All the way back to the Greek philosophers and playwrights—perhaps ever since books have been written—authors have used pen names. Sappho, whose "real" name is lost to the ages, wrote her poetry and performance pieces under what amounts to a nom de plume. (A nom de plume—or pen name—is a pseudonym, an alias.) Other famous writers who used pen names are quickly recognizable: Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens), Colette (Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette), Voltaire (François Marie Arouet), Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), O. Henry (William Sydney Porter), and George Sand (Mme. Amandine Aurore Lucie Dupin). The British poet, translator, and essayist Cecil Day Lewis wrote detective stories under the name Nicholas Blake. He was also the poet laureate of Great Britain.
In both fiction and nonfiction, many famous people have disguised their identities, at least temporarily. For instance, James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton, under the name Publius, wrote The Federalist Papers in order to support and educate the populace about the not-yet-approved U.S. constitution. It didn't come out until years later who had penned those articles, and constitutional scholars still read them to understand the founders' intent.
Before publishing a first book, one of the most important considerations all authors are confronted with is whether to write under their "real" name or use a nom de plume. There are a lot of angles to consider in determining what name to use. Here are some issues to think about.
Privacy and Anonymity
One of the most common reasons for using a pen name is to ensure privacy or—even more extreme—to preserve anonymity. In the mid-1800s, when Louisa May Alcott began publishing, people thought it unseemly for women to write anything but wholesome materials. Her family was in favor of her writing books like Little Women, but they would have been appalled if she had told them she also wrote other racier fare. And that's where the money was! The Alcott family wasn't exactly flush with cash, so Louisa wrote lurid, shocking thrillers, mysteries, and romances and submitted them to the pulp magazines of the time, which brought in significant income to help support her family. No one needed to know that sweet, wholesome Louisa also wrote Gothic "blood and thunder" tales. Her first published work came out with the name of Flora Fairfield, but later works used A. M. Barnard and L. M. Alcott as well as initials, L. M. A., and even more oblique: A Well Known Author.
The story of George Eliot is also interesting. Before she embarked on a career as a novelist, Mary Ann Evans was a well-known literary critic. People also knew her to be a shameful adulterer who lived with a married man for over two decades. (He could not secure a divorce from his wife.) In order to start as a writer with a clean slate, Evans used a pen name. She selected George, as it was her lover's name, and Eliot because she said it was "a good mouth-filling word."
Other authors have written on subjects they didn't want anyone to know they were examining. Marijane Meeker has used multiple names for her different literary personas, including M.E. Kerr, Ann Aldrich, Mary James, M.J. Meaker, and Vin Packer. Erotica writer "James Colton" later made his reputation as Joseph Hansen, author of the Dave Brandsetter detective novels. "Phil Andros," who also wrote steamy gay erotica, was the pen name of Samuel Steward.
Whether you are W. Mark Felt ("Deepthroat") or reporter Joe Klein ("Anonymous," who wrote the novel Primary Colors, a thinly veiled novel about a Bill Clinton-like character), using a pen name may keep your identity hidden. Then again, maybe not. Joe Klein was eventually outed by a fellow reporter.
No Other Choice is Available
Aside from the author's own privacy issues, there may be reasons for using a pen name that are forced upon the writer. Depending on one's type of work, an employer may require the use of a pseudonym. I don't think the head of Homeland Security would be encouraged to write terrorist novels explaining how to get away with bombings or that a Planned Parenthood director would be congratulated for writing soft-porn.
Many government, military, and corporate businesses require their employees to sign agreements that ensure they will maintain certain standards and keep various aspects of the business realm confidential. Some even go so far as to require an agreement in advance that allows for immediate termination should the worker engage in conduct unbecoming for their field or position. Author Rich Merritt lost his lucrative attorney position with a prominent Atlanta law firm shortly after his memoir, Secrets of a Gay Marine Porn Star, was published by Kensington in June 2005. If he had published it under a pen name, perhaps he may have kept his job.
Protecting Future Opportunities
Eric Blair's family didn't think his desire to work as a writer was worthwhile, and like Louisa May Alcott, Blair sought to keep it from them by selecting a pen name. Though he had already published poetry and contributed essays to journals under his own name, Blair decided to use a pen name for his first long work, Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933. He wasn't sure whether the critics would savage his semi-autobiographical book which consisted of undercover investigations he'd documented about the way the poor of Paris and London lived. So he hedged his bets. If his first long work was soundly rejected by critics, he figured he always had his real name for the future. He chose for his first name George, the patron saint of England; for his last name, he selected a favorite river, Orwell, from his old Suffolk stomping grounds. Both the critics and history have been kind to George Orwell. He never had to write any novels under the name Eric Blair.
