Authors have used pseudonyms, or pen names, for almost as long as books have been printed, and they’ve chosen to do so for a variety of reasons. Whether it’s a need for privacy, a distancing of one’s writer life from a life of doing something else, or even just a need to become a different persona when it’s time to write, there are really great reasons to use a pen name.
A recent media backlash against a community for “outing” an erotica author demonstrated this need for separation from publishing. A well-loved and respected veteran teacher, Judy Buranich, was involuntarily shoved into the spotlight by parents who had somehow discovered that she penned erotic paranormal fiction under the pseudonym Judy Mays. Fortunately, the outpouring of support for this writer, who had up until this unwelcome incident been quite good at separating her professional life from her publishing life, was phenomenal. A link to one of the more humorous outrage videos can be found here.
In a climate where so much of our lives ends up on the internet, it can be hard to distinguish between “John Doe the self-published author” and John Doe’s day job as an insurance salesman, since aspects of both of his professional lives may be equally accessible online. Additionally, authors may not want their family vacation photos on the same Facebook page as the new cover art for their adult horror novel, but instead may opt to create an author page under an entirely different name.
Unfortunately, it is possible to do yourself more harm than good when it comes to deciding to write under a pseudonym, especially in terms of marketing your books or making yourself available to your fan base. It can also actually prevent those in the publishing industry from finding you if you don’t keep all of your publishing credits within the scope of one persona or the other.
“Personally, I don’t care if an author has a pen name or not. What I’m going to be looking for is if there is a readership –specifically for nonfiction– as a writing platform is 110% necessary. Whether it’s the birth name or a pen name, there needs to be a readership with nonfiction,” remarks Dawn Frederick, literary agent and owner of Red Sofa Literary. If your pen name prevents industry professionals and readers from finding you in various outlets, the result will be a decrease in your following and therefore in your platform as well.
Sometimes an author may elect to create a new name for himself if he’s writing in a different genre or different voice, as Stephen King chooses to do when he writes as Richard Bachman, a fact that eluded some of his readers through more than four books and is now the subject of a work by Michael R. Collings, Stephen King is Richard Bachman. Karen Smith, who penned Dark Dealings under the pseudonym K. Victoria Smith, just felt that her given name was a little too commonplace for an author of urban fantasy, proven by the fact that she was one of twenty-three employees in her company with that name.
“One big downside for an established writer, of course, is that your fans already know you, but you can say you are ‘So and so’ writing as ‘So and so’ in this new genre, such as YA instead of adult, so that your fans might give you a chance,” says Michelle Wolfson, president of Wolfson Literary Agency in New York.
There are a lot of things at stake when selecting a pseudonym, however, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly. The pen name isn’t like naming a goldfish that has a life expectancy of a couple of years. This name may or may not represent you for the duration of your writing career, so avoid trendy names that may date you as a writer or limit you to a particular genre.
Wolfson offers this advice: “A pen name can sometimes help an author overcome a bad track record, although that’s tricky. More often, I think it can [successfully] be used to develop an already established writer in a different genre. Or simply if you don’t want to cross your personal and professional lives. If you’re just looking for a gender neutral name, though, just use your initials,” rather than being ambiguous.
No matter which name you decide to go with, your own, a variation of your initials, or something more suited to the type of writing you do, make sure that it is searchable and that your readers will know how to find your work.