Pen Names — Whys and Wherefores

First of all, thanks for understanding about the post being late today and for the topic recommendations. I am still waiting on the contractor but it has given me time to do other things — like try to figure out who to go with for our electric supply. Grumble, grumble, stupid companies that punish loyal customers instead of encouraging them to remain loyal. Any way, that’s a post for another blog. So let’s talk pen names.

When I first started getting serious about writing, one of the things I looked at was whether or not to use a pen name. I had a long discussion — actually, a number of discussions — about it with Sarah. At that time, indie publishing was just beginning and the rules of traditional publishing still held sway. There were a number of reasons then to have a pen name, many of them no longer applicable. But one explanation for why you should have a pen name I learned at RWA. To be honest, it is the only reason why you would want not only a pen name but a closed pen name.

Why you must have a pen name:

If you are primarily a Christian (or any other religion) writer and you branch off into a genre/topic that is at odds with what readers (or publishers and reviewers) then you need not only a pen name but a closed one. There are horror stories out there of Christian writers who had their contracts canceled after their publishers learned they were publishing books that could be considered risqué. I’m not talking smut or porn. A single sex scene could be enough.

Along this same line, if your “real life” job (or that of your spouse or significant other) is such that your writing could cause trouble, you need to use a pen name. It isn’t as necessary that you have a closed pen name (one no one can easily discover is actually you), but the harder it is to trace what might be seen as objectionable by an employer, the better.

Then there is the problem of family and friends. For the love of all that is holy, if you are writing something you know will have your friends and family thinking you’re writing about them — and if they are the type to take everything personally — use a pen name. Save yourself and your family some heartache.

But there are other reasons to use a pen name, some no longer as necessary as they once were. Traditional publishing had an unwritten rule that they would require authors to choose a pen name if they were still under contract but their previous title(s) hadn’t sold as well as anticipated. Authors went along with it because, well, contract. Then there was the fact traditional publishing was the only game in town.

Publishers also wanted authors who wrote in different genres to have a different pen name for the secondary genre. For those of you who have been fans of the Eve Dallas series since it began, you’ll remember that those early editions were advertised as being written by J. D. Robb. There was no mention on the cover or in the book description that they were by “Nora Roberts writing as J. D. Robb”. Why? Because Roberts was known as a romance writer and she was daring to venture into not only mystery but future mystery. What if the readers hated it and then started boycotting the books published under Roberts’ own name? Bring out the pen name!

While there is less of that happening now, it is something authors need to consider. If you write primarily romance and decide to try your hand at mystery, it’s no longer the big deal it used to be. Why? Because much of romance these days has a mystery or suspense element to it. So a romance reader isn’t going to be scared off by mystery elements unless you overpower them with language and violence.

But a romance writer who suddenly write science fiction…or a science fiction writer suddenly writing romance … that can lead to trouble. It hasn’t been more than two weeks since I saw someone talking about how they don’t want the slightest hint of romance in their science fiction and I guarantee you there are romance readers who don’t want to have anything to do with science fiction. Sure, if they read the blurbs — assuming the blurbs are accurate — they should be able to tell that the new book isn’t the genre they are used to the author writing. But how many of us have bought a book, without reading the blurb, simply because of who wrote it?

So, if you write in very disparate genres, you might consider using a pen name for one. That’s what I do. None of my pen names are closed and my real name appears on the product page for each book. However, on the covers, only the pen name appears.

There is something else to consider, especially if you write science fiction (in particular hard sf or mil/sf). There is still a vocal group of readers who will not read it if it was written by a woman. No, not all of those readers are men. For that reason, I chose a name that could be either male or female for my sf pen name. That was the last pen name, by the way, I opened and admitted was me.

Another question asked was how to choose pen names. All of mine have family connections. That was important to me. Some authors choose their names based on what genre they are writing in. Take a look at some of the romance or paranormal author names. Part of it is trying to associate the pen name with the genre. If you are writing romance, especially period romance, you want a pen name that will evoke the idea of that sub-genre. At least that is what I’ve been told.

Now, with the growing influence of indie publishing on the industry, the need for pen names isn’t as great as it used to be. That’s not to say there aren’t times when you should at least consider the option. As I said, if you are mainly known for religious fiction and you suddenly want to write risqué stories, use a pen name (or if it is the converse. VBEG) If your family might wind up wanting to take you outside for a “lesson” after reading what you write, use a pen name. If your job is such that you can’t or don’t want to call attention to yourself, use a pen name.

