This is a topic that I’ve often intended to write about, and the other night a member of one of my Facebook writing groups was asking a question about it. I was going to reply in more detail, but realized I was writing that blog post I always intended to publish. So here goes!
There are many reasons to choose to use a pseudonym, but they all basically boil down to three categories: to hide your identity to one degree or another; to maintain some degree of separation between two or more of your works; or to give a better name because your own might get in the way.
A Secret Identity
The most instinctive reason to publish under a pseudonym is to hide who you really are. This may be for privacy concerns, for personal security, or to help shepherd audience expectations.
Privacy: This is a very traditional reason for using a pen name, and some authors who gain large followings will sometimes (or more frequently) wish that they’d taken that route. It can be exhausting to be a celebrity, simply because you’re always expected to live up to certain standards that usually can’t be met. Yes, we give celebrities a hard time for thinking they have a hard time, but think about it — with all those people out there giving them a hard time, it often adds up to something real. That becomes especially true when you don’t know how to manage that kind of life.
However, it’s also exhausting to keep parts of your life separate, especially since the best way to sell books is to engage with both your fans and your potential audience. It’s often said that public appearances don’t actually generate much revenue, but that’s only in a direct sense. In reality, engaging with your fans makes them feel more excited, and more enthusiastic about recommending your stuff to someone else. It adds up over time. Doing that while maintaining a different identity is difficult.
And, even if you’re doing it to keep people from knowing where you live and who your kids are, you still have the fact that we live in a digital age where finding someone is almost as easy as using a search engine. Ultimately, if you want privacy, there are ways to get it; but don’t depend on a pseudonym to do it for you.
Security: Sometimes you’re not looking to hide from everyone, though, just certain groups. Maybe you’re writing a tell-all that will tick some people off; maybe you want to write a genre that your family would disapprove of, or you just don’t want your small-town neighbors to think of you as the weird woman who writes about aliens. Or maybe you’re writing for your college’s humor magazine despite being forbidden to do so, using the name Dr. Seuss to get away with it.
Audience Expectations: Sometimes, your actual identity might get in the way. In this case, it’s not about hiding who you are, but rather trying to present an image that your audience feels more comfortable with, or prevent previous baggage. For example, a politician writing a sci-fi novel would find his name coloring everything he wrote; or a man writing romance might want a more feminine-sounding name so as to avoid seeming out of place.
A very prominent and recent example of managing audience expectations would be that of Robert Galbraith, the mystery novelist who turned out to be none other than Harry Potter creator J. K. Rowling, who wanted to (and did, though she didn’t have a lot of time before it leaked) succeed at a new venture without trading on the vast audience she had already collected. In doing so, she not only proved she wasn’t simply famous for being famous. but also avoided any expectations based on what she had previously written.
Even before that, though, Jo Rowling managed audience expectations by publishing under the pen name J. K. Rowling, even though she has no legal middle name, much less one starting with K. She did so because her publisher was worried about reaching a male audience, and advised two initials to be more in line with other authors who used the same technique. I’m sure it didn’t hurt that one of her biggest influences was a man named Clive, who went by Jack, and published as C. S. Lewis; and he hung out with J. R. R. Tolkien; and they both liked G. K. Chesterton. Maybe there’s something to these initials?
And Now for Something Completely Different
When attempting to start a new venture, it’s sometimes helpful to use a new name. This comes with its own pitfalls, though. If you’re pretending to be a new author, then you have the same perils as a new author: most notably, no reputation. If you’re J. K. Rowling, you don’t have to worry about revenue from Robert Galbraith; but publishers are businesses, and businesses are in the business of business. They are always reluctant to give up sales when they know that anything with a particular author’s name will sell.
Starting a Different Genre: Sometimes, you just want a clean break. Other times, you want your books on different areas of the shelf. Or, just possibly, you decide you want your books to be next to someone else’s, in the hopes of picking up that author’s fans. (Though I don’t recommend trying a pen name that begins with “Tol” to pick up Lord of the Rings fans.) For example, among old-school science fiction fans, the name Murray Leinster carries some hefty weight. Leinster was actually the pen name of William Fitzgerald Jenkins, writing in the early 20th century; and though he used the Leinster identity the most he would use others for different genres (or just to get around limitations on how many stories a magazine had bought), including writing romance as Louisa Carter Lee.
Since SF&F books are usually shelved together in physical bookstores and even the digital versions, you gain little benefit separating things there; but if you started out in urban fantasy and now you want to write mysteries, it’s often helpful to not get bookstore owners confused. I’ve personally seen books in the wrong section precisely because of this. It’ll get less important as digital bookstores take over market share, but if you happen to write both military thriller and Regency romance, you might want to look into at least a new last name for one of them.
On the other hand, there’s also much to be said for being able to leverage your audience to help get noticed by others in your genre. I’ve talked about this before, coincidentally on the subject of Rowling publishing as Galbraith. (Or not so coincidental. It is a very prominent example, after all. I won’t repeat what I wrote there, so I’ll just encourage you to go click.)
Less Audience Overlap: When you decide you want to write something that you know won’t appeal to your current audience, a pseudonym helps prevent the backlash of your True Fans not liking it, or people expecting your True Fans to flock over to you and declaring you a failure when they don’t. (For more about that, and the article I’m referencing with the term, click that link in the previous paragraph.)
