When I used to dream about being a published author, I always imagined taking a paperback off the shelf and seeing my name on it. I’m working on book fourteen now and none of them have my full name on. Instead, I have two pen names – Rhoda Baxter and Jeevani Charika.
A great many authors use pen names (or a ‘nom de plume’ if you want to be fancy) for a whole variety of reasons.
But what are the pitfalls to look out for? Do the positives outweigh the negatives? Read on to find out.
Why Writers Use Pen Names
Steven King is also Richard Bachmann, Nora Roberts is also J D Robb, Jill March and Sarah Hardesty, and Dean Koonz has had so many names that it’s hard to keep count. Having all these different names seems unnecessarily complicated. So why do it?
Here are some common reasons:
- Brand differentiation
- Disguising gender or race
- To consolidate several writers under one name
All of these and more are discussed below and, because this is a pros and cons article, there are some pitfalls to watch out for too.
Advantages of Writing Under a Pen Name
This is probably the number one reason that most people want a pen name. Being a public personality can be scary. It may be that you don’t want prospective employers (or clients) to put your name into Google and come up with all the dinosaur sci fi novels you wrote. Or perhaps you write erotica, and you really don’t want your friends and family to know (or worse, if you’re a teacher – the school to know!). If you’ve written something highly political or an exposé about real people, you might not want journalists hounding you for comment.
There is no wrong reason for wanting to maintain your privacy. In this hyper-connected age, it’s nice to be able to put some space between your public persona and your private life.
Some genres have expectations attached. A name like Amy Silver lends itself well to a Christmas romcom, for example, but might jar a bit on the cover of a psychological thriller. But ‘Paula Hawkins’, now that’s a nice thriller name. In case you haven’t guessed, they are the same person writing in two very different genres.
If you write in more than one genre, having two pen names helps you keep your reader groups separate. Sticking with the Paula Hawkins example – having two names stops a reader expecting a romcom and getting a thriller.
Some authors write across genres under the same name, but your publisher may ask you to think about using a different pen name if your new book is a departure from your usual style, or if they want to build a new brand for you. For me, the Jeevani Charika books all feature at least one Asian protagonist, while the Rhoda Baxter ones are mostly about white protagonists.
To Create a Distinct Public Persona
It can be helpful to have a distinct writer persona, especially if you’re shy in real life.
One of my favourite things about having a pen name is that ‘Rhoda’ is slightly different to the real me on social media. While the fundamentals were the same, she’s more outgoing, and much more cheerful than I am. When speaking at events I always feel less self-conscious if I imagine that Rhoda or even Jeevani Charika is a completely different person to me.
Hiding Your Gender
If you’re a woman writing in a traditionally male dominated genre, you might want to use a male pen name in order to sell more books. If you’re a man writing romance or sagas, you might consider writing under a female pen name. Many writers like to keep things ambiguous and use their initials and a last name (which doesn’t have to be their real last name).
Making Your Race Less Obvious
Okay, this is a contentious one. This was one of the reasons my early romcoms came out under the name Rhoda Baxter, rather than my Sri Lankan name.
My first book was about Sri Lankans. I got a lot of very nice rejections from agents with notes along the lines of ‘I like it, but I don’t know where I’d place it’. After a while, I wrote a second book – a romcom about a white heroine. I found a publisher (in the US) relatively quickly. They asked if I was going to use a pen name. I’m a microbiologist by training, so I named myself after Rhodobacter sphaeroides, the bacterium I did my thesis on). ‘Much easier to Google’, the publisher said, approvingly.
I used my own photo in the bio and talked about my Sri Lankan heritage openly – this was not a catfishing exercise – but it meant that on the shelf, my romcom looked like all the other romcoms.
That was 2011. I didn’t get a publishing contract for a book under the name Jeevani Charika until 2018. I know a few other romance authors of colour who started off using white-sounding pen names to get established and then moved to using names closer to their real ones as romance publishers became more open to the idea of non-white names on the cover.
It’s not a good idea to try this if you’re actually white.
To Make Your Name More Memorable
If you have a fairly unremarkable name, then you can have fun choosing a dramatic and memorable author name.
To Differentiate Yourself From Another Author With a Similar Name
Occasionally, you’ll find two different authors who have the same name. This is a huge pain because it confuses retailer algorithms, and it confounds readers. You can avoid this by using a pseudonym or just adding a middle initial to your name.
