Why Pen Names Suck & Can Make Us Crazy
Yes, you heard me correctly. Pen names suck 50%….no 67%…no….okay, 99% of the time. Oh, don’t start whining. Don’t you think I would have like to have been something a tad more glamorous than Kristen Lamb? When I was 5 my father convinced me that he had legally changed my name to Mary Hannah. Get it? Mary Hannah Lamb? Yeah, I didn’t find it funny either.
I actually am on your side. When we are about to make a decision that is going to cost extra work, we need to make sure we are doing it for business purposes. Yet, in my five years experience with social media, most of the time, people want pen names for the wrong reasons. We will talk more on that in a moment.
Pen names can suck. They are old paradigm. Before you disagree, let me explain.
Novelists, historically, have had a staggering failure rate. It was actually statistically EASIER to be elected to Congress than to make the NY Times best-seller list.
Why? Because writers only had control over the book. Marketing and platform was handled by other people.
Note: I use the term “handled” very loosely, because even now, if you aren’t a heavy hitter, you can expect little to no marketing support. Is it because NY is evil and sitting up all night thinking of ways to sabotage the dreams of new writers? No. They are a business and have overhead and payroll. New writers are an untested commodity, thus money, time and effort gets sunk into proven players. Makes total business sense.
Unless you’re the new kid.
But, until now novelists had ZERO control over building a platform of people who knew them and supported them even before the book went to print. These days? Totally different story. There are unagented self-published writers now becoming millionaires because of their PLATFORM…but that’s another discussion for another day.
In the old days, an author had ONE way to build a platform….LOVE for their books.
Ahhh, but there is the sticky wicket. If I write a book and no one knows about it, then it is likely to fail because no one knew about it. So the only way to help a book succeed is to have fans, but if no one knows about my book, how do I get fans?
It’s like we need experience to get a job, but if we don’t get a job, how can we get experience? We need credit to get a credit card but how do we get credit if no one will give us a credit card?
Social media has changed everything. Our following now supports US. People liked and supported Kristen Lamb before I ever even had a finished book (THANKS, btw :D). Now I have fans of me and my book. How? I built a social media platform.
Unlike writers in the past, I do have control over writing a darn good book AND building a platform. It is double the work, but now I actually exercise some control over my future. It is already DOUBLE the work, why make even MORE?
We already have a full time day job and kids and pets and needy houseplants, why balance multiple identities when you don’t have to? Why make the marketing side an even BIGGER chore?
This is part of why pen names can suck. But let’s look into traditional reasons to have a pen name and why most of the time they are no longer valid.
Privacy—Okay, um privacy is an illusion. Unless we only use cash and live as a wandering hobo on the fringes of society, there is no such thing. Everything is electronic.
That grocery store card on our keychain that saves us money is recording everything we buy and how often. We are on camera everywhere we go. Nothing about our life is private…period. Believing that a pen name is somehow going to give us this magical anonymity is like thinking that hiding under a blanket makes us invisible.
Whooooo…you can’t see me.
If we are wanting to build an entirely new identity for marketing purposes, that is great. But we cannot suffer any illusions that we can hide. It is a pen name, not witness protection. Yes, historically, the nom de plume was a safe haven. That is ancient history.
Say I write kid’s books under one name and hardcore bondage erotica under a pen name. Stop laughing.
All it takes is someone taking my picture at an event or a book signing then posting that on their Facebook page for everything I have spent years building to crumble. Someone surfing recognizes me as the same lady who read her new kid’s book at the mall.
Now I potentially have a huge problem. I tried to use my pen name to hide what I was doing.
I have friends who write erotica and they are fun and wild and carefree…and often like hanging around a bunch of 8th grade boys. But these women feel very confident in their work and their sexuality, and if they are using a pen name it is to make their writing sell more copies because their name sounds sexier. Their motivation is not to hide from the world what they are doing.
Any 10 year old with basic computer skills can find out our real name. As search engines get faster and better and more and more people are contributing content? The problem only grows larger. It is a Brave New World. There are blessings…but they come at a price.
People at work will find out—This is the same scenario. Privacy is an illusion. And, like I said on Wednesday’s blog, the good news is that most normal people don’t spend their free time googling coworkers to see what they are up to when they leave the employee parking lot. That’s just weird…and kind of creepy.
Just write. If you become a best-selling author you won’t be working there anymore anyway. Why care?
