Pen Names: Should You Have One?

There is no right or wrong answer to this question.  Some authors use pen names and others don’t.  Each author will have to decide if having a pen name is right for him/her.  But I thought I’d present a couple scenarios where it might make sense to have a pen name.

Why use a pen name?

1.  You don’t want anyone knowing your real name.

Erotic authors fall easily into this category.  If you’re writing something that might cause unease in your real life with people you know, a pen name can help buffer you.  Or maybe you’re writing something that you know will cause a lynch mob to come after you.  Not every book out there will make everyone feel all warm and cuddly inside.  If you’re writing something controversial and you don’t want to deal with that controversy, you might want to use a pen name.

2.  You want a different name.

Maybe you got a divorce and don’t want to use your spouse’s last name, so you decide to use a pen name.  Maybe you don’t like your real name and wish your parents had named you something else.  Maybe there’s already an author with your real name out there, and you don’t want to come up under their search engines.

3.  You want an easy way to tell readers that a certain pen name is under a specific genre.

Let’s say you write multiple genres, so you decide to use one name for one genre and a different one for another genre.  That way, readers know that a certain name will lead them to a particular book.

Should you keep your pen name a secret?

It depends on whether or not you want everyone to know the pen name.

It’s easier to market a book if people know about the pen name because you’re cross-promoting.  However, just because you let people know the pen name exists, it doesn’t mean you’ll automatically sell the book.  I’ve used pen names and told people the books existed and got no sales from it.  I’ve written different genres and put the same name on them that I use for my romances, and that hasn’t made a difference in sales either.  So letting people know about a pen name doesn’t mean you’ll sell more copies.  Keep that in mind as you decide whether to expose your pen name or not.

You might want to keep your pen name a secret if you have time to work under that pen name on social sites.  A reason to expose a pen name might be lack of time to promote that pen name and by letting people know about the pen name, you save yourself promotion time.  But if you have the time to blog, Tweet, FB, or whatever under your pen name, then you might want to do it.

You want to be free to write books you want without readers requesting you write a certain book.  This only works when your pen name isn’t well-known to many readers.  Let’s say you’re already a well-known author with a busy writing schedule, but you want to  write other books to that wouldn’t be popular with your readers.  You might also want the freedom of writing something that few, if any, people want to read.  I don’t believe that the goal of self-publishing has to be writing books to make money.  Sometimes authors just want to write books and publish them for themselves.  There’s nothing wrong with this.  If this fits and you want to be an unknown author so you don’t have pressure coming in to write this or that, this might be a reason you’d want to keep a pen name secret.

You know the material you’re writing could cause grief if your real life circle of family and friends found out.  Hey, why stir up trouble if you don’t have to, right?

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If anyone can think of anything to add to the list, feel free to comment.  :D

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19 thoughts on “Pen Names: Should You Have One?

  1. A pen name might be useful if you have a long, difficult-to-pronounce-or-spell monstrosity, like the one I was born with.

  2. I use them for different genres, and because I don’t like my actual name.

    • Looking back, I think I should have used a pen name for the sci-fi thriller I did. Also, if you don’t like your name, why not pick one you do like for a pen name? I think that’s a good reason.

  3. I use a pen name because it would make my life difficult if certain people knew I wrote paranormal romance. ;)

    • That’s a great reason. I know some teachers who write erotica use pen names, and after one author got fired because people found out her erotica pen name, who can blame authors for wanting a pen name? Sadly, some people will freak out if they knew what we wrote if it’s something they consider “wrong”.

  4. Ruth, yours was a timely post. In addition to my real name, I use pen names to protect my feelings. My works are my babies. Some are not so nice and sweet, just as all children (and many adults) are not. I believe that a good story is worth telling, whether or not I side with the story’s perspective, idioms, coarse language & content, or its characters’ POV. Furthermore, I have a few plot outlines that I refuse to develop into books because they completely go against my ethics and morals.

    Unfortunately for me, during a moment of giddy euphoria, I told a few family members one of my pen names. They found some of my less-than-flattering stories. I have been raked through the coals and chastised for writing what I believe are good stories. It’s absolutely bizarre that they can’t get in their pea brains that I write FICTION that is not derived from my life and personal experiences – even when I add such a disclaimer to my “author’s note” at the end of a story.

    Lessons learned. I’ll never tell anyone a pen name unless I’m okay with it and my titles appearing on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Then, when confronted by pretentious family members. I dismiss them with an “I’m sorry you feel that way,” and then quickly excuse myself.

    The pen name was a growing brand for me, but I’ve had to stop writing under it because anything I publish under it will invite further intimidation and scrutiny. It’s just not worth the heartache.

    Thanks for letting me share my story.

    Take care,
    LC

    • I’m sorry you went through all of that. After going through a psycho-husband of one of my readers, I know people can get bent out of shape over books. (Your situation was worse than mine. At least, I wasn’t related to him.) And yes, characters do their own thing and are their own way, and just because characters do something, it doesn’t reflect how we (the authors) are. I don’t get why some people can’t understand that. But since some don’t, a pen name can be a great way to protect yourself.

      It’s just so awful that you had to go through all of that.

  5. You might have written a book that is political, polemical, and very controversial; possibly the sort of thing that polarises people quickly. So you write under a nom de plume. You rub your hands with glee, believing you’ll start generating sales immediately. But lo and behold! you’re selling no more than one or two books a week. So what do you do? Now you get yourself a nom de guerre. Using this new name, you trawl the blog sites where the opinions are mostly opposite to those in your book. You slate off your own book on these blogs, encouraging others to buy it just in order to leave a nasty review. In this way, you become a victim of your political/polemical opponents. Then, using a fresh nom de guerre, you go to the blogs where they defend your sort of opinions. Here, you let them know that one of their own is under attack and they ought to come to his rescue by buying this book and not only leaving favourable reviews but slating the unfavourable ones. In this way, if you are successful, you would start your own controversial blog thread in your review section on Amazon.

