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Pen Names – Why or Why Not?

In August, one of the biggest stories in the written world broke, exposing the debut author Robert Galbraith as the one and only, J.K. Rowling. The exposure was not supposed to happen, yet it did, and the books started flying off the shelves. This got me thinking.  Why did Rowling (or any author for that matter) choose to write under a different name?  Let’s first take a look at the options an author might have:

Let’s first take a look at the options an author might have:

  • Birth Name, in some form or another. Some writers choose to use initials, possibly to still preserve some form of anonymity (think V.C. Andrews or S.E. Hinton or J.R.R. Tolkien).
  • Pseudonym, a completely different, imagined name. Think Robert Galbraith/J.K. Rowling or Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb or Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens.
  • Allonym, a completely different, yet real or borrowed name. I often see this in authors’ stories, rather than the names they publish themselves (think Catch Me If You Can) and often have personal or historical influence.

In the case of Rowling, I believe that she wanted to see how successful she could be based solely on her writing, not on the loyalty of fans like me who would buy anything with her name on it.  Essentially, she wanted to break into a different genre, so changing her name allowed her to put aside her Harry Potter fame and do something different.

This tactic is not unusual for established authors, but there are other reasons for using a pen name.  Mary Ann Evans wrote under the pseudonym George Eliot to break the gender barrier in the 19th century.  There is also the example of multiple ghost writers writing under the name Carolyn Keene for the Nancy Drew and The Dana Girls mystery stories.  Then there are writers who simply want to keep their names hidden from mass exposure.  Who might some of these people be?

I wanted to hear from the mouths of authors today about their reasons on becoming someone else for their writing. Here is a sampling of what I heard:

Michael Hammor (Website | Twitter)

“I chose to publish under a pen name mainly because my real name has multiple military associations that I’d rather not make public. It also allows me a certain level of freedom. I’m not as accountable for what I write. If my work is substandard or lacking, it doesn’t ruin the reputation of my own name. To summarize, it allows me more freedom to express myself, insulates my work from my military associations, and protects my personal reputation.”

Peggy Barnett – J.M. Frey (Website | Twitter)

“I have the name that I publish my ‘mainstream’ SF/F work under (J.M. Frey) and a separate pseudonym for my erotica work (Peggy Barnett). I have two separate names for audience and branding purposes, not because I’m ashamed or hiding my erotica work. (And why would I? It sells well.) For example, when you go to eat at McDonald’s, you expect different kinds of fast food, but all of it is essentially “McDonald’s” food. There wouldn’t be a three course steak dinner with red wine and candles followed by a decadent chocolate dish; that doesn’t fall in line with the McDonald’s brand. For the same reason, I separate my mainstream and my erotica work with two separate brand names. When you pick up a book by J.M. Frey, you know more or less what to expect, even if it’s a science fiction book this time instead of, say, a steampunk fantasy like the last one you read. When you pick up a book by Peggy Barnett, you know you’re going to get a smart, plotty, slightly uncomfortable erotica tale. It’s a marketing tactic.

It’s also, I admit, because J.M. Frey’s work is sometimes for a younger audience.  Even though my adult-market books can sometimes get sexually or violently explicit, having a separate brand for the erotica work means that a younger reader might be protected from accidentally picking up the erotica. If they research and find it on their own, I have no problem with that. It’s not about policing what younger readers can access so much as making sure that when they do access explicit material, they do so knowingly and on purpose.

As for why I publish as “J.M. Frey” instead of Jessica Frey: well, I hate to say it, but there’s this bizarre conception that ‘girls’ can’t write science fiction. Fantasy, sure. Urban paranormal, romance, chick lit, yup, girls can write that. But science fiction, horror, crime thriller, or any action genre? Boystown. The week I was choosing what name to put on the covers of my first book, I went to the bookshop to look at what choices other people had made. I watched two male shoppers browsing the shelf, and literally heard one of them say: “Oh! This is new. It looks interesting, I might– no, nevermind. It’s by a chick.” And he put it back on the shelf. It was then and there that I decided to use a gender-neutral pen name.

I don’t hide the fact that I’m female (my author photo is me, I use feminine pronouns, my website has a picture of me), but for the browsing shoppers whose eyes skip over female names, it’s a way for my book to stand on its own merit. Maybe it’s a bit tricksy and unfair, but by the same token, it’s unfair for my book to be judged not only by its cover, but by the gender of the name on the cover.”

And, from our very own local writers . . .

David Aye – Harrison Aye (Website | Twitter)

“I chose Harrison, my middle name, because my first name, David, is bland and common. If I had to pick a guy to sit around the campfire and tell ghost stories with, I’d probably go with Harrison over David. It just sounds creepier, which suits the horror stories I write.”

Lisa Miller – Aubrie Elliot (Author Bio)

“The whole pen name thing for me was pretty simple – I don’t think my own name is appealing, and I’ve always wanted to change it. Because Halfway There is a debut novel, I didn’t have branding to worry about.”

Paula Stokes – Fiona Paul (Website | Twitter)

“My reasons for being Fiona Paul are 100% to do with the Secrets of the Eternal Rose trilogy being developed through a book development company. Even though I wrote the books, Paper Lantern Lit holds the copyright because they conceived the original idea. (This is similar to how a Grey’s Anatomy scriptwriter writes original content for an episode, but Shonda Rhimes has ultimate creative control as the series creator, and the network usually holds the copyright). The Fiona Paul name is also owned by Paper Lantern. I submitted to them a list of first names that I liked and they picked Fiona and added on Paul.”

From this small sampling, we see that the reasons for writing under a pen name vary greatly. Hearing from the mouths of authors today and seeing that even J.K. Rowling herself is using one, I believe that pen names are here to stay … and for good reason!

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