Many authors choose to write under a pen name or pseudonym. It’s a difficult decision to make and comes down to personal preference and what you hope to achieve.
Personally, I chose to use my real name but I deliberated for months over it. Luckily my name is pretty unique, and uniqueness is a good thing in the literary world. It means whenever someone searches my name up on the World Wide Web, I’m not lost underneath thousands of ‘Caitlin Lynagh’ results. If you search my name now, you will most likely find Troubador’s website featuring my novel Anomaly, at the top of the first page. However, not everyone has a unique name and not everyone wants to use their real name, and there can be a number of reasons as to why.
Some authors use a pen name aka nom de plume, because they don’t want family and friends to know that they have written, let alone published, a novel. Writing is exposing and there is undeniably a huge part of the author in any published novel. As you write, you will consciously and subconsciously draw upon your own thoughts, feelings and past experiences. The characters in your novel may even be loosely based on your friends and family, and the locations may be based on actual places you have visited. This is all pretty normal, and authors habitually venture into the real world searching for inspiration or sit and watch the world go by. Nonetheless, it ultimately means that your readers will be judging you subconsciously as a person and consciously as an author. This thought can be scary, and it is why some authors choose to use a pen name.
An example of such an author who has used a pen name for this reason is Adrian Howell, the author of the Psionic Pentalogy. Although his friends and family know about his novels now, when he first published the series back in 2013, he kept the series a secret to discover how far his novels would go on their own. I quote directly from Guardian Angels afterword, the final installment of the series…
‘During the years I spent writing this series and for a long time following publication, I told no one, not even my immediate family, what I had written. The primary reason for my secrecy was sheer, stubborn pride: I really wanted to see how my series would fare standing on its own two feet, and as such I didn’t want my very first readers to be family and friends.’ – Adrian Howell
Some authors use pen names after they have published novels under their real name. J.K. Rowling is a great example, she published the well-known and loved ‘Harry Potter Series’ under her real name, but then decided after this that she wanted to try a new genre and target an older audience, so wrote The Cuckoo’s Calling under the pen name Robert Galbraith. J.K. Rowling had hoped to keep her true identity secret with her pen name, but upon discovery said…
‘It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation, and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name.’ – J.K. Rowling
Using a pen name can help when authors want to publish books in multiple genres, like J.K. Rowling did with ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’. This is because when an author is established writing in one genre, they become associated solely with that one genre and it can be difficult for them to leap to a new genre. Sometimes fans can be troubled when their beloved authors write in new genres. Especially when an established children’s author writes for an older audience.
Occasionally authors will create a pen name if they have previously published novels under their real name, but they’re not doing as well as they hoped. Publishers will sometimes avoid authors if their rate of return isn’t 50% higher after their third published novel. Therefore some authors will write under a pen name in the hopes of getting a second chance with readers and publishers.
The biggest reason why authors may choose to use a pen name is to boost their SEO (Search Engine Optimisation). I brushed on this before when I mentioned that I think my name is pretty unique. If your name has a good SEO, then your name and your novel will feature at the top of the first page of results. This has more to do with marketing than it does with writing. For example, if your name happens to be something like ‘John Smith’, your SEO will be poor, and your links (websites and social media) are likely to be lost under thousands of results. It is important to have a good SEO because it means your readers can find you easily, and you boost your chances of selling more of your novels.
I’ve given a lot of reasons for using a pen name but using your real name has it’s good points too. Even if your name isn’t that unique, having your real name associated with your novel can lead to some unexpected surprises. Within the first week of publishing my novel I was contacted by the university I graduated from and my old secondary school. Something which would never have happened if I had used a pen name and not informed them myself of the release. My friends and family rallied behind me too of course, which wouldn’t have happened if I had used a pen name and had kept quiet about publishing my novel. I even had old acquaintances buying my novel and contacting me because they had seen my name and photo with the release campaign. The more the merrier they say, and this all helps to spread the news about your novel through word of mouth, or fingers, in today’s age of social media.
Ultimately it doesn’t matter if you use your real name or pen name, both are acceptable. In summary, I’ve complied a short list of a few pros and cons below….
Using your real name pros:
- Support from friends and family.
- Possible support from former education or workplace.
- Do not have to remember multiple names.
- No problems at airports.
Using your real name cons:
- You cannot hide your true identity.
- First reviews may not be completely honest or genuine.
- A common name will not improve your SEO (Search Engine Optimisation).
- May not be so easy to write in multiple genres.
Using a pen name pros:
- You can hide your true identity.
- First reviews are likely to be honest and genuine.
- Creating a unique name may improve your SEO (Search Engine Optimisation).
- May be easier to write in multiple genres.
Using a pen name cons:
- Support from friends and family may be restricted.
- Possible support from former education or workplace may be restricted.
- You may have to remember multiple names.
- You may have problems at airports if asked, ‘are you known under another name?’
If you do decide to write under a pen name make sure you try to create an easy, memorable and unique name. This is harder than it sounds, and ideally you want a name that is easy to spell and one that your readers will remember long after they’ve finished reading your novel. Don’t worry if you’re still undecided, you can change your mind up until the final submission before publication.
As parting words of advice, do your research and make sure you’re up to speed with all the legalities. Knowing what you can and can’t do, as well as what you’re entitled to, will definitely help you in the future.
‘Writing isn’t letters on paper. It’s communication. It’s memory.’ – Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion