To Pseudonym or Not to Pseudonym


There can be benefits to using a pen name, but I believe there are many more downsides to using a pseudonym than upsides.

Nora Roberts, the author of more than 150 romance novels, was asked why she writes romantic suspense novels under a pseudonym. Her answer: “It’s marketing.”

She says that writing quickly makes it difficult for her publisher to publish all of her work with an appropriate amount of time between each release, so she writes works which are “edgier” than her romance novels under the pseudonym J. D. Robb. She says, “Putting it under a pseudonym helps brand it for the reader.” Children’s writers often separate their real names or their “other” writing names from their children’s work to keep work intended for children untainted.

All these reasons are absolutely valid, and there are many more. But I believe there are many more downsides to using a pseudonym than upsides, especially from marketing and organizational perspectives.

You can find more information on the concept of branding in the second edition of The Frugal Book Promoter, including some of the reasons why you shouldn’t use a pen name. You will, of course, have to weigh the pros and cons for your title and your career, but keep in mind that Ms. Roberts has a powerhouse publisher and its marketing department to help her navigate the difficulties inherent in using a pseudonym.

If you are considering using a pen name, here’s what you should know:

  1. It is difficult to keep a pen name secret. Everyone knows who Kristie Leigh Maguire is, for example, but most know that it is a pen name. Once they know, the author has lost the privacy value of using a pseudonym.
  2. If people didn’t already know that “Robb” was Nora Roberts’ pen name, most of them do now since Time magazine let the cat out of the bag in a featured interview. The magazine also revealed (big time) that Nora Roberts is also a pen name! Suddenly, I don’t feel the same affinity for her as a person or an author. I don’t even know her name. In one fell swoop her pen name lost some of its branding value.
  3. It is very hard to promote a book in person when you use a pen name, especially if you choose an opposite-sex pen name. In fact, promotion of all kinds can become touchy. You may lose authenticity. That loss must be balanced against whatever reason you are using to convince yourself it’s a good idea.
  4. Using a pen name isn’t necessarily an effective barrier against lawsuits. But do ask your attorney.
  5. Have you ever considered how hard it is to be a good liar? One has to have an amazing memory and as well as a deceptive nature. Authors have problems enough learning to nurture the marketing, publicity, TV, radio, and speaking skills they had no idea they’d ever need when they started writing. Trying to remember all the little white lies (or big whoppers) you may find yourself telling may not be worth the effort. I mean, Nora Roberts finally gave up on the biggest fib of all: that she uses pen names. In the Time interview, she discarded pretense and became herself.
  6. And last but not least is the technical, time-consuming – and potentially expensive – quagmire of branding yourself over and over again for every pen name you have. Think websites, blog posts, email accounts, and social media exploits. And even worse, think how much less effective those efforts will be because they are diluted since you only have so much time to devote to branding each of those names. If you think you will never have to do that, that you never expect to change genres or run into a marketing misstep that forces you to return to your real name, you may be mistaken. Many multi-genre authors didn’t expect to do that when they wrote their first book. And, like the kid getting his driver’s license at sixteen, most of us don’t expect to have marketing accidents.

One politician-turned-author chose to use a pseudonym to protect the innocent – and himself. The book benefited from the big secret at first. But soon (very soon!) sales waned. His big, prestigious publisher must have convinced him that pen names (real secretive pen names!) are not easy to promote. There is no author to interview. There is little story beyond “a book has been published” to tell. There is no real person to give the book authenticity and credibility. When sales flagged, this author came out of the closet. It turned out his penchant for privacy (or whatever his reason for secrecy) didn’t turn out to be so important when stacked against the success of his baby (that would be his book).