Should You Write Under a Pen Name? And How To Market It If You Do

shutterstock_150536339Thanks to the anonymity of the internet, the ease of selling digital products, and the popularity of erotica (who knew sex sold?), more and more authors are considering publishing some or all their work under a pen name. There are a variety of reasons you might consider a pen name (and Kristine Kathryn Rusch has a thorough blog post on all the major ones), so this setup isn’t uncommon in the slightest—yet, it can still feel unorthodox when you’re choosing it for yourself.

I write under both my real name and a pen name. I picked up my pen name because back in 2012—through very odd circumstances—I produced a 24,000 word erotic novella in two days that was better than any fiction I’d written up to that point. (How? Too long of a story. But I explain the entire thing in Write Better, Faster: How To Triple Your Writing Speed and Write More Every Day if you want to read more about it.)

For the past several years, I’ve struggled with all the typical questions you might imagine come with a pen name:

  • How do I talk about this?
  • Who should I tell the truth?
  • What do I say when people say, I can’t find your books?
  • How do I manage two identities online?
  • How do I tell my readers the truth about who I am?

All of these questions have stumped me at one point or another, and I can’t provide the “right” answers to these questions for you—only you know what’s best for your business.

But what I can share are some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years of managing these two author identities at the same time. Here are my five tips:

Tip #1. Don’t keep your pen name a secret.

The #1 reason that I hear for authors considering a pen name is to stay anonymous in their real lives. A pen name is good for this, especially when you’re writing fiction. Lots of authors use pen names, so it’s common business practice and won’t (or shouldn’t) surprise readers when they find out who you are in real life.

I want to point out, though, that there is a difference between wanting a little distance and privacy from your real life, versus wanting complete anonymity.

I advise against the latter, mainly because I don’t believe in secrets.

I’ve never taken nude pictures because I’ve always been paranoid about data hacking (apparently Taylor Swift agrees). I feel the same thing applies to pen names. If you don’t want people to find out—if there will be serious consequences in your personal or professional life as a result—just don’t do it!

Secrets give others power to expose you and twist your truth into something ugly. But when something is not (really) a secret, then there’s no power behind it.

So, in my opinion (and of course others will disagree—I respect that), it just doesn’t make sense to try to keep a secret pen name.

A hush hush pen name? Sure, that’s fine. Most of my network doesn’t actively know that I write erotic romance and erotica… but could find out with some digging. And while I don’t necessarily want my grandparents to read those books, I’m an adult. I could still look them in the eyes and explain what it’s all about if needed—it wouldn’t wreck our relationship.

A pen name to separate your professional day job from your fiction side-job? Probably smart. Especially if you are a lawyer, a doctor, a teacher, or something similar, where your credibility could be questioned by a new potential employer who found some peculiar Google search results. No point in burning bridges before you’re ready to go full-time, right?

But a pen name that literally no one else knows about? A pen name that could badly mess up your career, or your home life? Living with a secret like that could seriously hamper your ability to succeed in this business—and potentially tear you apart inside in the process.

Making a living as an author is already extremely tough; doing so without a strong support system, without your author friends, without your current network? I would think twice, at least. It’s just not a recipe for success.

On top of that, there are problems with secrecy once you start to develop a relationship with your readers. How are readers going to connect with you if they don’t know who you are? How will they ever become true fans? Why create all these extra problems for yourself by keeping the pen name secret?

So I know this point will be controversial, but that’s my advice. Secret pen names are risky!

Tip #2. Be prepared to step up your marketing game.

Marketing any pen name (especially if you’re adding on) is at least twice as hard as marketing yourself. I probably don’t have to tell anyone this. Marketing a single brand on your own, with no team, is tough enough as it is. Many of us have firsthand experience with this.

But marketing two or more pen names and double, triple, quadruple the work? Without a “face” to go with one of those brands, and without someone who can be a full-time impersonator? Good luck. Unless you are superhuman, this isn’t going to be an easy road for you because you’re dividing your efforts and attention between the real you and this alter-personality.

When you’re promoting your book, you’ve got to use every asset you currently have to find new readers. You want to talk to your friends, your family, and even your professional network (if your career allows it).

When you have a pen name, though, you are starting 100% from scratch, as if you literally were just born yesterday and don’t know a single person. That is not going to make it easy to get the ball rolling on a new release. And remember, even with your network, this business is not exactly a walk in the park and bestsellers don’t happen because you have 700 Facebook friends!

