The Problem with Pen Names
When I first became a writer, one of my favorite activities was dreaming what my pen name would be. I’d even practice signing it so that, you know, I didn’t accidentally scribble Kristen Lamb in my runaway best-selling book at my glamorous book signing.
Don’t judge me. Y’all did it too 😛 .
Before anyone gets in a fluff, understand two things. First, I’m on your side. If you want or need a pen name? Rock on! If you already have one? Keep it! If a sexy exotic name makes you write better stories? Go for it!
This is only a decision the author can make. My only goal here is to make sure y’all are making educated business decisions. Thus, I won’t stop anyone from having a pen name, but about 95% of the time? They’re unnecessary.
The modern author already has to take on far more than simply writing, so why volunteer for more work?
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.
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 Dr. Who” or “I like to crochet weapons of mass destruction.”
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. Readers buy from who they know and who they like.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
I finally sent off my mystery-thriller to the publisher. When that sucker goes to market? I am NOT motivated enough to start ALL OVER. If my followers don’t like stories about murder and cartels? Don’t buy my book. Simple. But, there may be people who might just try a thriller because it’s written by me.
It Doesn’t Take Much to Implode an Identity
I once had a writer in my branding class who 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. But what if she becomes successful and crazy family member figures out the pen name and starts trolling that 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.
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.
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 is searching my name for my blog/books and they get Kristen Lamb the Cake Decorator, all they have to do is add the word “writer” 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. But 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 her 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 AUGUST, 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).
Check out the other NEW classes below! Now including a log-line class! Can you tell me what your book is about in ONE sentence? If you can’t SIGN UP.
All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.
Blogging for Authors (August 26th)
This class will teach you all you need to know to start an author blog good for going the distance. Additionally I would also recommend the class offered earlier that same week (August 22nd) Branding for Authors to help you with the BIG picture. These classes will benefit you greatly because most blogs will fail because writers waste a lot of time with stuff that won’t work and never will and that wastes a lot of time.
I am here to help with that 😉 .
All fiction must have a core antagonist. The antagonist is the reason for the story problem, but the term “antagonist” can be highly confusing. Without a proper grasp of how to use antagonists, the plot can become a wandering nightmare for the author and the reader.
This class will help you understand how to create solid story problems (even those writing literary fiction) and then give you the skills to layer conflict internally and externally.
Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist Gold
This is a personal workshop to make sure you have a clear story problem. And, if you don’t? I’ll help you create one and tell the story you want to tell. This is done by phone/virtual classroom and by appointment. Expect to block off at least a couple hours.
Log-lines are crucial for understanding the most important detail, “WHAT is the story ABOUT?” If we can’t answer this question in a single sentence? Brain surgery with a spork will be easier than writing a synopsis. Pitching? Querying? A nightmare. Revisions will also take far longer and can be grossly ineffective.
As authors, we tend to think that EVERY detail is important or others won’t “get” our story. Not the case.
If we aren’t pitching an agent, the log-line is incredibly beneficial for staying on track with a novel or even diagnosing serious flaws within the story before we’ve written an 80,000 word disaster. Perhaps the protagonist has no goal or a weak goal. Maybe the antagonist needs to be stronger or the story problem clearer.
In this one-hour workshop, I will walk you through how to encapsulate even the most epic of tales into that dreadful “elevator pitch.” We will cover the components of a strong log-line and learn red flags telling us when we need to dig deeper. The last hour of class we will workshop log-lines.
The first ten signups will be used as examples that we will workshop in the second hour of class. So get your log-line fixed for FREE by signing up ASAP.
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.