Apr 26 2010

Is Writing Under a Pen-Name Right for You?

1. In most cases, I think that it’s probably best to ask your editor about a pseudonym after getting the offer. For one thing, it’ll reduce the chance that you make a poor first impression with a goofy-sounding pseudonym. The only time that I think that a pseudonym may be necessary prior to getting published is if the author shares a name with a celebrity. (“Who’s this guy pretending to be Steven King?”)

2. If you do use a pseudonym, please write something like “[YOUR REAL NAME], WRITING AS RODDY BARBER” on your title page. For tax reasons, the publisher has to know your real name. (Otherwise, the IRS will get surly and then everybody is screwed).

3. Do not assume that a pseudonym will keep you anonymous. For example, if you base your novel on people you know in real life, people may find out it’s you even though you used a pen name. For example, Joe Klein got outed as the author of Primary Colors even though he wrote as Anonymous. Additionally, pseudonyms will not give you ANY cover against lawsuits (for libel, copyright infringement or whatever). Remember, the IRS knows who you are.

4. Do you have a good reason to use a pseudonym?

  • YES: You share a name with a celebrity, particularly an author. In fact, if you want to write a novel and you happen to be named something like Anne Rice or Joe Biden, your publisher will probably make you take a pseudonym or use your initials. For example, an author writing as A.D. Rice probably wouldn’t be confused with Anne Rice.
  • YES: You’ve written in other genres and want to keep your audiences separate.
  • SADLY, YES: You’re writing in a genre where readers are mostly of the other gender.  For example, if you’re a guy writing romance or chick lit or a lady writing action (particularly military action), few publishers would fault you for using your initials or a gender-neutral pseudonym.  According to Wikipedia, Joanne Rowling’s publisher asked her to write as “J.K. Rowling” to keep guys on board, even though the audience for fantasy is disproportionately female.  If you’re considering a genderless pseudonym, here’s a list of unisex names.
  • PROBABLY: Your name doesn’t fit your work and/or target audience. If your name is Lexington Faraday III and you were writing a history of polo, your given name would be fine.  If you’re writing “Straight Up West Side: A Gangsta’s Knee-Capping Journey,” not so much.
  • MAYBE: Your writing would conflict with your professional reputation. For example, if you’re trying to write comic books even though you’re an English professor up for tenure, you might not want your comic books to show up if somebody Googles your name. I understand that concern. One potential problem is that it may sound like you’re not proud of your fiction or that you look down on the publisher. Every publisher–even comic book houses–wants creators that are proud to be on the team.
  • THINK IT THROUGH: You think your name doesn’t sound cool enough. A name meant to sound cool frequently ends up making the author sound like a goof.  Especially if you’ve always dreamed of being named Hunter McSlaughter.  If this is your main motivation for a name change, I’d recommend submitting under your given name and then speaking to your editor about using a pen name after you get published.

24 responses so far

24 Responses to “Is Writing Under a Pen-Name Right for You?”

  1. Contra Gloveon 26 Apr 2010 at 12:10 pm

    What if you use just your first and middle name as a pseudonym? Is that too problematic?

  2. Wingson 26 Apr 2010 at 12:25 pm

    I’ve debated using a pseudonym, mainly because I am a girl writing books that probably won’t get picked up by your average girl. I also have written straightforward romance on the side and, if I ever decide to publish them, will want to distance my superhero works from them as much as I can. Using my middle name and last name actually gives me a fairly masculine nom de plume, but as my middle name was used for Meg and Connor’s last name…

    If anything, I’ll use a pseudonym for my romantic works and write my superhero novels under my initials.

    Oh, and someone please tell me that there actually isn’t an author out there who goes by Hunter McSlaughter.

    – Wings

  3. Dforceon 26 Apr 2010 at 1:42 pm

    Would any of these names outdo said McSlaughter?


    (Caution: breezy language)

  4. Beccaon 26 Apr 2010 at 5:16 pm

    What about last names that are quite long tongue-twister-ish? Telemarketers and government peeps tend to butcher my surname, so I’d like to pick a name that’s easier on the tongue.

