To pen name or not to pen name. It really is a question.

cute-lolcat-ears-hear-youMy Twitter stream just blew up in rage over this article, and I have to say, it made me wince pretty hard. I’ve read Lamb’s book, and there’s some good stuff in it, especially about how to approach social media. I have a lot of respect for her zeal in wanting to shepherd new writers. On this issue, though, I’m going to disagree pretty intensely with her post which says it’s everyone’s personal choice but is mostly a lot of cheeky-winking-elbow tsk-tsk at some straw men representing the idea of having a pen name. This is something of an interesting reaction on my part, since I do not have a pen name myself.

Here’s the thing about pen names, the simple truth you can take to the bank. Whether you adopt one (or two, or three) or not truly is your choice, and it’s an intensely personal one. Yes, your author name is completely and utterly part of your brand, so whatever name that is should be pretty deliberate. It’s also a huge part of your author identity, the thing you have to cart around in your head. It’s also something you need to live with in your daily life. But the answer of whether or not your personal calculus means you adopt a pseudonym or use your legal shingle is not simple in any way, and it really, truly can’t be boiled down to a few memes.

The Privacy Issue

force-field-kitty-picIt’s very true, pen names aren’t quite the privacy shield they used to be. It’s not terribly difficult to unearth someone’s legal name if you’re determined. Yet the reasons for seeking privacy aren’t entirely about escaping death threats and stalkers.

Most writers never quit their day job, which means using their legal name to write fiction (or nonfiction) will result in their writing showing up in online searches their employers absolutely will perform before hiring them or during performance reviews. Not a problem for some genres and topics. HUGE albatross for others.

Women who write sexually explicit material, especially regarding heterosexual couples, sometimes find themselves with passionate, devoted, a little bit too invested male fans…in prison. There is not an epidemic of female authors being harassed by felons, but knowing those fan letters come to a PO Box and not a home address, to a pen name and not a legal name, can be a comforting buffer.

LolCatRenderer17Children and spouses, and possibly other family members can be affected by an author’s use of a legal name.The only times I’ve regretted using my legal name have been in these instances. I write sometimes very sexually graphic LGBT fiction. There have been several instances when my daughter’s friends’ mothers have been politely inquiring about what I do, my child has proudly declared I was a writer, and I held my breath hoping the friendship wouldn’t be terminated because of a Google search. My husband had to undergo a process to work out how to explain what I do at work and how to handle well-meaning coworkers’ requests to read my work. It’s not that he’s not proud of me or that my daughter’s friends have bigoted parents. It’s that if anyone was to have a negative reaction to what I do and judge my family for it, it’s an awkward moment. It’s one that would be easier to filter if I had a pen name. Because writing is my life, not my daughter’s or my husband’s.

I am fortunate in that my in-laws love that I use “their” name to write. They’re proud of what I do and have no compunction addressing anyone who might blink or look askance at their daughter-in-law’s subject mater. Not everyone, however, is that fortunate. Keeping the family peace might be a reason to adopt a pseudonym.

The Identity Issue

lolcat-my-world-is-changingEven writing the most benign of topics in the most open, supporting families on topics which help one in the workplace, some authors may choose to adopt a pen name because doing so affords them a separate headspace. Many, many of my friends have pen names, and every single one of them speaks of their author persona by their pen name and as a third person. Jane Author and Jim Scribbler have their own wardrobes and manners of speaking. I’ve even heard some lament that they can’t be Jane Author in real life, and by that comment they mean they’re unable to adopt the same confidence and sense of identity as a layman as they do as an author.

As someone who has found a pleasure in doing drag, I can say I fully understand this power of a separate persona. My alter ego is Calvin Fine, a man who will dance with anyone, flirt with everyone, say and do anything. He will go into men’s restrooms and do photo shoots. He’ll push women and men against pillars and unemployed-lol-cat4smile rakishly as they melt at the aggression. When I dress him, it really is like putting on a Calvin suit inside my head. Heidi is nothing like Calvin. And yes, there’s a huge comfort in that separation.

Identity doesn’t have to be that intense a reason to adopt a pen name, though. A pen name might be adopted for such a practical reason as being an accountant by day and feeling there is better bang for the identity buck by separating author self from number cruncher. The day job and/or the author gig might be better served by separate identities, on social media or simply in general. I would say identity is probably the biggest reason people adopt pen names.

The Brand Issue

funny-pictures-cat-guards-pensI didn’t choose a pen name for a lot of reasons, but one of the biggest was that I had managed to get myself quite a network under my legal name, and I wanted to make it as easy as possible to utilize that network. I also knew I never wanted to go back to teaching in a classroom, and publishing under my legal name put a nail in that coffin in a manner that suited my professional goals. Never look back, never surrender, etc.

