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Pen Names: Are there pros & cons?

©2010 Faith Bicknell-Brown

Previously posted early 2010 on the AWH blog (which is now closed).

Pen names, aliases, nom de plumes, pseudonyms, alternate identities…what pitfalls and amenities arise from using them? They serve in giving writers anonymity, but aliases can cause problems for a writer if he’s not careful.

With electronic reader sales and e-book purchases steadily climbing, the perfect pen name is as important as finding the perfect literary agent. Whether it’s the print or e-book world, rest assured, your pen name, if used and promoted effectively, will be recognized.

As the founder of Avoid Writers Hell and its sister site, AWH Chatters, one of the most common questions writers ask me is whether or not to use a pen name. And that question is usually followed by: How do I choose one to reflect who I am as a writer and the material I write?

There are many reasons for using a pseudonym, but writers must carefully weigh the pros and cons of an alias. However, no matter the motivation behind a pen name, a writer must choose something he’s comfortable using and one that’s professional too. Once he shrugs into the coat of an alias, readers know him as that person.

Often one reason for a pen name is when a writer writes more than one genre such as erotic romance and young adult fiction. I know authors who pen both, and they are very careful to keep the two genres and their pseudonyms separate. Erotic romance is a booming market. Penning adult romance stories often causes people to raise eyebrows (oh, stop drooling. You’re getting the pages wet). Sometimes family members, small towns, religious communities, or an employer will frown upon adult fiction. In that case, Jane Doe might write science fiction, but she might also pen erotic romance as Jane D. Smith.

Additionally, I’ve spoken with scores of e-book authors who use aliases because of ex-spouses. The last thing these authors need is an ex causing trouble online as well as in the real world.

There are times a writer might not want anyone to know he writes fiction until he’s well established. I hate to say it, but I’ve encountered people who feel writing isn’t a real job, or, if he isn’t published by a big print publisher, then he’s not a real author. Such viewpoints can make a writer glance heavenward and utter a few warm, fuzzy words, so until he establishes his career, he may choose to use a pen name.

So how do you choose a nom de plume? Well, it depends on what you write and what you want to convey through your writing.

Do you want a name that sounds like a porn star? Sorry, but I had to list that one first. I’ve worked for e-publishers and newsletters, so I’ve seen many pen names that have made me wince or caused me to snort coffee through my nose. Exercise caution and taste when pondering a pseudonym. Cherry Surprises or Boinka Allnight will give editors and readers the wrong impression.

A byline must be easy to remember. Unique is good, but if it’s too unique, then the reader might have trouble remembering your name.

Imagine yourself in the local Barnes and Noble as you’re looking for more books by a great, new author. However, you can’t recall her pen name because it’s so unusual. You approach the store manager and say, “Excuse me? Do you have any books written by What’s Her Name?”

“Who?”

Then, with a pained expression and smoke billowing out of your ears, you concentrate to remember the author’s name, and all the while the clerk wonders if you’re constipated. You then leave the store in a huff and thoroughly embarrassed.

A really long name or one difficult to spell makes it tough for readers to remember too. People use search engines to find information on authors and Hollywood actors all the time, so something catchy yet simple is a plus and easy to Google.

Long names are a pain to fit on a cover, whether on print or e-books. Such names create more work for the cover artists and those who format the fonts. Print magazines and e-zines allow a writer more leeway, which is why I use my full name in non-fiction articles, but I use a pen name or an initial variation of my real name for my e-books.

Another thing to ask yourself is whether or not your name conveys the wrong genre. Take my name, Faith, for example. What’s the first thing that pops into your mind when you hear the word faith? Inspirational? God? The Bible?

It’s sort of like using Strawberry Shortcake as the author name of a horror novel or Genghis Khan for inspirational fiction.

I have three pseudonyms I use for my erotic romances, depending on sub-genre and category. If you’re an aspiring author or desire to break into another genre, remember the more pen names you have, the harder it is to promote them and to find the time to promote them. If you have two or more pen names and need the anonymity of each, then there are obstacles a writer must address and manage.

  • You’ll need a website for each name.

