Have you ever had an urge to write in a different genre?
If so, you might have wondered at some point whether you should use a pen name or a pseudonym or as the French call it a nom de guerre.
At least the question has been swirling around my head ever since I decided to be a writer.
And the most important part of the question in your mind would then be as to whether using a pen name is a good idea or not.
In this post, I will show you many reasons as to why using a pen name is such a bad idea. Of course, if you have already been using pen names, I suggest you to stick with those names but please do not create any more.
But before we talk about why using a pen name is a bad idea, we will first analyse why authors use pen names.
So why do authors use pen names?
Authors have been using pen names since time immemorial. It has often been rumoured that Shakespeare too was a pen name (whether this is fact or fiction we don’t really know for sure). The reasons are many.
Many Authors are very versatile writers and do not wish to be tied down to one genre. But if they use the same name in all those genres, they fear that this may lead to, what is known in the advertising world as, “brand confusion”. If your brand for a soda drink becomes popular, would you use it to market a laundry detergent? Never.
In the writing world, this means that if readers find out that you love writing dark fiction, travel memoirs, tips on writing and children’s books, they will not see you as an authority on anything. Therefore, some authors think it a good idea to have a separate persona for each genre.
Hiding your true identity
Many authors want to hide their gender, ethnicity or sexuality for a variety of reasons. You may still have a day job and do not want your bosses and colleagues to know that you write in your spare time.
You may be a woman author who wants to write in a genre dominated by males (i.e. war novels or dark crime fiction) and you fear that readers will not “trust” your real name because that genre has to be “male dominated” and that your readers are mostly “male chauvinists”.
Similarly some authors may want to hide their race or ethnicity because they have been told that most readers on the American site of Amazon will not read your book if they don’t see an American sounding name on it; because they are so “racist”.
Writing in an embarrassing Genre
This applies to authors writing in the erotica genre. A professor teaching literature at Harvard University might fear what her students are going to think of her if they find out she writes hot steamy erotica novels. It makes sense then for such authors to use pen names to hide their true identities.
Why then using a pen name may NOT now be such a smart idea?
Building Your Brand from Scratch
Do you love starting from scratch over and over again? At least I don’t. But if you are using a pen name, this is precisely what you will be doing.
Let’s take J.K. Rowling’s famous example. She was already an established author with a billion dollar brand (Harry Potter) before she had an urge to write crime fiction. She too feared that her readers might be disappointed if they learnt that their star author was writing crime fiction for adults and not books on wizardry for children. So, she wrote her first crime fiction novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling under the name of Robert Galbraith.
If you google search Robert Galbraith, this is what Wikipedia has to say about him (oops her):
“Before Rowling’s identity as the book’s author was revealed, 1,500 copies of the printed book had been sold since its release in April 2013, plus another 7,000 copies of the ebook, audiobook, and library editions. The book surged from 4,709th to the 1st best-selling novel on Amazon after it was revealed on 14 July 2013 that the book was written by Rowling under the pseudonym “Robert Galbraith”. Signed copies of the first edition are selling for as high as $4,000–$6,000”.
So it is clear that Robert Galbraith wasn’t selling well (because nobody knew who “he” was) until it was revealed that the author was actually J.K. Rowling. “J.K. Rowling” was already an established billion dollar brand, a brand which the author had worked so hard in building up for years. She failed to capitalise the power of the “J.K. Rowling” brand when she started writing as “Robert Galbraith”. Robert Galbraith then was choosing to start from scratch.
Contrary to popular wisdom, her readers didn’t mind in the least that she was writing crime fiction for adults. In fact, many of them would have bought her books just in curiosity only to be pleasantly surprised that she is indeed a very versatile writer who could easily switch from writing a Harry Potter type of magical book to a dark crime fiction novel for adults without any supernatural forces. To them, it didn’t sound that bad at all.
I think J.K. Rowling made a multi-million dollar mistake by not writing as J.K. Rowling. Now, she has started writing fiction novels for adults under her ‘J.K. Rowling’ brand like her book ‘The Causal Vacancy’.
Okay, most of us are far from being J.K. Rowling but the same logic applies. If you have already written a few books under a name, it would be extremely difficult to write books under another name. And the Internet has added to the problem, a point which I must discuss now.
Authors these days use Internet marketing techniques since most of us sell books online. The online world, however, has added its own kind of challenges for authors who use pen names. For example:
Do you start a new blog for your pen name? If so, how will you drive traffic? And will it be feasible to maintain more than one such blog?
Do you open a new social media account for your pen name?
Do you build your following from scratch for each psedonym?
If you are posting about your book on Facebook or Twitter, should you use your real name or your pen name?
Should you use your photo when you are using your pen name?
Would you ever be participating in book signing ceremonies, writers’ conferences, press interviews, etc where you have to be physically present?
My own take
I own three brands so far. The first one is Cooking In A Jiffy where I write and compile cookbooks based on the Home-Style” recipes of my dear mom.
The second brand is Quiet Phoenix where I write uplifting books for Introverts and Highly Sensitive Persons (being an Introvert myself). The theme of the series is that just as the Phoenix bird has the potential to be reborn literally from the ashes, so do introverts have the power to rise from any difficult situation.
The third one is Publish With Prasen (this blog) where I share tips on writing and self-publishing.
Yet I write under my real name which is Prasenjeet Kumar and not anything else.
Last year when I was thinking of writing in the Quiet Phoenix series, I too thought of writing under a pen name. But I soon gave up the idea. Why? Because I saw the difficulties that the Internet threw at me.
I had, for example, worked hard to create an Author’s account on Goodreads. I had uploaded my photo, bio, blog, reviewed and rated around 60 books and made a few friends. I was also running giveaways. This is one of the reasons why my Goodreads account looks authentic as if someone real has been reading and reviewing books and engaging with people with a profile picture.
I did not want to create a separate account on Goodreads and start all over again. I could have easily created a dummy account without any picture, books or friends, as some authors have done, but that only does a disservice to your brand and makes you look spammy in the worst case scenario and unprofessional at best.
Whenever I run a promotion, I always post as “Prasenjeet Kumar” on Facebook and Twitter. If I started using some pen name, this would mean that I will have to open separate accounts on Facebook and Twitter. Facebook could be a problem because they only allow you to open one profile.
Not Hiding my Ethnicity
I have debated with myself on many occasions whether my name may put off people on Amazon.com because it does not sound American. So far I have had no reason to doubt that. Most of my sales come from the American site of Amazon and most reviews I get are pretty positive, except for one reviewer who presumed that my native language couldn’t be English simply because I lived in India. Just to clarify, my native language is English and since my childhood I had been brought up and educated in an English medium school. In fact my command over English language is better than my native language Hindi which may surprise many.
Anyway, that is not really my point. My ideal reader is someone who loves what I write and does not care whether my name is “Kumar”, “Khan” or “King”. My ideal reader shares a strong emotional bond with me. Anyone who is put off by my name cannot be my reader and I find no reason to please such people.
What is your take on pen names? Have you used any? Do you find it useful? What difficulties have you encountered while using pen names?
I would love to hear your views on this.