Name Recognition and Memorability
Name recognition truly is important. But what if your real name happens to be Rita Mae Brown or Michael Jordan or Bill Clinton? Obviously it's probably not a good idea to publish under your real name if it's the same as, or very similar to, that of another author or a famous figure. The Library of Congress will register any work's copyright whether it is written under the author's real name or a fictitious pseudonym. Pseudonyms are not subject to copyright, but be aware that an author's name CAN be trademarked. I recently read that James Patterson, Janet Evanovich, and Tom Clancy had name-branded themselves so thoroughly that their names are considered trademarks.
Authors continually pick names that are memorable, that seem to fit the genre, and that they hope will help gain them "branding"—or name recognition. Michael Craft, whose real name is Michael Johnson, writes both the Mark Manning and the Claire Gray mystery series. He says, "We felt 'Michael Johnson' was too ordinary. Craft is my mother's family name; my full name is Michael Craft Johnson. It's a marketing device, not an attempt to hide my identity."
Thriller writer James Rollins has an easy name to remember . . . a lot easier than Jim Cjazkowski, which is his real name. The name Rollins evens sounds like an adventure or thriller-type moniker. Lemony Snicket's real name is Daniel Handler, but isn't Lemony Snicket a LOT easier to remember—and doesn't it suit his quirky books for kids? Dr. Suess's real name was Theodore Geissel. His pen name works a lot better than his real name would have, just as Samuel D. Hammett's did: he used his middle name, Dashiel, and Hammett, which sounds like a much more "dashing" mystery author, doesn't it?
Ease of spelling and memorability of your name is important. What if your given name is Elvera Mae Snook-Tweedle? Or Mikhaila Manorisorigohemahessi? Why inflict that on the research librarians and readers of the world? Or what if your name is John L. Smith? Or Kathy Jones! How could anyone wade through all the Smith and Jones names to find yours? Obviously something must be done to help distinguish you from the madding crowd, and picking an attractive and appropriate pen name is one option.
Allowing For Variety as Well as Clarifying Style or Genre
Nora Roberts writes romance, but she also writes futuristic mystery/thrillers under the name J.D. Robb. She doesn't want her romance readers to be misled or confused by using the same name on both styles of books. This is the same rationale Jennifer Fulton/Rose Beecham is using. The Fulton books are romances; Beecham books are mysteries. Fulton has recently also created another pen name, Grace Lennox, for her contemporary and sci-fi titles. Fulton says, "I found when I published my first Moon Island stories almost 15 years ago, that many readers were startled and dismayed that my third Fulton romance, TRUE LOVE, was 'not like' the Moon Island works. Equally, fans of TRUE LOVE asked me for years for more stories like that one." Fulton has resolved the issue by writing under different pseudonyms for different genres.
This can be an excellent marketing strategy. In fact, when one name or another takes off, you may also see publishers tout multiple names on individual books:
Many other authors have used pen names in order to allow for their different personas or to write in various genres. Late in her career, Nobel Prize-winner Pearl Buck wrote as John Sedges in five novels that were significantly different from her earlier work. Pen names Richard Stark and Tucker Coe are better known as Donald Westlake. Dr. Barbara Mertz writes her scholarly Egyptology nonfiction under her real name while also producing mysteries as Elizabeth Peters and gothic/romance suspense novels as Barbara Michaels. Popular author Jayne Ann Krentz is also Amanda Quick—and Jayne Castle and Stephanie James and more. She's had over three dozen books on the New York Times Bestseller list—under four different names!
Writing as Laura Adams
An original and well-known writing name can also be a burden that forces an identity upon a writer that can't be escaped. Agatha Christie couldn't escape her mystery fame, and if she had published in any other genre under the Christie name, avid mystery readers would have been misled and furious. To avoid confusion, she wrote romance dramas under the name Mary Westmacott.
Stephen King had a lot of fun with his pseudonym, Richard Bachman. He'd written other unpublished works before his breakout novel, Carrie, and he wanted to find out if they would sell without his famous King name attached. His Bachman books had a style similar to his King books, which made discerning readers suspicious for years, but King had devised an elaborate biography for the mythical Bachman. Many readers were hot on his trail for years before King finally admitted that yes, he and Bachman were one and the same.