    For this exercise you would need three new names. Of course, there are all sorts of permutations on this exercise. It doesn’t have to be as complicated as this. But you see what I’m getting at.

  6. As you point out, Ruth Ann, there’s a heavy burden on the marketing aspect of pen names. There’s maintaining 2 separate personas and the social media sites that go with those 2 separate identities. As LC Cooper points out…each person has to decided if it warrants the personal protection and is worth the extra effort.

    • The extra effort is why I dropped a pen name I was working with. I just couldn’t keep up with the demands it required. I never thought I’d sell anything, so I used my real name in the beginning. Fortunately, the only people who I know that would have a problem with my books aren’t close to me.

      LC Cooper’s reason for a pen name is a necessity. It’s one thing for strangers to hate your books, but when it’s family and friends, it’s a lot worse.

  7. Of course, my last post was tongue-in-cheek, but it is worth bearing in mind that you can accomplish a powerful lot of imaginative things with a pen name, especially in this day and age with self-publishing.

    There are so many twists and turns that we may yet accomplish with the new technologies and using a nom de plume will certainly be an important contribution in this process for some of us.

    Here’s another example; this one is not tongue-in-cheek.

    Many people have written deeply and intelligently about their personal problems and traumatic experiences as a means of personal therapy and at the end of their hard sweat and tears (in the past) these manuscripts were just tucked away in a drawer afterwards. But now, these written testaments can be shared with other like-minded people. Some who have done this, and who would never have published under their real name, because they don’t want anyone in their circle of family or friends to know about it, or because they are simply just not that type of person, have gone on to host pretty successful blogs and websites based on their books. This means that they have helped many others deal with the fallout of similar experiences.

    And they have achieved all this under a nom de plume, something that would have been much more difficult to achieve in the past. I believe this sort of writing, at least, will be the future for many introverts and similar types.

    • I think pen name helps people come out of their shells and be who they really are. One nonfiction author who took on a pen name about his experiences said it helps him to distance himself so he can be more objective in his work. This is a type who wants to help others who are in a situation similar to what he used to be in years ago so they can find a new start in life.

      As for the first example that was tongue-in-cheek, I have to wonder if someone is doing that. It wouldn’t surprise me. I’d hate to be in their shoes if they ever got found out.

  8. Using a pen name amounts to self-inflicted identity theft. Severe consequences may arise for the serious writer. Consider the dilemma of Daniel Lewis James Jr.

    Dan James never used a pseudonym to hide the fact he was a first cousin of America’s iconic outlaw Jesse James. Although Dan never received his due credit as Charlie Chaplin’s co-author of The Great Dictator, his unidentified collaboration with Chaplin made Dan a suspect and prime target of the U.S. Government when the House on Un-American Activities convened. Vaingloriously, Dan attempted to persuade HUAC of the perversions of driving authors underground to use pen names instead of their true identities, if Congress persisted in its witch hunts of those “unnamed.” Packing his first edition of Voltaire’s Candide, written under Voltaire’s nom-de-plume of Monsieur Le Doctor Ralph as his example, Dan was summarily dismissed by HUAC. Dan James was added to Hollywood’s Black List of authors never to be employed.

    Only then did Dan James elect to write under a chosen alter-identity. As Danny Santiago, Daniel Lewis James wrote a novel, Famous All Over Town. Dan’s book became a hit, won a prestigious award, & drew broad attention to his mystery identity. Once more, Dan found himself summoned to “a Kangaroo court.” Hispanic intellectuals charged him with fraud. Dan was an Anglo. He was not an Hispanic, they charged. Moreso, he was not Danny Santiago at all. He was Dan James of the Hollywood Black List. They brown-listed him. Not over the substance and quality of his book, but over nothing more than his claimed identity.

    Decades later, only after his demise, Dan’s true identity was restored to his books, plays, and screenwriting. And with his true identity came true recognition. More about Daniel Lewis James can be read in my forthcoming book, Jesse James Soul Liberty. See http://www.jessejamessoulliberty.ericjames.org

    • This reminds me of the mess that Adele Dubois (I think that’s how she spells her last name) went through with Sony who came after her for “identity theft” of Adele the singer. Adele didn’t have the struggle Dan did, but it was because she chose the pen name “Adele” that she had to fight Sony off.

      What a pain. It is something to consider when thinking of whether or not to do a pen name.

  9. I can see the logic of a pen name in certain circumstances, but man does it seem like it would be a pain in the butt. I can’t even keep up with the social networking for one author personality.

  10. Personally, I use a pen name because I work in Higher Ed, and write about guys killign other guys for fun and profit. My books are filled with a lot of violence, I review violent movies and television shows and books on my website, and i talk about guns A LOT. Given the very, hrmmm, liberal nature of higher ed, having everyone I work with know about my interests would, at the very least, be awkward on a daily basis (especially since we’ve had some very bad experiences with employees who were “gun nuts”), and most likely detrimental to my career.

    At the individual level, there are family and friends who know my pen name, but only a select few. I don’t have a personal Twitter account or blog, and my personal FB account rarely if ever gets updated. So, most if not all of my social media interaction takes place through my pen name.

    If I ever get to the point where I write full time, and / or afford to not care about the health of my career, I would be more open about my real name. Until then, I’m happy to write under my pen name.

    • I’d use a pen name, too, in that situation. It sounds like you have a good plan on keeping your pen name a well-guarded secret. :)

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