Pen names. Some of the most famous authors known wrote under a pseudonym. Mark Twain. JK Rowling. Joe Hill.
Let’s jump right in.
Why would anyone want a pen name?
Testing the waters
First time writers or authors wanting to branch into a different genre may want to employ a pen name. It gives them the mask that Shakespeare lamented about to hide behind and try something new and adventurous.
Let’s face it. We’re in the age of knowledge when anything can be Googled within a minute. With that knowledge, do you think parents would approve of an erotica writer’s books being displayed on the screen when they were searching for the children’s books?
That’s an extreme example, but the truth of the matter is, cultivating a readership isn’t much different. Romance readers will devour romance, but you can’t count on those same readers being a sci-fi loving reader. Having a pen name, when you write under different genres helps your marketing. It keeps your Also Bought (a list that is generated automatically by Amazon based on purchases of your books) from being filled with books that aren’t in your genre and keeps your books from appearing on someone else’s Also Bought that don’t benefit your book—your romance book ending up on a horror strip instead of beside other romance books.
Maybe you’ve written peer-reviewed journals, published non-fic books on how to do something. Those readers might want to read your fantasy books or sci-fi books if what your day job entails bleeds over into those realities, but most of your reader base isn’t going to want to read your non-fic works.
I know many writers who must use pen names because of their job. A teacher, a bank advisor, a police chief, a doctor. For some jobs it’s Federal regulations that dictate if they can publish under their name or not, and for others, it’s to maintain their authority within their professional field.
You’d love to say you wouldn’t look down on a wrestling coach writing m+m romance, but the truth of the matter is, what you write could undermine how others perceive you within your workforce and with your handling of people.
Some genres are heavily dominated by one gender or the other. Sci-Fi is the throne room for male authors while romance tends to be dominated by females. Readers’ perceptions and agents/publishers are swayed from even the smallest things regardless if they realize it or not. Trying to have an even playing field by trying to remain neutral (initial heavy pen names) or being the opposite of what they are could lead someone down the path of a pen name.
Some series have lasted for generations. A good example is Nancy Drew. If you didn’t realize ghostwriters wrote Nancy Drew, I’m sorry to be the one to tell you.
A publisher or a book universe might have a pen name so that multiple authors could write for them without distorting appearances—almost like Doctor Who regenerating.
Everyone has a life and a backstory we aren’t privy to. For some, a pen name is not only for their safety but the safety of their family.
Sometimes a writer wants to be known for who they are and not who they are connected to. Look at Joe Hill, Stephen King’s son. I’m sure that’s a connection he’s proud of, but at the same time, that isn’t who he is. To get a fair shake in the world, and to be able to say, “I did this,” he wrote under a pen name for years before coming forward. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we’re known by either what we bring to the table or the connections we have, and how we present ourselves first can sometimes be the only box we’re ever identified in.
Sometimes, it’s just easier to become your pen name when you need it and leave that coat on the rack when you don’t. Juggling friends, work, social expectations, etc. can be draining, and having a pen name can just make things easier by having a barrier between your worlds.
Also, on the flip side of simplicity is pronunciation. At one point the harder a name was to say, the less likely it was to do well because people couldn’t remember it. That was also at the time before the internet where we could just Google the book title or look at our prior purchases/reads.
This also go to a balanced cover. If a name is too long, it can overshadow a book cover, crowding it to where it looks cluttered.
How to Pick a Pen Name
Make a list of the names you’re deciding between. Then do a good ol’ fashion Google search. You want a name that isn’t popular in the genre you will be writing in—that could lead to some serious legal issues.
Sometimes you’ll want a play on words. This is common in erotica with names like Justin Cider (Just inside her) or Kaymen Cyder (Came inside her).
Pros and Cons
The pros and cons of a pen name are like a scale, balancing between what you want and what’s best for business.
The cons of pen names are simple. It takes time to build up an audience/following and having multiple pen names comes at a cost of time. But with promos like ENT, AMS, FB Ads, it’s easier than ever before to have a pen name blossom overnight.
The pros are pretty straightforward. If you plan on writing in multiple genres, it is the best for business option if those books don’t have an underlying theme. Can you say that all your books are romance, or all your books are various styles within fantasy? Do you write in rock fiction, adapting songs and albums from artists?
There are exceptions like Neil Gaiman who has written kids’ books to adult under his name and has become one of the most noted writers of our times, but even Dean Koontz has written under pen names, and he’s on a par with Stephen King.
Even using blurb, cover designs, and such to help distinguish your romance from your dystopian can still overwhelm readers when you get into twenty plus books all in various genres.
Whichever you decide, make a list. Nothing beats a good pros and cons list on a piece of paper where you can call the shots and mark things out as you think and process your future name.
How Does a Pen Name Work with Publishers
Publishers and agents are going to know your real name when you submit. It’s for tax purposes. You want to get paid, great. They need your legal information to do that.
It doesn’t matter if you’re going for a short story or a novel. If you submit, there is a proper way to submit (Shunn Style) and publishers know that the byline might be a pen name, and they don’t bat an eyelash at it. They need your legal name to draw up contracts, make payments, and have valid working relationships with you.
The Copyright office also has a place to put your pen name on written works.
How Does a Pen Name Work with Indies
When you create accounts on Amazon, Kobo, etc. use your legal name/publishing company data—taxes and payment. When you go to upload the books, each book has a special place for “author name” and that’s where you put the pen name.
According to KDP guidelines, it is against TOS for an individual to have multiple KDP accounts—exceptions are if you run a publishing house, but then you’re not an individual but a business.
Amazon can walk you through creating a secondary Author Central account, giving you multiple author pages to manage your author following on Amazon. (https://authorcentral.amazon.com/gp/help?ie=UTF8&pn=irid99441107&topicID=200620850)
Create a FB page. FB has allowed pages to join groups in late 2018 (though there are requirements such as the number of followers, activity levels, and such before they allow that page the option to join). Don’t confuse this with FB user account—it is against FB TOS to have multiple user accounts, though some writers get away with it. There is no limit to the number of pages you can have.
Update: There is a legal loophole to have multiple user accounts. According to news articles and FB communications, FB allowed Drag Queens to have multiple user accounts and cited “safety” as the reason why. ( https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/oct/01/victory-drag-queens-facebook-apologises-real-name-policy and https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jun/29/facebook-real-name-trans-drag-queen-dottie-lux ) though a couple of years later in 2018 FB cracked down again on what “names” they would accept and resorted to people having to upload government ids to reinstate profiles.
This is a continuing battle that if you took a chance and create multiple user accounts instead of pages you need to stay on top of. Make sure you take precautions such as having another user as admin on your pages (one of your own user accounts or a friend that you trust.)
Aside from the business side, filing taxes, opening accounts, and filing copyright, no one needs to know your real name.
What Doesn’t a Pen Name Protect You Against
- Defamation of Character—It might take longer, but if you slander someone, you’re still in legal hot water.
- Tax evasion—A pen name is not a bank in the islands.