I have a difficult last name—On social media we get to see people’s names over and over and over. We don’t have to be able to pronounce your last name in order to recognize it. In fact, that name you have hated since grade school actually can help you stand apart from all the other writers. Don’t take my word for it; ask Janet Evanovich.
If my name is Inga Skjold, all someone needs to remember is my name begins with “Skj…” and the Amazon search engines will deliver them right to my books.
Google has red slanty letters to correct people who misspell your name. Go type in “Author Janet Ewanoviche” and see what happens. Google will be right there with red slanty letters asking “Did you mean Author Janet Evanovich?”
My name is boring—Okay, our name is only half of the brand. NAME + CONTENT = BRAND.
Stephen King was a boring name shared by thousands of other young men. Then, the name was associated so many times with horror writing, that the name Stephen King is now synonymous with horror, and I really feel sorry for King’s male peers who share his name.
Our name only sells books because people recognize it, not because it is fancy. How many of you have ever said, “Wow, that author has a really snazzy name. I think I will buy her book.” We buy books because the title of the book sounds cool or the story sounds interesting. Dan Brown, Sandra Brown, Stephen King are not terribly exotic names.
The pen name is not the place to be glamorous. Earning fat royalty checks that let us go spend a weekend at a spa is the real place to get glamorous. If we don’t have time left over to write great books, then who cares what our name is?
I write more than one genre—For now? Yes, that might be necessary. My opinion? This practice is going extinct and will be dead before the end of the decade. I give it five years max.
Historically, publishing houses made authors use different names if they switched genre. Why? Because the only platform a novelist could grow was a platform of people who loved the writer’s books.
We were trapped under a traditional marketing paradigm. The general public wasn’t on-line interacting real time with their favorite authors. We needed multiple names to keep readers from getting confused.
I have a confession. Are you sitting down? I write thrillers too. How many of you just had your brains explode? No one? Did it rip the fabric of your reality that I do more than one thing?
This is the first time in history that authors had control over their platform. ONE NAME. If you must have a pen name, build it under the umbrella of YOUR NAME. Bob Mayer has his books listed on his site. We get that Bob Mayer writes thrillers, sci-fi, romance, NF, and now historical fiction…and yet we live to tell the tale.
If you want sci-fi, check out Bob Mayer as Robert Doherty. Still alive? Good. See how easy that was?
If we build our platform using our own name and then our agent wants us to have a pen name? No problem. Just keep business as usual then mention, “Oh and soon my romance under my pen name FiFi Fakename will be available for sale. I’ll let you know when.” Notice we don’t have to scurry off and build an entirely new platform with an entirely new identity.
I just found out Kristen writes fiction, too. Can I go on?
I am afraid of failure—Join the club. Some of you want to wait until the writing is successful to let friends and family know about the other half of your life. But it is coming at the cost of you spreading yourself too thinly to be effective. Hey, I have been there. I know!
Dreams come with risk. We don’t get a pass on risking failure. We all risk that. I have failed many, many times, and I have learned to take my lumps, laugh it off and keep going. Failure is part of life, and it is a core ingredient of the successful life. If we are spending so much time hedging against a fall, then you are planning for failure. Your focus is in the wrong spot. Focus on success.
Take the plunge!!!
When we use the name that all our friends and family, coworkers and people who knew us in school remember, we get an added advantage of activating our intimate networks. I have people who barely spoke to me in high school who are now some of my biggest cheerleaders. They are excited to get to support a writer they know.
Never underestimate the power of those close connections. The same family members rolling their eyes at you now will be the first to buy a book and tell all their friends and coworkers.
Are there good reasons to have a pen name? Certainly! But expect more work and plan accordingly. Make sure you are choosing that name for good reasons, not to hide, buttress against failure, or to masquerade fear.
Can you have a pen name? Sure. I won’t stop you. But my job as a social media expert is to give you my honest opinion. Most of the time, pen names are a total time suck that take away valuable time doing more productive things like writing great books. If you still want a pen name, rock on. Make sure you get a copy of my book so you can do it in a way that won’t have you up on your roof with a shotgun and a stockpile of tequila.
All right. Questions? Comments? For those of you who have a pen name, any pointers for those who must have a nom de plume?
I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of March, 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. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end on March I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.
This Week’s Winner of 5 Page Critique–Laura Droege
Until next time…
In the meantime, if you don’t already own a copy, my best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books.