If you’re about to publish your first book, are you undecided about using a pen name, or writing under your real name?
It seems to make sense that you should decide which name to use right from the start, as the name you write under will then be set in stone forever. But is this actually true?
Well, first let’s consider WHY you would want to use a pen name.
The obvious answer is to ‘hide’ your real identity. But what are the benefits of doing this, and are there any drawbacks?
Here are some of the pros and cons:
Avoiding assumptions and preconceptions from people you know
Writing any book makes you open to criticism and negative feedback, often from the people you know. Perhaps they never imagined you capable of writing a book, and your writing doesn’t fit the image they have of you. If you use a pen name you never have to reveal to anyone that it’s you writing!
Using a pen name means never worrying about fitting into the ‘box’ your friends and family may have created for you.
Although this reason may sound a bit silly, this worry about ‘what people will think’ can hold new writers back hugely. Particularly if you’re changing careers and looking to write full time, and don’t have the support of your family and friends.
Using a pen name can give you more freedom in your writing without fear of judgement from others.
People you know in real life won’t assume you’re writing about them and your shared life experiences
Of course, most writers draw on elements of their own life experiences in their stories. But lots of established writers say that people they know draw parallels between their writing and their own lives, where none exist!
Or worse, think that their writer friend is trying to subconsciously tell them something about their behaviour in their writing. For example, a character with a brother who has a string of bad relationships. Imagine if your brother thought you were trying to tell him he had terrible taste in romantic partners!
However, if you ARE writing about people you know in a way that will be obvious to them once your book is published, then you need to better disguise them within your story. No-one should be able to read your work and clearly see themselves in your fictional writing.
If your book is about any confidential subject matter, provided you’ve taken measures to protect people’s anonymity, using a pen name means you can still publish without revealing your own true identity too.
Writing that’s in conflict with your paid profession
Lots of writers have paid professions that may be in conflict with their own writing genre or subject matter. For example, a teacher who writes in the romance genre may prefer to keep their true identity unknown. Or a broadsheet journalist who writes science fiction may prefer to keep their fictional writing entirely divorced from their occupational writing.
Avoiding stereotypes others may make
By choosing a pen-name you can bypass any stereotypes that may be inferred from things such as your genre, gender, age, previous work, occupation etc.
Writing in multiple genres more easily
Following on from the above point, many authors who write in multiple genres choose different pen names for each genre.
The reasons for this are threefold:
- It avoids being judged or alienated for your work in other genres
- It creates separation for your fans and makes it easier for them to follow your work
- Allows more freedom to try out new genres without the pressure of conforming to, or being hemmed in by your other work
A fresh start
All writers have received bad reviews at some stage of their career. Writing is a process in which you grow, learn and improve.
If you’ve previously published something a bit cheesy, rushed or underdeveloped, then using a pen name can allow you to make fresh start without being tarnished by earlier efforts.
Avoiding name confusion
Ideally, your author name should be unique. For some people, this means they can play around with their legal name, perhaps using a middle name or initial, or including a maiden name or family name. But if you can’t produce a unique name by doing this, using a pen name can be a good solution.
Also, if your name is particularly long, double barrelled or hard to remember, a pen name can make things a bit simpler. It will be easier for readers and fans to remember, and may be more straightforward for using on your book cover, website and any publicity.
Negative impact of publicity
Speaking of publicity, and without jumping the gun, you should consider the effect ‘becoming famous’ may have on your family, partner, children, business interests etc.
Consider how both positive and negative publicity might affect you. Especially in this day and age where everything is online, and people can easily search you out on social media.
Can’t bask in the rewards of fame!
Getting great reviews and accolades for your work? If you’re using a pen name to protect your true identity, you can’t ‘go public’.
However, many successful authors who use pen names to write in different genres are open about doing this, therefore they do reveal their legal name and openly take credit for their work.
No protection from any legal action that may result from your book’s contents
If you’re using a pen name in the hope that you won’t be traceable to account for any incriminating content, then stop now. Using a pen name will not protect you from legal action. You should change the book’s contents, not your author name.
Readers may feel deceived
Sometimes readers say they feel cheated if they find out you’re not who they thought you were. Some authors suspect that using a pen name adversely affects their credibility as it’s like they have something to hide.
Stopping fans finding you cross-genre
Using a pen name can inhibit your fans crossing over from one genre to another to try out your writing, simply because they don’t realise it’s you.
Even if only a small percentage of your fans are willing to try out your writing under a new genre, this is great start. Not bringing your fan-base across to new writing means you’re starting at square one again.
In conclusion, the fact that well-established, successful and highly acclaimed authors like JK Rowling take the decision to use a pen name for new work says a lot about the many reasons for doing so.
It means you’re not tarred by the brush of previous work, there’s less pressure if you’ve received good critical acclaim previously and less risk if your new work isn’t received well. You can break free of your genre. But conversely, it also means you can’t capitalise on well-rooted success.
If you don’t have a solid reason to keep your real name from your fans, such as a conflict with your professional life, or proprietary information in your writing, perhaps the final thought is to trust your audience to know what they like to read, and be open minded with regards to who’s writing.
Let us know what you think in the comments section below.
We’re Peter and Caroline O’Connor. Creating beautiful book cover designs for authors all over the world is our passion. Every author should be able to benefit from a beautiful book cover design (not just the lucky few who get signed by a big publisher). We design, podcast, and coach authors full-time so we understand your struggles. Currently accepting new clients.