If you’re able to hire a web designer and pay for domain names and website services, that’s great, but most writers have day jobs and families, and therefore tight budgets. WordPress is a blog site that offers excellent free (and premium) web services. If you opt to use the free version, choose a template, then find a friend who can whip up a static page, a matching banner, and an email signature banner. Another method of avoiding extra expenses caused by multiple pen names is to find someone who will swap services with you.

A good friend of mine designs static pages and banners for me, and I repay her by sending her books from her amazon.com wish list. And since she’s halfway around the world from me, this system works well because we avoid the headache of customs and the money exchange rates for monetary payments. I just go to her wish list, select what she wants, and send it to her.

  • Juggling alternate email accounts is as difficult as managing several websites.

If you must keep your pen names quiet, maintaining more than one email account will force you to gnaw on your keyboard into confetti. This walks hand in hand with handling more than one website. An author must be careful where he posts; otherwise, there is always that person or two who will notice the slip-up in email addresses and blab about it to the cyber world.

  • Keeping your identity safe when you have to promote on groups and forums is difficult.

Writers haunt groups and loops such as Yahoo, Google, Hotmail, and the thousands of private forums in cyberspace. These are the worst places for a writer to slip up by revealing their pseudonym(s) via posting from the wrong site with the wrong email address or ID. If your anonymity is of the utmost importance, be careful!

Another problem of multiple aliases is others with alternate IDs.

Did that make you pause? It should.

As much as we like to believe we’re safe online, many groups and forums have trolls and members with egos that will fit inside your Aunt Gertrude’s size 54 muumuu. And when new or aspiring authors are all competing for acceptances from the same publishers, jealousy will rear its head.

My rule of thumb as an author is to avoid most of these circles. If you must participate in them, lurk for a few weeks. Watch IDs that seem like trolls. Bear in mind these are communities of struggling authors, so the e-publishing world is dog-eat-dog. If you’re attacked online by author John Doe, who goes out of his way to slam your work, stop and consider that he might also be Jack Deere who hangs with you at your favorite forum. An online brawl is not only unprofessional (watch out for that beer bottle!), but it can follow an author all over cyberspace. If you find yourself in a situation where you must defend your work, choose your words wisely so you’re not accused of unprofessional conduct. Such fiascos can ruin an author’s name and kill book sales.

You never know who you might be talking to online. Authors use more than one pen name, and you might find one of them in the office cubicle next to yours (no one likes an office catfight…well maybe me).

  • In order to promote on blog or interviews sites, you often must reveal your true identity.

I’m a firm believer of watching sites and reading their material for several days or weeks before approaching them for blog or interview spots. Sometimes an author must supply factual information. Do you trust those who run the site to keep your pen name quiet? Most places keep such information confidential, but occasionally problems do arise, so be wary.

  • Unless you’re open about your pen names, your reader base won’t be able to find your other titles.

Again, writers have various reasons for using pen names, but should you want your readers to buy your material published under other pseudonyms, you have no choice but to reveal your identity. Using different names requires the author to build individual reader bases. Do you want to do all that work for each name? Do you have the time? Can you hire someone to do it for you?

Ask yourself this: How much time will multiple pen names take away from my actual writing time?

Think it over, choose one, maybe two, and concentrate on those. With dedication, professionalism, and hard work, your readership will grow.

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14 responses

  1. Great article, Faith! Being one with one pseudonym, I know exactly what you’re talking about here. I agree, one or two tops would keep a person very busy.

    January 26, 2011 at 5:15

    • I have several, Kay Dee, but for me it’s a necessity. However, they certainly keep me on my toes!

      January 26, 2011 at 5:15

      • Yes, under my ‘real’ name I write young adult fiction and under my pseudo (Kay Dee), I write erotic romance.
        Definitely necessary for two names.

        January 27, 2011 at 5:15

  2. Excellent blog pointing out the major difficulties. I chose to use a pen name for reason number one: writing in different genres. As myself, I write sci-fi, fantasy, and horror; as my pseudonym (Icy Snow Blackstone), I write romances, Most people in the forums I attend are aware of my literary dichotomy, I’m pretty sure, because I make no secret of it. After all, I’ve blogged about Icy Snow’s origins enough.