  5. Lighting Manon 26 Apr 2010 at 7:01 pm

    I have precisely the same problem, actually, Becca, I have a peculiar last name which was originally French, and I’ve almost never encountered a person that pronounced it correctly based off the appearance of the name, most often pronouncing it like the dreaded “zibbit” or the even worse “kivbit” and attempts at spelling it based on the pronunciation often bring umlauts or fictional letters developed by Tolkien as part of the Elvish language.

    One suggestion I’ve gotten when I’ve brought it up elsewhere is using your mother’s maiden name or your middle name as your surname, I exclusively use my middle name as my name and my mother’s, and her maiden name has connotations that I’d rather avoid, so like me, that advice’s helpfulness might be limited.

  6. B. Macon 26 Apr 2010 at 7:13 pm

    First and middle name could work, but it depends on what they are. (However, if you do so, please do not count on any sort of anonymity–pretty much anybody that knows you well enough to think they might have inspired a character in the book will be able to figure out it’s you pretty easily). Hilariously, Scott Thomas Beauchamp thought that he’d be able to write anonymously as Scott Thomas, and it turns out that the other guys in his unit were REALLY not flattered by dodgy war reporting.

    I’m not aware of anybody asking to use Hunter McSlaughter as a penname, thankfully. I can’t name any names, but I’m familiar with some that are almost as bad.

    I think the essence of a bad pseudonym is that it sounds wholly unlike something anybody would use in real life. For example, “Hunter McSlaughter” makes me wonder about the taste/professionalism of the author far more than something like “Jim Butcher” would. The only two on Dforce’s list that would make me roll my eyes would be Max Fightmaster and Dick Pound. (I would encourage Mr. Pound to use Richard instead). Dick Pound just sounds like a story about a brutally outmatched private eye, or possibly something else that should not be discussed in decent company. 😉

    All other things being equal, I’d be careful around pushing the exoticness envelope with hypermasculine names like Max, Dick, Hunter and Slaughter or Butcher, even if your name really IS something like Max Boot. The good news is that using one badass name is probably not too much as long as the other one is pretty plain (like Jim Butcher).

  7. B. Macon 26 Apr 2010 at 7:44 pm

    I think that pronunciation and ease of spelling are valid considerations. When your readers type your name into a computer at Amazon or B&N or a library, you don’t want to lose them because they spelled it wrong.

    Another possibility is that the name is too common to be memorable. If the book is good enough to publish, though, the commonness of the author’s name would certainly not scare away publishers. If your name is something like Mary Smith, it would really easy for the editor to suggest something like M.M. Smith or Margaret Smith or Mary Smithsonian.

    I’m not sure about connotations, exactly, but I suppose that some names have been screwed by linguistic shifts or historical events. For example, Osama was a pretty common name in the Middle East far before Osama Bin Laden, but even so I think a publisher might encourage an author named Osama to try something else lest prospective bookbuyers get the wrong idea. Adolf is on the outs, too. Then there are names that might have been acceptable a century or two ago but would feel goofy or archaic today. I’m looking at YOU, Dr. Poppycock.

  8. Beccaon 26 Apr 2010 at 7:52 pm

    The first and middle name thing really only works with male names, I find. Male names are very common as surnames, but that’s not the case with female names. I don’t think Mary Elizabeth or Isabel Jeanette would work as pseudonyms.

  9. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 19 Jun 2010 at 12:04 am

    “I don’t think Mary Elizabeth or Isabel Jeanette would work as pseudonyms”

    Yeah, neither do I. I plan on writing under my nickname (Frank, after my middle name, Frances) and I’ll choose something for the fake surname that has significance to me. Maybe something like Severn, as seven is my lucky number (long story, it just pops up a lot in my name and birthdate etc) and Severn looks/sounds similar to seven. Frank Severn. Hmm.

  10. Steton 19 Jun 2010 at 5:26 pm

    Another good time to use a pseudonym is after your first few novels tank.

    Just sayin’.

