Friday, December 12, 2014

On the Topic of Pen Names

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?


ghost ryter said...

I'm a bit obsessed with pen names myself, and I think you've made some good points. Although I never really thought of switching names with genres. I'll have to ponder that.

Those dragon eaten secret projects! They're driving me crazy!

Rae said...

Thanks for this post! It's not an issue I've thought a lot about, and you have interesting points. :)

Adding on to the topic, though, I think you might want to use a pseudonym if you have a very complicated, always-mispronounced or misspelled name -- since it is sort of the brand for your business, you don't want people to be confused by it. But there is a balance: some names which are often mispronounced (such as Tolkien, Riordan, or L'Engle) are really cool titles which are easy to remember. I'm not sure I would use my real surname if I were to be published, because it is a long word and I believe it looks unappealing as marketing, but I might change my mind one day.

BrynS. said...

Maybe the world of fiction is different but it has been my experience that once an author has a following, it doesn't matter what genres they dabble in over the years, their readers will follow. Whether an author realizes it or not, he becomes a teacher and students will follow a favorite teacher into all sorts of subjects because while they may not enjoy the content, they savor the wisdom and style of instruction they are receiving.

In fact I would say that branching out shows that the writer is a true'humanist' able to instruct and share in many different time periods, styles and subjects.

My mother is a bestselling author of textual history and linguistics but she has written on other subjects that were just as popular because she has gained respect as a researcher and thus her opinion and advice have come to matter to her readers.

Pen names are fine if you prefer a quieter more private life and you can also dabble with your own name. My mom uses just her initials and her last name for many books since that is more academic; I use my full name with maiden and married name since I wrote before my marriage and after.

In short, my thoughts are pick one name and stick to it!

Kendra E. Ardnek said...

I almost used my real name, then at the last moment, switched my last name to a palindrome of my first name. I even have a copy of my book with my real name on it.

The reason for my change did involve security - I was sixteen at the time - and also, I didn't want to face any last name complications should I ever get married. Also, my last name doesn't quite fit my genre and writing style, and Ardnek does - a bit of hidden humor no matter how serious I try to be. And lastly, I wanted to be closer to the beginning of the alphabet where people will find me faster.

Of course, there is always the fact that a pen name is just fun.

Savannah Jezowski said...

I have published several short stories under my pen name Savannah Jay for the sole reason Jezowski is rather a mouthful. I do not know if I will keep my pen name but it is much easier to remember...and pronounce :)

Candice said...

Really good advice on creating your writing brand! I know that some authors like to use different pen names for different genres, but I like the idea of using just one name. It will be easier for fans to find all of an authors books.

Bookishqueen said...

An author I can think of who writes more than one genre and uses a different name for each is R. J. Larson (one of her pen names). She thought having a gender neutral name would be better for her fantasies, while her historicals use a more feminine name.

Angela Hunt, though, is an author who writes multiple genres, yet publishes all under the same name.

I can see the pros and cons for both. For myself (who reads most genres), I like when an author uses the same name for all their books because it makes it easier for me to find them. But then my sister (who only reads Historical romance) will not read a book where she knows the author already has written speculative or anything else for that matter(so I have to trick her).

For my speculative books, I know I'm going to use my really name. However, I want to write historicals too and have not decided if I will use a pen name or not. Good thing I have a while to think about it!

Anonymous said...

I haven't published any books yet. 😓. Interesting post, I will keep it in mind when I do publish something.

Clara said...


Emilyn J Clover said...

I never liked the sound of my first name so I dabbled a bit with a bunch of different pen names before settling on Emilyn J Wood, but recently I decided I wanted to use my real last name instead of Wood since it's a rarer name and I'm quite proud of it.

Esther Brooksmith (wisdomcreates) said...

I'm leaning toward using a pen name because my real last name is so common that people may have trouble finding ME amidst the host of other people with the same name.