Pen name, pseudonym, nom-de-plume, it seems the term for an author’s alternative name has many different names itself but it all boils down to one thing, a pretend name you use when writing your books. Why would you use one, and should you?
There are a load of reasons that someone might want to use a different name than the one they use every day but it will normally fall under one of three:
1 To keep your real identity secret
Keep you secret from government or powerful people
This would apply if your writing is politically charged and you could get in trouble for the controversial things you write. It could come down to a life or death scenario, so keeping your identity secret with a pen name would allow you to publish the work you want without falling foul to the powers that be.
Maintaining your privacy
Most independent authors also have day-jobs and they wouldn’t want their bosses or colleagues to know they have a second life as a successful author. This would also come into play if you published something which could be seen as embarrassing like nerdy sci-fi or fantasy, or erotic literature.
Protect your job
If you worked with children or in a sensitive industry, it might not be beneficial for the people you deal with to know what you write. A pen name means you can keep your job and write what you want without people being able to attack you for it.
2 To write in different genres
Most publishers aren’t keen on writers diversifying across genres. Readers pick up an author’s work expecting what they’re used to, and a new topic that they don’t find relevant could put them off future books, so writing under a different name could protect future sales.
For instance, if you regularly wrote under one name publishing historical non-fiction, you probably wouldn’t want to associate your erotic elf fantasy work that you write for fun.
Using a pen name gives you the opportunity to write across a variety of genres, testing the waters as often as you like without damaging your existing reputation or branding.
3 To make yourself more marketable
Some names just don’t sound exciting. Would you be more likely to buy a spy thriller from Gary Johnson or Jake Gunner. Likewise, you might benefit from a name that sounds more credible. Would you buy a historical novel by Rob Smith or Alexander Wainwright.
You could have a name that’s unpronounceable or spelt strangely. You want your fans to be able to easily tell other people about their new favourite author and there would be a problem with Zmylk Jjumnia, or problems with Jon Smyth vs John Smith.
In the past several authors have changed their name in order to hide their gender. With some simply using their initials and others writing under a name of the opposite sex.
J K Rowling - Joanne Rowling
Known as Jo to her friends and family, Rowling used her grandmother’s initial for her pen name (she didn’t have a middle name herself) as her publisher believed that pre-teen boys wouldn’t be keen on reading books written by a woman, so she chose ‘K’, for ‘Kathleen’, the name of her paternal grandmother.
J K Rowling also went on to publish another book, separate from the Potterverse, as Robert Galbraith.
I certainly wanted to take my writing persona as far away as possible from me, so a male pseudonym seemed a good idea. I am proud to say, though, that when I "unmasked" myself to my editor David Shelley, who had read and enjoyed The Cuckoo’s Calling without realising I wrote it, one of the first things he said was, "I never would have thought a woman wrote that." Apparently I had successfully channeled my inner bloke!
P D James - Phyllis Dorothy White
Award winning crime fiction author, P D James, was actually Phyllis White. She experimented with several pen names, including Phyllis James and Phyllis D James before finally settling on the ambiguous P D James, her initials and maiden name. Most assumed her to be a man, which may well have helped her success given her chosen genre.
George Eliot - Mary Ann Evans
Famous Victorian novelist, George Eliot, was actually Mary Ann Evans. She used a male pen name to ensure her works would be taken seriously. Female authors were published under their own names during Eliot's life, but she wanted to escape the stereotype of women only writing lighthearted romances. She also wished to have her fiction judged separately from her already extensive and widely known work as an editor and critic.
S J Watson - Steve Watson
Best-selling author Steve Watson published his book Before I Go To Sleep as S J. The story is written in first-person as a woman, and Watson thought that his character would be more believable if people assumed the author was a woman.
J D Robb / Nora Roberts - Eleanor Marie Robertson
American bestselling author of more than 209 romance novels, the author used the pseudonym Nora Roberts, a shortened form of her birth name Eleanor Marie Robertson, because she assumed that all romance authors had pen names. She also writes as J. D. Robb for the hugely successful In Death series, as well as Jill March and for publications in the U.K. as Sarah Hardesty.
Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell - The Brontë sisters
The Brontë sisters published their first joint book of poetry under male names. Charlotte was "Currer Bell", Emily was "Ellis Bell" and Anne was "Acton Bell”. These were very uncommon forenames but the initials of each of the sisters were preserved and the surname could have been inspired by that of the vicar of the parish, Arthur Bell Nicholls.
Whilst women are more likely to try and hide their gender, it’s not unknown for men to swap roles in order to better market themselves to women.
Leigh Greenwood - Harold Lowry
Leigh Greenwood has been publishing Southern romance novels involving cowboys and country girls for the better part of two and a half decades. He believes that men can be seen to be romantic but "there are just cultural obstacles prohibiting readers from seeing male authors in that light.“
Jessica Blair - Bill Spence
Bill Spence is a grandfather, father of four, and WWII veteran who has published 22 romance novels having previously been publishing westerns and war stories before switching genres. His publisher asked that he take a female name to sell better to women readers.
Mrs. Silence Dogood - Benjamin Franklin
Franklin submitted a series of ‘charming letters’ to the New-England Courant but was bluntly rebuffed. After a quick name change the letters were published.
It’s not just about sex
Famous authors have used pseudonyms for other reasons other than gender.
Richard Bachman - Stephen King
In his early days of writing there was a belief that the public would only accept one book a year from individual authors. King wanted to write more, so published extra work as Bachman.
Mary Westmacott - Agatha Christie
Christie wrote "Giant's Bread," along with five other romance novels, under the Westmacott name as they were so far removed from her usual genre of murder mystery. Christie's daughter wrote that the Westmacott "romance" novels, which didn't have happy endings, still retained the voice of her mother.
George Orwell - Eric Arthur Blair
Blair decided to use a pen name to protect himself from failure. He was inspired by the river Orwell and George because it sounded very British. He said “I suppose the thing is to have an easily memorable one – which I could stick to if this book had any success.”
Other things to consider
Twice the work
If you use a pen name you’ll have to maintain another set of social networks, twice the amount of social presence. Another twitter profile, Facebook page, Google + account, another website.
You can escape into another identity
You can create an alternate you, someone who holds different views to you, acts differently, maybe more confident, more sassy. A caricature of yourself that you can channel when writing.
You have to commit to your pen name
You’ll have to answer to your new name, at book signings, writers’ conferences, sending letters to agents and editors, everything to do with your work. So you’ll have to pick a name that you’re prepared to stick with.
Think hard about whether you want to use a pseudonym or not. If you choose to, maybe have a look at our article on how to choose a character name for inspiration on how to choose a pen name.
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