Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Who is that masked author?
By OFW chief editor:
Published: April 23, 2014
Is it you? Why the disguise? I’ve always been a little perplexed at the amount of authors that use pen names, particularly when these authors are either “unknown” or are writing in a single genre. Sure, if you’re known for writing YA fantasy and then pen a few erotic thrillers, you might want to use a pen name to avoid the nightmare that could follow, but otherwise, why use a fake name? Why not claim the credit for your work?
I’ll admit, once upon a time, I considered using a pen name because I like to write different genres, and I write articles for various online publications as well. In the end, the process was just so tedious, I abandoned the idea.
The list of reasons for using a pen name is long, but sometimes they make sense. Women writers used masculine pseudonyms years ago so that their work would be taken seriously. Some of them would never have been published had they not used a man’s name instead of their own. For a writer of erotica or porn, the pen name keeps them safe from the crazies and enables them to work a day job. Funny how people are still so weird about sex, isn’t it?
For established authors, the problem is that publishing houses might not want them publishing more than a couple of books per year. The reason behind this being they don’t want the books to compete against each other for that almighty dollar. A pen name allows the author to step around that issue.
Sometimes it’s a simple matter of having a shitty name. A hard to spell or hard to pronounce name is just not as marketable as “Joe Smith.” How many readers recommend an author whose name they can’t pronounce? Then again, some new authors share a name with an already established author. There can’t be two Stephen Kings, my friend. There just can't.
And speaking of King, many New York Times bestsellers have found their brand just isn’t selling like it used to. A new name can boost a fading career. But you will be discovered. Stephen King wrote under the pen name Richard Bachman for years, but was outed by a curious fan. Same with Nora Roberts. She wrote several books as J.D. Robb and eventually came clean. Now, these two didn’t seem to lose too much as a result, but they’re the exception.
If you’re trying to hide your name for personal reasons (like you’re worried someone will track you down and arrest/kill/stalk you), remember that there is a record of who really owns the copyright. In this day and age, tracking down that record is not a hard thing to do. If you are at all concerned about the contents of your novel coming back to bite you in the ass, perhaps you should reconsider its publication, not invent a pen name to protect yourself. It’s a pretty fragile shield.
Also remember that some writers find that fans are angry with them when they reveal their true identity. They may lose readers and sales as a result. Trust is an important part of the reader-author relationship. If a reader feels lied to or that you made a fool of him, you may never earn that trust back.
You might think that’s a worthwhile risk if fame scares the bejesus out of you. Although, I wonder at the desire to publish if you want anonymity, but you aren’t the first and you certainly won’t be the last author who just wants to be read without the hoopla surrounding bestseller status. Yes, it’s nice to go out without worrying about hair, clothes or makeup. It’s nice to party with the boys, get messed up on tequila, and wake up to some mysterious one-eyed woman next to you. If you’re famous, that could bite you in the ass. These are times when a pen name is useful. Although, creating a fake identity on the sole assumption that you’ll be famous is kind of arrogant. Just saying.
Still want a pen name? Well, here are a few tips I’ve gathered for choosing one.
1. Pick a name that sounds like it probably belongs to a human.
Don’t use fictitious creatures or animals. You want to be taken seriously? Then think seriously. Pick a name that suits your personality and that isn’t laughable—unless you write humor or porn. Ridiculous names seem to be the norm in those genres.
2. Make it marketable.
Choose a name that’s relatively easy to spell and pronounce. This makes it roll off the tongue so it’s easy for readers to remember. Make sure it's short enough to fit nicely on a book cover.
3. Avoid common last names.
Smith, Brown, Jones, etc. are common names found everywhere. If you want your books to stand out to new readers, a common name won’t do it. Pick a last name, and then type it into an Amazon search to see how common it is. At least ten authors with the same last name? Choose another.
4. Google it.
Please, do not just pull a name out of your ass and believe it’s all yours. The only name you’ll be able to claim without a fight is your real name. Check all spellings to see if it has already been used and by whom. Names can’t be copyrighted, but they can be trademarked. Martha Stewart, for example, is not just a person, but a brand. You could be treading into uncomfortable legal territory if you use a name that is trademarked by another author. Choose a different one.
5. Question your reasoning.
Then question it again. Make sure that a pen name is what you really want and need, and not just something that seems cool to do at the time. Think of the long term. You may consider abandoning the name many times, but doing so will mean starting at square one again. Who wants to have to break into publishing twice? Not this girl.
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