Ah, the pseudonym. Something to hide behind, for whatever reason. Authors as varying as Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and C.S. Lewis have used them over the years.

As I ponder trying out new genres, I find myself returning to this topic. (Of course, depending on the quality of the finished product of said new genres, it may all be a moot point.) And also on how different a genre has to be from your original genre to warrant a pen name.

(For example, I’m plotting out a cozy mystery series with paranormal elements. Do the paranormal elements link it close enough to my normal fantasy/scifi/horror to keep using my same name? Or does the mystery structure move it far enough away to consider using a different one?)

There are various arguments for or against pen names. The reasons people typically use them include:

  • To protect one’s identity (especially if one is writing erotica or something controversial)
  • To confuse/hide gender (female authors might take on a male or gender-neutral pen name, such as using initials instead of a first name, or a male author might take a female or neutral pen name if writing in a women-centric genre)
  • To make things less complicated (if a real name is hard to spell or pronounce, or if a real name is identical or similar to a famous author’s)
  • For co-writing (two people writing under one name, ala Magnus Flyte (my favorite example))
  • To separate themselves from previous work (if they want to try something new or experimental, or just something different)
  • To separate different genres (such as scifi and romance, mystery and children’s, etc.)
  • To hide from past failure (if books sold under one name haven’t done well, an author can re-invent themselves under another and hopefully do better)

If any of the above are an issue, then it can be beneficial to have a pen name. But there’s also arguments against using a pen name, such as the fact that any audience you may have built up won’t follow you to the new pen name so you’ll have to start over audience building from scratch, processing royalties and other payments becomes more difficult, there becomes complications with copyright and rights sales, and things along those lines. There is also an argument that openness is highly valued these days, so using a pen name can seem dishonest to some people.

There are also bad reasons to use a pen name, such as believing that not writing under your own name will allow you to commit libel, or thinking that money earned under a pen name doesn’t have to go on your taxes, etc.

(As a side note, I have learned that some “authors” are really company-owned pseudonyms, meaning any number of people could have written under them. These include V.C. Andrews, Carolyn Keene, and Franklin W. Dixon. Wild. Also, now I know I could potentially write a Nancy Drew novel, which is somewhat exciting.)

I go back and forth on them myself. I’ve looked into people who have successfully published in more than one genre under their own names, and most are big name authors that could probably write down their shopping list and have them published (Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, etc.) or are authors that mostly write/wrote a single genre and then had one or a few random things. (Did you know Ian Fleming wrote¬†Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?) But there are some–Lisa See is best known for her historical fiction, but also has a mystery series, and Emma Donahue is all over the place (though hers are all standalones, best as I can tell).

There is also the counterargument that you don’t need a pen name for different genres, especially if they are wildly different, because it will be obvious. If you write both scifi and romance, for example, one of your romance readers can probably look at your spaceship and alien-infested cover and figure out that it’s not a romance title. (Which goes into the importance of title/cover matching genre expectations, I suppose, but we’re not going to talk about that right now.)

What do you think, Squiders? Pen names or no? Under what circumstances would you (if an author) use one, or would you (as a reader) want an author to use one? Examples of people who have or have not used them to successful or disastrous consequence?

And don’t forget to vote in Tuesday’s poll!

Pondering Pen Names
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Books by Kit Campbell

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Shards cover
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Hidden Worlds cover
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