The decision as to whether or not to use a pen name is one that many self-publishers have had to make at some point. It is something I debated for a long while when I first decided to move from writing non-fiction to fiction. So in this first article for the blog, I would like to go over some of the pro’s and con’s of using a pen name. If you are at the stage where you are considering using a pen name, this article may help you with your decision.
The Good Points About Pen Names
Pen names are most useful when you want to remain anonymous for whatever reason. This especially appeals to people who write in a genre like erotica, where the writer doesn’t want people to know their real identity because of the often explicit nature of the material they are writing.
This is understandable. In my brief foray into writing erotica, I also used a pen name for the same reason. It was a self-publishing experiment and I didn’t want my real identity associated with the books. I also wrote a sci-fi series under a pen name, but that was more about learning the craft than anything else.
In a genre like erotica, the identity of the author doesn’t matter all that much to most readers. Regular readers of the genre know that most of the books they read are written under pen names for the reasons stated above, and it doesn’t seem to bother them too much. Although erotica readers have their favourite authors, I think most readers of erotica only care about the book itself, not necessarily who wrote it. So in this particular genre there seems to be a lot of leeway for authors who want to write under different pen names.
Perhaps the biggest advantage to using a pen name is that it gives a writer the opportunity to build a very genre specific brand. If you write books in multiple genres it can be useful to have a different pen name for each genre to help with branding. When a reader begins to associate a particular author name with a certain genre, they quickly develop certain expectations when it comes to that author. They know when they see a new book out from that author that the book will be of a certain type and grounded in a particular genre. This obviously helps a great deal when it comes to branding and marketing.
If an author uses the same name for different books spread out across multiple genres, it becomes harder to market. Readers might have already associated a particular author name with a specific kind of book. When they try to read a book by the same author that is written in a different genre, it can be jarring for the reader since they have already associated the author with a completely different kind of book. Some readers go as far as refusing to read the other books. This is why it can be helpful to use different pen names for different genres. People know what to expect then.
Consider the recently departed Iain Banks. Banks was one of my favourite authors who wrote mainstream novels under his real name, Iain Banks. When people bought one of his branded books they knew exactly what to expect from him. But Banks also wrote science fiction novels under the name, “Iain M. Banks”. Admittedly not too much difference between the two names, but it was enough to help readers distinguish between the two types of books. When people bought an Iain M. Banks book they knew they were getting a hardcore sci-fi novel.
Now imagine if Banks just used the name “Iain Banks” for all his books. Imagine how confused his readers would get. They wouldn’t know if they were getting a mainstream or a sci-fi novel, and no doubt fans of his mainstream books would be disappointed if they picked up one of his books only to find it was a sci-fi novel.
So pen names can be useful, no doubt. But they also have their downside, which we’ll look at now. In the meantime, check out this article on how some authors have used pen names to find success.
If you want your books to do well you have to market them effectively. To do that you need to have an author platform in place that consists of a website/blog, a social media presence (Twitter, Facebook etc.) and the personality of a real person that readers can relate too. It is a lot of hard work establishing and maintaining these things, and that’s just for one author name. Imagine if you had multiple author names across different genres. How much work would that be to create a marketing machine for each individual pen name? A lot!
There is a lot to be said for writing under just one name instead of many. For a start, it is a lot less work marketing for one person than it is for many. Think about it. For each pen name you would have to create separate social media accounts, email lists and websites. Who has the time or the inclination to do that? Not me, I can tell you. This is the main reason why I decided to write my fiction under one name. I have enough to do without taking on all that extra leg work, work that will only detract from my precious writing time.
The above reason, more than any other, outweighs any advantages there is to having multiple pen names. At the end of the day, the best thing a writer can do is write. Anything that takes away from that can only be considered a bad thing in my book. Better to focus your marketing efforts into one single author brand name. To do otherwise would only dilute your focus and take you away from doing what is most important, and that is writing.
These days, I don’t think many readers care too much about writers publishing across different genres. There are many successful authors out there who publish in different genres and use the same name for all their books. Doing so doesn’t seem to have affected their sales or their fan base at all. In fact, many readers will appreciate the fact that their favourite author uses the same name for all their books. It makes it easier to find those books and the reader knows what to expect from the author straight away.
This isn’t to say you can’t publish under pen names. The other thing you can do is to use pen names for different genres but be upfront about it. So, on your website you may list all your books under your real name, but include the pen names you wrote under as well. As with the Iain Banks example, readers will know what the book is about just from the name associated with it. They will know whether to read it or not, based on their tastes.
Things like cover design, description and genre listing all help to distinguish a book as well. Even if the author name is associated with multiple genres, readers will still know what to expect from a particular book just by looking at the cover and listings.
After much deliberation, I decided to stick to the same author name for my fiction writing. I used my initials so I wouldn’t be immediately identified as a male writer. In the urban fantasy genre I write in, I thought this would be important since most of the top authors are female. I didn’t want readers making snap judgments without first checking out the book. That was actually the main reason I considered using a female pen name, since my new series features an eighteen year old girl as the main character. I didn’t want people thinking that a man can’t write a female character and then skipping over the book for that reason. I want them to read the book first before making any judgments on that.
In the future, if I decide to write in other genres I may use a variation on my name, but not a completely different one. I will also keep everything under the same brand umbrella to make life easier and insure I get as much writing done as possible.
That’s the plan anyway. Things move so quickly in the self-publishing world it can be hard to predict what will work and what won’t. As always, I will remain open and do what makes the most sense.
What about you? What influenced your decision to use a pen name or not?