Ben Franklin used many pen names. Should you?
by Anne R. Allen
Should you use different pen names if you write in different genres? Do you need to write under a pseudonym because people at work might find out you write steamy romances? Is it easier to write freely if you hide your real identity behind a fake name? Should you use a different pen name for each genre you write in?
Recently I talked with a veteran author who’d heard from an “expert” that she should only publish books in one genre with her real name, and should republish all her books in other genres under separate names.
I had to tell her she’d been listening to some very outdated advice. You can show genre with cover design, blurb, logo, and many other cues, but publishing under lots of names in the digital age is a recipe for disaster.
Or as social media guru Kristen Lamb says, it’s a ticket to Crazyville.
Multiple pen names aren’t practical in the age of social media. You would have to maintain separate social media accounts and blogs for every one of your personas.
Facebook won’t let you have personal accounts under fake names, so most of your names would be shut out of interacting on Facebook. (And many authors think Facebook ads give you the most bang for your buck in book advertising.)
Plus the new publishing paradigm is blurring genre lines. These days, position in a brick and mortar bookstore isn’t the primary factor in selling books—name recognition is.
Yes, Lots of Writers Have used Pen Names
I know pen names seemed de rigueur in the last century. Aspiring writers used to spend lots of time thinking about possible pseudonyms. I know I did. It was exciting to fantasize about having a literary persona separate from my boring old self. Early in my career, I submitted some stories under the name Anna Rogers, (Rogers is my middle name.) Luckily the magazines rejected my stories and I didn’t have to deal with the hassles of multiple identities.
Historically, there have been lots of good reasons to use a pen name.
In the 19th century, women authors often used a male pen name in order to have their work taken seriously. The Brontës disguised themselves as the Bell brothers; Mary Ann Evans called herself George Elliot; and Amandine Lucie Aurore Dupin became George Sand.
Male authors also routinely chose to use a pen name, often to protect family members from being linked with their public personas, or to keep their real names from being attached to radical political or racy writing. Jean Baptiste Poquelin called himself Moliere, and Benjamin Franklin used dozens of pseudonyms from Alice Addertongue to Richard Saunders.
Sometimes authors wanted to hide their ethnicity or make their names more memorable or pronounceable. Harold Rubin called himself Harold Robbins, and Ford Hermann Hueffer took the more memorable pen name, Ford Maddox Ford.
More recently, some male authors have used female pen names in hopes of selling better to women, who buy more novels. But there’s not much evidence that matters anymore.
1) Big Publishing Made Pen Names Necessary, but That has Changed
In the 20th century, an author would usually use a different pen name for a different genre or even a different series. They also often needed pen names because they wrote “too fast” for traditional publishing. (In those days, they were only allowed one book a year under most contracts.)
- Horror writer Dean Koonz has written under over a dozen pseudonyms, including Deanna Dwyer, K. R. Dwyer, Aaron Wolfe, David Axton, John Hill, Leigh Nichols, Owen West, Richard Paige, Anthony North, and Brian Coffey.
- Erle Stanley Gardner wrote his P.I. mysteries as A.A. Fair and also wrote under the names Kyle Corning, Charles M. Green, Carleton Kendrake, Charles J. Kenny, Les Tillray and Robert Parr.
- Romance author Jayne Ann Krenz first wrote under the name Jayne Castle, her maiden name. But she signed a contract allowing one of her publishers to own the name, and, after leaving that publisher, she couldn’t use that name for ten years. So she began writing as Jayne Taylor, Jayne Bentley, Stephanie James, Amanda Glass and Amanda Quick.
- Stephen King wrote some of his more psychological work as Richard Bachman—complete with a phony book jacket photo and fake bio. (When Bachman was outed as King, Mr. King wrote that Bachman had died suddenly of “cancer of the pseudonym”.
- And of course romance goddess Nora Roberts writes her thrillers as J. D. Robb.
2) Most Reasons for Pen Names are no Longer Relevant
But most of the reasons for using a pen name don’t matter much anymore. Very few authors are penalized for writing too fast in the digital age. And authors can always self-publish books between big releases.
In the old days, some authors had to change their names because their publishers bought their names, like Jane Ann Krenz. Or their sales didn’t live up to the publisher’s expectations and they could “never write in this town again” unless they became somebody else.
But now we have self-publishing, and even authors with sagging sales want to capitalize on what fans they do have, not toss them aside.
We don’t need to worry about your books being on the wrong shelf in a physical bookstore, either. Most books are bought online.
3) Secrets Don’t Stay Secret in the Digital Age
There are some reasons for a pen name that still make sense. There’s the privacy issue.
The problem is there IS no privacy in the digital age. Eventually you’ll be found out. The Internet hates secrets and loves to hate people who keep them.
Look at Robert Galbraith, aka J.K. Rowling and Anita Raja aka Elena Ferrante.
The “unmasking” of Elena Ferrante made headlines all over the world. When there’s a mystery, intrepid reporters and amateur online sleuths will do anything to solve it.
And then there’s the routine “doxing” that happens whenever some bully doesn’t like the ending of your story or something you posted on Facebook. They will find you and out whatever secrets you’re trying to keep.
Some of the Amazon review trolls even accused superstar author Anne Rice of being a fraud because she writes under the name Anne, which she has used since she was five, since her parents gave her the unfortunate name of Harold Allen. I kid you not.
Full disclosure: I was known as “Nancy” for the first three years of my life. When my beloved Aunt Anne got married and moved out of our house, I discovered my real name was Anne and refused to answer to the nickname Nancy. I thought the household needed an Anne, so I had to be her.
I have no doubt the trolls could accuse me of fraud, too.
