very particular way.
Historicals are awkward beasts – readers like some periods more than others, and WWII is considered too modern to be ‘historical’ for some historical fiction fans. Blogging as Deborah Swift about corsets and farthingales might be appropriate, whereas fans of Davina Blake would prefer me to blog about events in the 20th or 21st century.
I think each author has to decide what suits them and their readers. Publishers like to ‘brand’ an author name, and in this new climate of digital, many authors can be both self-published and traditionally published. My publisher created one brand for me, and I have created another. As long as readers still find your books, a pseudonym can mean the relief of breaking free of a mould that someone else has created for you.
Hi Deborah! Thanks for following up – and I like your point here about blogging, and the different interests of your readerships. I know what you mean about the double Twitter identity. I did it for three years before I decided it was just too much. Also, though, I think times have moved on. Many of us probably tried the pen-name angle when the ways of trad publishing were more established, but the online world has smoothed some of those old distinctions away.
I hope when I identified your Twitter identity in my piece, that I picked the right one!
I use my initials rather than my full name – not quite a pseudonym, but it gives me a layer separating the author me from the career me. I work in schools and don’t want kids or their parents to be able to easily find what I write, because I’ve heard too many horror stories about what happens when people find out teachers have a life outside school. While it’s extra work to keep my author profile separate, and it’s not a perfect separation, it’s worth it to protect my non-writing career (which I intend to keep, no matter how successful my books are).
Welcome ‘ED’ – and I imagine you’re not alone in using initials to create distance between your selves. What do you do when you’re appearing at an author event? For instance, at a bookshop signing, how do you ask bookshop staff to address you?
For live stuff, including writing groups, I introduce myself with my real name and add that I publish as “E.D. Martin.”
Sent from my iPad
Interesting read for an aspiring author. I enjoyed both sides of the coin 😉
It’s my pleasure 🙂
What about the situation of an already published author sharing your name? I just learned last week that there’s a different “Matt Hill” publishing sci-fi. If I wanted to publish in that genre, what would be the best option? I want to use my real name, but confusion with another author would need to be avoided.
hi Matt! Probably there aren’t many authors with unique names. But this is an interesting question. Has anyone else had to deal with this?
There are already multiple Jim/James Browns with published works. My next novel, dropping in December, will be under a pen name.
I chose a pen name for two primary reasons: my “real name” is associated with my nonfiction work, and it is so common that no one could possibly sort me out of a Google search. However, if you search on my pen name, I dominate at least the first ten pages of results.
I don’t have plans to write in another genre, but if I did, I doubt I’d choose another pen name. The social networking burden would be too much. I have a real name account on Facebook and that account owns my pen name’s author page. I have a real name blog that has articles related to my nonfiction, but I no longer post to it. I also have a blog for my pen name that is still active, although not as active as it should be! Other than that, I mostly create social networking accounts for my pen name only.
I did not create a pen name for anonymity reasons. Although Daniel rarely mentions my real name, my real name Facebook page is filled with posts where I talk about what I’m doing as Daniel. For the most part, my online writer friends and my readers know me as Daniel. Anyone who tried could figure out my real name, but there really wouldn’t be much point.
My advice for others would be to look seriously at what you are trying to accomplish. A pen name may be exactly what you need or it might introduce unnecessary overhead. In general, I’d say avoid creating a pen name unless you have a compelling reason to do so. Using a pen name does introduce extra work, but the results may be worth it. It has been for me.
Hello Daniel! I’m glad you replied to this one (and that I’m one of the few who knows your other name… I feel I’m in a select group!)
I write under my maiden name. Partly to give my family a little privacy, but mostly because when I started writing and networking, that was my name. I didn’t want to have to re-brand with a new last name, so I just kept it going! It works fine except that whenever I sign anything I have to pause and remember if I am author-me or mommy-me, LOL!
Hi Kerry! I’m glad you brought up the subject of maiden names – an extra layer of decision for we of the XX chromosomes!
When I started writing in a serious way, I was newly married. But I wondered whether to use my maiden name because I imagined that people I knew at school or college might one day hear ‘Roz wrote a book’ and then be unable to find it without my original surname. But it got awkward trying to introduce myself in real life as the old name, particularly as I got used to my own new name, so I dropped it. Now with Facebook, I can keep in touch with those college and school friends more easily anyway – and we all slide effortlessly between our old and new names!
