One of the reasons writers use pen names is not because of any need for privacy or secrecy, but purely to help readers differentiate between the different types of books they write.
This is a reason close to my own heart, and you’ll soon see why.
I’ve discovered that pen names are an issue occupying a lot of writers’ minds, since my previous Pen Name articles, 3 reasons for using a pen name, and How to choose a pen name continue to generate conversation.
That’s why I thought I’d walk you through the steps I’ve used to decide: Will I use a pen name for different genres? (You’ll have to read to the end to find out my answer! Oh, the suspense.) Maybe one of my discoveries will give you some inspiration, or maybe you can share some of your own discoveries in the comments.
Ever since I first thought about writing a novel, I thought I’d use a pen name. I don’t really know why now, other than It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time. Privacy maybe, and it probably seemed a little glamorous to be distanced from one’s art in that way (yeah, solid thinking I know. 😉 ) I even thought about names I might use, based on parts of my own name and selections from my family tree. And of course, I always assumed there’d be a Publisher there guiding how I did it all, because in the olden days (before about 2007) that’s how it happened.
Well, I finally really do have a novel coming out soon, and I’ve got a problem to solve…
- I’m already known as Belinda Pollard to a niche market as a writer of meditations based on the Bible. I’ve been writing those for a UK publisher for about 15 years. I more or less fell into publishing them under my own name, and didn’t anticipate any future need to reserve my name for anything else!
- I’m writing a clutch of how-to books about writing and publishing, and also a humorous memoir about my crazy dog (a dogoir?).
- My novel Poison Bay is a wilderness mystery/thriller with psychological elements, about a bunch of old friends with a shared secret, who go out into the woods and, well, basically start killing each other. As only old friends can.
When I started blogging and doing social media in 2011, we had just entered the Brave New World of “being yourself” on the internet, after all those shady years when everyone was lurking anonymously in chatrooms. I was very nervous at first, but took my courage in hand, and launched out as myself, not hiding behind a pseudonym or an avatar. So the online platform I’ve created is for Belinda Pollard.
The challenge is how readers might be confused by the different genres appearing under my name. The how-tos and dogoir are not really a problem — I think they could easily combine with any other type of creative writing under the one name. The title and cover is enough to let a reader know what’s in ’em.
It’s the clash between the spiritual stuff and the fiction that bothers me. The titles and blurbs will do their job to a certain extent — no one’s going to pick up a book called Poison Bay and expect suggestions for prayer! But at a subtler level, will readers assume the novel is “religious fiction” and either a. avoid it, because they don’t like religious fiction, or b. get annoyed when it isn’t religious fiction, and give bad reviews?
Let’s represent this clash of concepts visually. I know my readers have come to expect cute puppy photos when they visit smallbluedog, but I’m feelin’ feline today. (Or perhaps it’s just that no dog pic could convey it quite so well. 😉 )
Can Belinda Pollard be both of the above kitties? Or should I create a pen name for my novels? Does the fiction need to appear under a separate identity?
Follow me down the rabbit hole while I try to figure it out.
- Amazon allows self-publishers to enter a pseudonym under “Contributor”, with this caveat: “Note that you are free to use a pen name, as long as it does not impair our customers’ ability to make good buying decisions.” So I think that means I probably wouldn’t be wise to use “Elizabeth George” as my pen name!
- Aussie lawyer Jamie White warns against using a name already known for something else, so that would rule out calling myself Coca Cola 😉 but might also launch me into a lot of research on those “family tree” names I was considering using. How can I be sure they’re not known for something somewhere in the world, without spending a lot of time?
- Jamie also says using a pen name might reduce the length of time that copyright will apply to the work. (A factsheet from the US Copyright Office covers similar issues. Different laws in different countries.) (Of course, you know the drill when it comes to legal stuff: I’m not a lawyer and it’s important to get appropriate advice from a lawyer about your specific situation.)
What about social media accounts in my chosen pen name?
- Facebook says “users provide their real names and information, and we need your help to keep it that way.” It’s against the rules to provide false personal information, so I’d have to have a Page in the pen name.
- The policy at Google+ has loosened up a little, but is still complicated if you want to have a profile under anything other than your real name.
- Twitter says “We reserve the right to reclaim usernames on behalf of businesses or individuals that hold legal claim or trademark on those usernames.” So if the name I’d chosen turned out to be “owned” by someone, it would be a sad discovery after I’d spent a year building a Twitter following for the name!
These are a couple of easy pen name options that might get around some of these problems, by still being versions of my own name:
- My initials and surname… but mine don’t roll off the tongue easily.
