07 Aug 2017
While you’re setting up your company, you should think about the need for an author pen name.
A name conveys an image or meaning. It tells the reader something about you that may not be accurate: your nationality, gender, intellectual level, even suggest the type of books you write. Would you expect “Brad Thor” (his real name, BTW) to write romances? Would you be disappointed if you picked up Agatha Christie’s A Daughter’s A Daughter and not find Hercule Poirot or a dead body in it? That’s why she wrote it as Mary Westmacott.
Even if it’s the name you were born with, stop and think about which version of it to use. You don’t have one name, but several. I go by Bill Peschel. That’s how I see myself. A Bill, not a William, and certainly not a Billy or a Willy.
I didn’t think much about it at all, but I should have. Seeing my name on the cover of Writers Gone Wild, I wonder if “William Peschel” would have looked more authoritative. Or what about “William Edward Peschel”? That lends weight and gravity to a cover, and it worked for “Louisa May Alcott” and “Joyce Carol Oates.”
Full surnames indicate someone who should be taken seriously. “William F. Buckley” rolls stentorian off the tongue. “Billy Buckley” fixes your pickup truck. “Bill Buckley” is your co-worker. “William F.” is your professor.
If I was writing fantasy fiction, I would consider using my initials, like J.R.R. Tolkien, M.A.R. Barker, and J.K. Rowling. Adding the double Rs transformed the plain, common George Martin into something that was not only memorable but hinted at the fantasy content of his work.
If I was trying to capitalize on “The Girl on the Train,” I may disguise my gender. This was formerly a woman’s preserve, like George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans), James Tiptree Jr. (Alice B. Sheldon), and Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling, again). The few men who have written romance fiction have done the same, like Leigh Greenwood. But lately with men writing psychological thrillers with strong women characters, we’re seeing Riley Sager (aka Todd Ritter), J.P. Delaney (Tony Strong), and S.J. Watson (Steve Watson).
Then, there are writers have a good reason to disguise themselves. Perhaps their families object. They’re in a profession that looks down on their books; professor Mary Bly kept her Eloisa James pen name hidden from her colleagues at Fordham University before feeling comfortable with coming out. Many erotica writers prefer to keep their identity under wraps for obvious reasons.
If you do decide on using a pen name, it’s also worth deciding in advance how secret you’re going to keep it. This is vitally important if you want absolutely no one to know that you, the author of sweet Amish romances, also writes a violent werewolf bondage series.
Another Two Reasons for an Author Pen Name: Sex and Violence
Isn’t that what pen names are for, I mean, apart from writing political manifestos that might cause you to be disappeared if you’re exposed?
Another big motivator for adopting a pen name, when you’re already writing under your own name, is to keep your readers happy. In this case, happily ignorant of the fact that you harbor dark, dirty desires at the same time you’re writing about chaste kisses and gambols in sunny meadows.
Some of your readers won’t have a problem with that, but many will, especially those who don’t realize until they’ve bought your new book that instead of virginal Amish girls encountering love for their first time, they’re encountering husky, musky, furry wolf packs getting it on. And no matter how much you work on your titles and branding, someone is bound to hit the “buy” button a second sooner than they should and leave that 1-star rating.
A pen name can help there. In fact, any book or series in which the sex and violence level will be different from what you’ve written should be sold under another name.
That means the door swings both ways. If you write noir thrillers about dark streets, dangerous dames, and bullets ripping into flesh, those readers may not appreciate your comic novel about a girl making her way in the big city. It’s only good manners that you keep it out of their way.
Three Security Levels for an Author Pen Name
How secret should you keep your author pen name? I identified three stages to consider:
Confidential: This is the lightest level of security. Anyone who knows more about you beyond your name could learn your secret. Secrecy may be limited simply to the name on the cover. The Amazon Author’s Page could admit that “Amanda Dokes also writes under the name Joe Dokes.” Your website can be upfront about it. Some trad-published authors, once they become successful, have the leverage to out themselves, which is why you’ll see “Nora Roberts writing as J.D. Robb” on the latest book in her series. Jayne Anne Krentz, who has written as Amanda Quick and Jayne Castle, goes out of her way to point this out in her books and on her website.
Secret: A little tougher to ferret out, but not impossible. You don’t mention it on your website or elsewhere online, but if someone knows you don’t mind, either. This is an in-between stage between confidential and top secret.
Top Secret: This is when you absolutely don’t want anyone to know who you are, except your spouse (if you trust him or her). Friends can’t know; they’ll gossip. Your relatives especially can’t be told. All you need to do is piss one of them off later to discover that you’ve given them a bludgeon to get back at you.
This is very hard to do. Keeping an author pen name secret is troublesome, takes time, and instills a bit of paranoia in you (if you’re doing it right). The military has to train its people about the value of keeping material top secret, which is why they become very angry when politicians are cavalier (and not punished) when they reveal top secret information.
As for you, the author, every decision you make has to consider adding defenses to keep away the inquisitive. For example:
* Copyright: What do you put on the copyright page? Can you file a copyright on it with The Library of Congress? (You can, and they’ll tell you how.)
* Royalties: The money will show up in your bank account. Will you tell your spouse? If yes, then you’re fine with that person knowing (and do they know not to tell anyone else? Can you trust them too?). If no, then you’ll have to set up an account, perhaps at another bank where you live or online.
* Setting up a website: If you buy a domain name, you’ll have to pay for the privacy option to mask your name. If you provide an email link on your site, it has to be one only you know about and use. Don’t think providing a contact form will provide protection. Anyone can open the web page’s source code to see a command like “send to: [email protected]”
* Chatting online: Never, ever, mention your alter ego. Never, ever, mention the book. No, not even if you say, “I just found this fascinating book and have to talk to you about it.” It’s too obvious a tell.
* Public appearances: When Mary Bly was appearing at Eloisa James, she would disguise herself by removing her glasses and putting in contacts. That worked for her, but that was in the pre-internet days. If a fan took a selfie with you, it would stay a photo in a scrapbook. Today, it would be broadcast instantly on Instagram or Facebook, and there’s a good chance that someone you know would see it and wonder why you’re posing as a writer of werewolf porn.
How Famous Can You Get?
Here’s an example of how widespread your image can fly: a few years back, I appeared on “Mysteries at the Museum” on the Travel Channel. It was a short (seven minute) segment about the disappearance of Agatha Christie. In between “recreations” of her life, I popped up to say a few words about it.
Within the next year, three people told us they had seen me on the show. One of them was a family member who knew about the appearance, but the others had no idea until they saw my face (giving them a serious shock to the system). One knew me as a friend of the family; the other was a local librarian who knew a woman with the same last name (my wife, of course).
What were the odds that one brief appearance on a modestly rated show, rerun a couple times, would be seen by three people who knew me? So if you’re dedicated to keeping your pen name a complete secret, you have to avoid publicity.