Nom de plume. Pseudonym. Pen name. Alias. Whatever you call it, it’s a name other than your legal, given name by which you want people to know you and your writing. But if half the fun of getting published is seeing your name in print, why would anyone choose to use a pseudonym or fake name?
Well, for one thing, you’d be in good company. Some famous writers using “pen names” include George Eliot (real name Mary Ann Evans), Mark Twain (known to friends as Samuel Langhorne Clemens), and Richard Bachman (the short-lived alter ego of Stephen King). There have been writers who use a pseudonym for as long as there’s been a way to share writing with others besides carving a cave wall! The reasons vary. Here are six reasons why you might choose to use a pseudonym.
Privacy actually matters to you. Maybe you remember Judy Buranich, whose job as a high school English teacher in Pennsylvania was threatened when a parent discovered her secret—for nearly a decade of her thirty-plus years teaching, Ms. Buranich has also written and published erotica under the name Judy Mays. Though she was not fired and ultimately received widespread support, the veteran teacher clearly made a wise decision keeping her writing career private with a pseudonym. If you’re writing books your employer, colleagues, clients, or existing fans might not approve of, consider following suit.
You hate playing Family Feud. If you’re writing a memoir revealing those crusty skeletons in your family closet, you may not want every second cousin to know about it. Even fiction can sometimes be a bit too autobiographical for comfort, and anyway, who wants to be responsible for grandma’s heart attack? Not you.
You’re a genre-hopping fool. Some publishers feel it’s important to build devoted audiences one category at a time, especially if you’re a novelist. So if you’ve published a series of romances and suddenly want to write a literary novel, you may choose to use a different name so as not to confuse your readers (and marketing personnel). For example, Nora Roberts, famous for her romances, now writes a science fiction mystery series under the name J.D. Robb (though TBH I’ve never really understood how this was helpful in her case since everyone knows and the covers often state “Nora Roberts writing as J.D. Robb.”)
There’s assorted publishing silliness afoot. Stephen King has always been a prolific writer, but early in his career, this fact didn’t please his publisher. His editor started holding him back, convinced readers wouldn’t buy more than one book by the same author in a year. So he started writing as “Richard Bachman” too. These days, dedicated readers prefer gobbling books up as fast as authors can churn them out, but there may be some other random reason your publisher thinks it best to use a pseudonym.
You’re on a gender bender. Maybe one day we’ll live in a world where gender doesn’t impact people’s decision-making, but in the meantime, there are pen names. Bloomsbury, the original publisher of the Harry Potter series, didn’t think young boys would read a book written by a woman, so they asked Joanne Rowling to use initials instead of her full name. J.K. is doubly interesting as a sort-of pseudonym because Ms. Rowling doesn’t even have a middle name (she chose K in honor of her grandmother, Kathleen).
Your alter ego writes better than you. For years I’ve had trouble turning off my editor-brain and turning on my writer-brain. Editor-brain can be so critical that it’s sometimes difficult to write at all, and she’s all the stronger for the exercise she gets during my workday. I’ve discovered that a little “role-playing” goes a long way; using a pseudonym helps me shift consciousness and let my creativity loose. My alias is me…but off a dimension or two. Like Walternate (any Fringe fans?), but less sinister. Perhaps just as evil, though. <wink>
For some more reasons to go with a pen name, check out this funny post by author Mary Connealy (who also writes as Mary Nealy).
Why might you use a pen name? Would you keep it a complete secret, or would it just be a marketing tool and general public knowledge?
Founder of The Writer’s Ally, Ally E. Machate is a bestselling book collaborator, award-winning editor, and expert publishing consultant who loves using her insider knowledge and experience with the publishing industry to lead serious authors toward success. She and her team live to help make great books happen, whether that means showing a writer how to improve a manuscript, get an agent, or self-publish; or coaching an author on growing her platform to sell more books. Since 1999, she has supported hundreds of authors on their publishing journey and takes pride in serving as their books’ best ally.