Pen Names—Necessary Evil or Ticket to Crazyville?
Today we are going to talk about a somewhat touchy subject. The pen name. Before anyone gets in a fluff, understand two things. First, I’m on your side. Secondly, this is only a decision you can make. My goal here is to make sure you guys are making educated business decisions. Thus, I won’t stop anyone from having a pen name, but about 95% of the time? It’s unnecessary.
In my opinion? Pen names are more hassle than they are worth and they’re a fast way to land in Crazyville. Pen names used to offer benefits, but most of those benefits have evaporated because the world is digital and connected. In fact, pen names can actually hurt book sales and stall a platform and brand.
Let’s look at some of the advantages pen names used to offer that no longer exist.
I Need a Pen Name for PRIVACY
Here’s the thing. We are in The Digital Age. Privacy is an illusion. In fact, be too private and we fail to connect emotionally with others and thus the platform and brand never gain traction. Social media is social and being social requires a certain level of vulnerability and openness.
One of my bugaboos is when writers tell me they just want to write or they just want to sell books. They don’t want to *shivers* talk to anyone. This is a personal choice. I can’t require anyone to be sociable, but in a world where readers are being deluged with a gazillion choices, they are going to gravitate to who they know and who they like.
And, to be blunt, we are expecting people to part with money and precious time they don’t have to read our books. It takes an average of 12-15 hours to read a novel. We are asking a lot of others. The very least we can do is talk to them and have a good attitude about it.
Being open and vulnerable doesn’t mean we post our Social Security Number and the names of all our kids. It can be something as simple as, “Hey, I totally dig Star Wars” or “I like to crochet weapons of mass destruction.”
But some writers don’t want to do social media at all or they want to hide behind a pen name and only post “writerly things” or “BUY MY BOOK!” because, yeah, that is SUPER creative and we don’t already get enough of that *rolls eyes*. They don’t want to share anything personal and the pen name is there to help them gain emotional distance and keep their “lives separate.”
The problem with this thinking is that, in The Digital Age, WE ARE THE BRAND.
Before The Digital Age, gatekeepers stemmed the number of books that came to market. Readers only could buy what they discovered browsing a bookstore. Now that there are millions of titles and more being added every day? Those habits and hobbies no one cared about in 1995 are what’s going to help us cultivate our readership.
When we try to separate our personal persona from our writing persona, we create layers of friction and a lot of extra work for those trying to discover our books. This means we can inadvertently undermine our own success seeking the illusion of anonymity/privacy.
A lot of writers complain to me that they don’t want to post things everyone else can see. Problem with that is it is TOO EASY to lose control of information posted on the Internet. Thus, my personal rule? If my mom can’t see it, I don’t post it.
I Need a Pen Name to HIDE
Erotica authors generally run into this problem. If what you write might cost you your job? Then yes, I agree a pen name is probably a good idea. It will be extra work, but y’all probably already knew that. What I DON’T like is often writers believe that just using another name is enough.
First, if you require a pen name for safety, security, etc. hire a pro. I recommend The Digital Dark Knight Jay Donovan at Tech Surgeons. Tell him I sent you and he will give you special rates. If we are just creating social sites under a made up name and thinking this keeps us “safe”? This is akin to locking the screen door to keep out serial killers.
If someone is motivated to find us, they can (unless you hire a pro like Jay).
You will probably have to look into the legal aspects of using another name and will likely require a DBA (Doing Business As) because, if you have any amount of success, you will need to be able to cash the check under another name, do taxes, etc.
It does me no good to use the pen name Fifi Fluffernutter because I want to hide that I write erotica, but then someone goes to buy a book and can only make out the check to Kristen Lamb 😉 .
Also, I will say that having to hide an identity is very stressful. Sites like Facebook use facial recognition software for tagging photos and then those photos are searchable. All it takes is a friend carelessly posting a photo and tagging with the wrong name to implode a carefully crafted alter ego.
There are rumors that Google is wanting to acquire Twitter, meaning every tweet would be cached and searchable. As more social networks communicate across platforms and search engines become more ingrained and more advanced, hiding will get harder and harder.
I Need a Pen Name for Each Genre
NO! For the love of all that is chocolate, NO!
Remember, WE ARE THE BRAND. You guys come to my blog and trust I will work hard and deliver enjoyable content. This means when I have a book out, there is less work or thinking on your part. You know me, hopefully like me and you trust my work.
My name holds a lot of power because it promises to deliver content you enjoy. I write social media books, but I also…wait for it…write fiction.
Did anyone’s reality just fracture?
People “get” we do more than one thing. In fact, those who like my blogs or social media books, might just decide to read my fiction simply because they already trust my non-fiction. With SO many choices out there, we find a writer we like and stick like glue. We don’t want the hassle of trying and testing an unknown.
Readers don’t only read one genre. In fact, I think that is probably fairly rare. When I look at my bookshelves, I have almost every genre. If nothing else, we will at least enjoy the kissing cousins. Suspense readers will also dip into thrillers or mysteries.