This isn’t to say don’t do it, it’s just to say look before you leap. If you are going down this road, know that you will need to wear even more hats than the typical authorpreneur—and be prepared for the additional work that’s going to come with it. There are a few tricks to making it work (I talk more about these below) but know what you’re signing up for!

Tip #3. Define your pen names thematically, rather than by genre.

In the past, writers needed a new pen name for every single genre they wrote in. For example, Nora Roberts, bestselling romance author, has to write thriller/mysteries under J.D. Robb (also a bestseller).

Now, multiple pen names aren’t as necessary because self-publishing is a real and viable option for all of us indies. That said, if you are writing in wildly different genres, you still might want to have a pen name for each.

I picked up my second pen name because I write both young adult and “books with too much sex for young adults.” Those were my original distinctions—does this have a lot of sex? Okay, it’s an MR title. Turns out, this isn’t a great strategy for selling books!

Even if you have two pen names based on genre, you must remember that these pen names are both brands. You aren’t trying to just set them apart from each other, you’re trying to set each one apart from others in their markets.

Maddy Raven is not a romance author, or an erotica author—she’s an author who writes about strong women who feel stuck in a man’s world, under a man’s thumb. These heroines make tough choices that conflict with their values. They do so in order to survive and find happiness—and in some cases, even love. This opens Maddy Raven up to write New Adult, romance, erotic romance, paranormal romance, fantasy romance, erotic fantasy, and so on—you get the picture.

Monica Leonelle is not a young adult author—she’s an author who creates worlds worth exploring. She builds societies with political, social, and psychological underpinnings that teenagers love in all genres of fantasy and science fiction. Her characters are young, complicated, and reckless as they survive and thrive in the extreme circumstances that surround them. Everything cool about these books revolves around the worlds that the character inhabit. This opens Monica Leonelle up to write urban fantasy, cyberpunk sci-fi, high fantasy, space opera, paranormal romance, magical realism, and even contemporary (if done correctly).

You can see more examples of the thematic pen names (by imprint, of course—though most of these imprints have only one or two authors at the moment) under Sterling and Stone’s story studio:

  • Collective Inkwell – specializes in horror, sci-fi, and superbly scripted fiction
  • Realm & Sands – asks big questions within genre-agnostic stories
  • Lexi Maxxwell – tells smart but naughty women’s fiction
  • Guy Incognito – produces quality stories for children with the emotional and intellectual intelligence they deserve
  • LOL – houses all of the irreverent comedy stories
  • The Smarter Artist – produces guides for creative entrepreneurs wanting to alchemize their ambitions into a healthy profit

See how each of these imprints is not just about genre, but about so much more? Personality matters! Sterling and Stone houses four made up pen names (Max Powers, Guy Incognito, Autumn Cole, and Lexi Maxxwell), but none of those pen names are defined solely by genre. Each one has a personality behind it, one that sets it apart from others in its genre, not just from others in Sterling and Stone.

The distinction is subtle but extremely important to long-term success with a pen name!

Tip #4. If at all possible, focus your energy on building the most popular pen name first.

Remember what I said about dividing your attention? Well, as you can imagine, that’s a huge no-no when starting a business. Most businesses need your full attention and support, especially when you are first starting out.

So unless you absolutely have to take a break from one pen name for creative reasons (this happened to me with MR last year), try to get momentum with one pen name first.

MR absolutely took off for me first and I definitely wanted (and needed) to ride that wave for awhile. Now that MR has 9 titles, with several more coming out shortly, I can ease up a bit and build my ML pen name in tandem.

What exactly is momentum? Put simply, MR has systems in place and new readers coming to it every day. It has a small but healthy email list of ~500 eager buyers just waiting for the next book release. It has incentives set up for people to review and share the book series with their friends. Now that those systems are in place, all that’s left is bringing more people in at the front end (I’ll be scheduling some promotions this year), a few strategic new releases, and plenty of time to grow.

ML, on the other hand, has had several false starts, which means there are very few books actually out (and way too many in the drafting or editing backlog). In 2015, my goal is to rectify this and make more ML titles available, to clean up my files, covers, and meta data, and to start promoting my work.

Luckily, I’m going to get a little bit of help on the marketing front with this new iteration of ML… which brings me to my next point.

Tip #5. Do a collaboration between your pen names.

The link between your pen names is strong because it’s you! There is higher cross-over potential that there would be between two random authors. This is true even if your pen names write in different genres.

