There can be benefits to using a pen name, but I believe there are many more downsides to using a pseudonym than upsides.

Nora Roberts, the author of more than 150 romance novels, was asked why she writes romantic suspense novels under a pseudonym. Her answer: “It’s marketing.”

She says that writing quickly makes it difficult for her publisher to publish all of her work with an appropriate amount of time between each release, so she writes works which are “edgier” than her romance novels under the pseudonym J. D. Robb. She says, “Putting it under a pseudonym helps brand it for the reader.” Children’s writers often separate their real names or their “other” writing names from their children’s work to keep work intended for children untainted.

All these reasons are absolutely valid, and there are many more. But I believe there are many more downsides to using a pseudonym than upsides, especially from marketing and organizational perspectives.

You can find more information on the concept of branding in the second edition of The Frugal Book Promoter, including some of the reasons why you shouldn’t use a pen name. You will, of course, have to weigh the pros and cons for your title and your career, but keep in mind that Ms. Roberts has a powerhouse publisher and its marketing department to help her navigate the difficulties inherent in using a pseudonym.

If you are considering using a pen name, here’s what you should know:

  1. It is difficult to keep a pen name secret. Everyone knows who Kristie Leigh Maguire is, for example, but most know that it is a pen name. Once they know, the author has lost the privacy value of using a pseudonym.
  2. If people didn’t already know that “Robb” was Nora Roberts’ pen name, most of them do now since Time magazine let the cat out of the bag in a featured interview. The magazine also revealed (big time) that Nora Roberts is also a pen name! Suddenly, I don’t feel the same affinity for her as a person or an author. I don’t even know her name. In one fell swoop her pen name lost some of its branding value.
  3. It is very hard to promote a book in person when you use a pen name, especially if you choose an opposite-sex pen name. In fact, promotion of all kinds can become touchy. You may lose authenticity. That loss must be balanced against whatever reason you are using to convince yourself it’s a good idea.
  4. Using a pen name isn’t necessarily an effective barrier against lawsuits. But do ask your attorney.
  5. Have you ever considered how hard it is to be a good liar? One has to have an amazing memory and as well as a deceptive nature. Authors have problems enough learning to nurture the marketing, publicity, TV, radio, and speaking skills they had no idea they’d ever need when they started writing. Trying to remember all the little white lies (or big whoppers) you may find yourself telling may not be worth the effort. I mean, Nora Roberts finally gave up on the biggest fib of all: that she uses pen names. In the Time interview, she discarded pretense and became herself.
  6. And last but not least is the technical, time-consuming – and potentially expensive – quagmire of branding yourself over and over again for every pen name you have. Think websites, blog posts, email accounts, and social media exploits. And even worse, think how much less effective those efforts will be because they are diluted since you only have so much time to devote to branding each of those names. If you think you will never have to do that, that you never expect to change genres or run into a marketing misstep that forces you to return to your real name, you may be mistaken. Many multi-genre authors didn’t expect to do that when they wrote their first book. And, like the kid getting his driver’s license at sixteen, most of us don’t expect to have marketing accidents.

One politician-turned-author chose to use a pseudonym to protect the innocent – and himself. The book benefited from the big secret at first. But soon (very soon!) sales waned. His big, prestigious publisher must have convinced him that pen names (real secretive pen names!) are not easy to promote. There is no author to interview. There is little story beyond “a book has been published” to tell. There is no real person to give the book authenticity and credibility. When sales flagged, this author came out of the closet. It turned out his penchant for privacy (or whatever his reason for secrecy) didn’t turn out to be so important when stacked against the success of his baby (that would be his book).

Read more about Nora Roberts in Time magazine’s “10 Questions” feature from the Dec. 10, 2007, issue.

 

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Carolyn Howard-Johnson

About Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Carolyn Howard-Johnson has written 7 posts in this blog.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson is the author of the multi award-winning series of HowToDoItFrugally books for writers including USA Book News' "Best Book" winner for The Frugal Book Promoter. She has been an instructor for UCLA Extension's renowned Writers Program for nearly a decade and favors speaking and getting reviews as the top ways to market a book. Learn more at HowToDoItFrugally.com.

14 thoughts on “To Pseudonym or Not to Pseudonym

  1. Thank you. I love helping Bookbaby authors succeed. I hope everyone is saving their pennies for BB’s conference in 2018.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    I don’t want to use a pseudonym but there is already a published author out of the UK using my name. I’d rather use a pseudonym than for us to be confused. What should I do?

    1. Vienne says:

      You could try initials and surname. Your maiden name (if you have one), your mother’s or even grandmother’s maiden names. Hyphenate a maiden name and your current surname. Or use another variation of your given name; Elizabeth could be Liz, Lizzie, Eliza, Beth, for instance. Or a non-English variant perhaps. Use your middle name as your first name.

  3. Rob Andresen-Tenace says:

    One thing that makes me consider a pseudonym is that my name is quite long (even before the hyphenation) so a shorter pen name makes it easier to write/promote/etc.