To Combine the Work of Two (or More) People
The author Juliet Bell writes Bronte retellings set in the early 20th century. Behind the name are two authors (Janet Gover and Alison May) who write romance and women’s fiction. Sometimes a prolific pen name like Franklin W Dixon (The Hardy Boys) and Carolyn Keene (Nancy Drew) can be supported by a whole host of ghost writers.
As a Whimsical Touch to Enhance the Book
Occasionally, you see pen names that are closely related to the characters in the book, which make it look like the book was written by one of the characters. For example, Daniel Handler’s children’s books in A Series of Unfortunate Events are presented as the memoirs written by Lemony Snickett.
Because the Publisher Requested it
Sometimes publishers will ask you to choose a different pseudonym – either for branding reasons, as discussed above; because you’re too prolific and they can’t publish more than a couple of books under each name in any given year; or simply because they want to market you as a ‘new’ author (especially if your last book didn’t sell very well).
Disadvantages of Using a Pen Name
There are undoubtedly many advantages to using a pen name, but it’s not all sunshine and roses. Here is the counter argument.
Your Friends May Not Recognise the Book as Yours
Imagine you’ve just told your friend about the publication of your new book. Being a supportive and delightful person, they talk about it in the pub later … except they can’t remember your pen name. Since friends and family can be a good way to spread the word, you could lose some word-of-mouth recommendations.
More Names Mean More Marketing
I found this out to my cost. When the first Jeevani Charika book came out, I excitedly set up new social media accounts and a new website. But keeping up a presence in all these places is quite hard work with one name – keeping up TWO was exhausting.
In the end, I gave up and changed the name of my Rhoda Twitter account to include both names. I still maintain two separate websites, though. Despite the websites mentioning the other pen name, not many readers click through from one site to the other.
Achievements in One Name Don’t Translate to the Other
As I mentioned before, readers don’t often go from one pen name to another, even in genres that appear to be closely related. So your achievements in one pen name will mean nothing to readers who read the other pen name.
In real life, you could win a major award, but none of your friends would know about it because they didn’t make the connection.
Sometimes the consequences of this disconnect can be massive. An inverse example is Robert Galbraith – whose novels did moderately well, until it was revealed that Robert Galbraith was a pen name for JK Rowling. The books became instant bestsellers.
It is usual to sign publishing contracts under your real name, despite the books coming out under a pen name (you can request that your identity is kept confidential). This makes it easier for the publisher to pay you, as they can send payment to your real name.
If you need to keep your identity secret, you can sign contracts in your pen name, but that may make it harder for you to prove that you are the owner of the copyright and there may be additional hoops to jump through to get your royalties paid.
What if one of your pen names becomes a runaway bestseller? You might want to consolidate all the other books you have under the more popular pen name.
This is difficult, but not insurmountable. Before the Shopaholic books took off, Sophie Kinsella wrote novels under the name ‘Madeleine Wickham’ – they have now been remarketed as ‘Sophie Kinsella writing as Madeleine Wickham’, so that Sophie’s readers can find them easily.
Being More Than One Person is Confusing
Okay, this might be just me, but sometimes I forget which writer persona I’m meant to be. If you’re going on a podcast, for example, it’s good to work out which persona you’re going to be beforehand, especially if your pen names belong to very different genres.
Sometimes Readers Feel Betrayed
This is a strange one. Using pen names is long established in the writing world (George Elliot, George Orwell, Mark Twain are all pseudonyms), but some readers are offended by well-known authors using new pen names. They feel like the author is ‘lying’ to them, especially if an established author is being presented as an exciting new debut. There isn’t a lot you can do about this, apart from telling your followers when you’re starting a new pen name.
Legal issues to Using a Pen Name
- It is not advisable to use an established author’s name as a pen name. If you write a horror novel and stick ‘Stephen King’ on the cover – you will almost certainly hear from his lawyers.
- You can trademark a pen name.
- Signing a contract under a pen name does not let you get out of your contractual obligations.
- In the US, you can register copyright under your real name or your pen name (but the length of copyright is different).
So Should You Use a Pen Name?
Now that you know all the pros and cons of using a pen name, should you use a pen name? There is no right or wrong answer. Personally, I like having pen names (although I find having two hard work). The pen names provide a tiny bit of separation from my books, which helps me feel a little less awkward about promoting them. Think about the pros and cons and work out what would work best for you.
Good luck … whatever you end up calling yourself.
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