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 There were a number of reasons then to have a pen name, many of them no longer applicable.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!