If you are thinking about a pen name, tread carefully. A pen name brings major marketing challenges and actually adds more work to an author’s plate. When I get asked if it’s worth it, I often make a face. I can’t help it. I love my pen name, but not always.
For a fiction writer, it can offer what feels like a comfortable cloak of anonymity. But don’t be lulled into a pen name. That warm, cozy feeling may not last if you aren’t careful. You may decide to copyright under your pen name without listing your legal name. You even have to be careful registering your author website’s domain. But even that, all that can be undone with a click as fast as a friend can tag you on Facebook. In my case, my pen name has been outed a few times. For example, when I won an award in a short story contest, they needed my legal name to write out the check. Unfortunately, they listed me under my legal name in the reading and awards. Not that I really minded. Since the cat was out of the bag, eventually, I added my book credentials to LinkedIn. If people really want to figure your name out, most of the time they can.
Here are some things you may wish to factor in as you weigh the pros and cons of whether a pen name is right for you and as you choose one.
1. Realize anonymity is a myth. A pen name will not completely protect you. You have to promote the book and that’s difficult to do without people finding out it’s you. The moment someone snaps your pic at a book signing, for example, you’re out there. Facial recognition software is not a thing of science fiction dreams anymore. Like I said, it’s as common as someone tagging a friend on Facebook.
2. Google your real name. Do you share it with an axe murderer? Another author perhaps? How unique is it? How difficult is it to spell or remember? Are you a top hit or buried behind three million other people named Smith? Is the domain name for your author name available or some variation? Now repeat with your potential pen name.
With my legal name, I’ve got one of those exceptionally rare names that are impossible for 99.9 percent of the population to spell and pronounce. People don’t return my phone calls because they can’t understand it sometimes. Most people would not be able to spell my legal name in a search on Google or Amazon. While my legal name is nice and unique, I felt it would make it challenging for readers to find me.
3. Carefully consider the impact on marketing. If you use a pen name, you may have to start over from scratch on social media. You may be cursed with two Facebook accounts, two Twitter accounts, two email accounts, etc. It takes time to build an online presence and you may have to start over with a new name. Having a public Facebook account for your pen name is useful because you can keep your private life, like photos of your kids, somewhat separate. Facebook used to frown upon accounts under pen names but does not suspend accounts over it like they used to.
4. Factor in your own creativity. Does a pen name excite you? Do you feel more free writing under another name? Have you always fantasized about writing as someone else? If so, that’s a major pro. It takes a certain amount of freedom to write. You have to let your mind wander in ways beyond the ordinary every day, so if a pen name makes you feel freer, even without the certainty of anonymity, it may be useful. It’s a small shield, but a fun one. I planned on writing under a pen name since I was in third grade.
5. Do you have a professional identity you’d like to keep completely separate from your writing career? If so, a pen name may be beneficial.In my situation, I didn’t want to interfere with my career as a journalist when I chose my pen name. Google my real name and you’ll get a ton of hits about everything from stories about animal-assisted therapy to photos of CeaseFire rallies in the Chicago suburbs. I decided to keep separate my journalism writing from my fictional world.
6. If you decide to go the pen name route, keep in mind that you may end up going by your pen name in many situations, so pick a name that you like being called. As time has gone on, my career had evolved more and more around creative writing. I’m a self-publishing consultant, fiction editor, and bestselling author. I find myself doing business as K.B. Jensen more and more, and occasionally think about changing my legal name to my pen name. I’m now used to people calling me K.B. So if you are considering a pen name, be careful. It just might take over your life. But that may be a good thing.