It can be hard to dig up any solid advice on whether or not to use a pen name. After all, some authors might be using one for privacy, and hence are unlikely to admit that they’re using one at all. But this is a topic I’ve followed with interest for the past several years. And after being privy to a number of discussions, I think I can finally write up a quick list of pointers for anyone else weighing the pen name conundrum.
Top Reasons for Using a Pen Name
This is probably the most famous reason. I know it was the one I weighed the most heavily when I was making my own pen name decision. Do you want to be a public figure? Do you want to be recognized everywhere you introduce yourself?
The reality is that most authors will never be J. K. Rowling and have the press sneaking photos over the back fence. There are millions of readers out there and millions of books for them to read, so the fame is spread pretty thin. If someone does recognize you as the author of your own book, it’ll probably be a rare event – and so random and delightful that you’ll enjoy the recognition.
The catch twenty-two is that somebody has to be the next big name in publishing. So if, a year or two after reading this, you hit it big and are mad at me for telling you you weren’t likely to be stalked by reporters … Um, sorry about that. But if you’re that big, they’ll probably figure out your real name anyway. (Back to J. K. Rowling – she started a secret pen name, looking for anonymity for her new genre … and it leaked.)
The bottom line is, privacy from the Big Public Scene probably shouldn’t be a concern. However, if you’re the type who works best in private and you just don’t want your neighbors and the chatterboxes at church to be all over your writing desk – Yes. Use a pen name. No one at the grocery store needs to know anything about it, if that’s the way you want it.
A New Genre
Can’t pigeon-hole yourself? Do you love sci-fi adventure as much as you love Amish romance? Most authors will recommend that you publish your two genres under separate names. That’s not to say you need to keep your “other genre” a secret from the fans of your first genre. It’s merely a marketing thing. I say “Sir Arthur Connan Doyle” and you say “mystery.” I say “Jane Austin” and you say “Regency romance.”
An author’s name becomes attached to the kind of fiction he or she writes, and when a fan picks up a book by a certain author, they have certain expectations established by the other books they’ve already read under your name.
So if your regular fare is chic lit and you suddenly offer a serious historical war novel set in ancient Mesopotamia … you’ll probably throw your readers for a loop. If, on the other hand, you establish separate names for separate genres, you can keep readers from becoming disoriented and disappointed and leaving you one-star reviews.
What if your two genres are similar? For instance, if you write both police procedural and international spy thrillers? Get to know your market, both the readers and the other authors serving them. Is there plenty of cross-over? Are fans of the cop books also likely to be fans of the spy books? Then don’t sweat it. You probably don’t have to establish separate names.
Your Real Name Leaves Much to Be Desired
Nobody ever spells your name right? Bummer. Especially if that means nobody will ever find you in search engines. Or even remember your name to look you up in the first place. If you think your name is hard to remember or easily confused or just doesn’t sound … writerly … Go for it. Change the name.
This doesn’t have to be drastic. Is your name spelled Kriss Brauwne? You don’t necessarily have to drum up a new name from scratch. You could just change the spelling to plain ol’ Chris Brown. I know. Not as creative. But on the bright side, potential readers can actually find you!
Also, you may feel inspired to use a name that suits your genre. You know, like if you write steampunk, you could call yourself Cornelius P. Brass. Debbie Macomber’s name always tripped me up. I swear, she should be writing crime noir. Her name just sounds too much like “macabre.” (My opinion only.)
You Want Better Bookstore Real Estate
Libraries and bookstores are typically arranged in alphabetical order. And interestingly, most browsers start at the ends of bookshelves instead of dropping down in the middle via helicopter. If you want to be one of the first names they see, you could give yourself a name starting with A or Z.
You’re Already Well-Known for Something Else Completely Unrelated
Already a household name in some other industry, like underwater basket weaving? Want to keep your two pursuits completely unrelated? Yet another reason to use a pen name.
Unless, of course, you have reason to believe that your avid following would be eager converts to your books, as well. For instance, if you write a tutorial on underwater basket weaving – or even if you write a high fantasy set in the underwater basket weaving capital of Mythrush – then my gosh, why would you change your name?
Somebody Else Already Stole Your Name
It’s not your fault your real name is Taylor Swift. But since your odds of challenging her in search engines is slim – or of people even believing that it’s your real name – it’s better to sigh and browse the baby names and genealogy websites for something else.
Which brings up a good point: Whatever name you intend to use, it never hurts to do a quick search on it. Somebody you never heard of may already be using it, and make it hard for fans to distinguish you from each other. If you’re both authors, definitely go for a new name. If the other guy sells custom motorcycle parts, it’s not a problem. Just plaster “John Doe, AUTHOR” all over your online presence to help people out. If your names are both Harley Davidson … that falls under the Taylor Swift category again.
You Want to Honor Someone Special
Maybe there’s someone you were close to, in person or in spirit, and you can think of no better way to honor that relationship than to bear that person’s name as an author. Your grandmother, for instance, or a historical figure you admire. This is an awesome reason to use a pen name – not to mention an awesome way to choose a pen name if you’re stumped.
Or You Can Just Be You
Personally, I decided to write under my real name. Part of the problem was that I have a hard enough time naming my characters – never mind naming myself.
I also didn’t feel like dealing with the confusion of making sure that my pen name was attached to my book covers, my website, and my social media accounts, while my real name was attached to my paychecks, my contracts, and my registrations to writer’s groups and conferences.
There’s also that odd moment when you get to know another writer or a fan really well, and fifty emails later, you’re like … “By the way, that’s not my real name.” In fact, this was the primary reason why I decided not to use a pen name. I shun the feeling of concealing something from my audience. I prefer to be as connected to my audience as possible, and I just don’t feel genuine doing that while “hiding” behind a pen name.
Pen Names Are a Personal Decision
Ultimately, there’s no right or wrong answer to whether or not to use a pen name. It’s a very personal decision, and usually has to be made based on guesses about the future and your audience and how you’ll feel about using a pen name ten years from now. (Thinking again about that one person out there who’s gonna kill me because they became the Next Big Thing.)
And it’s a hard decision to retract. Once your online presence and your marketing are in place, your name is your brand. You can’t suddenly decide to switch names on all your previously-published material and expect your fan base to go along for the ride.
So think long and hard. Talk to your friends and family and your writing buddies. Eventually, you’ll reach a decision and be totally at peace with it.
And that, my dear author, is your name.