  11. B. Macon 19 Jun 2010 at 6:18 pm

    Haha. I’ve heard of some authors doing that, but personally I’d rather be associated with a few books that sold poorly than not. I would guess that publishers are generally pretty understanding if the first few novels do not sell very well*, because most novelists do not sell very well at the beginning. (Although a few authors have massive debuts, accumulating an audience and developing one’s skills as a writer usually takes time).

    Unless you somehow landed a massive advance. Then the firm has incredibly high expectations and heads will roll (including yours) if you bomb.

    *Although probably less forgiving than they used to be, because profit margins have narrowed. According to one of my professors with a few decades of experience in the industry, editors used to be able to look past 5 or 6 flops, particularly if they had literary merit.

  12. Steton 20 Jun 2010 at 6:50 am

    It’s not uncommon for midlist authors with steadily unimpressive (or declining) sales to take a new name. Robin Hobb is the most often given example, I think. The problem is that publishers check you on Bookscan. They see how many copies the last book sold, and adjust expectations–and advance–accordingly. Which means at about 90% of previous performance. Which traps you in a downward spiral.

  13. B. Macon 20 Jun 2010 at 9:44 am

    Okay, but if you present yourself as an unpublished author, don’t you think that the publisher’s expectations (and advance) are going to be pretty damn low anyway?

    Additionally, you forfeit the advantages of the publisher knowing you are experienced. Unpublished authors have to wade through the radioactive cesspool that is the slush pile. Proposals from a published author will get more personalized attention, particularly from editors that know him and his work. (Unless his works have crashed so utterly that he has burned his bridges with them).

    However, if your works HAVE sold so badly that you can’t own up to them, I don’t think it will help much to change your name without examining why your books didn’t sell well under your first name. If anything, I would guess that merely changing your name would LOWER sales because you’ll lose some of the few diehard readers you already have.

    If your writing is not selling up to your expectations, I think it would probably be more effective to 1) re-examine your self-promotion strategy and 2) maybe adjust your writing style for mass readability. Which, fortunately, does not mean that you have to write romances stunningly beautiful (but modest!) everygirls fawn over the stunningly hawt supernatural entities that pine for them. It might be as simple as a tighter introduction or more stylish title or shorter/simpler sentences.

  14. Steton 20 Jun 2010 at 1:19 pm

    To tell the embarrassing truth, I’m not entirely sure how this works, despite going through it as we speak, so take with a grain of salt.

    But I know you’re not in the slush pile, because you still use your agent. You don’t do this unless your agent tells you. And the publisher of course knows your real name soon enough: you can’t get paid otherwise, unless you go through some freakish legal convolutions. But the part I don’t really understand is when your agent tells the publisher. I don’t know if they say ‘This is a debut novel by Angelique del Vossini’ and after the sale they say, ‘Angelique, of course, is a pen name of Stanley Plurp.’

    I assume that’s not how it works. I assume that everyone is in on the sleight-of-hand from the start, and they just realize that if you’re putting out a book under a new name, you’re trying for another shot at the ‘hot new debut title’ prize. You’re trying a new brand. So you’re experienced, but you’re also … new. That’s really the point. You try to write bigger (if you’re commercial, which I am–or want to be!) and better, the kind of novel that is sold at auction, etc.

    And self-promotion is largely a crock. Not entirely, but largely. It’s kind of the ‘lottery ticket’ method of professional advancement. Every now and then lightning strikes, and you hear about those occasions. But the vast majority of time, you’re throwing sweat into the sea.

  15. B. Macon 20 Jun 2010 at 5:30 pm

    “To tell the embarrassing truth, I’m not entirely sure how this works, despite going through it as we speak, so take with a grain of salt.”

    No worries. I’ve never gone through this sort of thing myself (on either the editing side or the writing side), so you’re at least as familiar with it as I am.

    “And self-promotion is largely a crock. Not entirely, but largely. It’s kind of the ‘lottery ticket’ method of professional advancement. Every now and then lightning strikes, and you hear about those occasions. But the vast majority of time, you’re throwing sweat into the sea.”