I saw an opportunity for a cross-over between the young adult and romance genres in an emerging genre a la 50 Shades called New Adult. These books are about that life period between being a young adult and adult, which usually takes place around college. These books have more adult situations, but also have protagonists who still think and act more like teenagers (or are at least in touch with that part of themselves still).

So take advantage of the potential collaboration opportunities between you pen names, but don’t even stop there. Think bigger—how can a book series that helps promote both your pen names benefit you even more and drive your marketing strategy?

I realized if I was going to create a New Adult series, I might as well write something that has high marketability and that would be popular.

Emma-and-Elsie-1The series I came up with, Emma + Elsie has an easy promotional hook—it’s a modern retelling mashup of two classic novels by Jane Austen, Emma and Pride and Prejudice. I just recently launched the first book and it’s doing well—not too surprising, since it was built to capitalize on several market trends, hit several types of readers, and target multiple other audiences. What’s interesting with having a free first-in-series is that I can test the virality factor—and so far, this freebie is performing 3-5x better than my current most popular series. Very promising!

It’s not a coincidence that a series I predict will be my most popular series is also the series that links my two pen names. I’m a smaller publisher with fewer resources but many interests. I write lots of different types of stories in different genres—it keeps me fresh and creatively fulfilled.

My best bet to promote my whole line is to bet big on one of those series and hope for trickle-down and cross-promotion.

Having a core series gives me a place to direct my marketing energy. I’m always going to want to write different things, whether it’s a smart business decision or not… but dividing my marketing time between those many series is not smart at all.

So if you are going to do two pen names, find a way to make them work together and feed into each other’s success.

So Should You Start a Pen Name?

The choice to start a pen name is deeply personal, so take everything I’ve said here with a grain of salt. It may not apply to your work.

But if you are considering a pen name, these are certainly a few topics to keep in mind as you plan how you’re going to grow that pen name in the next five, ten, twenty years. Because a pen name isn’t going to save you from the hard facts: becoming an author under any name is still a major investment of time, energy, and effort. Step in with eyes wide open, even if your birth name isn’t on the cover.

If you enjoyed this post, I write more about self-publishing on my blog every Thursday at Prose on Fire (sign up to receive the column by email) and produce the Growth Hacking For Storytellers series—small books about growing your readership through every facet of your business. I’m also active on G+, where I share smaller, ephemeral musings about authorpreneurship.

About Monica Leonelle

Monica Leonelle was born in Germany and spent her childhood jet-setting around the world with her American parents. Her travels include most of the United States and Europe, as well as Guam, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines.

She started publishing independently in 2009 and has since published over half a million words of fiction spread across four series, Socialpunk, Waters Dark and Deep, Emma + Elsie, and Stars and Shadows. In 2014, she published 8 books and one short story.

She writes about indie publishing at ProseOnFire.com. Her most recent non-fiction book, Write Better, Faster, has earned raving reviews from the independent publishing community for going deeper than anyone else into the topic of writing speed. She currently averages around 3,000 words per hour and writes 25,000+ words per week (most weeks).

Comments

  1. Blaine Moore says:

    You missed one of the Sterling & Stone pen names…Johnny B. Truant! His entire character online is that of his pen name, and provides a clear separation between his online life and family life. He would have made for a great example.

    • Yes, you’re right! I guess I don’t think of that as a pen name because he’s still basically himself online. I don’t see him as playing a “role.” I think it all goes back to keeping it a true secret or just getting a bit of separation. To me, the way Johnny uses his pen name makes a lot of sense—it gives him privacy but he can still be the “face” of his brand.

  2. Well done, Monica.

    I have a day job with a big company and I’m a fitness and nutrition author and consultant by night, so I’m considering a pen name for my fiction. Even then, I might go with my initials and my real last name, just to have a second author page. I don’t anticipate much crossover. 😉

    • Yep, makes a lot of sense. I see many writers using variations of their name for different “lines.” Example: Joanna Penn and J.F. Penn. Many female writers, at least in young adult, also use their first + middle name. This makes a lot of sense to me as a woman because to be frank, marital status can and does change in both directions. You never want your pen name to change, though, even if your legal name does.

  3. Myka Reede says:

    A couple questions that I’ve wrestled with include: how do you introduce yourself at in-person events (like the upcoming Summit)? Do you say “hi. I’m [pen name]? It feels weird and a bit dishonest. Do you say “hi. I’m [real name] but write as [pen name]”? That’s a mouthful for an introduction and a little spammy.

    How do you fill out conference registrations or other semi-legal stuff? (Not like I have a VISA card in my pen name)

    I assume your copywrite and ISBN’s are filed under your real name?