When we use a pen name for another genre, we are back at Ground Zero. We have to build another name without any help from the already existing platform. Right now, I’m finishing a sci-fi trilogy. When that sucker goes to market? I am NOT motivated enough to start ALL OVER. If my followers don’t like science fiction? Don’t buy it. Simple. But, there may be people who might just try a science fiction because it is written by me 😉 .
It Doesn’t Take Much to Implode an Identity
A couple days ago, I had an author whose agent recommended that he use a pen name for his new books that are General Fiction and not Christian Fiction. My argument is that many Christians do read outside of Christian Fiction and thus the pen name would cost him the following he already had for four other books.
He countered that they didn’t want the haters who would be upset that this wasn’t Christian Fiction and that these stories were grittier. But my problem is this.
It only takes ONE.
It only takes one troll putting two and two together to dismantle all that work to craft a new identity. Thus, he could potentially cost himself a LOT of readers who are smart enough to realize that General Fiction is NOT religious and who would have read the books anyway to make a small group of people happy (people who are likely never going to be happy anyway).
In the end, it is the author’s decision and this might be a good case for a pen name, but note that it WILL be extra work with almost no support from the existing fan base structure.
Another writer was using a pen name because her family is less than supportive and they trolled her other sites when she tried to use her real name. Again, the problem is this. What if she becomes successful and crazy family member figures out the pen name and starts trolling the site? Eventually this writer will have to put down a boundary.
Troll my site one more time and you will die in a tragic blow-up doll accident in my next novel.
She is costing herself a TON of extra work to cater to a handful of bullies. She’s losing all those close connections–schoolmates, college friends, colleagues, etc.—who actually will be her best word of mouth sales. I have people who didn’t say three words to me in high school who are now avid fans because I’m the writer they KNOW.
I Need a Pen Name Because My Name is Too Hard to Pronounce or Spell
NO! That name no one has gotten right since you were a kid is now your digital BFF. If you don’t believe me? Google Janet Evonnivich.
I see authors with AWESOME names for the Digital Age change it to something utterly forgettable. If your name is Skjolsvik, I don’t have to know how to pronounce it, I just have to be able to recognize it in a lineup. Also, all I have to remember is it starts with Skj—. Search engines will correct me if I goof it.
I Need a Pen Name Because There is Another Person With My Name
Again, search engines can help with this. Do y’all really think I am the ONLY Kristen Lamb? When I decided to set aside fiction to become the social media expert for writers, I began by googling my name. There was another Kristen Lamb who happens to be a media mogul. I called her and told her, “There could be only one.”
She thought I was kidding 😀 .
Actually, I DID call and I DID say that because I’m a nut, but she IS a Kristen Lamb and ergo super fun and cool and we actually talked for about an hour.
But by producing a LOT of content and properly tagging that content, I now dominate the search for my name. And, even if I didn’t? If someone knows they are searching my name for social media and they get Kristen Lamb the Cake Decorator, all they have to do is add the words “social media” to narrow the search.
I Need a Pen Name Because Using My Name is Pretentious
I hear new writers say this a lot. Why would anyone care what I have to say? They don’t. When I was new, they didn’t care what I had to say, either. Being a writer is fundamentally pretentious and even narcissistic. We have to believe we have something to say that is worth not only reading, but PAYING to read.
Just own it.
And if we pan back, this entire argument is more than a tad ridiculous. So no one would care what Kristen Lamb has to say, but they WILL care what Kristen Lamb writing as an imaginary person and figment of my own imagination has to say? And that isn’t pretentious?
It is YOUR Decision
In the end, all I can do is give you branding and social media advice. Multiple names and pen names are a lot of work that is very often unnecessary. I see writers do this same thing with multiple blogs.
I blog about writing but I also blog movie reviews and funny anecdotes. What if my followers who like my writing posts don’t like kitten stories?
Um, they don’t read your post that day?
I write thrillers, but I also write cozy romance. What if my readers don’t like cozy romance?
Um, they don’t buy them?
If you require a pen name for safety issues, legal issues or even because it could endanger your job? TALK TO JAY. The rest of us? Our time is better spent writing more books 😉 .
What are your thoughts? Questions? Experiences? Do you have a pen name and love it? How do you manage that pen name without going cray-cray? Did you start out with a pen name and now you regret it? Do you have multiple names you now need to merge? I can actually blog about ways to do that another time.
I love hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
Also, for more help on how to use characters to ratchet anxiety to the nerve-shreding level, I am offering my Understanding the Antagonist Class on April 18th and YES, it is recorded in case you miss or need to listen again because this class is jammed with information.
I LOVE teaching this simply because our antagonists are pivotal for writing a story (series) readers can’t put down. Yet, too often we fail to harness characters for max effect. I look forward to seeing you there! I also offer the Gold level for one-on-one. Maybe you’ve hit a dead end. Your story is so confusing you need a GPS and a team of sherpas to find the original idea. Instead of wasting time with misguided revisions, I can help you triage your WIP and WHIP it into fighting form 😀 .
For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook.