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There are many reasons why writers may choose to use a different name to associate with their work. Across history, pseudonyms have been used by writers to get published, to encourage different readers to pick up their books, and to avoid confusion across genres. While we all know the stories of women in Victorian times using male pseudonyms to be published, and the great William Shakespeare conspiracy still captures avid readers, there are many valid reasons why authors today choose to write with a pen name.
So, if you’re thinking about using one, here are some things to consider about writing under a pseudonym.
Reasons not to use a pseudonym
Let’s start with why you shouldn’t use a pseudonym. There are three main reasons that people often cite for wanting a pseudonym where they really shouldn’t.
The first, is when they think their name is boring and people will be more likely to pick up a book with a more ‘exotic’ sounding name. I’ll put a disclaimer here that thinking your name is boring is different to actually hating your name, especially if you already ask your friends to call you by a different name. We’re talking here about purely choosing a new name to sound more interesting. And that’s not how writing works. Your writing should impress people enough that your name becomes interesting, not the other way around.
The second, is when people don’t want anyone to know they’re an author. Again, we’re not talking about people who may find their career compromised by their writing, we’re talking about anxiety and fear of others knowing what we do. But here’s the thing, how are you going to do marketing for your book if you don’t want people to know who you are? Even authors with pseudonyms will do book talks, and library appearances, and Q&A’s. You need to get used to talking about yourself, your work and your influences. Changing your name just because you don’t want people to know who you are isn’t going to work.
And finally, some people want to use a pseudonym to protect themselves when writing about other people. But here’s the thing, a pen name will not protect you from charges of libel and slander. If you’re going to write about other people, you either need to have firm evidence for your claims or you need to disguise their identities.
With all that said, let’s move on to some of the reasons people do use pseudonyms and do so effectively.
Different Names for Different Genres
Some authors write across multiple genres and therefore use pseudonyms to help readers differentiate between their work in multiple genres. This doesn’t necessarily just apply in the sense of someone like Nora Roberts who writes romance but also publishes suspense thrillers under the name J.D. Robb but also for academics, journalists, editors and various other writers who have careers outside of writing.
Hadley Wickham explained in her recent interview with Shelley Carter for Underground that she felt the need to keep her academic and fiction writing separate and so adopted her pseudonym. Likewise, Riley Sager is actually a pseudonym for journalist Todd Ritter who wanted to keep his journalistic writing and fiction writing separate.
You don’t even have to develop an entirely new pseudonym to do this! Victoria Schwab who writes YA fiction simply switched to her initials as V.E. Schwab for her adult fantasy novels.
Appealing to your audience – the role of gender in author names
We’ve all heard the famous example of J.K. Rowling. She was advised by her publisher to use initials (in case you didn’t know, Joanne doesn’t have a middle name so she just added in the K) because they were worried that young boys were less likely to pick up a book with a female name on the front.
And they aren’t wrong. Men, whether consciously or subconsciously, are more likely to pick up books that are written by other men. So many women use their initials or deliberately gender-neutral pseudonyms to help them get a look-in, especially in male-dominated genres such as sci-fi.
The same can be said of men writing in the typically female-dominated romance genre. Jessica Blair is actually Bill Spence and Deanna Dwyer is actually Dean Koontz.
However, there are lines to be drawn here which we are going to discuss in more detail below. So if you’re considering changing your gender with your pen name, hold out just a little bit longer and keep reading to the end.
Protecting your identity
This is an especially popular route for academics or professionals who may write, say, erotica, in their spare time and don’t want their career negatively impacted by their writing.
Or maybe you’re writing about something that may result in persecution from your government (think about those who wrote about gay love or women’s rights in Britain before the 1950s).
Remember though, changing your name does not protect you from accusations of slander or libel in the people you write about, so this is not the route to take if you want to write about particular people without sound evidence.
There are ‘issues’ with your name
Maybe your name is very similar (if not the same) to a very well-known author. Maybe you’re a Dean Brown or Steven King. Then yes, separating yourself by using a pen name is probably something you’ll need to do (if you don’t do it initially, a publisher is probably going to ask you to!).
Likewise, maybe your name is hard for readers in your audience to pronounce and/or spell. Names that are easy to say, read and spell are often easier for readers to remember and therefore to recommend. Some marketers feel that a pseudonym in these cases may help improve word-of-mouth sales. Having said this, it is the view of this writer that this should not be the only reason you consider a pseudonym as often the names considered ‘difficult’ are those originating in other languages, which then results in the homogenisation of literature, and the over-representation of a particular group.
Choosing an appropriate pseudonym
People come across their various pseudonyms in many different ways, but it’s important to remember that there is a fine line between choosing a gender-neutral name or a name that better represents your brand, and appropriating gender, culture, heritage, religion etc.
As Nathan Burgoine writes in Pseudonyms vs Identities, ‘When an author presents themselves as a member of a different culture, minority, or oppressed group, they’ve taken a voice that belongs to that oppressed or silenced group. They are now using a brand based on a projected falsity.’ That name, that brand, can change how your work is perceived as it implies a certain background and history at odds with the context in which the work was actually created. In his article, Nathan talks about women writing gay male romance who have taken on male pseudonyms to project a fake authenticity.
And as Claire Fallon points out in When a Pseudonym is not Just a Pseudonym: The Case of Yi Chen Fou, when someone who has the ultimate privilege in writing uses a pen-name that deliberately implies this false history and context, they not only undermine and appropriate those minorities and cultures, they also invade the small space that has been made for writers of those marginalised backgrounds in our publishing space. In this case, a white American man passing himself off as someone of Chinese descent, was engaging in what was essentially ‘yellowface’ while dismissing the struggles of many Asian-American writers who submit under their own names and struggle to be heard in the mainstream space.
Likewise, Kelly Faircloth wrote in Men Are Apparently Adopting Ambiguous Pen Names to Sell Psychological Thrillers to Women, that when men take on female personas for their pseudonyms, they might be trivialising some of the problems that women go through. While the crime and thriller genres have historically been dominated by men, recent trends have led to a female dominated market due to the number of authentic stories that addressed female perspectives on violence and crime in a genre that has typically relegated women to victims. While there was no issue with writing a female lead as a male, presenting that book as if it was written by a woman suggests something else entirely.
So please, be careful and aware when choosing your pseudonym. Think carefully about why you want or need a pseudonym and what it needs to do. And remember that just because other authors have done it doesn’t necessarily make it the right thing to do.
[This piece was updated on the 16th January 2020 to expand the section related to difficult to pronounce or remember names following feedback from readers.]