The Politics of Pen Names by Erin Elizabeth Long

March 17, 2013

Whenever I pick up a book by an unfamiliar author, I always flip to the back to check them out. I like to see the photo and read the bio; it gives me a better sense of what I’m getting into. (Knowing that certain vampire books were written by an unnamed Mormon housewife just makes the pieces fall into place, doesn’t it?) I’ll also check the copyright page to see if they’re really who they say they are. It’s always a little disappointing to see a different name than the one on the cover, but authors often have excellent reasons for publishing as someone else.

Why Do Writers Use Pen Names?

Gender Bias

Many of the great novelists of the 19th century were women, but in order to be taken seriously, they wrote as men. George Eliot (real name: Mary Ann Evans), George Sand (real name: Amandine Lucie Aurore Dupin), the Bell brothers (real names: the Bronte sisters): all ladies.

This practice is hardly limited to the 19th century. Women who write in traditionally male-dominated genres like thrillers or crime novels will often adopt a gender-neutral name, such as P.D. James and J.D. Robb. Famously, Joanne Rowling was encouraged by her publisher to go by her initials so that little boys would be more inclined to buy Harry Potter. Since she had no middle name, she adopted “K” in honor of her grandmother. Gender bias also goes the other way; Frewin Jones, the author of the teen fantasy Faerie Path series, is actually called Allan.

Cultural Bias

What do Ayn Rand and Stan Lee have in common? Their real names are Alisa Rosenbaum and Stanley Lieber, respectively. Although less common in literary circles than in Hollywood, concerns over marketability and antisemitism often prompted Jews to anglicize their names. (This still happens today, of course; Jon Stewart (Jonathan Stuart Liebowitz) and Winona Ryder (Winona Horowitz) come to mind.)

Theodor Seuss Geisel is, of course, best known as Dr. Seuss. While researching this post, I read this interesting tidbit on Wikipedia: Geisel had always pronounced “Seuss” to rhyme with “voice,” but he eventually adopted an anglicized pronunciation because it “evoked a figure advantageous for an author of children’s books to be associated with—Mother Goose.” ”

Multiple Writers Working Together

While Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have always published as partners, many other teams have chosen to publish under one identity. Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee wrote detective fiction as Ellery Queen. Erin Hunter, whose Warriors series fills half a bookcase at the library, is actually three people (and quite possibly several more ghostwriters). Ilona Andrews, author of the Kate Daniels books, is open about being husband-and-wife duo Ilona and Andrew Gordon.

It’s Part of The Schtick

Samuel Langhorn Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, chose his pen name from the traditional riverman’s call for water two fathoms deep. Two children’s book writers, Lemony Snicket (real name: Daniel Handler) and Pseudonymous Bosch (real name: rumored to be Raphael Simon), created fake characters to go along with their fake identities. Both Snicket and Bosch were characters in their own works.

Cursed With a Clunker

Daniel Handler as Lemony Snicket, staring pensively at the sea.

Who do you think would sell more books: Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski or Joseph Conrad? The most remarkable thing about Joseph Conrad is that although he wrote primarily in English, he did not learn the language until his 20s. More recently, Tofa Borregaard published her series of steampunk romance novels as Gail Carriger.

Many writers whose names are difficult to pronounce or spell adopt read-friendly pseudonyms, but so do those who are born with less-than-marketable names. For example, Libba Bray, the young adult author of The Diviners, is named Martha. Anne Rice was born Howard Allen Frances O’Brien (she was named after her father); can you blame her for going by “Anne”?

Not to be confused with the (awesome) mid-90s TV show we got to watch sometimes as a treat in middle school.

Ghostwriting

In this gorgeous essay, Amy Boesky describes her experience working as a ghostwriter for the Sweet Valley High series. Many beloved childhood series, including Nancy DrewThe Hardy Boys, and The Baby-Sitters Club, were written by various ghostwriters. V.C. Andrews passed away in 1986; ghostwriter Andrew Neiderman has continued to write novels in her name since then.

Sometimes, as with Niederman, ghostwriting is an open secret. After all, no one really believes that Carolyn Keene has been steadily writing Nancy Drew books since the 1930s. Since the early 90s, James Patterson has worked with “co-writers” to produce his books; although he’s cagey about the actual numbers, he admits that he pitches ideas and does rewrites while the co-writers (sometimes credited, sometimes not) write the actual books. With these authors, their brand has become more important than the books. That’s why the name “Patterson” is larger than the title on the majority of his novels; people buy Patterson-brand thrillers regardless of who writes them.

