Should I use a Pen-Name?

A.P. Atkinson
One of the many questions asked on forums, and one that is rarely properly answered, is about whether or not an author should use a pen-name. The reason this question is so poorly dealt with is that its an extremely personal thing and the answer varies for each individual writer. There is no fix-all solution about whether or not to use your real name, nor is there an overall blanket reason why someone might consider doing it.

The main, but by no means only, reason that people consider using a pen-name is anonymity. Many people choose not to have their real name associated with their writing for whatever personal reasons they might have. For some, their writing is something they don’t want to drag into their real lives. Perhaps they’re writing sexually-charged material, or something that is in other ways controversial. For others, the question is simply one of personal privacy.

You have to weigh up concerns of privacy against success

Many people on forums answer this with explanations that miss the point. Everyone has their own reasons for making this choice, and those reasons are unique to that person. If you have a reason to change your name, it’s your absolute right to do so.

The other general reason to use a pseudonym is because your own name means you have to. You might have a name that’s identical to another writer, or one that has negative connotations. If your surname was ‘Hitler’, for instance, you might certainly want to quietly ignore that and choose something less likely to destroy your career.

Still others might think their name is too bland, or simply enjoy the romantic notion of just being someone else for a time. All of that is perfectly fine, so long as you go into it with wide-open eyes and make an informed choice that actually benefits your career.

Choosing a name for yourself isn’t easy and whatever choice you make will have consequences.

What most new writers don’t realise is just what a huge uphill battle they face. Let’s assume your work is meeting the professional standard, is edited, proof-read and has a properly planned story that resonates with an audience. Assume that beta-testers love the work, you have a proper marketing plan and the ability to build a website. None of that is a guarantee that your work will sell a single copy.

You face a huge struggle just to establish your brand in the eyes of the buying public. For that reason the choice of name is critical and whatever you choose, you’re entirely stuck with it.

Once you begin the process of selling yourself, you are beginning to build your identity. You are not going to want to abandon all of your hard work by changing your name, it’s suicide, it will end everything you’ve built up to that point.

So the first thing to remember when you establish your name is that you need to love it. It’s going to be you and you’re going to be dealing with it for a long time. It needs to resonate with you at a personal level.

But, there are other, more significant factors to reconcile when choosing what to call yourself.

As well as resonating with you, the name has to resonate with the audience. You need to choose a name that creates the right impression in the minds of your potential audience and that will highly depend on the kind of material you’re writing.

There are as many reasons to change your names as there are books. The trick is knowing what you want to achieve.

If you’re writing a romance novel, it’s worth noting that the vast majority of the audience is female, as are the majority of authors. A male name isn’t going to help you connect with the expectations of the public. If you’re writing philosophical high-concept science fiction then a name like ‘John Bland’ isn’t going to sell the idea that the content is what the audience might be looking for.

Of course, conventional wisdom tells us not to judge a book by its cover but real wisdom tell us that that’s why books have covers. We all know we are judged on the way we present ourselves so we must consider the way our choice of name will be perceived.

Skipping your first name and opting to put in several initials does tend to make you seem more literary, while also side-stepping the gender issue, to some degree. Legend has it that J.K. Rowling was advised to do this so that readers would think she was a man. As we only have her word for this, and she has proved to be a less than reliable source, we can take this with a pinch of salt, but we can all agree that this pen-name is more neutral and professional-sounding than some others.

One of the larger concerns these days is search-engine identity. Having a name too similar to others is going to mean you’re putting a lot of extra problems in your own way. You don’t want a name like ‘Smith’ or ‘Brown’, especially the latter. ‘Smith’ is among the most common Western names and anyone specifically looking for that name will be lost among millions of search results. You desperately need a name that helps you get spotted immediately, something that stands you out.

‘Brown’ is an even worse choice. As well as being incredibly common, it’s also a regular, commonly-used word. Search Engines don’t know the difference between a name and a word, you will never be able to establish your brand if nobody can find you.

So should you make your pen-name ridiculous? Perhaps you should; if you feel it suits you to do so. There was a time when myself and my writing partner considered ‘Rudd Crunch’ as a writing moniker. It was thrown about as a joke, purely because it sounded like nothing else out there. However, it’s worth remembering that ‘Rudyard Kipling’ has a name that sounds just as strange, but after hearing it a few times, we ignore the unusual element of it, and accept it for what it is. In fact, the novelty value might have helped him more than he realised.

The trick is to stand out, any way you can

But, is it necessary to change your name at all? Using any other name than what’s on your birth-certificate does add additional complications. When registering your copyright, uploading your manuscript and taking payments, having a pen-name that doesn’t match up does occasionally cause problems, no matter how commonly writers use alternatives.

If your name is relatively unique, is a good representation of your subject and is memorable, it might be simpler to just use it and ignore other concerns.

But if you do decide to create a new writing identity, the first thing you need to consider is why, and what the purpose is. Break down what it is you’re trying to achieve and work from there.

Your reasons are you own and the decision won’t be the same as anyone else’s so take everyone’s advice with a heavy dose of suspicion. It’s all up to you, and ultimately the choice is yours.

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