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Sew, Do You Nim? Using Pen Names for Your Books

June 26, 2009 by Kat Gautreaux, Account Manager

We are asked frequently about using pseudonyms by authors--should they use them, what are their options, etc.

I've compiled a list of the top reasons authors choose pen names and the pros and cons of each so you can decide whether you want to start flipping through baby name books.

Content will upset family and friends due to honesty, sexuality, or language
Frankly, this is the reason many of our authors consider pen names and for many of them, this was the correct choice.

Pros: If your family is wound a little tight and would disapprove of your thinly veiled character portrayals of them, or your church friends just wouldn't understand your desire to write sexy novels, or your language isn't suitable for your coworkers you may want to consider a pen name.

Cons: If you are writing a memoir, but don't want to let your family know, you are lying to your readers. Readers really don't like the veil of mystery when reading autobiographies. Those disapproving friends, family, and coworkers are the beginnings of your author platform, by alienating/not trusting them, you may be missing out on your most valuable reviewers.

Writing for different companies
Many musicians do this if they want to work off their contracted label. Authors may do this as well. By creating a new name, you can often shop your books to different houses without them knowing.

Pros: For traditionally published authors, this isn't always a bad idea, particularly if you want to write in different genres. However, it isn't always needed. Ricky Gervais, an often foul-mouthed comedian, writes very successful children's books.

Cons: This is a sneaky thing to do and if it comes to light (it usually does), you may find yourself having to answer for your behavior. Also, you limit the ability of your books to help market each other. Sites like automatically group books by the same author together, thus improving their chances of selling together. Multiple names won't create that valuable link.

Want a pen name that suits their genre
Many authors are concerned that their past success in one genre will damage their success in another. Stephen King did this. Concerned that his already burgeoning horror writing fame would prevent his ability to write non-horror books, he created the pen name Richard Bachman. He was found out and King eventually "killed" Bachman off.

A common form of this is male writers who work in romance. Some men feel that, because women are the majority market and majority writers, romance fans may balk at a hot little number of a book written by Lester Neebs.

Pros: You can create a dramatic name that suits your genre nicely. Pixie Sugardust is a terrible name for a legal historian, well actually, it's a bad name all around. Apologies to those named that.

Much like King was found out, it is possible you will eventually be brought to light and have to come clean.

Too common, too difficult or unsavory name
Pro: You say your name is John Doe? For an author trying to make a name for themselves, that's a bit to overcome. It already sounds like a poorly contrived pen name. Or maybe your name is impossible to say or type. That will also make it difficult for readers to order your book. Also, if your last name is really long, you may want to consider truncating it to make it easier to fit on a business card. And finally, if your parents named you something that you're almost embarrassed to admit (some playground tales of ignorant folks naming their girls after some nasty diseases because they sounded pretty do come to mind), you'll want to choose a pen name. Actually, if that is the case, you may want to look into legally changing it!

Con: Your mom might be mad at you for turning your back on the family name.

Better positioning with publishers
It isn't fair. But some authors have found that changing their name to a man's name or woman's name, depending on the circumstance, has actually made a difference in their acceptance to the (traditionally) published realm. In fact, many female authors have had better success when renamed more male-oriented names (cough cough Bronte sisters).

Pro: Your genre may be a bit tetchy about your gender. Like I've already mentioned, some people feel that romance novels are a sexist group. Another scenario would be, say, a book titled, The Women's Career Guide to Working with Other Women. I don't care if you are an expert on the modern psychology and sociology of women in the workplace. If you're a man, you are treading in choppy waters there. Gender studies that deal with gender-to-gender advice, generally should come from someone of that gender.

Con: I said it wasn't fair. And it isn't.

If you are going to use a pen name and plan to send out marketing materials to all of your friends: Make sure they know it is you. We've historically had authors do this, but neglect to tell their friends, only to be confused when their loyal friends didn't buy the book.

The first surge of sales most independent authors experience are to their friends, acquaintances, and family. If they don't know who you are, you won't make the sale.

That may be the most important factor in deciding to use a pen name. How much is name recognition going to effect your entry sales and fledgling author platform?

In the end, it's up to you the author to decide!

Interested in some famous author pseudonyms? Check out this site here for a few you may not have known!

Tags: author platform, pseudonyms
Filed Under: Publishing,


Sliding on the Edge pic

I chose to write under C. Lee more for myself than anything else. I'd written a lot of rather "dry" non-fiction about grammar and inter-cultural issues, so I wanted a "new" name when I started writing fiction. You know something that sparkled. grin

Unfortunately, the sparkle fizzled almost immediately. One agent who shall remain anonymous, said, "It's so irritating when someone uses an initial as his first name."

Me thinking, not talking: "Really? Do you have trouble with F. Scott Fitzgerald? How about C.S. Lewis? J.K. Rowling?"

posted on 6/26/2009 by Sliding on the Edge

KatG pic

Or O. Henry!

It was pointed out that using initials can be trouble if you are counting on search engines to find you. For example, I may use Kat E. Gautreaux but no one will ever google it. Course, they are more likely to search Kat Gautrex with my name.

One author I emailed with about their pen name also mentioned that the reason they use one is simple: privacy.

posted on 6/26/2009 by KatG

Maggie Madison pic

It IS nice and private here in pseudonym-land!  However, it can be lonely, too, esp if you DON'T tell your closest friends and family.  They can help with motivation, feedback and "buzz".  They can be your first fans.

posted on 6/27/2009 by Maggie Madison

Anonymous pic

So, if you use a pen name, what do you use when autographing books for family, friends and co-workers? At book signings?

posted on 6/30/2009 by Anonymous

KatG pic

Hi Anonymous! If your circle of support knows that you wrote the book, you can sign with your own name or your pen name. That's up to you.

If you are using a pen name to hide from said circle, use your pen name. However, you may want to pay an actor to be you during the signing. Or maybe wear a mask. Better yet, don't invite them to the signing. You'll have to be very sneaky.

posted on 7/6/2009 by KatG

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