Is there a business case for using a pen name? Simon Whaley chats to three writers about the pros and cons of a split writing personality.
My name is Simon Whaley, and that’s the name I write under. Although there was that time when I entered the National Association of Writers’ Groups’ mini-tale competition and I had to use a pseudonym (entries had to be judged anonymously). So, for a couple of hours, I became Milo Swahney. I used an anagram of my real name on that occasion because when I entered the competition the previous year I’d used my porn-star name. Suffice to say that was memorable for the wrong reasons, and I had to come up with something different.
One of the most frequently asked questions new writing students put to me is whether they should use a pseudonym. It’s as though getting the right author name is more important than writing something in the first place. Many get hung up on the myths and mysteries of why certain writers chose to write under specific names. Did JK Rowling use initials, to hide her gender? Did JK Rowling write her Cormorant Strike novels under the name of Robert Galbraith to separate them from her Harry Potter novels? There are many reasons why writers use pseudonyms, but the best reasons are when there’s a clear business case for doing so.
Proliferation Pen Names
Some writers don’t set out to write under a pseudonym, but find themselves in a situation where one is required. One such writer was romantic novelist and short story writer Patsy Collins (http://patsy-collins.blogspot.co.uk), who was approached by an editor to come up with another name. ‘A magazine scheduled three of my stories for the same issue,’ she says, ‘and they decided they’d rather publish at least one under a different name. I used Leah Tilbury, the name of the lead character in my novel, Escape to the Country. That made it feel less of a big deal. I’d made up the story and character names, so why not use a name I’d made up?’
Patsy isn’t the only one. There are several short story writers who write under many pseudonyms as well as their own name, but the reason for doing so is a business one: they’re prolific short story writers, trying to maximise their income. As Patsy says, ‘I’d heard of this happening, so I wasn’t particularly surprised. I would rather they’d used my real name, but not if that meant using fewer of my stories!’
Patsy’s taking a pragmatic view, but appreciates that it’s her success, experience and productivity that enables her to take this stance. ‘Seeing my story in print was still a good experience, even with a made up name on it. I’ve sold hundreds of stories though. If this had happened in my first year, I might have been disappointed.’
Some writers feel a pseudonym is essential for certain markets and genres, either because they believe readers expect novels in that genre to be written by one gender, or because they don’t want friends and family to know they write in that particular genre.
One male writer chose the name Yvonne Sarah Lewis (http://yvonnesarahlewis.com) for his erotic novels. ‘At first I was shy and didn’t want erotic novels published under my own name,’ says Yvonne. ‘I was writing from a female perspective, and when I looked at the author lists of the publishers I was interested in I found a majority had female names.’
So Yvonne made a business decision to write under a pseudonym and now has eight books to her name, her latest being Harmony in the Harem, published by Whiskey Creek Press. But if Yvonne was making this business decision now, would she still make the same decision? She shakes her head. ’If I were starting now I’d be bold and use my own name.’
This is because there are drawbacks to writing under a pseudonym. ‘It makes it difficult to do signings,’ she says. ‘I don’t make enough to hire a “ghost”. And when people find out they always ask why, and telling the story again becomes irksome.’
Yvonne also encountered another problem. Like Patsy, she choose one of her characters’ names as her pseudonym, perhaps because of the familiarity. ‘Yvonne was a character in my first couple of books and I knew and liked both her and her name. On later consideration I decided it wasn’t a great idea to write as one of my characters, since it appeared to limit her access to my other characters’ stories. But by then it was too late. Yvonne was established as an author, so in later editions I changed the name of the character.’
However, despite this, Yvonne feels that having a pseudonym has its benefits. ‘A pseudonym frees you up to be someone else. I’m an amateur actor and early on I was struggling with self-consciousness, so the director suggested I wear a moustache so that the person on stage wasn’t me but the character I was portraying. A pseudonym can be like a moustache: it frees you up to be the uninhibited person you want to be.’
