Writing under a pseudonym

by Joe Moore

A couple of weeks ago, my Kill Zone blog mate, Kathleen Pickering, posted her thoughts on Brand Marketing. In it she discussed among other things using a pseudonym or pen name in relation to building a writer’s brand. One of the reasons Kathy gave for creating an alter ego and using a pen name is liability. Today I want to expand on other reasons for writing under a pseudonym.

Lets start by dropping some names. Ever heard of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum, Harry Patterson, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, Eric Arthur Blair, David John Moore Cornwell, and Jim Czajkowski? Chances are you have. They’re all world famous writers. But you probably know them by their pen names because they all write under pseudonyms.

Why would a successful author (or any novelist) write under a pseudonym? And should you consider using one?

By definition, a pen name is a pseudonym used in place of the real author’s name. Here are some reasons to use one.

Pro. Let’s say you’re a well-established writer who wants to change genres. You normally write young adult science fiction but now you want to write cozy adult mysteries. Admittedly, the audience is different and your SF fans might not follow you. Plus, your potential cozy audience might not accept you if they’re aware of your previous work. So changing genre can be a good reason to use a pen name. Also, abandoning a failed book series or moving to a new publisher might be a reason to take on a new identity and start over.

Pro. Your real name doesn’t market well to your genre. The action/adventure novel TANK COMMANDER FROM HELL by Mandrake Slaughter would probably attract more fans of that genre than TANK COMMANDER FROM HELL by Percival Glockenspiel. And Mandrake Slaughter is easier to pronounce.

Pro. For whatever reason, you need your identity to remain anonymous and protected. Let’s say you’re a high-ranking government official who decides to write a thriller that comes uncomfortably close to reality. To reveal your true identity would create a totally different spin on your book, one you might want to avoid.

Pro. Your name is too long or it’s hard to pronounce. In the case of James Rollins, his real name is Jim Czajkowski. A wonderful name, but not easy on the eyes. BTW, Jim also writes fantasy novels under the name James Clemens. Also keep in mind that the shorter the name, the larger it can appear on the cover. Just ask Brad Thor.

Pro. Your real name just happens to be Ernest Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald or Dan Brown. Start thinking about a pen name.

Pro. Sex. By that I mean that you’re the wrong gender. You want to write romance and you’re a guy. Plus, your real name is Mandrake Slaughter. Or your main character is a black female and you’re a white male with an unmistakable WASP name. The marketing starts when the reader first sees the title followed by your name. It has to make sense to them that you’re qualified to write the book.

Pro. There are two of you. Sometimes keeping the real names of writing teams works such as Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. In their case, both authors write individually under their real names, too. Other times, choosing a single pen name makes more sense.

Now for a big reason to not use a pen name: It will always come out at some point that it’s not your real name, either in a book review, or at a writer’s conference, or during an interview, or in your Wikipedia bio; the truth will be revealed that your real name is Percival Glockenspiel. But if you don’t mind the inevitable, then go for it. The best advice is to discuss it with your agent and editor. Weigh all the marketing pros and cons. It works well for some, but not for all. Have a really compelling reason before you make the commitment and it gets embossed in gold on your book cover.

So, did you know the real names of the authors mentioned at the start of this blog? Here they are:

Samuel Langhorne Clemens is Mark Twain

Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum is Ayn Rand

Harry Patterson is Jack Higgins

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson is Lewis Carroll

Eric Arthur Blair is George Orwell

David John Moore Cornwell is John le Carre

Jim Czajkowski is James Rollins

Do you writer under a pen name? Have you ever considered it?

30 thoughts on “Writing under a pseudonym

  1. I at one point considered writing a series of science fiction bondage porn, ala the Gor series, under the pen name “John Ramsay Gilstrap.” I abandoned this plan when I started getting papered with letters from attorneys and tanks showed up at the top of my street.

  2. Joe, you were wise to abandon your venture into that genre. There are a couple of other guys, both named John, that together dominate the SFBP shelves.

  3. How about Salvatore Albert Lombino? (Evan Hunter/Ed McBain)

    I chose a pen name, K. Bennett, for my zombie legal thrillers because, well, they are zombie legal thrillers, a genre unknown until K. came along, and so off brand I felt, in consultation with my agent, that it would be a good idea to differentiate it. I didn’t “hide” behind the pen name, however. I’ve been up front with my reasons from the start. In this day of digitized and pervasive information, one cannot hide for long, even if one wanted to.

    The challenge for a pseudonym is doing all those marketing things you must do as an author. It’s an added burden. I have two Twitter accounts, two websites, and so on.