For some people pen names are the practical choice, and not just for professional and personal conflicts. Sometimes pen names are important because the legal name would not help one’s brand. Jennifer Crusie is very open about her legal name being Smith, and as she says, “Do you have any idea how many Smiths are out there?” Having the same legal name as a politician, actor, or other public figure isn’t always a help either.

If I were ever to take a pen name, it would be to write young adult fiction. I’d be pretty frank about the connection between Heidi Cullinan and this second persona, but this young adult pseudonym would have her own website and Twitter handle and the whole works. Why? Because some of my works are so explicit and adult in theme they are absolutely not what I’d want a thirteen-year-old to read, and young adult works can and are read by children even younger than that.

My daughter is thirteen right now. There are books of mine I’d be happy to let her read, and there are ones I would say no. I’m not ashamed of what I write and we’re not shy about sex in our house. But I’m okay with saying thirteen-year-olds don’t need to read books about fisting or rough BDSM play. I’m willing to bet a lot of parents would agree. My goal with these YA books would be to make them accessible to LGBT teens. I’d adopt the pen name so it was clear which books were intended for youth and which were for a little bit later.

5391-40382-1-PBMarie Sexton did this same thing, though in the other direction. Her books aren’t sweet–in fact, they’re very sexy–but one series she wrote became quite dark and edgy. It’s a great series. It’s also completely and utterly off the Marie Sexton brand. So she chose A.M. Sexton as her edgy pen name, made it clear they were by her, and also made it clear they were not her usual fare. Many of her fans gave it a try, and many of them liked the books. Did it help that they went in with clear expectations of what they’d find from their favorite author? Many of the readers said, directly or indirectly, yes, very much so.

I know authors who are hugely successful under one pen name and who write other series under other pen names and never publicly connect the dots. Why? Lots of reasons, but the bottom line is it’s because it’s their career and their choice and their bus. It works for them. If it works for you, you can do it too.

Caveat Emptor

If you do take a pen name, be smart about it. Google the hell out of it. Brand the hell out of it. Don’t make it something nobody can remember. Don’t make it something impossible to pronounce or spell. Despite Lamb’s insistence any name will work, most authors are not Janet Evanovich, and spelling their name wrong will absolutely land you in an empty Google sea. (This goes for titles too, but that’s another blog post.) Don’t poach–as in, don’t adopt a name incredibly similar to someone successful in your genre and hope for accidental spill. Don’t go to all the trouble of getting to craft your own name and turn into someone so common you’re lost in the meadow of Jenny Smiths.

Do What Works For You

1355180-high_five_catThere is no right or wrong answer to taking a pen name or not. Your life will not be over if you keep your legal name. You aren’t spitting in the wind if you take a pseudonym. Your legal name and pen name might be easily linked, but they might also be easily and comfortably separated. You might feel invigorated and protected by your pen name. You might feel ridiculous over pretending to be someone else.

The bottom line is do what works for you. You wouldn’t let anyone tell you what to write or what not to. Same goes for your name. The only wrong choice is doing something that feels wrong to you but someone made you feel bad about in a book, blog post, or convention bar. Be loud, be proud. Whether you do it naked, in drag, or some point in between is entirely up to you.

30 Comments on “To pen name or not to pen name. It really is a question.

  1. This is a great response. 🙂 I’m friends with Kristen, but I’ve always disagreed on this issue, and this post summarizes many of my reasons.

    I’ve known some authors who take on a pen name because it helps them step out of their introverted shell. Others do so for SEO or spelling reasons. Goodreads is a nightmare if two authors share a name.

    In some states, house deeds and mortgage approvals are online, and anyone searching a real name would come across the personal information found on those documents. Others don’t want to deal with every Facebook rando who tries propositioning them to know where they live. Jay at TechSurgeons (the tech guy she mentions in the post) often recommends that authors use pen names, P.O. Boxes, and domain name shielding.

    As you said, it’s an intensely personal decision about how we want to run our career, and I’m not fond of any “you’re stupid if you do things different from my suggestions” style of advice. I know that’s part of Kristen’s enthusiastic style sometimes and that *she’s* strong enough to deal with threats (she’s a very good shot 😉 ), but many others would rather avoid confrontations.

    I worry that other writers might not be able to filter that advice for their own situation. I’ll point them to this post. 🙂

    • Sorry, I didn’t mean to make anyone feel stupid. This could have been a LONG post of all the reasons TO have one (I’ll send them here 😀 ), but I tried to address the usually flawed reasons to make people think twice.

