Using A Pen Name: Myths And Realities

Cut through the myths surrounding pen names and learn the real reasons that an author might want to use one.

Authors use pen names for a surprising number of reasons--and new authors entertain a surprising number of misconceptions about why to use a pen name and what a pen name can do for them. Before you crack open your baby name books, learn the truth about writing under another name.

You may want to use a pen name if:

You write in widely separated genres. Readers (and, therefore, editors) like authors to specialize in one type of writing. If you write mysteries as well as cookbooks, your editor may suggest that you publish one type of book under a pen name to avoid confusing your readers. Your editor may outright require you to pick a pen name if you write, say, bloody true-crime books and children's novels, or erotica and anything else.

You don't want your real name associated with your work. People have the strange and annoying idea that straitlaced bankers shouldn't write drug-soaked novels about the 60's. It's a foolish prejudice, but if your professional peers would look down on you for the kinds of things you write, you may want to use a pen name. Pen names are also useful when writing thinly-veiled stories about your nearest and dearest.

Your real name is ugly or misleading. Bertha Humperdinck might want to rethink her name before she sends off her steamy French romance. Mr. Potter of Idaho Falls, Idaho, who was lovingly named after his father Harry, might want to pick at least a new first name when he types the title page of his children's chapter book. And there are thousands of people in the world named Sedaris, some of whom also bear the perfectly respectable name of David, but there is only one humorist named David Sedaris.

You're too prolific. Readers expect books to gestate for a while. One a year is a good, respectable rate; two a year is prolific. Three a year is too many. Readers who see an author shooting out books wonder if the author is putting any thought into them. To avoid being tarred as hacks, more authors than you might suspect have brought out some of their books under pen names. They lose the instant name recognition, but publishers are more willing to put money into building up the reputation of "new" writers with proven track records than to put money into building up the reputation of genuinely new writers.

You need to restart your writing career. Publishing is tough; bookstore owners and publishers expect every book an author writes to outsell the last. If the sales of an author's later books dip--even if they're still selling reasonably well--bookstores lose interest in the author and publishers drop him or her. One way to get back into print is to find a friendly editor who will publish your latest book under a new name.

These are time-honored, sensible reasons to use a pen name, reasons that will put you in the best of company. These, on the other hand, are myths:

"If I use a pen name, no one will ever know that I was the author." Not true, not true at all! Critics and librarians make a sport out of ferreting out the true author behind a pen name. Often, what they discover remains an industry secret. If the secret is juicy enough, though, you might find yourself exposed.

"My editor will be confused about which is the real name." A pen name is a literary device, not a secret identity. Editors always know your real name, right from the very top of the very first page of your manuscript, which you label "Bertha Humperdinck, writing as Philomena de Villette." From then on, the editor calls you Bertha Humperdinck everywhere except when dealing with people outside the publishing house.

"I'll have to set up a separate banking account for my pen name." Royalty checks aren't public documents. You don't have to use your pen name on them for fear that they'll betray you. The publisher makes out checks in your name, and you deposit them into your own account, just like any royalty check for a book written in your own name.

"I won't have to give interviews or do book tours." Book tours aren't completely impossible, provided one of your literary identities is obscure, but it's unlikely that you'll be asked to do them. On the other hand, unless your voice is distinctive, you can do as many phone interviews as you like. Therefore, if you want to do a PR blitz, you might want to think about using your real name instead. If you don't want to do any kind of PR for your book, don't try to hide behind a pen name; just tell your editor "no."

"If I use a pen name, I can't put the writing on my resume or use it as clips." Unlike the other myths, this is often true--but not always. If you write under a pen name because your real name is ugly or misleading, for example, you can certainly own up to your writing on your resume or when courting prospective employers. The same goes for writers who write in widely separated but respectable genres. In fact, you need to avoid telling prospective employers about your pen name only when you absolutely don't want it known that you wrote a given book, or when writing in a certain genre would damage your credibility.

Keep all of these myths and realities in mind as you weigh whether to use a pen name. A pen name can free you to publish things you would never dare to publish under your own name, but expecting too much from it can cause trouble in its own right.

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