    K. is not doing as much as JSB, but certainly is writing (currently the 3d book in the series, in edits) and will soon have a collection of short stories available, in his particular odd genre. I see this as an experiment, the results of which I will share periodically.

    A. Pismo Clamm

  4. Nice post, Joe. I wanted to ask if you’ve had problems with two author names & how your books are shelved in stores. Some duos opt to use a pen name to avoid issues like this.

    Jim mentioned a huge consideration—and that’s the author platforms for marketing & social media. You must think ahead & reserve domain names, blog sites, twitter, etc. I know authors who ignore this & have become ineffective in promoting their releases. They jump into pen names like changing clothes, not realizing they are starting over. Each name practically is a throw away because they ignore building a brand. They only do it to avoid poor sales being associated with their main name. I’ve never understood this.

  5. Jim, your reasoning for a pen name makes solid sense as does echoing my point that this should be discussed with your agent/editor. Going the pseudonym route is a business decision and should be well thought out. Obviously, you did just that.

    Jordan, our books are shelved under “S” for Sholes. We chose back at the beginning to not use a pen name because Lynn had a loyal following through her 6 previously published novels. I also agree with you on Jim’s point that what appears to be a cool idea at the beginning can turn into a nightmare later. Think it through, discuss with your agent, and have a strong, compelling reason to do it.

  6. I think I’ve shared with you all before that my name is Jill Nutter. Not to be confused with neuter, which I’ve been called more than once.:) Think instead of Nutter Butter Peanut Butter Cookies.
    My agent suggested I think about a pen name which I was already in the process of doing when I got my contract. Jillian Kent sounds far more appealing in my opinion for writing historical romance during the Regency era. Kent is a county in England and Jillian is a name I’ll respond naturally since it’s a form of my first name. And like Jim I’ve been pretty upfront about it and mention it on my website too. I initially wanted to keep my counseling name separate from my publishing name but it’s pretty well known at work.

    But, I have to tell you I was really surprised when I heard that a VP of a publishing house said he wouldn’t hire a writer with a pen name because it wasn’t authentic. That it would be branding a lie. I thought this was ridiculous. Heck, even God changed peoples names in the Bible.

    Joe, the only name I knew for certain was pen names was Mark Twain. :)Fun post.

    I’ve had a really hard time getting folks to my author page where I have about 200 + but on my Jill Nutter page I have over 1,000. I’ve asked folks to like my Jillian Kent page and a few do now and then but it’s a pain.

  7. Jillian, I don’t see any logic behind the general, sweeping decision by the publishing VP to refuse writers using pen names. So he wouldn’t sign Jack Higgins because his real name is Harry Patterson? The use of pen names in commercial fiction is more common than most people realize. I can understand making an individual decision based upon a unique set of circumstances, but a blanket policy like you mentioned is nuts.

  8. I much prefer using a pen name (my current one is a “pen name” in the sense that it is my maiden name, as opposed to my married name). I like having a privacy wall between the writing persona and the personal realm. We do so much activity online that it helps to have a private identity in additional to the professional one. Privacy threats are increasing in the online world, especially.

  9. Kathryn, you’re so right about the privacy issue. As we all work hard to build our platform and brand through social media for instance, one of the negatives is that it chips away at that wall you mentioned and continually opens us up to an invasion of our private lives. It’s a tricky trade-off.

  10. Joe,
    I agree with what you’re saying regarding the VP’s statement. I thought it was a bit much to say the least. The privacy issue is tricky though. If folks know you’re real name and your pen name there isn’t much privacy anyway. Is it better to not be so open and above board in future discussions on-line, etc.? I’ve also seen in at least one novel where the real name is in the copyright information even though the pen name is on the cover. Anyone know why that is?

  11. True story. Many years ago, I sent a sword-and-sorcery story to a well established fantasy magazine and made it clear I was using a pen name.

    The editor turned down the story and wrote me a note saying I must not believe in my work if I used a pen name. She didn’t understand that there might be sound business or personal reasons for a pseudonym.

    That magazine went under years ago. And I’m still writing.

  12. Not sure, Jillian. Perhaps Jim can answer that–he’s our resident legal dude. A quick check of books in my collection written by writers using pen names reveals many different methods of declaring copyright. P.J. Parrish (pen name for sisters Kris Montee and Kelly Nichols) copyrights in their pen name. Jack Higgins copyrights in the name of Septembertide Publishing, B.V., a Netherlands company. Jim Rollins copyrights in his real name, Jim Czajkowski. M.J. Rose copyrights in the name Melisse Shapiro. And on and on. So again, it should be an individual decision made by the author and his or her publishing, legal and financial advisers.