To put it another way, your author brand has created expectations in your True Fans, and if they don’t find those expectations fulfilled, then their disappointment will start spilling over to audience members who would like your new material. For that matter, you might have new fans who would become True Fans if they gave you a try, but instead they’re hung up on how you’re an author who writes X and what are you doing over in the Y section anyway, you interloper you.
Somewhat related to that, you may want a pseudonym to avoid people running into content issues. The classic example is a YA author who then writes an adult novel with sex scenes. This is also where digital bookstores have a weakness compared to the brick-and-mortar variety: listing books by author won’t necessarily distinguish by genre, while a physical store would shelve a YA adventure separately from adult books, and certainly away from erotica. This sort of thing happens with big-name SF author John Ringo, who initially wanted to publish a military thriller with very adult content (Ghost) under a pseudonym, but was talked out of it by his publisher in order to leverage the already-large Ringo fanbase. Ringo has admitted he’s still worried about parents thinking all his books are like Vorpal Blade, which he specifically wrote for a YA audience even though it’s shelved and marketed as adult military SF.
A Rose by Any Other Name Would Be Easier to Pronounce
Sometimes, you just want a name that’s better for what you’re working with. Maybe it just doesn’t sound right; maybe it’s a name from a non-Germanic, non-Romance language that’s hard to pronounce; maybe you just want something that avoids the baggage of what you were born with.
Fitting In: Did you know John Wayne wasn’t named John Wayne? His real name was Marion Morrison, and he preferred being called Duke growing up because it sounded just a little more like a boy’s name. “John Wayne” was actually chosen for him by Fox Studios. As it happens, my own father’s name is Marion, but he’s better known as Spike; he when asked about it, he just says that he’ll never forgive his mother for his birth name.
Sometimes, a name just doesn’t sound right, and you need something else that works. When you’re actually selling an image, that becomes even more important. Sometimes that’s done by an author’s bio, but other times you just start with the name, looking to grab attention or present a particular image. This is often the case with husband-and-wife writing teams who want to merge their brand; or with shared-name series, such as with with series like Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, The Three Investigators, or a multitude of other such stories. It might also be an issue with connotations, such as why Eluki Bes Shahar began publishing as Rosemary Edghill, eventually adopting that pseudonym as her legal name.
Making It Easy to Spell: I know several people with very Irish names that aren’t pronounced as they’re spelled — or rather, aren’t spelled in English the way they’re pronounced in Irish. Most people are used to Sean being pronounced “Shawn,” but have you met anyone named Siobhan, Dubh, or Aislinn? (I have, and they’re all lovely ladies.) Each of those names is pronounced exactly the way they’re spelled, but that’s only if you know Irish pronunciation rules. (For the record, that’s Shuh-von, Dove, and Ash-leen.) Irish is a lovely language, but a little too far from English for most English speakers, and not quite far enough to truly treat as alien.
Regina Doman, for example, publishes under her maiden name for multiple reasons, but a large factor is that her husband’s name is very easy to mispronounce and somewhat hard to spell. Declan Finn, who can sometimes be found posting on my other site, The Catholic Geeks, is actually John Konecsni, and while that’s not as bad as some Slavic names, it’s still enough of a barrier to publish as a different name. (Though, irony of ironies, a lot of people seem to have trouble pronouncing “Deck-lan.”)
No Baggage: Sometimes you just want to avoid jokes. Shock jock Michael Savage, for example, would have a harder time maintaining his image as Michael Weiner. Other times, you want to make a point of removing things that weigh you down; for another example, comedian Jon Stewart legally changed his name from Jon Leibowitz, apparently due to an estranged relationship with his father. Some authors choose to change their apparent nationality, while others do it because their name is similar to someone more famous. (Speaking of which, no, I’m not the lawyer named Matthew Bowman, even though we’re both Catholics and like Doctor Who.)
Bonus Reason: Booksignings
There is one very practical benefit to a pseudonym, one which isn’t a great reason by itself but can add to any of the others to make them stronger. It’s your signature.
See, one of the many things that few people tell new authors is that you should never sign your name like you normally sign your name. That is, never use the same signature on your book that you do on legal documents and checks. Even if you aren’t using a pen name, you should come up with a different way of signing your name on a book.
(I recommend something based on your initials anyway. If you do wind up signing a lot of books all at once, you’ll want something short and quick to dash off.)
Is It Worth It?
I don’t know.
Pen names used to be much more popular. These days, with the ubiquity of social media making it so easy to be known under your own name, it’s certainly less attractive. The amount of effort you have to go through to maintain that facade, though, may not be worth it. I’ve known women who originally published under their maiden names who wished they could just press a button and change their whole brand to their married name. I’ve known some that made that very effort. I’ve known others who took advantage of having two last names to write in different genres.
You’re the one taking the effort. I generally advise against it, if you’re doing it for privacy reasons or just because you always liked this other name; but ultimately the choice is up to you. There’s effort involved, but it’s usually more of an annoyance at worst, rather than a true burden. There’s a freedom that comes with a new name, and also new responsibilities. Ultimately, you have to be the judge of its value.