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Pen Names

Question of the day: What are your thoughts on writing under a pen name? Do I let the agent know ahead of time?

I know several authors who write under an assumed name, and I think, if your reasons are good ones, it makes a lot of sense. But it can't just be because you're writing a memoir and you don't want your mom to read the sordid details of your sex life. Or whatever.

The authors I know who have assumed pen names have done so because they wanted to rejuvinate their careers. I actually tweeted a bit about this a few weeks ago when a friend announced that she'd be publishing "a debut" under an entirely different name, and I think in her case (which is the same as the other cases I know of), it's smart thinking if she (or anyone else) wants to start fresh. Why would anyone want to do that? Well, because publishers and booksellers can pigeon-hole your book into a mid-list book or even less than that, and once they start thinking of you in this way, it's a very difficult cycle to break out of. Rare is the book that has a middling advance, a small print run and not a ton of marketing that truly hits a home run. Like it or not, a lot of a book's success is predetermined, not just by how much effort publishers are going to put into it (which is often based on the size of the advance) but by how many books your earlier books have sold. If you've sold 5k, book sellers aren't going to order enough to stock their shelves to make it a break-out book. If you've sold 100k, then they will. 

You can see, surely, how this is a self-fulfilling prophesy, and how assuming a new name indeed gives you a chance to start over without the additional baggage.

That said, you also lose your fans, since you really can't alert them to the sale of the new book without outing yourself. So you can also see why this isn't something that you do lightly. It's something that has to have real consideration, and something, quite obviously, that you'd need to discuss with both your agent and your publisher. If your publisher believes in you as an author but recongizes that your brand has taken a beating, maybe it's something to go for.

Obviously, there are other times you choose a pen name (i.e, testing out a new genre), but for the most part, I'd stick with your real identity. Oh, and yes, you'd need to tell an agent of your intentions, since he/she would need to know who you truly are! And also, your contracts, etc, would be made out to your legal name. It's not like you're letting this identity take over your life. :)

What do you guys think? Has anyone ever considered taking a pen name? I'm curious!


Reader Comments (7)

I'm outside of the traditional publishing system, but I don't think there's anything wrong with using a pen name, even if it is just because you don't want your family to know the "sordid details of your sex life." Identity has always been fluid, I'd say about 5% genuine and 95% cultural (I mean, who but your significant other really knows who you are?), but it's especially flexible today. Many people are better known by their "screennames" or nicknames on forums, blogs, networking sites, etc. than they are the names on their birth certificates.

It makes sense for certain people to want to escape the confines of their niches...Steven King has more than enough reason to write under a pseudonym when he writes in genres other than horror, or Nora Roberts when she steps outside romance. But 99.999% of writers are not Steven King or Nora Roberts. I think most people assuming pen names have more mundane reasons for it, e.g. they have a career in government or education or business and don't want their names associated with a bodice ripper or a sarcastic indictment against modern society. Potential employers will Google and Facebook you the second they see the header on a resume, and you may not want the first search result to be a book about a confused young man experimenting with drugs, cutting, and married men.

Maybe in the olden days (like, 2000) you could put your full name proudly on your work without a second thought. But I'm nervous just putting my first name on this blog comment. Thanks to the pervasiveness of the Internet, it is very, very easy to judge, stalk, and attack people. I know online presence is all the rage, but maybe you don't want readers to be able to find out your birthday, your zip code, and the naked baby photos your Mom put on Flickr through a simple Internet search. I think as long as you understand your own personal reasons to choose a pen name, and you stick to that name consistently, it shouldn't be a problem.

December 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTamara

Apart from commenting on blogs and Facebook, I use a screen name everywhere it is acceptable to use one. It's not really a pen name since it doesn't sound like a real name. Online, I debate politics and I don't want a potential employer finding out what I'm saying by googling me. It's also my way of keeping safe since the people I meet in these places could be something other than what they say they are. I came up with the screen name when I was sixteen and I use the same one so my online friends will be able to recognize me if they find me on another forum. I'd estimate no more than ten or twenty people who met me under my screen name know my real name.
If I publish fiction, I don't plan on using a pen name. My real last name would put me very close to two very popular authors so I think it's a good name and it's easy to pronounce and remember.
Sometimes, I have the urge to write political articles. If I do that, I will have to use a pen name for the political blog since I've heard authors should not write political articles a lot.
One question. How secret should pen/screen names be if you're an author, or planning to be an author? Is it important to keep them secret from people you talk to or do you just want to make sure the people reading your book don't know your other identity(s)?

December 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJessi

I write under my first and middle initials, CG, rather than use my first name, Chris. The reason is that I have a professional career completely separate from my author identity and I don't want people who know me professionally to see my author stuff.

December 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCG Blake

Great post and I find this debate really interesting. Like lots of people, I shy away from articulating comments in public fora which could create problems or embarrassment for me at work. But I would like to think that when I write something which is meaningful to me, I would have the courage of my convictions, put my name to it and then roll with any criticism that followed. Easier said than done, I know.
That said, I don't write about my personal life, and I am curious, Allison, why, for example, you think a memoirist wanting to hide the sordid details of their sex life from their Mum shouldn't use a pen name. Is it because you think they should own their story? Or that the pen name creates problems with credibility, possibly making people doubt the story? Anyway, I have no answers, but would love to hear your thoughts.

December 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterOrla

Hi guys, thanks for chiming in! Just to be clear: I think screen names are totally different than pen names...screen names are totally valid (and sometimes really critical) in the vast world of the Internet and all of the privacy issues that the Internet raises. But when it comes to writing a memoir, I think (and I'm pretty sure most in the industry agree, though I'm not an expert) that you have to take ownership of your story to, well, own it to the public, and if you hide behind a pen name, there isn't a lot for them to invest in. Part of writing a memoir is to share your story and connect with readers, and if you're hiding your real identity, you're also creating an obstacle to doing that.

JMO! Curious what others think.

December 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAllison Winn Scotch

I am using my first two initals and maiden name as my nom de plume because my married name is very Italian and my ancestors hail mostly from the lands of blarney and bratwurst. That could be confusing. My writer's blog is under my pen name also. I know of at least two authors who are on the NY Times Best Seller's List with genre novels and decided to publish erotica under pen names. When the erotic novels became both popular and more acceptable, they publicly announced their true authorship. There can be many reasons to use a pen name. I know of at least two authors who use a different pen name for each genre in which they write. They each have two pen names in addition to their own names. Nora Roberts is another popular author who writes another genre under the name J D Robb. She has used other pen names as well. Some of her pen names were suggested by the publishing house according to Wikipedia.

December 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCarol Caputo

great post! Thanks for it.

January 7, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteressay online
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