- My middle name and surname… but I have a couple of relatives by that name who might not appreciate it!
Rats. It just keeps getting more complicated than I thought. Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens never had to worry about what name he was going to blog under, and how to organise his social media accounts!
Ideas from the publishing blogs
- Thriller author Russell Blake says: “If you want to write different genres, use a pseudonym … stick to one name, one genre, because you’re building your brand, and brand building is a function of clarity – clearly communicating what you do, and what your product is.”
- On the other hand, mystery writer Anne R. Allen wrote an interesting piece about Harry Potter author JK Rowling’s excursions into other genres in both the same and different names. She observes that “Rowling’s success seems to show that brand trumps genre in today’s world” … so she’s using the term “brand” slightly differently than Russell Blake, to denote the writer as a person, rather than a set of books.
- However, to show the opposite perspective Anne also includes an interview with Anne Gallagher / Robynne Rand who has one name for Regency romance, and one for contemporary fiction. Anne/Robynne has Twitter profiles for each author, and a blog in each name.
- Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who could almost be considered the Pen Name Queen, has written an excellent article on the whole topic of pen names. Check out her detailed explanation of why pen names are so important under the bookstore ordering system that affects traditionally-published authors.
- Kristine blogs at the URL kriswrites.com — deftly sidestepping any surname confusion! — with the tagline: “Kristine Kathryn Rusch—Award-winning author of science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, women’s fiction, and anywhere else her muse takes her.” Under a menu heading of “Pen Names”, she has separate pages for Kristine Dexter, Kristine Grayson, and Kris Nelscott. Her Twitter and G+ accounts are in the name Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
- Her eye-catching comments in the pen name article include: “Indie writers don’t need pen names. For a while, I thought they did because I’d been raised in traditional publishing with traditional publishing genre expectations.” And most telling of all: “If I were just getting started in the publishing business and I was going indie, I wouldn’t use a pen name at all—unless I personally felt I needed one.” That’s something, coming from someone with her personal experience.
- Kristine also linked to an article by Scott William Carter about why he abandoned a pen name and rebranded a set of novels under his own name. Scott writes: “a reader who enjoyed my quirky young adult book, The Care and Feeding of Rubber Chickens, may also be a fan of dark paranormal mysteries. … And by keeping it all under my own name, I make it easier for that reader … to find all of my books. And there are lots of ways to brand books, from font style to cover image.”
Wow. I’m seeing two separate, CONTRADICTORY streams coming through here:
- Different names for different genres are essential for clear branding.
- Writing under different names will DILUTE an author brand.
Who’s right? Maybe they both are.
Personally, I can see the possibility that if Kristine Kathryn Rusch Dexter Grayson Nelscott was not already a bestselling author under the Old System, and was instead building a new author platform using online-only methods, the number of identities she crams into one blog and one set of social media profiles may well work against her, creating confusion. So if I wanted to use separate names myself, I’d be wise to create distinct blogs and social profiles to go with them.
After a lot of research and agonising over whether I should use a pen name or not, the clincher for me is a simple matter of pragmatism:
I just don’t have the time or energy to maintain multiple personas on the web.
I barely have time to maintain ONE persona on the web. 😉 And I don’t want to blog in multiple names, it’s too confusing.
The “best case” marketing scenario of separate names for separate genres ceases to be the “best case” if it’s not sustainable for me.
I end up shouting “hear, hear” to Anne R. Allen’s comment: “It takes a crazy amount of work to establish even one brand these days and I’m all about writers keeping their sanity.”
So I’m going to publish fiction as Belinda Pollard. That’s my decision. (This week at least. 😉 )
I’ll probably run into some difficulties along the way. I’ll have to be careful to brand very clearly by cover design and blurbs, so that potential readers know exactly what they’re getting themselves into. I may wish at some future time that I HAD created a separate identity for fiction, and I’ll have to live with that, plus the criticism I might get for not doing it that way.
I console myself with this thought… whatever I’m writing, I write it in a way that’s specific to me, and that will have to be my “author brand”, rather than a genre. My spiritual writing is perhaps a little grittier than some, from my days as a journalist seeing the awful side of human life. And my fiction writing contains echoes of my spiritual thoughts.
Despite the genre clash, there is one thing that all my writing has in common: Me. 🙂
Same as cats are really just cats, no matter their size. Which gives me a handy excuse to conclude our cat analogy with a cute video of what big cats do when you give ’em a box. 😉
What about you? Are you using a pen name? Abandoning a pen name? Considering your options?
Images via Bigstock/kadmy, Katyamaxymenko, wingbeats551