    January 26, 2011 at 5:15

  3. Writing dif genres is one of the two big reasons I use a pen name too, Toni. The other is due to gremlins out there in romance loopville.

    January 26, 2011 at 5:15

  4. I use a pen name because I sub in high schools during the day, and would like to get a job teaching English, since my specialty is teaching writing. But I write erotic romance. Can’t have the kiddies leaving their books around, then telling Mom/Dad, “Hey, it’s alright that I’m reading this! The sub we had today wrote it!” ARGH! I don’t write for them! I write for their Moms!
    Besides, I promised my late FIL, a devout Catholic, that I wouldn’t use HIS name on the kind of stuff I write! He thanked me. LOL.

    January 27, 2011 at 5:15

  5. I’ve recently acquired two other pen names.

    I’m not sure how difficult this is going to be, but I’m up for the challenge.

    Lots to think about, Faith.
    Thanks for sharing.

    January 27, 2011 at 5:15

    • That very reason, Fiona, is why I use one of my pen names!

      Hi Adelle! Thanks for stopping by! So you have three pen names now, eh? Well, you’re catching up with me, lol. Including my given name, I have five. Although the names can be a pain, they’re all necessary. I’m still debating, however, whether to use one for my regency/historical romances or just use my real name.

      January 27, 2011 at 5:15

  6. Faith–A very helpful blog, and so well-written! I use one pen name and write in one genre (contemporary romance) and even that’s a lot to juggle! I also use three email addresses for difference purposes and often forget to click on the right one for the right group.
    One tiny peeve I have is not knowing what name to use when I reply to someone–I feel a bit silly using a pen name for a personal reply. I’d love to hear readers’ thoughts on that.

    January 27, 2011 at 5:15

    • Thank you for the lovely compliment, M.!

      For me, if a reader emails one of my pen names that I keep strictly mum, I reply as that pen name. If they email me as Faith (F.L. Bicknell) or Molly Diamond, then I reply as Faith because the Molly name I’m open about.

      January 28, 2011 at 5:15

  7. Hi Faith. Very nice article, with all of the bases covered. You’ve really hit the nail on the head about the pros and cons of pen names.

    I write under three names: one non-fiction, one romance, and one erotic romance. For the longest time (and for most all of the reasons you mention above) I kept them all very, very separate. Talk about exhausting.

    Finally I said to myself, “Eh, so what. Just put ’em out there and lump ’em together and why flies, flies…” Of course, I don’t have a day job employer to worry about any more, and the ex is fairly civil to me these days, and writing and publishing IS my full-time biz, so why the heck not?

    But that’s me. And if I had to do it all over again, I’d like do just what I did — keep them separate until it morphed into something else. Hey, isn’t that what we’re supposed to do in this giz? Morph a little once in a while?

    Kim/Maddie/Mia

    January 28, 2011 at 5:15

  8. LOL, it certainly is, Kim! When I first started using a pen name, it was the Molly Diamond one I resurrected last summer. I was writing for men’s mags and a lot of the church people around here would’ve flipped their wigs over it, lol.

    However, the Zinnia Hope name I once wrote under came about due to a nasty ex of mine. The ones I use now are to keep genres separated and so the online gremlins can’t cause trouble.

    Thanks for stopping by, Kim!

    January 29, 2011 at 5:15

  9. I use a pen name but for no particular reason other than to honor my husband, whose name is Norman. My first name really is Cheryl. A few years ago, I published a few books that were more sexually explicit and I used a different pen name for those. I didn’t want to mislead readers who expected a sweeter read. 😉

    Pen names guide readers. For instance, you know when you read a J.D. Robb, it’s Nora Roberts but it’s futuristic police procedural. When you read Nora Roberts, it’s romance or romantic suspense. Jayne Ann Krentz is another who uses different names to guide readers to specific genres of her writing (Amanda Quick, Jayne Castle).

    January 29, 2011 at 5:15

  10. Absolutely, Cheryl. Readers know what to expect, which they appreciate.

    January 30, 2011 at 5:15

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