Using a pseudonym or a pen name has been a decision authors have had to make for centuries. There are pros and cons to each:
Easy to remember–I once read an interview with Sally MacKenize the author of the Naked Nobility Series where she said she was so excited when the editor at Kensington Zebra called her and told her that they were buying her book that when asked what name she wanted to use, she was too excited to think and told them Sally MacKenzie, which is her actual name. She said later it was just as well because at least it was one less thing she had to remember. (And believe me, after spending some time at writers’ and readers’ conferences, there are several authors who you can call them their “names” and they just keep walking by. It’s not to be rude, it’s just not something they recognize. More on this at the bottom.)
There’s no copyright or identity tangles–It’s hard to prove that Jane Smith and Juanita Burrita are the same person. Especially when Juanita is fictitious. For example, my publisher always calls me Rose Gordon. It’s on all of the papers I’ve had to sign. It was even on my royalty check. Thankfully my proving that I am Rose Gordon wasn’t difficult, however, I have a friend who had a royalty check made out the same way and she had to ask them to reissue it because no matter how much arguing she did, she couldn’t get the bank to deposit a check for Juanita Burrita into her (Jane Smith’s) account.
That’s your real name!–Think about it, if you make it huge and become a household name, you can’t escape it. There are times when I just want to be plain old Jane Smith, not Juanita Burrita. Using your real name, that’s not possible. Even if you don’t become a big name, if even just one person in your world of friends knows, they might as well all know.
Concealed identity–Just as being unable to be just plain Jane Smith is a con for real name, being able to distance yourself and be just Jane Smith is a pro for a pen name. If you have friends and/or family who you might not want to know what you do, this works great to keep your identity concealed.
Distance–Being one identity in your work helps put distance between you as a person and you as an author. One of my greatest examples of this is think about being criticized publicly. Think about this:
Juanita Burrita is the WORST writer ever!!!! If [big name author who’s been dead nearly 2 centuries] were to read this, it’d kill him/her. Dead on. Seriously, my fourth grader could have written this story better than she did. Which is a pity because the characters were good, but God should have intervened and given them to an author with actual talent. It was pure rubbish and as a public service to the world, Juanita should have every single one of her fingers broken–slowly–to keep this drivel in this “author’s” head where it belongs and not polluting Kindles across the world.
Now think about the same paragraph, but instead of seeing Juanita Burrita, imagine it’s YOUR name:
[Your first and last name] is the WORST writer ever!!!! If [big name author who’s been dead nearly 2 centuries] were to read this, it’d kill him/her. Dead on. Seriously, my fourth grader could have written this story better than she did. Which is a pity because the characters were good, but God should have intervened and given them to an author with actual talent. It was pure rubbish and as a public service to the world, [Your first name] should have every single one of her fingers broken–slowly–to keep this drivel in this “author’s” head where it belongs and not polluting Kindles across the world.
This might not have the same effect since you haven’t written anything to have it criticized like that, but I’ll tell you from experience, when the name being used and titled as the “worst writer ever” isn’t really YOUR name, it’s much easier to take because it’s easier to chalk it up to the fact that they’re criticizing Juanita Burrita, not you.
Crossing Genres–Believe it or not, there are some inspirational romance writers who also write erotica. Just like there are some sci-fi writers who also write YA. To effectively do this, you MUST use a pen name. Otherwise, your audience will be extremely confused if they saw the name Jane Smith, who they usually associate with sweet Regencies, on a BDSM bestseller. Those who love Jane Smith and her gentle romance are going to be in for a very rude awakening on the third page of something that should be claimed as Juanita Burrita’s masterpiece. Likewise, someone expecting erotica will be very bored and unhappy reading something so mild.
Remembering your own dang name–When the time comes to sign a book at a public signing, you only have one chance to sign the right name–unless you have a huge stack of books close at hand you can swap out. Remembering the name you need to be signing or responding to when someone calls you by a name that isn’t your own is actually rather tough.
Feeling “shortchanged”–There is something to be said about holding your first paperback book that has YOUR name on it or looking at the bestsellers charts and seeing your name listed. Though the criticism stings a lot more with it being your own name used, it sure feels good to see the success attached to your name. Using a pen name does separate you and it’s not really YOUR name by that top book or by that highly praised book.
As you can see, all the pros for one are cons for the others and cons for ones are pros for the others.
So how do you decide?
You have to decide which pros outweigh which cons. But also think about: Do you like your name? Does it sound like a good name for the genre you’re writing? Those are very important questions and believe it or not, names play a very significant role in a book’s appeal (I had no idea until later…).
What about me?
I get this a lot. Is Rose Gordon your real name. Yes, yes it is. In a matter of speaking, anyway. When I first started, I didn’t know what name to use instead so went with my middle and last because my first is too long to look good on a book cover and often misspelled. If I could go back, I might have picked something different, or I might not have. I don’t really know. I do remember typing it into google to see what came up: nada, except a lot of stuff about rose gardens. So I went with it and I have no idea if that worked in my favor or not, though. Here’s why:
- I’ve been told by no less than a dozen people they bought the first book they read by me based solely on liking my name.
- There is now a politician named Rose Gordon Sala who shows up in my Google Alerts every day.
- I thought it was a simple, memorable name, therefore, hard to misspell, but I get Gorden and Gordan a lot.
- I still get startled at being called Rose in public–by strangers. I’ve had a few friends over the years who’ve called me Rose or some variation, or combined my first and middle names (and I even wanted to go by Rose in college–this was very short lived), but seeing it in writing and actually hearing it are two very different things.
- And my favorite thing involving my name during the past year came in an email I received in early June:
A friend of mine sent me a note saying she had an ebook waiting for me…when I logged on to retrieve it, I learned it was a [Censored]. Disappointed, (because I gave her titles of your books that I hadn’t read yet), I told her I wanted one by you. Her reply to me: “I beg your pardon, I never promised you a Rose Gordon.”
Yep, it took 16 months but it finally happened! I was likened to a rose garden. Of course I wrote her back about her friend’s clever (and humorous) play on words and was delighted to make a new friend who made many plays on words herself.