Yes, we are all rather fluid in our old and new names these days between friends! 🙂 So far I am not finding it awkward to toggle between names, so hopefully that will continue. I have so much brand-building invested in the old name, I just don’t want to start from the bottom again. Besides, I still think of myself as Gans, even though it’s been 7 years! When people call me Mrs. X, I take a minute to realize they mean me. 🙂
I use a pen name because Jonah Gibson is much easier to pronounce and to remember than Bob Meixner. I don’t really care who knows that we share identical DNA. I only care that someone buys my books, reads my blog, and has a reasonable chance of remembering my name.
Thanks for stopping by, Jonah (and I bet that looks nice on a book cover!)
If you have a very common name, shared by multiple other writers, you NEED to have a pen name.
So what did you choose, Jim?
I have a pseudonym because my legal name is also the name of a NYT bestselling author.
Twenty-five years ago, my first book was published under my legal name – the same as TWO other authors at that time. One of them had just started using her new married name, so she was out of the picture. The other had written two historical romances (like my first book) but had just switched to a hot new subgenre that would eventually take her up the lists. She told me she had to fight to add her middle name because her publisher thought it was too long. She said she didn’t have any problem with me using my name but urged me to use my middle name, too. My then-agent had assured me that my middle name would be included but, well…the short version is– it didn’t happen. Back then, tracking sales was archaic. I learned from book representatives that there was no way to differentiate between authors of the same name. I know for a fact that my sales were boosted by the mix-up with the other author because I was getting fan mail from her fans, mistaking me for her. However, my low print-run worked against HER sales numbers. Oh, what a mess. I had a sinking feeling my agent knew this would happen.
Afterward, I wanted to switch to my hard-to-pronounce ethnic maiden name, thinking the uniqueness would be an advantage — as Kristin Lamb mentioned in her comment. But my agent hated it and told me not to do it. I changed agents and sold two books to two different publishers. but one refused to allow me to use my full name after I had already been using it with the other publisher. Having two similar but slightly different names was awkward.
After a long hiatus from publishing and issues over my family’s name, I decided to write under a pseudonym. There was a college professor with the same name who authored an academic book that was out of print, so I assumed I was safe using the name. But the non-fiction book was re-issued as an e-book a few years ago.Since then, a young actress with the same name has emerged as an audio book narrator. Oh well.
As for being “outed” on the social media, I have Facebook accounts for my writing name and my legal name. The private-life friends on my writer FB page rarely slip and mention my real name. Unfortunately, one person still posts with my real name as if she wants to show off that she personally knows me. That’s a bit annoying.
I’m wondering, though, about the legalities of using a pseudonym. In California, I registered a “Doing Business As” for my pen name so it could be used on my bank account and as copyright holder. Last year, I moved to Nevada where real names cannot be registered as a legal entity. Instead, I can only register my publishing company. Frustrating. Now I need to file changes to my copyrights.
Heavens, Gillian, what a saga. Especially when you were obstructed from following your instincts – and then this legal complication with your new state. I hope you get it sorted out. As if we writers didn’t have enough to do. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your story.
Hi Roz. Both your post and the comments have been very illuminating. Thanks for including me. I agree with everyone who cautions about the added overhead of a double identity. It’s a little like taking a lover, seductive and liberating at first, then messy and complicated. I often ask myself how this is going to turn out.
‘Like taking a lover’ – indeed! Great comparison, Wolf – and thanks for your honest and illuminating thoughts.
Pen names are necessity for foreign writers. I have two thrillers coming out in 2016 – and I can’t publish them under Kujundžić 😀
Wow, it is exotic, though. What name did you choose?
Yeah, it is exotic. But just imagine a potential reader trying to tell his friend about a new book from his favorite KhhkJun–kjak-kh džić? That name needs a manual 😀
I chose Val Wenel 😀
Well, best of luck, Val!
Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
This re-blog, with Roz Morris, delves into more about Pen Names than you might have ever thought to ask 🙂