What are the advantages (and disadvantages) of using a pen name? Some of the best authors have used pseudonyms, but why?

How many times have you seen a book and thought, is that the author’s real name? And why, if it’s not, would they decide to change it for publishing this book?

If you’re an author, the strategy has likely crossed your mind at some point. It has certainly crossed mine: Should I change my name when I publish this book?

The notion of using a pseudonym, or a pen name, or a nom de plume, is nothing new. Authors have been doing it for as long as words have been written. (Do we really know who Shakespeare was?) Then there was Samuel Clemens, or should I say Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, or more famously Mark Twain — the final pen name coming from years of working on a riverboat on the Mississippi.

Or how about some current famous authors who have written under phony names — J.K. Rowling, Stephen King and Nora Roberts all come to mind.

Rowling, as you may know, has recently published multiple adult mystery novels under the name Robert Galbraith. King, one of the greatest horror novelists of all time, penned a series of short books under the name Richard Bachman in the beginning of his career. And Roberts, a romance writer, has used multiple pseudonyms over the course of her career, most notably J.D. Robb.

But the point here is not the fact that authors choose to use alternative names in their publishing, but why? What are the advantages — and disadvantages — to using a pen name?

ADVANTAGES

1. Creating an author brand

Some authors know their genre from the very start of their careers, but others dabble in two, three, sometimes four genres before ultimately deciding to be a multi-genre writer or settle into their strongest. Regardless, it’s rare (though not unheard of) for one author name to appear on books in multiple genres. This is where the branding aspect of pen names comes in.

In order to establish brand consistency, credibility and trust with readers, it can be advantageous for writers to publish in different genres using different names. This is much the route that J.K. Rowling went after the Harry Potter series when she wanted to write mystery novels.

Another good example is a guy many outside the state of Michigan may not know: Christopher Wright, or should I say Christopher Knight, or Johnathan Rand. Under the surname Knight, Wright publishes his adult novels, and he uses Johnathan Rand while publishing his famous American Chillers and Michigan Chillers books for kids.

Does this sound like you? Want to bounce between romance and children’s books? Mysteries and literary fiction? It may be wise to look into a pen name (or two).

2. The ability for a “fresh start”

Write a bland first novel? Or maybe it flopped altogether, garnering less-than-desirable reviews and seemingly derailing a writing career before it begins?

A pseudonym can be a great way to hit the reset button on your career.

Look, not all authors strike it big with their first novels. For that matter, many debut books are nothing to write home about. But just like with any other career, you build upon your strengths and eliminate your weaknesses over time, on your way to developing more and more skills in the trade.

One poor performance shouldn’t discourage you from pursuing your passion. Leave the last book in the past and start fresh with a nom de plume.

3. Providing a disguise

When you decide to publish a book, the process goes from private writing to very public reading. Not all authors want their true identity to be known, to put it plainly. There are many reasons: maybe you’re shy, or are worried about your friends and family reacting to your work, or maybe you want to keep your personal life and writing life separate.

It’s all valid. How many erotica authors use their real names? A few, maybe?

Some authors also want to conceal their true identity simply to eliminate another factor of judgement from readers. It’s well known that J.K. Rowling used initials (though the ‘K’ isn’t actually her initial), rather than her first name, when first publishing Harry Potter because she (and her publisher) didn’t want people to judge her work as a female writing about a male character. That’s not to say people are right for making those judgments, but rather than fighting back it may be easier to use a pseudonym and focus on the writing.

And though rarer, it works the other way as well — if a male writer wants to gain more credibility with his readers when using a female main character in his work, he could choose to use initials in his pen name to take the gender issue off the table completely.

In the end it’s about the work, isn’t it? And a nom de plume is a way to let that be the focus of any book.

4. To write more

Isn’t every writer looking for an opportunity to write more? Sure you are.

This advantage isn’t as prominent as the others, but sometimes when authors crank out books too often, readers begin to get weary about the quality of the work or the intentions of the author — mainly, is he or she just trying to make more money by producing more books?

Back at the beginning of Stephen King’s career, it wasn’t widely accepted in the publishing industry for one author to release multiple books per year, and so in order to produce more writing he was forced to take up a pen name.

Times have changed, of course, and some authors today can publish many books per year. Just look at James Patterson and Danielle Steel. But in order to avoid some of the criticism that comes with that type of “book factory,” it may be to your advantage to use a pen name.

DISADVANTAGES

1. Keeping voices straight

Using multiple pen names for publishing across genres can be strategic, but be careful about losing your voice as a writer. This is probably a disadvantage for writing in multiple genres in general, regardless of whether you use different pseudonyms or not.

In today’s publishing world, you no longer only communicate with readers through the pages in your book. There’s social media, publicity appearances and interviews. Being able to maintain your unique voice while switching between writing identities can be challenging.

Is it impossible to do? No way. But it will be one obstacle to overcome.

2. Twice the identities, twice the marketing

You work hard to write your books, but unfortunately they don’t sell themselves. As the book is being published, it requires a marketing push. It shouldn’t matter what your pen name is, right, because each book still requires a marketing campaign?

Well, the beauty about developing a writing career is that you can build upon each release with larger readership. The marketing, just like your writing, should grow over time as you gain readers. But when you split your writing between two pen names — two writing identities, essentially — it requires creating multiple reader bases.

When it comes time to publish, you need to do what’s best for you as an author. Sometimes it’s just a preference. Do any of the reasons mentioned above hit home particularly hard for you? If so, maybe there’s now a reason to use (or not use) a pseudonym with your next book.

People will try to take it, but only you should have total control over your career. Make the best decision possible about using a pen name and enjoy the ride.

6 thoughts on “What are the advantages (and disadvantages) of using a pen name? Some of the best authors have used pseudonyms, but why?

  1. I use a pen name for one reason. Some of the things I write about actually happened. It’s both a way to be able to fictionalize the event, as well as provide me some psychological distance from it.

  2. I struggled with this issue for months, trying to decide what to do. In the end I chose to use a pen name – mostly for privacy. I almost created two of them to try and separate my book s into two groups, but realized I would never have the time to maintain multiple websites, mailing lists, etc. It also complicates things since I plan to write in several different genre’s, and simply cannot have a different voice for each one. The price I have to pay is not being able to include my family and friends in my new venture for fear one of them (and it only takes one) will slip up and reveal my true identity on social media. Yes, I know it could still happen, but I’m going to give it a try and see how long my luck holds.Perhaps I am making a big mistake and will regret it down the road, but I had to make an executive decision and I still believe it was the right choice for me.

    1. No regrets, Alexander! I think it’s the right choice for you as well, because whatever happens was meant to be. Just keep working hard and if one day you decide to let your friends and family in on it, no worries! You can still go by your pen name for your writing. Nothing will have to change there. Many writers do it that way.

  3. Interesting and valid thoughts on this. I have chosen to identify personally with my novels by using my own name, but have also created a ‘brand’ by using the whole unusual combination of them. At least Google only produces one of me that way!

Thoughts?