    Thanks for any insights.

    • Ember Casey says:

      Monica might have a different answer, but I thought I’d throw my two cents in! 🙂

      I write romance under a pen name, and in my experience whether or not you use your pen name at an event seems to vary. For the most part, though, I find myself using my real name at *writing* events (like workshops, etc.) and my pen name at industry/networking events (where it’s more about my *brand*)… though sometimes events fall somewhere in between. I will say that when I showed up at my first romance novelist event, I tried to give my roommates my real name and they said, “Oh, no–don’t bother with your real name here. You’ll just confuse people!”

      A lot of conference registrations (at least in the romance world) have a space for you real name and a pen name–and they give you a choice of which one will appear on your badge. I’ve found, in this genre at least, that using the pen name is usually the easiest.

      As for copyright, they have a place for a pen name on the form. Not sure about ISBNs, though! 🙂

  4. Monica Leonelle says:

    Hi Myka,

    Ember’s answer is fantastic!

    At the summit, I think you can just use your real name and tell us about your pen name. All of us are authors in different genres, so there’s not as much reading cross-over as there might be at say, a romance conference.

    I do copyright and ISBNs under my real name or my company name, yes.

  5. Dale Szewczyk says:

    Brilliant! Co-authoring pen names, I love that! I have a pen name, but if I write with my real name, it will be for non-fiction. Right now my fiction name is the pen name. Love this post!

    • Monica Leonelle says:

      Co-authoring may not work as well between fiction and non-fiction pen names 🙂

      • True, but if my fiction takes off, one of my characters might cowrite a women’s fitness book with me. 😉

      • Dale Szewczyk says:

        Oh yeah, if I did the co-authoring thing it would have to be for fiction on both. I have another pen name that will write on series, and I have been thinking if I need another pen name or not, but if that pen co-authored on other titles that would be cool. My real name will be for non-fic only, it won’t co-author with any of my pen names. I just thought this idea totally rocks! 🙂

  6. Cathy Pelham says:

    Great information. I have a few questions though.

    I have one short story out under my real name, but would like to continue the series under a pen name. How would you go about re-branding existing works if you start under another name?

    The same holds true of my author site. How would you go about porting existing circles, groups, followers to a new pen name?

    • >>>>> How would you go about re-branding existing works if you start under another name?

      I would change the cover, using the new name, then just update the listing on Amazon.

      For the author site, you just need a new domain and also a design refresh.

      On FB you can’t switch names easily, they have really specific rules, so you may have to start over. On Twitter you can change your handle, and I think you can do the same on most other sites.

      For email, I would just send an update to my list to let them know that things are changing over. Most of my subscribers on Maddy know who I actually am. Readers really don’t care, they just don’t want to be confused.

      I’m not sure what else you would have to switch over. If it were me, I’d make a small project in Asana and tackle each switchover one by one.

  7. Hi, Monica –

    I’m self-publishing my first adult book after traditionally publishing seven YA novels. When assigning the ISBN, it asks for contributors. Do I list my legal name as Author? Or my pen name? I do have an “open” pen name, but I also want to make sure if someone searches for the book under the ISBN# it doesn’t come up under my leg an name and cause confusion.

    Thanks so much! I’m a bit lost here and can’t seem to find an answer online.

    Michelle

  8. Deirdre Braud says:

    I am writing a non-fiction book about my life for the first time. My publisher wanted to makes changes, I disagreed with that, so now they say in order to publish my book, I would have to use a pen name. I really wanted to use my real name, I wasn’t ashamed of my past and wanted to keep the book honest. My concerns are how will I market my book now?

    • I don’t understand how you can write non-fiction about yourself and use a pen name. If you’re famous, then the name is why people by the book. If you’re not and you’re telling a story to inspire or teach people, then people will want to find out who you are to make sure you have the authority to teach them.

      Most non-fiction, period, requires a person of authority as the author, and in the sense of an autobiography, the actual name of the person. Otherwise, it might as well be fiction.

  9. Promoting and marketing under a pen name is way hard work. And it also depends if you want to continue it in future.

    “When you have a pen name, though, you are starting 100% from scratch, as if you literally were just born yesterday and don’t know a single person.”
    So true it is………

    Can you help how exactly to promote/market under pen name so that at least a few people will visit the page at least ?

    And thanks for the advisory and clarifying post..
    Making a decision about pen name in advance will help a lot……

    Thanks
    Will Canley

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