There are a significant number of ghostwriters haunting the publishing world whose names we’ll never know. Write-for-hire authors typically sign a contract that prevents them from “outing” themselves. In 2010, disgraced author James Frey (okay, to be fair, I don’t know how “disgraced he is anymore; I just don’t like him) began recruiting MFA students for his “Full Fathom Five” book production company. The contracts were brutal (read the New York Times article for the details), and writers naive or desperate enough to sign on essentially signed away the rights to their work. Frey had complete discretion over assigning projects, doling out pseudonyms, and swapping out ghostwriters. Remember I Am Number Five, the YA alien series by Pittacus Lore? Yeah, that was a Full Fathom Five production.

Secret Identity

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was a conservative mathematics professor, but as Lewis Carroll, he wrote some of the most marvelous literary nonsense ever published. Eric Arthur Blair was a supporter of the British Empire, but as George Orwell, he became a radical socialist.

While working for the British intelligence service during the 50s, David John Moore Cornwell began writing espionage thrillers. When The Spy Who Came in From the Cold became a bestseller, John le Carre quit being a spy in order to write about them fulltime.

They Write Too Fast

Before the dawn of eBooks and self-publishing, it was considered something of a liability for an author to write more than one or two books a year. Writers who work faster than that sometimes published additional books under different names. One of the most well-known examples is Stephen King, who wrote several novels as Richard Bachman. King went so far as to have a fake picture and biography (Thinner was dedicated to Bachman’s fictional wife, Inez), but after he was “outed,” the books were repackaged as “Stephen King writing as Richard Bachman.”

I love the Morganville Vampires series by Rachel Caine, and I was surprised and a little amazed when I looked up the author online. Roxanne Longstreet Conrad writes a variety of series for adults and teens, as (deep breath) Rachel Caine, Roxanne Longstreet, Roxanne Conrad, Julie Fortune, and Ian Hammel. Even more impressive is Donald E. Westlake’s roster of fifteen different pseudonyms.

Genre Conventions

Few writers are as lucky as Lilith Saintcrow; she was born with the perfect name to write urban fantasy. (She also publishes YA fiction as Lili St. Crow.) Gwendoyln Faith Hunter dropped her first name when she began writing urban fantasy novels, and Jennifer Bellack became Jenna Black when she started publishing dark, edgy supernatural romance.

In genre fiction–romance, urban fantasy, thrillers, detective stories, etc–the name of the author is an essential piece of the packaging. Few people would buy a regency romance written by Jack Pounder, but they might be interested in a hard-boiled detective novel. Millicent Periwinkle, on the other hand, would have a hard time selling a political thriller. (Note: these aren’t real authors names.)

Brand Diversification

This is perhaps the most common reason to use a pen name. Many authors enjoy writing different sorts of books, but in order to preserve their name recognition, they use certain names for certain genres. When a reader picks up a Nora Roberts book, they can expect a tale of romance, but when they read J.D. Robb, they know they’re in for a mystery. Kelly Gay writes gritty urban fantasy under her own name and young adult fantasy as Kelly Keaton.

Kim Harrison–a.k.a. Dawn Cook–said in a 2009 interview, “I was requested to keep the two personas separate so the numbers for the Kim books were not influenced by the numbers for the Dawn books.” She is notorious for having two completely separate personas at book signings; as Kim Harrison, she wears a long red wig and lots of black clothes. In the same interview, she confesses that the persona helps her differentiate her personal life from her public life.

Do You Need a Pen Name?

If you fall into one (or more) of the categories above, then you just might. Here are some things to consider before adopting a nom de plume:

Decide if the pseudonym will be an open secret (i.e. everyone knows, and the pen names are just for branding) or a secret identity (Clark Kent/Superman or Bruce Wayne/Batman, et al.)

You can list the pseudonym on the copyright page of your book, but if you want to avoid any future confusion, you could also register both the pen name and your real name with the Copyright Office.

  • How will you handle author interviews, book signings, or your author bio and photo? Will you create an entirely different persona like Kim Harrison/Dawn Cook?
  • If you’re found out, will your work under a pseudonym damage your other writing or your day job? This is a particular consideration for writers of erotica, many of whom want to keep their work hidden.
  • If you’re an indie author, is it more important to diversify your brand (i.e. separate pseudonyms for different genres) or to make your back list as extensive as possible? The more titles an indie has under their belt, the easier it is for readers to find them. On the other hand, if you write middle grade fantasy, erotica, and Cold War-era submarine thrillers, you’ll probably want to publish under different names so that your readers don’t get whiplash.

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You can find more information about the author and the original post on Erin Elizabeth Long’s website.

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