  4. Natalie Shannon says:

    I remember when Stephen king had the penn name Richard Bachman. He claimed he did it because his publisher only let him publish one book a year. Plus his publisher said the books “Thinner” , “Road Work” and “The Long Walk” were not the genre they wanted. Stephen even had a fake author photo of “Richard Bachman” I have that book “Thinner” Of course way back then it was a lot easier to keep a penn name secret. It took years before it was discovered. Funny thing was the book “Thinner” when it was thought Richard Bachman wrote it did poorly. When they found out Stephen King wrote it, it was a best seller and even got made into a movie!

  5. Alice says:

    I am just about to self-publish through Amazon. just have to finish writing. all of a sudden Create Space is no longerprividing these services? Would have been nice to know a few weeks ago, not in 3rd week of 2018. Very disappointing.

  6. Wendy says:

    While any book can benefit from the author plugging them, a book plugged by an unknown author doesn’t have much of an advantage over a book that isn’t getting plugged. On the other hand, a pseudonym-authored book in a new genre can be revealed if it goes well, and forgotten by everyone without harming the author’s brand if it doesn’t.

  7. Portia Hyman says:

    One more reason, trying to promote yourself to people you’ve known for 20+ years. They don’t remember pen names which makes it hard for them to support you. Glad I figured it out before publishing.

  8. Amyna says:

    I used a pseudonym initially because I did not want people to know I write. But then everyone got to know because someone interviewed me and it went on UTube.

    I would love to attend a conference but cannot as it is not easy as a Muslim to travel to the US.

  9. Neil Arthur Williams says:

    Perhaps an alternative to pseudonyms is the approach used by the great, late Iain Banks (16 February 1954 – 9 June 2013) who was a Scottish author that featured in The Times newspaper’s list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945”. He wrote mainstream fiction under the name Iain Banks, but wrote science fiction as Iain M. Banks, including the initial of his adopted middle name Menzies. Apparently, his parents had intended to name him “Iain Menzies Banks”, but his father made a mistake when registering the birth and “Iain Banks” became the officially registered name. Despite this error, Banks used the middle name and submitted The Wasp Factory for publication as “Iain M. Banks”. Banks’s editor inquired about the possibility of omitting the ‘M’ as it appeared “too fussy” and the potential existed for confusion with Rosie M. Banks, a romantic novelist in the Jeeves novels by P.G. Wodehouse; Banks agreed to the omission. After three mainstream novels, Banks’s publishers agreed to publish his first science fiction (SF) novel Consider Phlebas. To create a distinction between the mainstream and SF novels, Banks suggested the return of the ‘M’ to his name, and it was used in all of his science fiction works.

    How many more ways could his REAL name have been re-packaged to create genre distinctions for marketing to different demographics and readerships? … “I.A. Banks”, “I. Banks”, “Ian Menzies Banks”, “Ian Menzies-Banks”, “I. Menzies Banks”, “I. Menzies-Banks”, “Iain M.B.”, “I.M.B”, or “Iain Menzies”. Certainly any approach that maintains the integrity of one’s first name will make radio and TV interviews less potentially hazardous. But if that isn’t an issue, why not even create an invented new first name out of your first two initials, such as “Iyay Banks” or “Ahyay Banks”. This works better with some initials than others but it has the marketing benefits of online uniqueness re: uniqueness in Google searches and gaining a unique author’s website address.

    I’m just trying to illustrate that one needn’t stray too far from the truth of one’s real name in order to come up with an alternative author’s name … a ‘soft pseudonym’, so to speak.

  10. Grace Blair says:

    Carolyn Howard-Johnson is one of my dearest friends and giant talent in the book industry. I understand her reasoning behind no pen names for books. However, with Amazon’s algorithms perhaps its time to take a second look at the concept.

    I have written several non-fiction books, “Do You Have a Dream Workbook 5 Keys to Realize Your Dream” is the latest written under my Grace Allison. I am in the process of writing and publishing my first novel, “Einstein’s Compass a YA Time Traveler Novel”. During a recent book promoting consulting session with Kathy Meis of Bublish, we discussed using a pen name. Kathy sited an author https://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/2017/05/04/please-dont-buy-my-book/ who had a bad experience with Amazon where the data and algorithms went crazy when David used the same name to publish his fiction and non-fiction. The sales tanked on his fiction book.

    So, I took Kathy’s advice and am publishing under my married last name, Blair. The authors on “Einstein’s Compass, a YA Time Traveler Novel” will debut Fall, 2018 under the names, Grace Blair and Laren Bright. The Blair and Bright team, kinda catchy. What do you think?

  11. Michael van der Riet says:

    I wonder why the majority of successful film stars use stage names, Maurice Joseph Micklewhite being a good example. Robert Zimmerman just doesn’t have the same punch as Bob Dylan, and would Cliff Richard have been as popular if he’d stuck to Harry Roger Webb? None of these seem to have any practical problems at all with their assumed names.

  12. I chose to use S.E. Foster as there was another Shannon Foster that wrote paranormal books. I didn’t want my Prayer Journals to be confused with her books. As far as a completely different pen name I am still on the fence with that.

  13. Sue Roman says:

    Finally! I have been wrestling with the “to pen name or not to pen name” debate for a long time and this article was such a relief to read. I’m going with the not to pen name option. I’m proud of my soon to be published book so I’m putting my name on it.

    Thank you so much for the article.

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