My friend, Simon Wood, recently wrote over on Murderati about him “splitting” his writing career by starting to write under a pen name. That got me thinking about whether or not I or any author should choose pen names and when they should do that. Let’s make sure that we’re talking about the same thing, however. A pen name is a pseudonym used in place of your legal name taken by an author to publish their books under. I’m not talking about the name you chose to post on online message boards.
Using a pen name is not a mark of becoming pretentious. As a writer, you are establishing a brand name. It was strange when I began to think of myself in terms of “product”, but in a lot of ways, you are developing your brand. And your brand name is what agents and editors will encounter and factor in when they think about dealing with you. Plus, some of us have always had a fascination with super-heroes and have wanted a secret identity.
Now, there are times when taking up a pen name is taken out of a writer’s hands:
-you may be writing too many books per year and need to spread it out a bit
-you’ve been dropped by a publishing company due to lack of sales and need to establish a new track record
-you’ve been blessed with a name like Al Hitler, Osama bin Williams or the same name as someone famous, say your name is Steve King
-you’re sex might possibly be a detriment to your main market. For example, say you’re a male writer wanting to break into romance
-you want to make it harder to be stalked
-like Simon, you want to break into a new genre
-your name changes too often. For example, you’re a woman who wishes to take her husband’s last name. Every time. (I’m just saying.)
Some people worry about having names that sound too “ethnic”. Well, don’t be too hasty in getting a pen name. If your name is unpronounceable, you may want to consider creating a “user-friendly” one for the U.S. market; unless you are promoting yourself to the market of that ethnicity. The bigger worry is having a name that is too generic (if for no other reason, it makes it harder for you to Google yourself).
At any rate, you probably shouldn’t get “married” to the idea of (keeping) a pen name. Sure, it can be fun to create a persona for yourself, but more likely than not, your pseudonym will be exposed (the likelihood ever greater in our computer age).
One reason why I’ve thought so much about getting a pen name is because I’m a pretty good test model for why one might want to go with a pen name. I am mostly a genre writer (mostly horror). However, the bulk of my name recognition right now comes from my blog. For that matter, I’ve established a bit of a reputation in Christian circles and have put out feelers for some non-fiction work. A pen name would allow my readers to differentiate between the different categories of books I write and publish.
However, I’m pretty heavily invested in being a “Christian horror writer” (which practically speaking is a horror writer who is a Christian) or as some have referred to me “the sinister minister”, so that’s my brand and why I’ve chosen to stick with Maurice Broaddus. For one, if my readers are finding my books in the fiction section, with the word “blood” in the title or all over the cover (authors have less control over that than one might think), I’m guessing they’ll be able to figure out that the book isn’t exactly “Purpose Driven Horror”. (That plus, should I get big, I can say things like “do you know who I am?” and I don’t have to remember who “I” is referring to.)
Now, should I start seriously pursue doing romance writing, well, that would be done under a pen name. I have to draw the line somewhere.