    I understand your frustration about self-promotion. It is tremendously daunting and difficult. But there’s no other game in town for people that want to succeed as professional authors. Ahem, if I could latch onto your nautical theme, you can’t direct the wind, but you can adjust your sails.

    I can scarcely imagine how how it would be to hold a signing event that attracts literally zero guests. (To avoid that sort of soul-shaking debacle, I think it’s very important to judiciously select one’s venues and line up some friends that can bring some friends of their own). However, I think it’s a less bad option than standing still and hoping people find your book among all the other thousands that come out each month. A newly-published author (or a chronic underperformer) probably can’t count on his publisher to put in the manpower to sell the book.

    If an author works intelligently and hard at self-promotion, I’m not sure what the likelihood of clearing the advance is. I’d guess 10-20%. But even if you don’t succeed, you get more new readers and have a better go at the next book. But if the author leaves it to the publisher, I’d say it’s certainly closer to 0% than 1%.

    I don’t consider myself all that good at self-promotion and haven’t done any in-person events. (Also, I don’t have anything concrete to sell at this point, which is a HUGE handicap). Nevertheless, if the people on my mailing list buy as many copies of my first issue as they say they will, that’s ~500 sales. I have maybe another 50 friends, family members and perhaps some superdedicated readers that I could probably count on to sell another 5-10 copies each. If I did no promotions and hadn’t done the website, at this point I’d probably be able to count on just 20 sales to close friends and family.

  16. Steton 21 Jun 2010 at 4:28 am

    ‘You can’t win if you don’t play.’

    Really, I think the only game in town is putting out another novel. And another. And another. Until one catches fire. (It’s different for nonfiction; there you really need to build a platform.)

    I mentioned Robin Hobb earlier. She wrote for ten years as Megan Lindholm, never broke out. Then she sold a million copies of her Hobb titles. Did her self-promotion change? No. She wrote different stuff, and they took off.

    I’m always wary of people using Huge Publishing Phenomena as examples, because by definition they are exceptions to the rules, but Rowling and Brown did far less self-promotion for their breakout novels than thousands of writers do for work that sinks without a trace.

    Self-promotion helps you double your chances of breaking out from .1% to .2%. Doubling your chances is terrific, but you need to weigh that against how much time you’re spending on promotion instead of writing.

    I don’t want to discourage you personally, though, because you’re already ahead of the game. This website represents self-promotion far more advanced than the vast majority of writers offer. So if anyone’s gonna be an exception, it’s someone like you.

  17. B. Macon 21 Jun 2010 at 8:02 am

    “Really, I think the only game in town is putting out another novel. And another. And another. Until one catches fire.” I don’t think a book will catch fire unless you’re out there getting people to buy it. Or at least doing semi-active marketing like a website or online social networking. Getting readers to promote it to prospective readers relies on two things: the quality of the work and the enthusiasm of the reader. When the book is in print, the author can’t do anything about the quality but he/she can increase the enthusiasm level. For example, interacting with readers through a website or perhaps signing events can help a relatively small number of readers build a personal attachment to your work. Literary conventions and librarian conventions are a great place to introduce your work to people that are predisposed to be excited about literature and know lots of other readers.

    Depending on how enthusiastic a reader is, he may well pull some impressive feats of promotional prowess. For example, somebody in Hungary has signed on for 50 copies of my work, which almost assuredly means he runs a comic book shop or is a teacher. I’m going to guess he doesn’t buy 50 copies of every book he likes.

    So I think an author will probably sell more copies with a few well-promoted books than many unpromoted books. (Plus, having several decent-selling novels rather than a string of mediocre ones will probably garner more publisher assistance on subsequent works).

  18. Jason Blackon 25 Jun 2010 at 9:24 pm

    I elected to go with a pseudonym (after, I must say, quite a bit of dithering over it) as a mechanism for differentiating between the different roles I play in the industry. On the one hand, yes, I write novels like everybody else and their dog. (Although I hope, anyway, that mine are better than the dog’s.) But on the other hand, I’m also a book doctor, and have had the very good fortune to become just slightly well known for that.