Okay, There are Good Reasons to use One Pen Name—but not so many for Multiple Pen Names
Besides appeasing the trolls who think anybody is a “fraud” who has changed or matured in any way since they were wearing Huggies, there are sensible reasons to want to use a pen name.
1) It’s the name you’re known by, even if it’s not the name on your birth certificate.
2) Your real name is Harry Potter. Or Stephen King or Kim Kardashian. (Or anyone else, famous or not, is already using your name.)
3) You’ve got a snoozerific real name like John Smith or Anne Allen. If your real name is boring and your parents didn’t give you a nice middle name, you may want to call yourself something more memorable. When I was in high school, I wrote for the school paper as Andree Antiphon. (I’m so glad that one didn’t stick. )
4) Your writing might adversely affect your day job. (Maybe you’re a youth minister who writes steamy erotica.)
5) Or you could have family issues (You’re telling the thinly disguised story of your Uncle Charlie’s secret life as a cabaret singer named Chardonnay.)
6) You’re the victim of cyberbullies. Whistleblowing authors and others who have been victims of online mass bullying and “doxing” may find they simply can’t write under their own names anymore, so they have to start their careers again with a new persona. They’ll have to hope the trolls will have found a new victim and won’t dox the new name.
BTW: Beware too-good-to-be-true marketing schemes and promoters who game the Amazon system. Many are fraudulent, and if you ask for your money back, the ringleaders will get their minions to attack with character assassination via social media and one-star reviews. I have heard lots of heartbreaking stories about one particularly vicious promoter and her army of trolls. Amazon’s lawyers are on her trail, but others will spring up to fill her shoes.
But these are not reasons for multiple pen names. You can use any name you like as your “brand” name, but don’t dilute it by trying to promote more than one brand.
You do need multiple pen names if you’re that youth pastor who writes erotica and you also write inspirational YA romance. Or if you write kid’s picture books and violent thrillers. But unless you write in such wildly different genres, you probably don’t need two separate brands.
4) Writing in Multiple Genres Under one Name is Not a New Idea.
- Carl Sandburg wrote everything from poetry to historical biography to children’s stories—all under the same name.
- Isaac Asimov famously wrote in “every category in the Dewey decimal system.”
- Mary Stewart (ne: Mary Florence Elinor Rainbow) not only invented contemporary romantic suspense, but with her Merlin trilogy wrote some of the best high fantasy ever. She wrote them all as Mary Stewart.
- Neil Gaiman writes books for different ages, from children’s picture books to sophisticated social satire—and penned the screen adaptation of Beowulf—all under his own name.
- Rita Mae Brown also uses her own name for everything from LGBTQ+ literary to cat cozies and 1930s Southern comedy.
And I don’t hear anybody complaining.
Writing in The Passive Voice blog comments last year, epic fantasy author Tom Simon said:
“I’m highly suspicious of that advice about using pseudonyms for different genres; it may only be an artifact of the circumstances in which it originated. All data older than about three years is basically irrelevant to the new publishing model. It may be that the old advice still holds good — but if it does, it will have nothing to do with the original reason behind it. I would be very wary of assuming that the old practice is applicable in the new circumstances.”
5) Brand Trumps Genre in the 21st Century
Just look at a little book called The Cuckoo’s Calling.
A critically acclaimed detective novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, by one “Robert Galbraith” was languishing in the midlist. It had sold only 1,500 copies in the UK when the author was outed to be none other than J.K. Rowling.
After the revelation, the book zoomed to #1 on the bestseller lists.
Branding is everything these days, and for an author, your name is your brand.
Don’t waste your time marketing more than one brand.
As another commenter said on The Passive Voice in response to the Rowling/Galbreith revelation,
“I have not heard that anybody ever got mad because they bought Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare and thought it was a science fiction novel. But a lot of people bought Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare who would never have heard of it if it hadn’t been for Asimov’s SF.”
So don’t worry so much about that one slow-witted reader who can’t tell that a book with a hot shirtless Highlander on the cover is probably a different genre from that thriller with cover art full of guns and blood.
Instead think of all the smart readers who will appreciate that you have time to write more books.
Update: What about Pen Names for Co-Authoring?
I was asked that question on Twitter in reply to a tweet of this post. Obviously the tradition has always been that when two authors co-write a book they choose a pen name that represents them both, often a combination of both names.
But I don’t think that’s such a great idea anymore. Why?
- Who gets the name if you break up? I know of at least two authors who ran into this problem when they broke with co-authors. One co-author lost pretty much everything, because the partner claimed custody of the name. Make sure you have this decided in an ironclad contract before you publish. More on this in “Murder is more Fun with an Accomplice” by Melodie Campbell
- James Patterson co-authors all the time without resorting to pen names.
- Are you ever planning to write under your own name? If you do, you’ll have to start your career again from scratch. Do you really want to do that?
by Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) October 1, 2017 (This is an updated version. I originally listed good reasons for pen names in two places. Now they are consolidated under “Okay, there are Good Reasons to Use One Pen Name…”)
What about you, scriveners? Do you use a pen name? Do you use multiple pen names? How much more work does each pen name create for you?
I also have a new post up on my book blog. It’s #30 in the “Poisoning People for Fun and Profit” series. This month I’m talking about lead poisoning.
BOOK OF THE WEEK
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When she’s falsely accused of a TV star’s murder, she discovers she’s made of sterner stuff than anyone imagined–herself included.
Snarky, delicious fun! The Camilla Randall mysteries are a laugh-out-loud mashup of romantic comedy, crime fiction, and satire.
Perennially down-and-out socialite Camilla Randall is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but she always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way. Usually with more than a little help from her gay best friend, Plantagenet Smith.
The Best Revenge is on sale at all the Amazons
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