What’s in a name? #pennames #authorlife

A recent conversation with a fellow author who publishes her books under a pen name opened an interesting question about pen names for me. I only know this woman by her pen name as we ‘met’ in an online writing conference. We’ve become sort of friends over the years. I say ‘sort of friends’ because I don’t know where she is from or her real name, but I know plenty of other, perhaps more important things about her.

So in her latest email to me she revealed how torn she feels over using a pen name. She is very shy and that was her main reason for choosing not to publish under her real name. She also keeps her writing a secret from her friends and co-workers. She’s got seven novels to her name, yet she feels like a failure, because she wonders, “Am I a successful writer if no one in my life even knows I write?”

This made me think of pen names, or noms de plume, and why and how we choose them. I chose to publish under a pen name to separate that genre from the works I publish under my real name. My friend chose to hide behind a pen name. Some don’t think their names fit the genres they write in and choose more exotic names. Others feel their name resembles too much the name of another author. Joanne K. Rowling became JK Rowling for marketing purposes so boys would read her books, too, and then Robert Galbraith to avoid the hype and expectations. I suppose there are as many reasons as there are pen names.

Pen names can be liberating, but they can also become a pain in the neck if not chosen carefully. Another author friend of mine chose for her pen name the name of her favourite literary heroine only to have the owners of the copyright send her a cease-and-desist letter. With her website, promotional material and all her social media accounts using the contentious pen name, she was faced with the huge task of changing it all to a different nom de plume. At least her book wasn’t published yet, so she still had time to change her byline.

Finished manuscript

But what I find is the biggest issue with pen names is that they require you to set up an entire life for them. The friends and family and acquaintances who follow the ‘real’ you on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc. – they are your potential platform. When you decide for a pen name, that platform is gone. When you want to sell your book that is a massive disadvantage because you will have no one to back you up, no one who will have a personal interest in supporting you. You’re starting from scratch. It’s not easy to build a new platform months, sometimes only weeks before your book is published. This requires of you to connect, on a more or less personal level, with hundreds of people most of whom are strangers. All this while you have to go through several rounds of revisions and are busy with other marketing tasks.

Then, there’s the question of authenticity. As readers, we want our books to feel authentic, but what about the authors writing them? How do readers respond to finding out that the author they thought they knew is just a pen name used by someone who is entirely different than the person they thought they were? (Because do not kid yourself that you can hide in this era of instantly accessible information. Plus, you’ll still have to sign your publishing contract with your legal name.) Some might feel cheated and will lose their trust in the author, and the author might lose a devoted reader and supporter as a result.

These are all things to be considered before choosing a pen name because they can have long-lasting consequences on your career.

  • Do I really need it and am I certain I won’t change my mind later?
  • What do I want my pen name to tell the readers about me?
  • Will I create separate social media accounts for the pen name? Do I have the time and energy to keep the double (triple) accounts updated and relevant?
  • If I’m trying to keep the pen name a secret, what images will I use as avatars on social media and website? How much will I reveal about myself so it’s not too much but at the same time is enough to give a personal touch to the pen name?

If not chosen for the right reasons, pen names can be massive black holes which suck our time and energy with no real benefits. It’s worth thinking about it in some depth before deciding to use a nom de plume.

What is your experience like if you’re using a pen name? Or, if you’re considering using a pen name, what are your reasons?


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