      I run into a LOT of discouraged writers who feel branding is WAY too much work, but they inadvertently made a lot of unnecessary work for themselves. I recently spoke in Pennsylvania. I had a poor author who hated social media, but when we talked she had different pen names for thriller, suspense, cozy mystery. THREE pen names. Why? Most of these readers likely would cross over and there would be no conflict. She was diluting her time and energy trying to “not confuse” people when the genre, title, cover and story description would be enough for readers to figure out this was a cozy mystery and NOT a thriller.

      Many writers have multiple pen names or they changed a name that search engines would have loved in favor of something easier to pronounce, like Greene or Franks or something that will get lost on-line. They are using advice from the 90s, back when booksellers had to be able to pronounce a name.

      I have writers who might be VERY successful in another artistic field (I.e. photography) but they build an entirely new name because they don’t want people getting confused by getting photographs when they search. They don’t realize that all someone has to do is add “author” or “writer” and that narrows the search. So now their success in one field can’t help build success for their books and they are now doing double duty when that wasn’t necessary.

      I tried to be clear that certain genres WILL require a pen name. Romance genres often fit into what I WOULD recommend a pen name for. If it will be a problem for safety, security, a job, general well-being then YES, use one but with search engines becoming SO advanced it takes more work than one might realize (which is why I recommended Jay). But I will also say that I have run into authors who thought that simply signing up under another name was enough to protect them and keep them safe. It isn’t. That false sense of security without an expert like Jay can get someone hurt.

      So I AGREE. All the reasons you stated are excellent reasons to have a pen name. And even as Jami said, it might clear your head space and another identity is perfect for your voice and style. But it still is a business decision. If we have weighed all the cons against the pros, then we can only make the choice that is right for US. All I can do is point out areas we can accidentally make a book selling nightmare if we are using outdated advice. We already have a LOT of work ahead and I just want to help writers work smarter not harder.

      • Exactly. In the end it’s an utterly personal decision. I’m familiar enough with your work to think I understood what you were aiming at, but I know people from all kinds of genres for whom legal name is utterly the wrong decision. Honestly, if I hadn’t married into my name I’d have gone pen because only a handful of people in one region of Germany can pronounce, let alone spell, Hoerschelman. (It isn’t even right. Should have an o with umlaut and no e. Thanks, Ellis Island.)

      • Yep, like Heidi, I knew what you were aiming for, but the reaction of people in the comments scared me. I saw people who had ALREADY branded themselves with their pen name thinking it would be better to *start over* without a pen name. (No, just make it an open pen name and don’t throw away the platform you have!) *sigh*

        Anyway, between Twitter’s response (which brought up a lot of good issues from women’s safety to racism for non-European names) and the comments, I saw that people were *taking* it as end-all-be-all advice.

        Writers are so often a pile of self-doubting neuroses that it’s good for them to get both sides in advice. 🙂

      • Agree with all of Heidi’s post, especially the comparison to drag.

        I didn’t pick my first name. My mother did. I didn’t pick my last name, that came from my father. And my current last name came from my husband’s family. I’ve been called nicknames and insults and endearments. And all of them are bestowed upon me by someone else.

        My pen name is something I chose for myself. There’s a power in that the original post not only ignored–but also seem to mock.

        • Oh yes, this–this is important.

          Like Ms Cullinan’s mention of her family, and like my screen name: this represents me and my thoughts and opinions and reactions should not spill on people (my family) who did not sign for that.

  2. As a reader I’ve given a lot of thought to this issue. At first I didn’t think it was an issue at all but then I realized a lot of mm authors write about men coming out of the closet, celebrating those who do and drawing those who don’t as assholes. Then, I gave more thought to these very authors hiding in their own closets to a certain extent.

    It’s not for me to judge about pen names but it made me think and, strangely enough it made me more sympathetic to those who stay in the closet for both reasons.

    • Taking a pen name isn’t the same as being in the closet. It’s a terribly complicated and personal thing, which as you say, so is coming out. The big difference though is writing is a job or pastime, not an identity. “Coming out” as an author of LGBT romance feels very different than coming out to someone as bisexual. The former might make people assume things about me, but it’s no different than people assuming things about all romance writers. People assuming things because I came out about my orientation feels very intense. It’s intense as I write this comment, wondering who in my family will see it and if they’ll bring it up and if I should have addressed it at all. The different reactions is because the first one is about something I’ve chosen to do, and the second is about who I *am*. Radically different emotional spaces.