Sometimes this tactic blows up in the writer's face. Long after being established as a literary lion, Doris Lessing, who has often been considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote two novels using the pseudonym Jane Somers. The works were rejected repeatedly, and when they were finally published, the critics were merciless. Sales were a fraction of what she had achieved under her real name. We haven't seen any novels from Jane Somers since.
Avoiding the Charge of "Hack Writer"
Some authors are able to crank out a book every year or two (or five or ten)—while other authors can write a book a month. There are people in publishing who consider more than a book or two per year excessive. Some in the industry have gone so far as to say that prolific authors are "hacks." Further, some publishers believe it is difficult to market books or take advantage of a book "having legs" if one book after another is issued and the market is saturated with a particular author. To avoid that charge, some writers use pseudonyms for their work.
Horror-meister Dean Koontz is the consummate example of this phenomenon. He writes much of his paranormal work under the Koontz name but has also written sci-fi, fantasy, adventure, and thrillers under W. H. Allan, David Axton, Brian Coffey, Deanna Dwyer, K. R. Dwyer, John Hill, Leigh Nichols, Anthony North, Richard Paige, Owen West, and Aaron Wolfe. As the years have gone by since his first publication in 1969, some of the novels have been reissued as Koontz books to capitalize on the "brand."
Belgian-born mystery writer Georges Simenon, whose most famous character is Inspector Maigret, published 200 books under his own name and an additional (and incredible!) 300 more under 17 pen names. The writer Stendahl (Marie Henrij Beyle) wrote prodigiously during his lifetime and used over 200 noms de plume. It's not uncommon today to use multiple pseudonyms, and we can probably assume that many prolific authors are secretly doing just that.
Collaboration or Writing a Series
Often, writers collaborate with one another, or more than one writer works on a series. The author named Ellery Queen was actually two men: Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee. They shared the pen name, but didn't write together. Another example is the Nancy Drew detective series originally ghostwritten by Mildred Wirt Benson under the pen name Carolyn Keene. After the twenty-third Nancy Drew novel, other in-house writers took over the series. I can't even guess how many people wrote under the Carolyn Keene name.
There are numerous collaborators in the mystery realm. Long-time partners Jean Hutchinson and Marcy Jacobs write the excellent "Meg Darcy" mystery/thrillers. Patricia Lambrecht and Traci Lambrecht are a mother/daughter writing team from Minnesota and California who collaborate under the name PJ Tracy. Sisters Pamela and Mary O'Shaughnessy collaborate on crime novels using the pseudonym Perri O'Shaughnessy.
British authors Michael John Harrison and Jude Fisher (real name Jane Johnson) individually write sci-fi and fantasy books, but together they have written four critically acclaimed books for young people under the name Gabriel King.
Also, if two writers intend to collaborate with one another in the future on other new series or in other genres, they may not want to use either of their names, choosing instead to create a new identity for the work they are doing.
When writers collaborate, authors and publishers have to balance the ease of remembering a single author name—or even both authors' names—with the desire to use the name of an author who may be wildly popular. Instead of choosing a whole new name, sometimes you will instead see:
BY TOM CLANCY
If the name is so memorable, so famous, so name-branded, many times the collaborator doesn't get much cover space.
With Joe Schmoe
I must admit, however, that I find it laughable to see the number of new books published lately in collaboration with spy/thriller writer Robert Ludlum, particularly since Ludlum died in 2001. If you look inside these new novels, you will see they are copyrighted not to Ludlum, but to the Ludlum estate.
Avoiding Gender Discrimination
If we go back in time considerably, we can see that many authors (besides George Sand and George Eliot) used pseudonyms to deal with sexism. The Brontë sisters—Charlotte, Emily, and Anne—published a book of poetry, Poems by Currier, Ellis, and Acton Bell, in 1846 and didn't admit to writing it until the collection had sold well. And it was no coincidence that each of them chose male-sounding names paralleling their real names.
It's completely unfair that some genres in commercial fiction sell better when written by a certain gender. In the sci-fi and fantasy realms, women are making real inroads, but the fact still remains that male-sounding names are more likely to be read by both men and women. Female-sounding names are often skipped over by men, so many writers use initials or gender-neutral names.
Studies show that readers who seek to avoid books written by women assume that a writer using initials is male, so authors like Marjorie Bradley Kellogg (M. Bradley Kellogg) and Joanne Rowling (J.K. Rowling) used initials. Rowling may end up being single-handedly responsible for reversing at least some of the sexism that schoolboys so readily exhibit.