For the rest of it, shrug. Once I opened all my pen names and started linking all my books in each new title, overall sales increased. I just have to be careful with I write the blurbs to make it clear what sort of book it is. The why is simple. I know some of my readers want the romance or the sex. Others want the mystery and others don’t want romance coming near the story. I stick with the pen names because it helps cue them to what genre they are looking at. But, I also list my real name on the product page so they can see what else I have for sale.

I guess this is all a roundabout way of saying to do what you feel is best for you. Good luck!

66 comments

  1. This has been something I have been considering. If I should or if I shouldn’t. Thanks for laying out the reasons for and against. Of course, it means I have a decision to make in the future.

    1. One thing to consider before making the decision, if you go with a pen name, especially a closed pen name, it makes marketing and promotion a bit trickier. With a closed pen name, you can’t snippet on your blog or your normal social media feeds. Otherwise, you wind up revealing the truth behind the pen name before you even get started.

      1. Biggest argument against a closed pen name is that it effectively cuts you off from your existing fan base. You’re starting all over from scratch.

      2. I happened to know the real identity of K.J. Parker for years before it was admitted. (Through a mutual friend, as it happened, and from thence to my mother.) Tom Holt had some really solid reasons for that pen name, not the least the legal tie-up his actual name had, but also because the K.J. Parker grimdark fantasy is about as far from his Brit-wit fantasy as you can imagine.

        It was weird to hear from someone about what a big secret it was in the SF community, as in I heard from a fairly big author “wait, you know who it is?” It was just one of those things…

  2. I opted for a pen name because at the time I was still thinking of an academic job eventually. And I do write non-fiction and didn’t want confusion among buyers. I did a search-engine hunt for my first pen-name idea, and discovered that a plaintiffs’ attorney who specialized in tort litigation also had that name. Nope! Went to the back-up.

    MZB offered another good reason for a pen name: your real name is too close to a very well known writer. If you write horror and your name is Stephan King, or romance and your name is Norma Roberts… A pen name might be a good idea.

    1. I’d forgotten that one. Also, to add to that, if your name is too forgettable. For example, John Smith or Jane Jones.

      1. There are also external considerations and consolidation.
        Fr’ex my first name ends in a hard K, and my last name starts with a W. So if I’m going to do anything related to audio, I have to place an exaggerated beat between the two (which is awkward), have them meld into a “QU” (which doesn’t exactly create a good first impression) or use an alternate identifier. So if I don’t want to keep different business ledgers and bank accounts…

        1. Which is why my radio name, when I was reading news at my first post-college job, did not use my last name. The preponderance of Ts in my first name and maiden name was a bit abrupt when said all together, and consonance is a desirable trait when doing audio work.

    2. Oh, bugger. Forgot about that. Which means I WILL need a pen name. :/
      There’s a guy out there with a similar first and last name as mine and the confusion would be interesting.

    3. In the days when the brick and mortar store was king, deliberately choosing a pen name close to someone famous in your genre might not have been a bad idea. Not so similar as to be easily confused, but similar enough to be shelved together. If someone walks in to see if there’s a new Honor Harrington novel by David Weber and finds there isn’t, her eyes might very easily alight on a “Hyperspace Wars” novel by Chris Webb and see what the blurb is about…

      Although your first bit brings up another question about what pen names NOT to choose. I just googled the one I was thinking about, and there is someone with that name out there, a figure skater from the 60s. She’s not hugely famous, but she does have her own Wikipedia page. Does that imply I should choose a different name?

      1. ZsuZsa, back then, it was also good to have your name be near the beginning or end of the alphabet because people would browse the ends of the aisle and not necessarily the middle. Now, as with having similar names, it’s not as big a deal.

        As for having to find another name, if the person isn’t very famous, I wouldn’t worry about it. Maybe, if you’re still uncertain, add a middle initial. There are very few out there who have unique names.

        1. That’s why I’m Alma T. C. Boykin. Plus it is what my mother planned to name me until Dad intervened. Tabitha Catherine. Mom wanted a Tabi Cat. *SIGH*

          1. Hmmm, I think I have a pen name. My dad wanted to name me after Winston Churchill until my mom put her foot down. Of course I won’t use the Churchill part. 🙂

            1. On a related note, ISTR reading that Churchill didn’t use a pen name, but he did always use his middle initial when writing, as there was an American author with the same first and last names who was publishing in the same general time period.

