Do you know who these authors are: Douglas Spalding, Erika Leonard, Mary Westmacott, Robert Galbraith, Victoria Lucas? I’ll explain later in the article.
It’s a brave new world in publishing. Just ask any author. The old paradigm has fallen, and more than ever, success in the field is up for grabs. But in order to stay afloat as an author these days, we must keep up with the rapidly changing landscape of the book business.
One pillar of the old guard to fall is the pen name. Traditional wisdom in the land of words was that an author needed a pen name for each genre s/he wrote in. But this applied to the days when readers browsed in bookstores and didn’t have unprecedented access to the digital world—and to authors. Not only has Amazon turned the page on that concept, but they rewrote the book.
I’ll briefly discuss 6 reasons authors should NOT use pen names in this digital age. That’s not to say there aren’t very good reasons to adopt pseudonyms in certain circumstances, which I’ll mention briefly at the end of the article. I just want authors to be aware that they have choices these days. (Little did Bob Dylan know how prescient the song “The Times They Are A-Changin'” really was!) Many famous authors now lead the exodus from the pen name and openly write in different genres with their real names. It’s truly up to the author. But hear me out before you make a decision.
First, let me say that while I was writing Beautiful Monsters, I agonized for three years over whether to use a pen name or write under my legal name. There’s some erotic content in my book, although I use it mainly as a device to make a point. It’s not the theme of the story. Still, it’s enough to offend some people who are not comfortable with explicit sexual scenes. I worried about what my friends, family, and neighbors would think. I didn’t want anyone to be embarrassed privately or professionally because of what I write. I told my family about the content, and they’ve been extremely supportive and encouraging. I doubt all my neighbors and friends are so supportive, but I feel strongly about owning what I do in life. So eventually, I came to the decision to put my real name on the book and claim my work—but to leave specific mention of my family out of my online social interactions. And I’m so thankful I chose this route! In the four years since this decision, the trend of using pen names has slowed significantly. I’ll tell you why.
1. The new catchword in publishing is branding. The author is the star, not the book. And the brand is what sells the book.
Big Brother—I mean, the digital world—has killed any notion of privacy. Google is God. It knows everything and can find anyone. And our social networks are our platforms—or our voice as authors. Readers want to know us. They expect to get up close and personal and to post with us. Many authors (who are mostly introverts) find this intrusive and would prefer to hide behind their books. But to sell books in this overcrowded market, it’s imperative to get out there and mix it up with readers, bloggers, and industry professionals. And this is much easier to do with your primary profile in place. I personally love to interact with other writers, creatives, and readers. I’ve met some truly wonderful friends and colleagues who’ve enriched my life enormously. And I realized at the end of my agonizing decision to pen name or NOT to pen name that it was an advantage to launch my book form a platform where people know (and hopefully, like) me.
2. Privacy is an illusion. Most readers know the different pen names used by authors. It’s nearly impossible to keep people from finding out your identity. Again, Google is God. (Bow and be known! lol) If some troll wants to out an author, it’s easy to do. Unless you enlist cybersecurity, they’ll find you anyway. So why go to the extra work of another name? Plus, readers fully accept that writers write in different genres.
3. LOTS of extra Work! If you already have a real profile on the social networking sites, then your connections already know you’re an author and that you’re writing a book. When it comes time to publish, these peeps (your tribe) will become an invaluable source of encouragement, networking, and sales. To employ a pen name, one has to start a whole new social networking platform. I don’t know about you, but I can barely get through my email and interact with my friends on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Google+ as Cynthia each day let alone repeat it with a nom de plume! A pen name adds a whole new layer of bureaucracy to an already fully punched dance card. And wouldn’t you rather be writing?
4. A postscript to number 3 is the legal responsibilities of having a pen name. Here in the states, it’s no longer enough to just assume a name and go with it. Masked authors need a DBA (doing business as) to cash checks as someone else and to pay taxes. That’s just one more layer of legalese that gives me the heebie jeebies. And this gets even more complicated with success. Think screenplay rights, translation rights, etc.
5. I touched on this briefly before, but you no longer need to have separate names for each genre you write in. You can use the power of your name, personality, and platform to cross genres and reach an entire new field of readers! For example, James Patterson now writes book for young people. And remember the debacle with J.K. Rowling and her initially unsuccessful 2013 crime fiction, The Cuckoo’s Calling? Under her pseudonym, Robert Galbraith, the book didn’t launch well. It’s surmised that the dismal sales prompted the publisher to announce that the author was J.K. Rowling in disguise. The book then took off like fireworks on the 4th of July. There’s a lesson to the wise here: play the cards you’re dealt!
6. Your time is better spent writing than in juggling branding platforms! It’s estimated that before an author actually makes a living at writing, s/he needs five books under the belt. Thus, it’s imperative to keep writing and turning out great work. This is difficult to do while managing multiple platforms. Personally, I prefer to use this time reading (for pleasure and to keep up with industry news) and honing my craft. My motto has become: Keep it simple, stupid! I’m torn in so many directions with writing, blogging, staying informed, researching, maintaining my platform, and endeavoring to have a real life that I cannot imagine having to deal with my alter-author’s demands, too.
So there you have the 6 reasons NOT to use a pseudonym. But when SHOULD you take a pen name? If you’re a teacher and you write erotica, it’s necessary to go incognito. When your day job or personal relationships might be jeopardized by your genre, it’s definitely something to consider. These are possible examples:
- lawyers who write legal thrillers and might be accused of mimicking an actual case.
- law enforcement personnel, military personnel, or intelligence officers whose superiors might have a problem with disclosed information.
- an author whose family might have serious objections to the material. Don’t give dad a heart attack! lol
- an author who is divorced or divorcing and who wants to keep the legalities separate.
- an author who shares a name with a famous author.
- an author who needs the out-of-body experience of slipping into your alter-author’s skin—and name—to achieve the mindset to write a specific genre. (All my alter-authors come to the name Cynthia!)
And for heaven’s sake, if you’re already a branded author with a following, a platform, and a pen name, keep it! You’re sitting pretty! But the rest of us newer scribblers—who are developing our platforms in this ever-changing industry—need to seriously consider the pros and cons of each choice. Perhaps the ultimate questions we should ask ourselves are these: Will a pen name offer me more advantages or disadvantages? Will it make my life easier or harder?
And by the way, remember the authors I named in the first paragraph? Respectively, they are either the legal name or alternate pen name of these famous monikers: Ray Bradbury, E. L. James, Agatha Christie, J. K. Rowling, and Sylvia Plath. All were easily googlable.