By: Merry Monteleone
In today’s day and age you might wonder why any author would choose to write under a pseudonym. It’s easy enough to figure out who the author really is, so it can’t be to hide their identity. There’s relatively little that the voracious sleuths of the interwebz can’t discover.
Look at JK Rowling, for example. Her effort to publish under the pen name Robert Galbraith was uncovered by use of software to analyze the writing style. (1)
Of course, not every author will elicit the kind of scrutiny that Rowling does. The fact remains that anonymity is not guaranteed by the use of a pen name.
In the annals of online wordsters, there are still plenty of bloggers and online personalities who use a screen name. They are not guaranteed to keep their real identity secret in the perfect storm of interest. But to be fair, most people will not inspire that much interest.
So you might wonder whether it’s even worth it to use a pen name. Why would a pseudonym be beneficial?
Your Name | Your Brand
For professional writers, your name is your brand. Your portfolio and ability to market your work all ties in to your professional name. When your writing is fiction, the name you use is inextricably tied to your genre.
This is the first thing you should keep in mind when considering a pen name. If you’re building a writing career, you should be building your writing trajectory in a set way. Your readers will come to expect the type of writing that you create.
Everyday writers may not be searched by their name initially. But once a reader finds your work and enjoys it, they often look for more of the things you write. And they will be searching based on your name.
It’s not recommended for fiction writers to work across too many genres for this reason. The audience that loves your romance novels might be disappointed to pick up a thriller, or vice versa. Your YA readership might not appreciate a literary tome.
I see you there, rolling your eyes, armed with a list of famous authors who have successfully written across genres. There are exceptions to every rule. You can absolutely write many genres under one name, but you’re setting yourself up for a harder road to gain a following.
This is one of the more common reasons that writers use pen names ––they have more than one genre or type of writing that they enjoy and they want to keep them separate.
Reasons Writers Choose to Use a Pen Name
As discussed above, one reason to use a pen name is to keep your work separate if you write across genres or fields. There are other reasons you might choose a pseudonym. Historically, authors might have chosen pseudonyms to hide their identity. This might be a reason for someone to use a pen name today, though it’s much more difficult to keep from being identified now.
Ever heard of Silence DoGood? (2) That was Benjamin Franklin’s pseudonym and it’s relatively famous today. But when he first penned the DoGood Essays, Franklin probably had no intention of letting people know he’d written them.
Sometimes what you write is dangerous. It might be a political firestorm. It could be something that has severe repercussions. Hell, it might just be something that causes a flurry of internet trolls with their cyber pitchforks and torches.
You can’t change the way other people perceive your writing. A pen name gives you the option of writing what you feel is important but separating it from your personal self.
Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby
There is no shortage of female authors who have chosen to (or been forced to) write under a male presenting pen name. I would love to tell you that sexism is no longer a valid reason to choose a pseudonym, but I would be lying.
JK Rowling was told by her publisher to use her initials because middle grade boys don’t want to read books written by a female. Of course, JK never explicitly hid who she was; her byline just didn’t highlight the fact that she had a vagina. Said gender never harmed her sales. She also wrote a brilliant series that may have just transcended society’s inherent sexism.
It doesn’t take much research to see that female writers are underrepresented in print. (3) Or that we’re paid less. (4)
One story that has stuck with me for years is the story of James Chartrand, creator of Men with Pens. (5) She outed herself as a woman in 2009. She had been writing professionally as a woman and making next to nothing. That instantly changed when she adopted a male pen name.
It was eleven years ago. Perhaps we’ve evolved despite all evidence to the contrary. But I still believe this is a valid reason to choose a pen name.
Going Against the Publishing Norm
When Stephen King adopted the pen name, Richard Bachman, it was for a pretty odd reason. (6) He wrote too much! He is pretty prolific. It’s mindboggling the amount of good fiction he can produce in a short time span.
Publishers and readers didn’t expect authors to be able to write more than one book a year. But King couldn’t slow his pace that much so he adopted the pen name to publish the overflow.
There may be things you’re doing that are outside of the norm. Using a secondary name can be a good way to separate your oddities or to work in a space that’s a little more experimental without damaging your current reputation and income.
Most authors have day jobs. This is a sad truth. A lot of them are freelance writers or editors, but many work in another profession entirely.
Like it or not, your bylined work represents you as a person. This sets off the self censor to an alarming degree which can damage your ability to create honestly. Fiction writers know that what we’re creating isn’t necessarily a representation of ourselves. If we’re very committed, we’ve taken a great deal of time in creating fully formed characters in their own right.
But we can’t expect all readers to understand that. People are forever trying to wrangle the author into their literary analysis. It may add a lot of depth to the literary discussion, but it’s a bitch for the author who has to pit their desire for privacy against their drive to create authentic worlds.
If your day job is very professional, publishing erotica might be damaging to your career. There is nothing wrong with erotica, but you’re foisting people’s preconceived bullshit about your genre onto your professional reputation, as well. I haven’t done a study, but I would guess pen names are more prevalent in romance and erotica simply to escape the judgmental stupidity of the average masses.
There are still a lot of good reasons to opt to use a pen name. It’s a personal decision that every writer needs to make for themselves and there is no right or wrong answer. You might opt to write under your given name for everything, or adopt variations to categorize your work.
About the Author:
Merry Monteleone is a freelance writer from the Chicago area. She specializes in marketing and content strategy and is currently working on her first novel. To read her marketing and writing ramblings, visit her website https://rhetoric-unlimited.com/ or follow her on Medium //firstname.lastname@example.org" https://email@example.com