This young novelist asked me to blog an answer to her simple question: "Pen Names: Use or not to use?"
Well, the truth is, this is something each author needs to decide for her- or himself, and there are a quite a number of factors that might go into making this decision. But I'll ramble on about a few of my own thoughts, and maybe it'll help!
One thing a writer toying with the idea of a pen name needs to keep in mind is branding. By this I mean the marketing necessity of having your name (real or assumed) associated with your brand of story. Whatever that brand may be! You want to build a reputation in the writing world for writing certain types of work.
Some would say a brand is a genre. For instance, Diana Wynn Jones wrote fantasy, so her name is branded as that of a fantasy novelist. Isaac Asimov wrote science fiction, and his name is branded as that of a sci-fi novelist. When readers hear one of those names--Diana Wynn Jones or Isaac Asimov--they immediately associate them with their specific brand.
But a very talented author, such as Diana Wynn Jones, will develop a much more specific brand beyond mere genre. Readers of Diana Wynn Jones don't hear her name and immediately think "fantasy." They hear her name and immediately think--Quirky. Curious. Humerous. Real magic. Sharp tempers and quick wits. Classical themes. Topsy-Turvy. Unpredictable . . .
Her name is so well established, so well branded, that her loyal readers will run out to grab a book of hers without knowing the plot, without reading an excerpt, without even seeing the cover. There's no need! She's Diana Wynn Jones.
She couldn't have done that without her name.
The point is not whether or not she kept her real name or assumed a pen name. The point is that she stuck to her name. She didn't write all her various crazy series under a variety of pen names. She kept her name associated with her work.
All that to say, if you do choose a pen name, be certain it's one you want to keep using for years to come! Because if you want to establish a brand--a trusted name which will encourage your readers to buy on the strength of your name alone--you've got to stick to one.
Now, are there occasions when you might actually want to switch names? Sure. There are always exceptions to the rule. For instance, if you've been writing sweet contemporary romances for years and you suddenly want to jump into sci-fi . . . well, you'll probably want to shift names along with genres. Your established contemporary romance readers will only be disappointed by a jump to sci-fi, and those readers who wouldn't dream of touching a contemporary romance also won't bother to give your sci-fi a try.
Smaller genre jumps, however, won't require name changes. For instance, if you wrote romances with a touch of suspense and now you're moving into straight-up suspense, there's no need to a name change. Or if you've been writing sci-fi and you want to switch to fantasy. Those are both still Speculative Fiction, and readers of the one genre aren't as likely to be turned off by the other.
It all depends on whether or not your new series and genre is still serving to build your established brand. If you're still writing in the same voice and style but with a slightly different sort of setting, you are still writing your brand. If you are attempting an all-new voice and style along with an all-new setting and genre, that means you might have several brands in play.
I recently was considering this question in light of one of the secret projects I have developing. (Not the Super Secret project, which is already written. No, this is a different secret project which is in the early stages of development and of which I hope to tell you more in the coming year.) It's a bit of a shift for me, and I wondered if it would be so much of a shift that I would need a new name to go with it. But ultimately, after much discussion with the Rooglewood Press folks, we decided that it's still enough like my established brand to keep my current writing name. While I hope to see this new project bring in a broader reading audience, it's still something my established readers are likely to enjoy. So for now the plan is to keep my name.
I don't have any cut-and-dried answers. As far as privacy is concerned, I wouldn't worry about it too much. I write under my maiden name rather than my married name, but lots and lots of folks figure it out (and friend me on facebook!), so it's not like it creates that much of a barrier. And most of the authors I know write under their real names (my own mother, for instance). Unless you are undercover, in witness protection, or just so desperately, painfully shy that the idea of meeting new people through your writing career sends you scurrying under the bed in terror . . . I wouldn't worry about a pen name for privacy reasons.
Is any of that saying that you shouldn't use a pen name? No indeed. I'm not against them by any means. If you want to use a pen name just because you want to use a pen name, I say, "Go for it!" The above are merely considerations you might want to mull over while deciding.
What are your thoughts on this topic? Do any of you publish under pen names? If so, what led you to make this decision?