Sci-Fi author Andre Norton's first book was published in 1953. I read many Norton novels in my teens, and I think I was 30 and she had turned out over forty books before I realized that a woman named Alice Mary Norton was the actual writer. Prolific author James Tiptree, Jr., has been writing incredible fantasy novels and stories since 1968, but James is really Alice B. Sheldon, who picked her pen name specifically because of the gender discrimination she encountered. Combatting the same sexism, Marion Zimmer Bradley also took many pen names (Lee Chapman, John Dexter, Morgan Ives, John J. Wells). Particularly in the 1950s and 60s, but also up through the 1990s, women writing in the genres of sci-fi, fantasy, and mystery were often excluded unless they used male pen names.
In the romance arena, the sexism is often reversed. Few men read this genre, and women seem to prefer reading romances written by women. Exceptions to this rule include male authors Nicholas Sparks, Robert James Waller, and Robin Pilcher (who got a leg up because of his famous mother, Rosamunde Pilcher). Often when men write lesbian fiction, they take pen names. Back in the pulp novel days, crime writer Lawrence Block used a pseudonym (Lesley Evans), and today's multi-genre writer J.T. Langdon uses initials that obscure the fact that he is male. Some women writing gay novels and erotica also use gender-neutral names such as Reese Szymanski (Therese Szymanski).
Ensuring Sales and Distribution
Gay novelist R.D. Zimmerman put out a series of excellent novels in the late 80s/early 90s, when gay and lesbian writing efforts were the "Literary du Jour" (for that brief and lovely moment in time, anyway). He wrote a very good gay series about a reporter named Todd Mills as well as a straight series (the Trance books), and some terrific standalones. As interest in gay books waned and the next new fad appeared on the horizon, Zimmerman sold fewer books—fewer even of his books that weren't necessarily "gay."
Now, this is only a huge problem if you understand how the book chains make their initial book order when a book is distributed. A writer's first book comes out and sells X amount of copies. Based on some strange logarithm, for the second book they determine what percentage of books to order based upon the sales of the first book. Once that new book's sales numbers are in, they utilize it for the third book, employing the logarithm again, and they may actually order fewer copies. Fewer books on the shelf, on end-caps, and out for the public to see means fewer sales. So when the fourth book comes out, when they use the logarithm again, sales could be in trouble. If the book doesn't find an audience and have dramatic sales increases, the author and publisher get caught in a cycle of smaller and smaller numbers of books ordered and shelved . . . and fewer sales. Not only that, if the chains order fewer books, publishers reduce advances or even drop writers. Ouch!
And it doesn't matter if you start a new series or write in a different genre...the dopey chain has got your name—Zimmerman or whatever—in there with their scary little logarithm, and you are stuck.
So Zimmerman made the decision to write an historical mystery called THE KITCHEN BOY: A Novel of the Last Tsar (which, incidentally, was on the NYTimes Bestseller List for some time and is still selling briskly on Amazon.com even 30 months after publication). Zimmerman's publisher agreed to put this book out under a new name: ROBERT ALEXANDER. Not only did that put him at the beginning of the alphabet (top shelf "A" instead of last/bottom shelf "Z"), but it gave him a clean slate with the chains.
And Speaking of Shelving...
Some publishers and authors believe it matters very much WHOSE books you are shelved next to and at what place in the genre/section. Zimmerman moving his books to A for Alexander means that he may get the bookstore customer while s/he is still fresh in browsing. Certainly with online stores that "shelve" alphabetically by last name, having a name early in the alphabet is an advantage.
But you can look at it this way, too: Even if the last name starts with a letter late in the alphabet, who wouldn't want their books shelved right next to, say: Hemingway? Irving? Lewis? McCarthy? Morrison? Patterson? Rowling? Steel? Tolkien? Walker?
There are so many reasons to adopt a pen name—or not—that each author has to make that decision based upon his or her own circumstances. Considering as many angles as possible will allow you, the writer, to decide on what is best for your career.
© 2005 Lori L. Lake,
Author of the novels Have Gun We'll Travel, Gun Shy, Under The Gun, Different Dress, and Ricochet In Time; editor of the anthology The Milk of Human Kindness: Lesbian Authors Write About Mothers and Daughters; and author of the book of short stories, Stepping Out.
From her untitled book about novel writing, a work in progress.
Not for distribution or copying without the express permission of the author. Lori can be reached at Lori@LoriLLake.com and welcomes questions and comments.