  13. The closest I’ve come to using a pen name is that in professional circles related to writing, narrating or my talk-radio gig I pronounce Basil in the British style with a short ‘a’ as in ‘bad’ and a zed, ie. Baa-zil. That way if I piss someone off with what I say or write there is a slight chance they won’t recognize me when my wife calls to me at the local Costco using a long ‘a’ as in ‘ay’ and an ess, ie Bay-sil.

    For my adult fiction I plan to keep the same name unless there is a wild genre change, which is unlikely. But in considering some YA of the same general genre of historical/military/thriller fiction, one idea I a toying with is instead of going with a total pen name, putting my real name on the cover then adding a second author name as if it were a collaborative book. Therefore the adult title would be:

    Blood of Princes
    Basil Sands

    the YA side story would be

    Blood Squire
    Basil Sands
    Nathaniel Benjamin

    Anyway, just a thought.

    My SciFi Bondage Erotica name would remain unchanged, Phallus Leatherstar, it would be silly to change that

  14. I wrote my first romance novels as Nancy Cane and then switched to my current name for mysteries. It seemed logical since I was writing about a Jewish heroine/sleuth to associate it with my real name.

  15. Nancy, there’s a big difference between your Bad Hair Day mysteries and your SF. Do you think you should have chosen a pseudonym for the SF?

  16. In my short fiction and when I launch (foist) my WIP onto the world, I’ll go with my current name. Ya know, I want to make sure I answer at the awards banquet (shut up, it could happen). It is short and easy to pronounce. If I drop my middle name, it is also somewhat androgynous.

    Howeveh, as an income sidestream, I write some naughty bits for an erotica small press. Like most of the writers who have day jobs, I have a mildly provocative pen name. It’s not just accepted, it is expected.

    I hang out on FB with a couple of writing teams who have a derivative penname – they share the posting and monitoring and keep in character all the time.

    I got a couple off your list, but most surprised me.

    The classic is King writing as Richard Bachman. King’s publisher had limited him to a book a year to prevent over-saturating his “brand” and he wanted to see if people were buying his writing or his persona. He even went as far as a fake author photo. Of course, he was outed.

    So, in a way, that can be another “pro.” Instead of all your books in one alpha, you can be spread all over the bookstores shelves. And if people complain that all you do is read King books you can say, “do not, here is a shelf of Richard Bachman.”


  17. This is a fascinating topic. I’ve gone with my real name for my mysteries, but since I’m in private practice as a psychologist, I can see the advantage of using a pen name. Maybe using my real name is “too much disclosure.” Who knows…

  18. Great observations, Terri. I do hope you get to that awards banquet and answer to the right name. Regarding your “naughty bits of erotica”, have you met Phallus Leatherstar, better know as Basil Sands? 🙂

  19. Jillian, an author can put his or her own name, or the pseudonym, on the copyright notice. It does not matter. The author owns the work. When registering the copyright, one can use the pen name, the true name, or both.

  20. On the legal thing & cooyrights. I have my copyrights under my corporation name-Cosas Finas. I’ve set up my “doing business as” forms through my CPA who did the setup. He advised a corp set up is advantageous if an author earns a certain dollar amt, but now it’s simple for me to use that as an umbrella for any pen names I use in the future. A simple DBA form (plus my corp papers) allows me to deposit checks at my bank under a pen name.

    Jordan Dane

  21. Hey, Joe! This post absolutely reinforces my decision for a pen name. I don’t mind if folks know who I really am. I just want them to read my books. The fact that I am writing for multiple genres makes the pseudonym important.

    Joe Hartlaub: You are sooooo freakin’ funny!

  22. Does anyone see any ethical problems or blowback problems with a white writer choosing to write under an African-American pseudonym, or a gentile writer choosing to write under a Jewish-sounding pseudonym, if it will clearly help market the books) at hand?

    Take that example about the WASPy writer with the African-American female heroine, for example, writing a book that’s set in black New Orleans. Ethically okay to publish that book under the name Tyrone Jones as opposed to, say, Christopher Stockbridge? Would the black community be up in arms at this and feel somehow hoodwinked?

  23. Anon 11:40, I don’t see a problem here. At the end of the day, it’s all about the quality of the writing and the captivation of the story.

  24. I am writing my autobiography and need to use a pen name as most of my family members
    will be shocked when I divulge everything about my past.

Comments are closed.