Most writers ask themselves at some point if they should use a pen name. It can be a complicated decision with many factors to consider before making your choice. Today, we’ll discuss the most common reasons for choosing a pen name and their pros and cons.
Reason: It distances your work from your real name and identity, keeping your writing and private life separate.
Your fellow lawyers won’t know that you write dark fantasy in your spare time.
Your family (parents, siblings, kids, spouse) won’t be affected by positive or negative public attention generated by your writing.
If you write about dangerous subjects (leaked government secrets, radical dissension) a pen name can provide a measure of protection for you.
It can create confusion for those readers who know you in real life.
Reason: It provides you with a fresh platform.
You can begin your author career without a personal or blogging reputation preceding you.
If you previously flopped as an author under a previous name, you can start over.
You’re starting from scratch, building a fanbase and a following.
Reason: As a way of presenting a story world more completely.
Lemony Snicket is a well-known example of this.
If you are writing the story as a fictionalized biography, you can leave readers wondering whether it really occurred or not, which is fun.
It can come across to readers as being pretentious.
Some readers might feel tricked.
Reason: To avoid marketing prejudice.
In an ideal world, every writer’s books would be accepted purely on the merit of how good or bad a writer they are, whether it’s women writing hard science fiction, or a Japanese national writing about the English Civil War.
You might have noticed that we don’t live in an ideal world.
Whether you’re a man writing for a traditionally female dominated genre, a woman writing in a traditionally male-dominated genre or someone writing about a culture different from your own, readers are ignorant of this and will approach your works without bias.
You don’t have the chance to change misconceptions, to prove that a man can write Regency fiction, a woman can write hard science fiction, or someone with true respect and a willingness to learn can write knowledgeably about another culture.
Reason: You’re ghost writing.
To the best of my research and understanding, using a pen name is pretty much mandatory when ghostwriting.
You’re not known for your individual talent, but if you wanted that, you probably wouldn’t have picked up ghost writing in the first place and/or you’ll pursue it separately.
Reason: You’re participating in a group project with other authors.
Covers don’t look like a feed store bulletin board, with several names credited.
Avoids confusion of readers asking ‘okay, but who wrote what part?’
Again, you’re not known for your individual contribution.
Reason: To make it easier on readers if you have a complicated name.
You don’t have readers squinting at a long Polish last name and wondering how the heck they pronounce it. (He was not a writer, but my grandfather changed his name for this reason.)
You’ll never be known as the next Benedict Cumberbatch.
Reason: You don’t have to change your name if you get married/divorced/change your name for a similar reason.
Hyphenation is sometimes used as an answer to this problem.
Less paperwork! (Hey, who doesn’t like less of that?)
No confusion among your readers.
You don’t get the chance to sound imposing when you spit out your hyphenated name.
Reason: You have a boring name and you want readers to remember you.
I sympathize with the feeling. As you can see, my last name is about as boring as you can get, without being Smith or Johnson. (And my first name makes people think of a cute Disney mermaid princess who looks nothing like me, so there’s that.)
When people do a search for your name, the results won’t be dominated by a hundred other people with the same name as yourself.
You pass on the chance to prove that people with boring names can still write great books.
Reason: You have the same name as someone famous.
You don’t have people confusing you with the well-known person.
You don’t have people forgetting you, because the famous person is the only one they think of by that name.
When people do a search for your name, the results won’t be dominated by your name-twin.
You don’t have people remembering you as ‘the other person with the same name as that famous girl/guy’, as in the case of Korean actor Lee Min-ho (the Younger) vs. Lee Min-ho (the Older and more famous).
Reason: Related to the previous one, if you have the same name as another writer.
A well known example of this is when former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, chose to publish under the name Winston S. Churchill because there was already a writer with the name Winston Churchill. (I particularly remember this one because it confused me for a whole day when I was 14 and reading synopses of (the other) Winston Churchill’s works. ‘Wait, is this the Prime Minister? No? Okay well, who is this other dude?’)
People aren’t confusing you with the novelist who writes steamy shapeshifter romance.
Not being known as ‘the other novelist by that name’ can be a con, though most people I know would gladly take a pen name to prevent being confused with an erotica writer, but hey, if you’re not one of them, no judgement here.
Reason: You just want to
It’s your life. You can do whatever you want to.
You might be repeatedly asked why you chose to use a pen name, and then have to explain your decision.
Choosing a pen name is not an irrevocable decision by any means, but it is something that should be given careful thought and not simply decided on a whim.
Next Monday I’ll be back to talk at length about the practice of using pen names to publish in different genres and the pros and cons that attend it.
Until then, Merry Writing!