    I wasn’t really expecting that in my life, but hey, I’ll take it. Certainly, I’m better known for that at this point than I am for my books. So, the “industry professional guy” persona gets my real name, and the novels get a pseudonym.

    Hopefully it all works out in the end.

  19. B. Macon 26 Jun 2010 at 4:26 pm

    Hmm. I think that makes sense, Jason.

    It may reduce the chance that succeeding in one field will help you succeed in another, though. (For example, if somebody likes my comic books, he’d probably be more receptive to my advice about how to write comic books, and perhaps vice versa). In your case, writing under the same name might help you impress prospective book-doctoring clients with your style. At the very least, I’d consider adding a line in your About the Author page like “[Writing pseudonym] also works as a book-doctor, editing books under the name of Jason Black,” so that prospective clients have an easier time Googling you.

    I think a pseudonym would cost fewer sales if the author writes for several audiences that don’t overlap much or have wildly different standards of credibility. For example, a comic book writer might want to take on a pseudonym if he starts writing highbrow works because it’d be harder to take “The Origins of the Crimean War” seriously from an author with “Spectacular Spiderman” on his resume. Plus, using separate names makes it easier to tailor your websites to each audience. (I would HIGHLY recommend that the above author use separate websites to promote his nonfiction and his work on Spiderman, and separate names makes it much easier for readers to find the right website).

  20. Wolfgirlon 18 Feb 2014 at 3:39 pm

    I went with a pen name because ninety percent of people pronounce my real name because it’s Yiddish. Is that a good reason?

  21. B. McKenzieon 18 Feb 2014 at 6:19 pm

    “I went with a pen name because ninety percent of people pronounce my real name because it’s Yiddish. Is that a good reason?” If readers will have an easier time remembering your pen name than your given name, I think that’s a very good reason to have the pen name. Also, as noted above, I think ease of spelling is a valid consideration (it makes it easier for readers to look up your books online if they’ve only heard of you once or twice).

  22. Proxie#0on 22 Feb 2014 at 12:12 am

    I know it isn’t exactly “normal,” nor is it the best reason to do so, but I like how and why Daniel Handler made use of a pseudonym. He authored as Lemony Snicket, and the stories themselves, the books, were set within their own universe. By that, I mean that if you were in the universe that the books are set in, you could expect to find the books there as well.

    The reason for this is that Lemony Snicket is a relative of one of the supporting/main characters throughout the series, Kit Snicket. He received the Baudelaire’s, as well as the few other survivors’, accounts of their past events. Afterwards, the character put together the events, and released them in a series of 13 books.

    It may sound like a simple use of a pseudonym, but I thought it seemed fairly unique, and very interesting. Using a pseudonym to help pull the readers into the story more, and make the overall story just a tad more interesting and plausible.

  23. Nyxieon 16 Oct 2014 at 12:51 pm

    I have been considering publishing comics under the pseudonym “Nyx Jordan” for some time now. Granted, my first name is commonplace and (practically) impossible to butcher, but my last name… well, let’s just say I’ve heard every mispronunciation in the book. Considering these guidelines, is it a good idea to change my first name? It’s easy to spell, but some people don’t know how to pronounce it. Does it seem like I’m trying to be exotic, or will it be okay?

  24. B. McKenzieon 16 Oct 2014 at 6:50 pm

    “I have been considering publishing comics under the pseudonym “Nyx Jordan” for some time now. Granted, my first name is commonplace and (practically) impossible to butcher, but my last name… well, let’s just say I’ve heard every mispronunciation in the book. Considering these guidelines, is it a good idea to change my first name? It’s easy to spell, but some people don’t know how to pronounce it. Does it seem like I’m trying to be exotic, or will it be okay?” Unless you’re going for a Lemony Snicket feel (deliberately exotic), I’d recommend using an alternate spelling like Nix or Nixe because I think the letter combinations are more everyday for most English-first readers. (However, if Nyx were your given name, I think you’d be completely clear to use it… publishers won’t hold a super-exotic given name against the writer’s manuscript, but choosing a superexotic pen name might raise eyebrows*).

    *Which is inconvenient for my MAX MCSLAUGHTER plan.

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