Another business reason for taking up a pseudonym is when a writer who is already established in one market wants to broaden into new markets. Established writers become a brand for that style of writing, and readers expect more of the same from that brand. Forging off into new markets can mean creating a whole new brand. This is what Writing Magazine columnist Lorraine Mace had to do. ‘I was already known and had a following for my humour writing,’ she explains. ‘As my crime novels are dark and edgy, I didn’t want to disappoint readers who might have been expecting a more light-hearted approach to crime writing. I am also an author of children’s novels. The first two in a trilogy (Vlad the Inhaler and Vlad’s Quest) are published and I was worried that a young reader would see one of my crime novels in a bookshop or library and take it home to read under the covers at night. Imagine the scene when the poor parents would later have to comfort a traumatised child.’
Like Patsy and Yvonne, finding the right name takes time, and Lorraine considered many options until she settled on Frances di Plino (http://www.francesdiplino.com). ‘I did try out quite a few variations on my maiden name, my mother’s maiden name, the woman next door’s maiden name, but elected in the end to stick with my Italian roots.’ Lorraine’s pseudonym is inspired by her Italian great-grandfather’s name, Francesco di Plino.
The downside to creating a pseudonym is that you’re starting from scratch again. Previously published writers have worked for years creating their brand, and when you create a new brand you have a lot of work ahead establishing it, as well as continuing to manage your existing brand, if you’re still writing under that name too.
‘From the point of view of getting my books known it has been a nightmare,’ says Lorraine. ‘I already had a following, but Frances di Plino was a completely new person. It has taken three years and four books in the DI Paolo Storey Crime Series to get to the stage where Frances has a following. For a long time I operated two Facebook accounts, trying to keep the two separate, but have now realised that was a mistake. I should have used my own account and simply told all of my friends I was using a pen name. I have since closed the Frances di Plino account and am about to launch a fan page for her. I also have two Twitter accounts, also to keep the two genres separate. It is time consuming and I am not sure is really of any benefit. From the point of view of spreading the word about my crime novels, it would have been much easier if I had stuck to my own name, but I don’t regret using a pen name because of the reason outlined above.’
When it comes to pseudonyms, it’s worth thinking about how your readers will find you. Although many books are sold electronically these days, the print market is still huge and many people browse bookshops for their favourite authors. Some authors believe having a surname near the start of the alphabet is better than having one near the end of the alphabet because, when filed A-Z, those at the beginning of the alphabet are the first ones found by readers walking in through the bookshop doors. Whether readers are too lazy to make their way towards the back of the bookshop is another matter, but it’s worth thinking how a bookstore might file your book. As Lorraine says, ‘I am never sure if I’ll find my books under D for di Plino, or P for Plino, di.’
Names are important. I shall always remember my nephew, aged four, saying he didn’t like his name because it didn’t sound like a Premiership footballer’s name. (He felt his name was too English!) It’s understandable why some writers feel the need to have a different name, but don’t let the name-creating exercise become a form of procrastination, preventing you from writing something in the first place. Ask yourself not what name should you write under, but why shouldn’t you write under your existing name? Opting for a pseudonym should be treated like any other business decision. Don’t rush it. Say it out loud several times. Practise signing it. Google it. Think it through carefully, because there are consequences. But choose well and your brand new name could become a well-known brand.
Business Directory – Pseudonym Solicitude
- Mother’s maiden names can be useful to both men and women when conjuring up a pseudonym. Using your middle name with your mother’s (or grandmother’s) maiden name can produce good results. (Change your bank security details, though, if you do.)
- Make your pseudonym memorable, not silly. Creating a new brand means you want people to take you seriously.
- If your name is similar to an established writer, try differentiating your name in some way. Use a middle initial, or an alternative spelling (Jeffrey/Geoffrey).
- If you’re really stuck, try out a random name generator, such as http://www.behindthename.com/random/
© Simon Whaley and Milo Swahney 😉