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.