  3. Yes yes yes! I used to closely follow Kristen Lamb, but her viewpoint on pen names put a really bad taste in my mouth. This is NOT the first time she’s written about this issue, and to be honest, this most recent post seems to be a bit more “lenient” than previous ones. Maybe she is realizing there are some genres/cases where pen names are important, and that no, it’s not ridiculous for someone to write both erotic romance and YA romance…especially for LGBT* romance, I think YA is very important.

    • There are truly reasons for any genre. I’ve heard people say “you’re insane to use your legal name” and “you’re a fool to use a pen name” and honestly, both assertions are incorrect. I’ll never believe a career was made or broken by the choice of a name, and certainly it’s not rational to say one way is empirically “right”.

  4. I follow Kristen Lamb’s blog and recommend her books on social media to my fellow writers, but this is one instance in which I disagree with her advice. You summed up very nicely the reasons for having a pen name that are not mentioned in her most recent post.

  5. How about this? It’s no one business outside of the author’s. It is a choice. I write under my first name, but that’s because I think I was blessed by the naming gods when my mother chose LaQuette as my name (you don’t have to think it’s ridiculously beautiful and unique, but I certainly do). If my name was Mary, perhaps I would have chosen to right under a pseudonym (not to say that there’s anything wrong with Mary, but talk about a drop in an ocean). It is a choice. A choice that the author alone should make for themselves. A choice that no one should have a right to condemn someone for.

    Love this post, Heidi.

    • LaQuette, what I run into often is a writer might have a lovely/memorable name like yours, but then they get a pen name that is easier to “pronounce” like “Anna.” They might not realize that their name is very memorable and will actually help sales. And you are very correct. It IS the writer’s decision, NOT mine. But I am the person who helps authors with branding and can only guide you guys with information to make an educated decision. Yes, it is a personal decision, but it is also a business decision and I want to make sure you guys sell lots and lots of books no matter what you choose to do 😀 .

  6. Also, how can you use the same pen name if say you write erotic romance and then decide to write young adult or middle grade? You need a different pen name when writing for a younger audience, IMO. It’s uncomfortable for me to see some authors who write very heavy sexual romance to use their same name when writing books for teens and younger. I think in that case you need different pen names. Even JK Rowling has done it, and Nora Robers whose name- “NR” as her brand used a different name writing her futuristic police procedural series.

    There also personal reasons as you stated above such as family and friends. I know of an author very heavily involved in her church and lives in a small community. She writes graphic erotic romance. She refused to use her real name for obvious reasons.

  7. Whilst I agree with Kristin that using a pen name to hide your identity is perhaps a futile exercise, there are plenty of good reasons to use one. I have an uncommon reason in that forty years ago, my father thought it would be a good idea to name me Lolita. Thanks dad. Although plenty of people have said they think it’s a beautiful name, I dislike it intensely. I’ve had to endure a lifetime of outlandish misspellings, mispronunciations, and having to repeat my name several times to people who can’t seem to get it right. Understandably I’m not fond of my given name and that’s before we’ve even got to the Nabakov connection. It frequently gets bandied about in the media in a negative context and every time I see it appear in an article it makes me wince. I’ve even had difficulty registering for accounts online. Facebook is just one of the websites I’ve had problems with as my name seems to fall within their “offensive” category. Given its association, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to not want to use it.

    I know I could use my initials and my surname but I have a personal issue with that. My father has this compulsion to write our names on our things, most frequently in the format of initials and surname and it drives me NUTS! Every time I see it I cringe and I don’t want to spend all that time and money on something that in the end I hate looking at.

    I don’t see the problem with using a pen name as long as you don’t have unrealistic expectations of it and are fully aware that it may entail more work.

    • I firmly believe no matter why you use either legal or pen, it should be deliberate and worked into the brand. Kind of like being named Madonna. I forget who said it (maybe her?) but her choices with that moniker were pop star or nun. Pop star seems to have worked out nicely for her, but if she wanted to write cozy mysteries, it’d be okay to become Jane.

      There’s actually a whole lot you could do with Lolita–but the key there is you clearly don’t want that road. So it’s okay to pass. I know it turns everything into a reader-response classroom, but your way really is the best way. Anything else will make your brand disingenuous and eventually your work too.

      • There are so many variations of Lolita and just when I think I know them all, someone comes up with something new. Personally, I find them all too frivolous and cutesy to use for writing sci-fi/supernatural mystery. I did mull over using Dolores, Lolita is a diminutive of it, but that just says grey haired 60 year old to me. I thought Lores, as a variation, might be interesting but it’s a pronunciation quagmire and I’ve had my fill of that.

        My real name jars, I often avoid giving it out when meeting people because it makes me feel awkward. Trying to build a brand on something that I distance myself from wherever possible, would be a disaster.