          2. I’m not laughing. Really, I’m not. (Remember, I grew up when the only other Amanda around was “Miss Kitty” on Gunsmoke as far as most folks knew. So there were a lot who thought my folks named me after the madam/bar maid on TV)

        2. Twenty-five or so years ago, my wife noticed a picture in the business section of a young man with my name. He looked Asian. Sent it to my mom.

  3. I’m still working on what I’d like to be known as. I’ve been published as “Christopher Chupik” and “Christopher M. Chupik”, but I’m thinking “C. M. Chupik” might be good because it takes up less cover space.

    1. The only thing you might want to consider is, if you’re writing SF, using just your initials might have some readers thinking you are female because that is the format so many have used to mask their gender. It’s not a major consideration but one to keep in mind.

  4. I though about de-cloaking for publishing my book, and then I thought about why I comment at a reputable writing blog as The Phantom. A moment or two of reflection on the number of demented shi1t-birds infesting the interwebz right now had me wondering about securing the anonymity of my pen name.

    Do I need a shell company to remain anonymous with Amazon?

    1. I’d be reluctant to reveal pen-names considering some of the people who regularly read our comments.

      You know who you are.

      1. I certainly do, and that’s exactly who I was thinking about. F*%@ing hall-monitors. I can easily foresee some of them enacting a lovely harassment campaign, all at arm’s length of course.

        It troubles me that this is how I’m thinking, but frankly my friends that is my assessment of our current environment.

      1. I will look into it. Maybe an Arizona LLC. I know that in Ontario the cost of setting up a company is about $3K CDN. The taxes are a killer too.

          1. I’m going that route, at least to start.
            Very quick and easy to establish, with a minimum of headaches.

            Tax issues, of course, will always be headaches for the self-employed.

            1. Unfortunately it’s the nature of the beast. IIRC, the last time I was able to file a 1040EZ was in the early 1990’s. Every year since then I’ve had at least some form of business income, so Schedule C and long-form 1040 for me. Once I got married, we had two businesses to deal with, and two Schedule C’s, and sometimes even Schedule SE and various other forms.

  5. I suspect that Hal Clement chose to use a pen name because he (or John Campbell) thought “Harry Stubbs” looked rather unfortunate as a byline.

    1. He used George Richard as his pseudonym for the artwork he did, since he didn’t want people to either like it or dislike it for reasons other than its own merits.

      Although it was a very open “secret”, including the time when a convention had Hal Clement as Author GoH, George Richard as Artist GoH, and Harry Stubbs as Fan GoH.

  6. My problem with getting a pen names is that Cordwainer Smith is already taken. That, and that whole getting things published thing….

    A coworker’s brother is James Rollins (and James Clemons – same guy). He took pen names because his first publisher thought nobody could pronounce or spell ‘Czajkowski’.

    1. His first publisher was right – but if one did manage to spell it correctly, I bet the search results would be just him.

  7. Looking through my stuff for the recent “post a sample of…” blogs, I realized that I need a pen name. I didn’t realize I was so explicit. I don’t want all that showing up when changing jobs. Of course, finishing something needs to come first.

  8. I used a pen name for no reason I understood. Reading this post makes me realize that several of these reasons apply. I just didn’t quite know it. I do have a non fiction book out that has a modest homeschool following, and that audience might have read my fiction … Or might still … If they knew it existed.

  9. Robert Silverberg wrote over 200 hardcore porn novels. They paid for a nice house and a fat savings account.

    Lawrence Block also wrote at least a dozen porn novels.

    John Jakes wrote fantasy and a little SF for a while, then branched off to historical potboilers.

    Edward D. Hoch wrote mysteries, except for a handful of SF.

    Bill Pronzini wrote detective stories, and a bunch of SF short stories.

    John D. MacDonald wrote mostly mysteries, but also several SF novels.

    Digging through the old SF magazines at archive.org, I’ve seen SF stories by Agatha Christie, Leslie Charteris, George C. Chesbro, John Toland (yes, the historian one), and others.

    If you gain a reader who likes all your stuff, he’ll find it if you’re open about your pen names. Those are sales. But not as many as the “never again” losses from readers who thought they were getting mil-SF and wound up with a Gothic romance…

    I approve of pen names.

    For that matter, if I were to write fiction, there is one writer using my exact name and three others using different middle initials; close enough I expect they’ve had some readers confused.

    1. Exactly and that is why my pen names are all open at this point. Also, in this day and age of the internet, it is much more difficult to keep a pen name closed. All it takes is a slip of the keyboard and you can out your pen name without meaning to. That’s why, in an earlier comment, I noted the problems with having a closed pen name when it comes to promotion, snippeting ahead of time, etc.

