George Eliot, Mark Twain and George Orwell are amongst many who have chosen to use faux writing names and the reasons are varied. In many ways, I wish I had used a pen name when I started writing. I was never really interested in selling ‘me’ because my name is practically irrelevant unless there is something outstanding about my name. Jones doesn’t exactly cut it, does it? When I market and talk about my books, it is always about the name of the series, so I often wonder if it would’ve been worthwhile putting a little extra thought into an author name.
Of course, there are many great reviews associated with my name, but when they’re not so good, they can feel quite personal, and I can’t help thinking that a pen name might help to take the sting out of it a little. Presuming that some of you are at the start of your career, let’s have a look at some pros and cons of using a pen name.
There are several reasons people might want to keep their writing private. It may have something to do with identity. It could be someone who is gay but hasn’t come out yet, but it’s a concurrent theme in their writing. Historically, women had much more success with publishing and sales if they used a male name. Maybe it is about a powerful, political, or religious views that you would rather avoid confronting in real life. Some people are just shy and want to keep the creative work separate from their real-life identity. For some, it is the excitement of pretending to be someone else.
If you can come up with a really cool and original name, it could help your branding and marketing. A name that’s memorable can be useful in many circumstances, not least when someone has read your book and wishes to tell somebody else about it. We all have problems remembering authors’ names, especially if they’re not famous.
If you have had limited success with previous writing and choose to start afresh, a pen name will give you that confidence to be someone else for a while.
As for the drawbacks, there is no guarantee that people won’t to work out who you really are. It’s quite hard to avoid posting pictures of yourself when you’re constantly asked for profiles and certainly if you have a distinct writing style, readers may work it out, anyway.
And it’s not something that you could use to minimise any legal risks or issues, and of course, if you really are pretending to be somebody else (i.e. deceiving, publishers, publishing platforms or the public), that would be an offence.
It will mess about with all your social media platforms. You will have to set everything up in a new name and this may complicate how you communicate with your potential audience. And you may well slip up sometime if you answer a message from the wrong account by accident.
It is also worth bearing in mind that if you choose a pen name when you are in your late teens, it might not sound as cool or relevant when you’re much older. If you go down this route, be certain that it is an identity that you can live with long-term.
Something else to consider is that if you are really considered successful, you may resent the notion that this fiction author becomes famous whilst you do not, and that’s not about revealing your identity. It’s about people remembering your real name.
There is one thing for sure, it’s almost impossible to come up with something completely original, and even though I use all three of my names, there is at least one other person historically who is written under that name. If you go down this route, put some time into thinking about whether the name reflects the genre. If you can do this, it will obviously affect sales and how people perceive and remember your work.