  8. Pingback: What to Do When You Absolutely, Positively NEED a Pen Name | Kristen Lamb's Blog

  9. I don’t use a pen name and I’m a former teacher. I’m in the process of looking for a day job right now I’m wondering if I’ll need a pseudonym for that! I’m also wondering if prospective employers are reading my tweets or browsing my web site. I’m wondering if I can ever go back to teaching, even under another name, without worrying about a parent or fellow teacher deciding I’m a bad influence on children.

    I don’t know what I’d do differently, though. I’m proud of my work and I wouldn’t try to hide it from an employer.

    I can see some negative issues with pen names. If I’m a jerk to everyone and attack reviewers, should that behavior be erased when I reinvent myself under a new name? What if I own a publishing company and don’t pay my authors on time, but I’m raking in the cash under my secret pen name? A lot of authors wouldn’t be pleased to find out that someone they wanted to avoid for whatever reason approached them for help or a publicity quote under a new name. A lot of readers aren’t happy to find out they bought a book from an author whose writing style doesn’t work for them.

    So I guess I’d prefer that pen names not be secret, but I also understand why sometimes they have to be, and I don’t begrudge anyone privacy or a second/third/whatever chance to break in. I think it goes back to the debate over whether artist behavior/beliefs matter (Woody Allen) of if the work should stand alone.

    • I think it depends on the school district, to be honest. To some it would be an asset, to others, a liability. In my case I write sometimes graphic LGBT romance. I’m sure there are school districts who would be okay with it, but it would definitely be a skeleton in a closet with a glass door for me. Even standard romance, though, I would think could easily be little more than a shrug most places.

      The problem isn’t simply jumpy parents either. If I’d wanted to keep teaching I’d have taken a pseudonym for sure, because I taught 7-12, and I wouldn’t want to put any of them in the position of trying to sort out their teacher from this lady who writes deliberately edgy stories, not only in sexual content but in emotional and social situations. I stand by my work, but as an educator I want to protect students’ rights, especially in middle and high school, to have a little idealism about their educators. In the same way I’d take care not to let them see me cutting loose at a bar or getting too tipsy at a public festival, I’d separate my fiction from my teaching. But even this is MY philosophy and MY way I’d deal with the issue. I don’t begrudge anyone else making a different call.

      • I agree about students reading my work. I wouldn’t want that to happen. A pen name is no guarantee, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good option. I was just thinking of ways that secret pen names can be abused, sort of like anonymity. But I would argue to protect both rights even though I don’t use them.

        Part of Lamb’s point was that sometimes multiple pen names are unnecessary. I was having a convo with a couple of m/m authors who write f/f under separate (but not secret) names because their m/m readers want m/m only. Can’t those readers just skip the f/f? If they accidentally buy the f/f, will they get cooties? I’m always looking for f/f and I might be more inclined to buy from an m/m author whose name I recognize. If you wrote a lesbian story, Heidi, I’d buy it because I know your name and I’ve heard good things about your writing. Congrats on the RITA BTW! That’s huge. So anyway. I’m with Lamb on trusting readers not to get confused when an author writes a different genre/type of story.

  10. I’m curious if anyone has run into issues getting paid when using a pen name and if they really need a DBA (Doing Business As), as Kristen mentioned in her article. I was a journalist for many years and wrote under my real name, but at one point I started a freelance column for a magazine and did that under a pseudonym to avoid a conflict with my main employer. I never had any problem getting paid as the other publisher made the checks out to my real name, but then again, he had known my name from the start because he had approached me after reading my columns for my newspaper.

    So if I submitted to journals or other publications with a pen name, do I tell them my real name for the check and that I prefer they print my work with a pen name? That leads to a very real possibility of a screw up, wherein they accidentally publish under my real name (at the magazine I mentioned above, I think only the publisher knew my real name, and every column I sent in had only my pen name on it, making it a lot harder for a page designer or copy editor to accidentally put in my real name). I’ve been thinking about going to a pen name for awhile because I’ve just gotten very private (and concerned about trolls and whatnot, not because I’d be writing anything considered a possibly sensitive topic) and can’t quite decide if it will create problems I later regret. Could it also at some point be difficult to prove you that you really are So and So (the real person behind your pen name) if you need to do so for some reason, say to a publisher whom you are sending examples of work under a pen name?

    • The universal reaction to her claim has been “what?” I know thirty people off the top of my head who get paid without question under pseudonyms. Publishers know authors’ legal names, as do distributors if authors self publish. In fact there are always spaces built in for exactly that. It’s so industry standard to say it’s otherwise is quite bizarre.

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