One of the most common questions that comes up is about the use of pennames. Recently, the arguments over the use of real names on Google+ and Facebook which include several authors losing profiles because they are listed under their pennames, have really brought attention to this.
Several people assume that aliases or pennames must be used to be evasive or commit fraud, and yet this is not the case at all. This is a brief summary of some of the reasons why authors may use a penname, and a few known examples.
Ghost writing or work for hire, I am leaving off this: in those cases the author has taken the decision to write work that will be released under someone else’s name, where they often surrender most or all rights and may not receive royalties. This is not the same as a conscious choice to use a penname: where the author retains rights, is still the author and if the book reverts it falls back under their control.
That said, on to pennames.
Gender vs Genre
Unfortunately there is a perception that men write thrillers and action, while women write romance. This can lead writers to adopt an alternate gender penname for marketing purposes. A modern example is Jessica Stirling, the Scottish romance author.
Some female authors use initials, because there is a common belief that boys don’t read books by female authors e.g. J.K. Rowling who was allegedly told by her publisher that “Boys don’t read books by women”.
The idea that female authors need to disguise their gender is an old one: Currer Bell’s Jane Eyre is one example. Charlotte Bronte and her sisters desired privacy, and also felt that critics rarely judged women writers by the same standards as men, so adopted indeterminate pennames. George Elliot (Mary Ann Evans) had similar reasons.
Security and Privacy
Some authors value their privacy highly, to the point where “the reclusive author” has become something of a stereotype. Nowadays, with social network, appearances and more, the use of a penname to further protect privacy is simply another step.
While Stephen King’s Annie Wilkes may be fictional, there are stalkers, fan boys and obsessive individuals out there and it is a sad truth that more then one celebrity has been attacked or killed by them. Mercedes Lackey’s essay “The Last Straw” highlights her experience with this risk. Some authors adopt a pen name in advance, to reduce the risk to themselves and their families should they become famous. Authors writing on controversial topics may adopt a pen name to try to avert an organised response to their publications. Many political authors use this to avoid their professional life being affected by their writing.
Some writers need to seperate their writing and professional careers e.g. Trevanian who used multiple pennames both for this reason and to seperate the genres he wrote in.
There is the possibility that writing can impact on your day job, and not necessarily only if a story you release is controversial. People may not be happy if they look up their accountant or lawyer and the first thing they find is their novel writing career. Also, if people know you are a writer there can be problems in your day job, both with being taken seriously in a professional field and with running into co-workers who are fans of your work.
There is a further concern in that some writers may need to avoid being seen to represent their company, depending on what field they write in. e.g. Nevil Shute, an aeronautics engineer who wrote aviation novels. There may also be legal concerns. Several organisations, often government or regulatory ones, ban employees or sub-contractors from advertising products completely – e.g. The BBC is well known for taking a very strong line on this, and has apparently released people over the issue. In some cases contracts of this types mean that while an author can write a book under their own name they cannot promote it – and very few authors make enough to quit their day job.
Some authors adopt pennames to seperate their genre: Hugh McCracken, well-known author of YA and child’s fiction, writes his gritty crime thrillers under the name Alastair Kinnon. This stops YA readers accidentally picking up the more adult work. In the era of SEO (Search engine optimisation), this is even more important if you want readers to find your books quickly.
It can also be to prevent market saturation – Stephen King wrote several early books as Richard Bachman.
More unusual reasons:
Alastair MacLean wrote several books as Ian Stewart, not because of any further need for privacy or because the books were in a different genre, but to prove that fans were buying his books because of his writing and not his name.
There is also the other reason that had cropped up more recently, for an established author to adopt a penname but list the book as “Writing as” which is to do with book ordering. Some chains will order 10,000 of an author’s first book. If they sell 9,000 they return the rest and then buy 9,000 of the author’s next book. If they only sell 7,500 of that book, they will only order 7,500 of the third book and so on. By the third or fourth book this can really impact the author’s sales, so some authors used pennames with “Writing as” as the computer ordering systems reads it as a new author, but their fans can still find it.
I documented my own encounter with yet another reason here. There are, I’m sure, many other reasons to use a penname but hopefully this gives a quick round up of the basics. There are also reasons not to use a penname, but I’ll go into those in another article.
Do you use a penname? Have any other reasons I should include? Please have your say below:
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