  10. Lots of SF writers, especially in the 50s and 60s (when SF didn’t pay all that well), wrote porn. Silverberg was not even close to the most prolific — according to Chris Offutt’s biography of his father (Andy Offutt), he was the author of over 420 porn novels, under 17 known pen names, as well as several dozen non-porn novels (plus a series of SF porn novels, with 19 total, written by him under the John Cleve pen name — some solo, and some collaborations).

    Tony Boucher wrote SF, was the founding editor of F&SF, and was well enough established as a mystery writer that the Bouchercon — the oldest annual mystery convention, was named after him. And Rocket to the Morgue, his best-known locked-room mystery, was populated with lots of the members of the LASFS (the oldest LA SF club) as of when it was written in 1942. ALthough he used H. H. Holmes as his primary mystery pseudonym.

    Fredric Brown, besides being one of the best SF short story writers ever, was well enough known in the mystery field (he won an Edgar, among other things) that mystery fans are surprised that he wrote other things. He used the same name for both.

    Winston Churchill (yes — that one) wrote an alternate history SF story.

    1. One neat thing about Rocket to the Morgue, as the story was written using the mystery-writer pen-name, the author felt free to use his stf-writer pen-name for a minor character. AFAIK that is the only ‘real’ name in the book; although, it is pretty easy to guess who is who behind the funny names.

      Of course, the book is now usually published using the Boucher name, which may lead some folks to wonder about the character named Anthony Boucher …

  11. When I was in the Service I had trouble at one duty station setting up an account with the local power company because they had a long-time customer with the same first, middle and last name. My last name is fairly rare so they could not believe that there could be two of us until I went to their main office in uniform with two forms of photo ID. One of my sisters could not believe it either so she searched online and, sure enough, there was another Dan Z living two towns over from me. Come to think of it, he had published a non-fiction book and written a few articles (as I recall, my sister thought it was very amusing that both Dan Zs were writers). Would using my initials instead of my full name, like the other Dan Z did, be different enough or would this be more of a pen name situation?

    1. With an unusual name and it being that close, I probably would go with a pen name. Unless the other guy hasn’t written anything for some time or you make sure your picture is on your Amazon author page, etc., so the reader has a visual reminder that you aren’t that guy.

    2. Yesterday I looked up David Anderson, who writes detective fiction. All I wanted was a bibliography of his work.

      It turns out there are at least two authors using the same name; one writes detective stories, the other children’s stories. The children’s one has a much larger Web footprint. Plus, many web pages thought both authors were the same person and lumped their books together.

      The children’s Anderson’s web page was on the second page of results. I didn’t find the page for the detective one until I searched with the author’s name, main character’s name, and one of his book titles all in the same search string.

      People, when an interested party spends ten minutes just trying to find your bibliography or web site, you’re Doing It Wrong. I’ve had the same problem with authors who apparently put a huge effort into “marketing” via Facebook, Twitter, mailing lists, and whatever is trendy this week, but they refuse to put any effort into the basic building block of the Web.

      And if they have a web site, it’s likely to be one of those Author McWebsites with pictures of most, but not all, of the covers of their books. I swear, those pages are so generic they use the same ugly fonts. Is there some web services company that lowballs prices on generic web sites?

      1. No, there’s a generic web toolkit that every ISP / hosting company uses to generate their “build your own website” utility page.

    1. Not really. Most of the fans are cool and don’t care what your sex is as long as you write a great story. But there are some — just as there are those who can’t see that changes in tech, physiology, etc., can and probably will mean changes in battle assignments in the future and on distant, non-human planets.

      1. As a physics/chemistry teacher, I’ve found myself in situations in which some people wanted to pat me on the head when I opined about science. Generally, not that big a deal.
        Keep in mind, that, for some of these guys, it’s not strictly chauvinism, it’s the desire to avoid accidentally buying a “magical” or sci-rom book. They’re playing the odds.
        Which, to be fair, so do I. I have found myself assuming that most women in sci-fi aren’t serious scientists, or will not be able to handle the underlying gadgetry/tech without ticking off my “that doesn’t work” skepticism.

  12. I sometimes wish I’d chosen a pen name back when I published my first novel. My last name is sufficiently unusual that I doubt there are any other Ney-Grimms at large in the world—aside from my husband and my children. Which means that someone who decided they wanted to track me down…could probably do it quite easily. I don’t like that idea. At all.

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