Saturday, November 29, 2008

Good Idea/Bad Idea: Pen names


Pen Names: Good Idea/ Bad idea

What is in a name?

The debate about whether a pen name benefits or hinders your writing career is still being hotly debated. It is my understanding (from all those hours spent scouring websites for useless info) that the benefits/damage of a pen name all depends on a person's specific circumstance.

Some of the biggest names (pun) in writing have used pen names e.g. Stephen King, Nora Roberts etc. so the question is: Is it good/bad for you? Only you know what your circumstances/ personal preference are. Personally for me, I didn't believe my 'real' name was marketable, also at the time i chose Emily Cross, there was a chance that i would become an academic writer. And well you know Emily Cross is such a coooool name.

Below I'm going to go into the pros/cons of having a pen name (links to info sites below)


Richard Bachman, Lewis Carroll, Trevanian, George Sand, Mark Twain, Nora Roberts, Stephen King. All these authors and a load more have written some of their best works under a pseudonym (pen name). I'm going to briefly outline the Good Points of having a Pseudonym:



Anonymity: This is the most common reason why first time writers use a pen name. As a first timer, we have a lot to prove both to ourselves, publishers, family and friends. Sometimes being able to hide behind another identity makes this easier.
On a less personal level some authors chose the anonymity of a pen name as they wish to separate their 'day' job from their writing job. for example, a professor of literary fiction who spends their nights writing 'genre' fiction may not wish to be known under the same name.

Marketability: If you have the name 'Amanda Bent' (yes i knew someone with that name) you could hardly hope to be taken seriously as a writer. Alot of authors whose names are less crinchy, chose a pseudonym because they understand that in the 21st century being an author is not just about the writing. its about the 'Brand' of your name, the marketability and finally the SALES. A recent example (although it is her real name) is Stephenie Meyer - her name has become a market onto itself and is instantly recognisable as the leading name in YA fiction. Stephenie Meyer is a suitable name for an author in the genre of female YA fiction. I doubt Twilight would seem half as appealing to its 'audience' if it was written by 'Butch Weeds'. As i have found out recently - platforming and reaching out to your audience/ readership is key to success. So think long and hard about picking your name.

Crossing the Genre: Many established writers such as Nora Roberts change their name when establishing themselves in another genre. Nora Roberts writing as J.D. Robb gave the illusion and 'expectation' of the thriller/crime genre by not eluding to her previous writing or even her gender. Its important not to confuse readers/fans by publishing works that are completely different from the genre you usually write in. Ian Banks was asked to provide a pseudonym for his Science fiction works. Ian M. Banks was born. Clever Man, lets his readers know with one letter what to expect.

Protection: A pseudonym in some cases provides protection to the author if they are going to publish something controversial and can also add a sense of credibility to a work. Sadly although in most places gender of a writer does not matter, a pseudonym can protect an author by hiding their sex, ethnicity, race and even religion. A pseudonym can also protect an author from themselves. Writings which were 'flops' can be forgotten and the author can start a new with a new identity or their original name.


Pseudonym is it a Bad idea? Many authors/editors/publishers for legal, copyright and sales issues believe so feeling it can have a hit/miss appeal with readership. here are some of the main arguments against pen names.

Sign of the amateur? Many Literary agents and publishers see the pen name as the sign of an amateur, and often question whether the author themselves are actually proud of their work. Apart from the headache's it provide publishers/editors to sign cheques to fictional name etc. it is a gamble for them on whether this pen name will work as a 'brand'. Often first time pen names can come across as gimmicky or even pretentious and can affect whether a L.A or publisher will want to work with an author. During the course of researching for this article, the advice 'use your real name unless its horrible' is heavily emphasised. Basically establish yourself and only when you go to a different genre - consider a pen name.
Media Frenzy: In today's media crazy world, anonymity is not realistic or should i say 'profitable'. The book business has changed and the image of the writer as an isolated fellow in slippers and dressing gown are done and dusted. Book signings, Radio, TV shows etc. are the order of the day in a writers life. The fans want to know their authors and interact with them. Example Stephenie Meyer, she used the Internet to reach out to her small base of fans - and by the time the third novel of the TW quadrilogy came out she was on the top of the new york times best seller list. You have to be prepared to face the media, promote your book and promote your pen name too. Fans like their authors to be transparent. Often the pen name can back fire into 'flops' and low sales if the readers favour turns.
Legality/copyright: This is a complicated area, which many first time authors forget to consider. i REALLY am not qualified to even begin to explain how this all works but i just want to make people AWARE that you have to consider that a pen name will en cure more work.

I hope the Good Idea/Bad Idea points have helped.

Remember: Pseudonyms are generally a personal choice and can be determined by a number of factors such as previous experience, situations, and future prospects. Its up to you to Decide.

When i decided to pick Emily Cross, I had to consider a few things. At the bottom of the article i've provided a few tips i kept in mind.

The Logistics of Pseudonyms

I found the below excerpt from Moira Allen's article extremely helpful as to how to go about 'introducing' your Pseudonym to publishers (link to her article below).
If anyone shows further interest, let me know, i may look into the schematics of the 'hows' and 'legal stuff' of introducing it and do a separate post addressing this issue (and maybe hunt down what some common L.agents/publishers' stances are on this)

Often, writing under a pseudonym is as easy as putting the phrase "writing as" on your manuscript. For articles, short stories, and poetry, you can simply put your real name in the upper left corner of your manuscript (or on the cover page), and list your pen name as your byline beneath the title. However, to ensure that your editor publishes the work under the "correct" name, you may want to remind the editor in your cover letter that you are "writing as" your pseudonym.

The final thing to keep in mind when using a pseudonym is that it will not protect you from any legal action that might result from your writing. A pseudonym has no existence as a "legal" entity; no matter what name you put on your work, the ultimate responsibility for that work always rests on you.



Tips when it comes to Pen Names:
  • Don't pick something generic or forgettable but also don't pick something too gimmicky or hard to spell. You'll need something that will appeal to your publishers/editors and to you readership, so memorable but easy to spell is KEY
  • Think about Shelving: if you are writing in a certain genre think about where your books will be placed. Most publishers/authors think a name beginning in the ABC's is a good idea.
  • Research: Its easy now a days to google your name and see if its already taken. There are a number of Emily Cross out there, but none are authors/writers and none are serial killers or criminals so for now i think i'm safe.
  • Pick a name which reflects the genre you are writing in: if you plan to write horrors, the pen name Zoe Valentine will not provide the 'expectation' that readership looks for.
  • Look into the legalities and copyright before signing contracts etc. Make sure it is clear that you own the pen name.

Articles Used:


Should a writer adopt a Pen name?

Moira Allen Article

Further Information:

Author Names

Information on the legal and copyright issues involved in using a pseudonym


If you have any questions or comments on whether this was helpful, Let me know!

Also if you have any specific topic you want in the next good idea/bad idea post let me know!

2 comments:

Clare C. Greenstreet said...

hey! brilliant article! Personaly I wouldn't use a pen name, although I did put a C in the middle instead of my full middle name. A little bit of mystery there.

Emily Cross said...

Clare Greenstreet is your real name? Its a great authors name, Lovely catch to it! Thanks for reading!

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