The Magic City

The Magic City

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

To be or not to be? Should you use a pen name?

            Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, Mrs. Leonard has accused my client of sexual harassment arising from the simple act of text messaging a picture of his pride and joy to her client. But yet, let me refer you to Defendant’s Exhibit One, her debut novel. Please highlight and circle every reference to the mattress mambo then render the verdict you find to be appropriate.

            And so begins a recurring nightmare I have that inevitably leads to the internal debate of whether I should use a pen name. I like my name. It’s mine. I answer to it when called. Sort of attached to it. But professional and privacy concerns make compelling arguments to become a superhero and adopt a secret identity. A nom de plume.

            In search of answers, I asked the wise women of Southern Magic who write under pen names for their advice. I posited five questions, and have summarized their responses:

1Why do you write under a pen name

The two primary reasons identified for writing under a pen name were personal privacy and professional anonymity.  Seems like I’m not alone in having a day job where my books could set tongues (and judgment) in motion.

However, more than one author responded the pen name was required by her publisher, either for purposes of branding (the author writing in multiple genres) or other reasons.

Unfortunately, more than one author noted her pen name came about because she'd experienced a stalker. In a world where information is a few key strokes away, their concerns are ones we should all share.

Finally, some indicated they went with a pen name because their true names were a little complicated or less marketable. Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) and Joseph Conrad (Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski) were in the same boat.

2How did you come up with your pen name?

Most authors chose derivations of their own name.  Some kept their first name while using their maiden names.  Others pulled from family nicknames.  A few used names of their favorite literary characters.  The common thread was that all the methods of choosing a name involved pulling from something personal.  Makes sense. If you are going to tie your writing career to an identity, make sure it means something to you.

One wise author pointed out the benefit not only of baby naming books but also the internet.  She gave the wise advise of searching domains for your possible pen name to make sure they would be available. Great idea! There is an actress who has my same name, and already owns the dot com url for name. 

3What are the pros of writing under a pen name?

Keeping your personal and professional life separate. A large number of the Southern Magic authors who responded extolled the freedom that the pen name provided them to write without the concern of what their friends, family and coworkers would think.

4What are the cons of writing under a pen name?

This is where the responses were great.  Here were some of my favorites:

·      I've had some Amazon bestsellers and have enjoyed some notoriety under my pen name, including best books of the year on various review sites. My latest release got a mention in USA Today and there's no one I can brag to about it.
·      Forgetting to answer to your pen name in a crowd.
·      You do have to get used to answering to a different name, though, and people who do know you under both names are never sure what to call you. I've been known to refer to myselves in third-person, which is kind of obnoxious but expedient.
·      In all honestly, I can't see many cons.  People change pen names so frequently now, due to the vagaries of the market or in order to write in a different genre, that many authors who began writing under their real name end up with a pseudonym at some point in their career.  I suppose that writing under your legal name offers some protection from someone attempting to copycat it, but other than that, it seems you should do what makes your personal situation easiest.

These answers also bring up the interesting etiquette question: when introducing an author who writes under a pen name in social situations, which name should you use? I always ask the author, but the few times I’ve forgotten I looked like the rudest person on the planet because I danced around the introduction until the author introduced herself.

5Any advice for those considering using a pen name?

The ladies said it best:
·      The time to do it is before you publish, when you're first starting to establish your "platform." You're marketing a brand, basically, so you need the brand established from the outset.
·      Keep it short and simple. If you are signing books, you don’t’ want a name that will take you a long time to sign.
·      Choose something that's easy to remember, easy to pronounce, and maybe slightly different from the "pack."  I've heard it said that one should choose a name close to the beginning of the alphabet to avoid "bookshelf fatigue."  Does anyone actually walk into a bookstore and look at all the books in a genre?  Or do they browse the first half of the alphabet and make some selections and then head to the check-out?  Something to think about, at least.  I've also heard that being close to a big name on the shelf, someone like Nora for example, certainly can't hurt your chance of being noticed.  In short, my advice is do what makes you and your family comfortable and happy.

What are your thoughts on writing under a pen name? I’d love to hear your answers and thoughts on these five questions.

Thank you to all the generous Southern Magic authors for the gift of their time and advice.


  1. Both my married and maiden names are difficult to spell and pronounce. So I guess I'm in good company with Lewis Carroll and Joseph Conrad. At my "advanced" age, I didn't want to have to learn to answer to a completely new name, so I kept my first name and looked for a different last one. I dug back in the family tree and decided I liked my maternal great-grandmother's maiden name -- Baxter. It's near the front of the alphabet and it has an unusual letter - X - which I've heard can make it stand out too. I guess we'll see.

    Great post!

  2. For all the reasons you've mentioned and more, I went with a pen name. I actually sat my husband down and explained the implications of both approaches, making sure he understood as well, since having everyone I know personally aware of what I write would also affect my family. And that, I think, was the deciding factor for me, given that I write erotic. My kids are still at home. Who knows what their friends or friends' parents might subject them too if we were open about my work. So we decided, for now, that a pen name was the best route. Mine, by the way, is a mash of my actual initials, L. A., a gift from my critique partner, lol!

  3. Marilyn - smart thinking about the alphabet! I need to scoot to the book store to see which letters are typically at eye level!

  4. I used a variation on my first name (it's really Jackie, but I used Jacqueline) plus my middle name, Diamond, which is also my birth stone. After 95 books, I readily answer to my pen name!

  5. Ella - Love the source of your name!

  6. Jacqueline, after 95 books I think I'd answer to my pen name easier than my given name! Thank you for commenting!