Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Pen Names: Do You Need One?

Before we get started, I want to remind readers that if you give me a pledge during this January on my Patreon page here that you'll be given 3 free stories. Two will come as links in the thank you (everyone gets those), but I will also send you one of my ebooks (which is a limited time offer). All it will cost you is $1 a month.

We now return you to your regularly-scheduled blog post.

One of the most common, non-story publishing questions I see in writers groups (aside from "does anyone know where I can find an agent who will make me rich?") is whether or not someone should use a pen name. There's a lot of encouragement, and more than a little outright vitriol from both sides on the subject. Some people insist that you can't really own your work and be true to yourself if you won't use your real name. Others insist the audience doesn't care about who you really are, and that choosing the right name is the mystical key to best-seller success. The issue is that no one is right in this debate. That said, there are several reasons someone might want to use a nom de plume when it comes time to put a book on the market.

Reason #1: How Do You Spell That?

Talented writers come from all strata of the world, from every ethnicity and every country. Some of us, maybe even a lot of us, have names that really aren't that cool. Worse than being uncool though, is having a name that's hard to remember or difficult to spell.

I'm just saying.
One way we sell books is by having a name that's easy for readers to remember. That way they'll be able to go online and type it in without struggling to remember if there's a "czy" at the end, or if the three Q's are silent. If you've had to live most of your life carefully spelling your name for people, it might be a good idea to use a pseudonym.

Reason #2: Oh, So You're Steven With a "V"

Another unfortunate reality of names is that a lot of people have the same, or similar, names. So if your name happens to be Steven King, and you also writer modern horror stories (but they're set in Utah, so you're totally different), then it might be a good idea to pick a slightly different pen name. While you might be able to catch a few fans from the infamous master of horror who spells his name with a "ph", it's a much better idea to build your own fan base and your own following. It's certainly more reliable than depending on mistaken identity for your monthly bread.

Reason #3: You Want to Rub Jackets With The Greats

While it's not a good idea to be confused for someone that's an established author in the field, it is a great idea to hover nearby writers you want to be compared to and associated with.

You know the kind.
Let's go back to our previous example of a horror writer. If he wanted to be on the same shelf as Stephen King (and technically as Dean Koontz... fame is fame, after all), then he might choose a pen name like Simon Kain. That name is different enough not to be confused, and if someone's eyes are already running down the shelves there's a much better chance they're going to notice that book while looking for something new from a more established author. This is marketing at its finest, and it's one of the most common reasons I've heard of for professionals using pen names.

Reason #4: You Want To Avoid All The "-isms"

One of the ugly, unspoken truths of publishing is that readers are judgmental. I don't mean that they'll rake you over the coals for bad grammar or they'll leave terrible reviews because they disagree with your choice of ending; I mean they're prejudiced, and they make prejudicial decisions.

Yes, you too.
What would you say if I told you people are less likely to buy a novel written by a woman, assuming that novel wasn't a romance or a children's book? What if I told you that a great deal of readers avoid writers of color? These things happen, and they happen with enough regularity that it forces many writers to change their names if they want their stories to be taken seriously. This is particularly true in genres considered male-dominated, like science fiction, horror, and fantasy. David Farlane waxes more on this here, giving some numbers on how many men simply won't read books they perceive to be written by women.

Reason #5: You Want Some Distance From Your Work

Celebrity is an odd work requirement, but authors need it the same as any other artist. As soon as people stop reviewing our books, stop talking about our characters, and stop caring about our new releases, that's when the royalty checks stop coming in. On the other hand, not all writers want to be in the center of the maelstrom. Sometimes it's because they just want to keep their work lives separate from their private lives. Sometimes it's because the author is starting two different projects in different genres, and doesn't want to confuse readers. And, of course, sometimes the work itself is... ummm...

Yeah... that.
For those of you who aren't regular readers of my fiction (most of you here, I'm guessing), The Unusual Transformation of Abraham Carver is a dark steampunk erotica novella released about a year ago. Its readership has been fairly small (you can check it out here if you're interested, complete with sample), but those who've read it generally had positive feedback. Including my mother.

That is the sort of thing a pen name lets you avoid. Whether you wrote a gore-splattered creature feature, or a gasp-filled bodice ripper, a pseudonym lets you keep your personal life separate from your professional work. For some writers that is a limelight they will happily duck right out of.

In The End

Do you need a pen name to sell books? No. Can a pen name help you sell books? It can, but it's no guarantee. Every writer has to decide whether or not a pen name is the right choice for his or her career, and for the impression that writer wants the audience to get. Sometimes the decision is easy, and other times the ego might get in the way and demand recognition. When all is said and done though, a pen name won't make you a better writer. It might get you noticed, but it won't change anything other than your byline.

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1 comment:

  1. Yes, I have that problem. Nobody can spell my name, let alone pronounce it...