By David Kudler
Anyone who’s published a piece of writing since people started passing around their favorite reads on clay tablets has considered using a nom de plume or pen name.
George Eliot, Mark Twain, George Orwell, Dr. Seuss and many, many more famous authors published not under their given names, but an alias.
I’ve certainly thought about it myself, so I understand the impulse. I am, however, going to offer an argument for not using a pen name — or, at least, for sticking to just one.
Arguments for Aliases
There are lots of good reasons to write under a pseudonym, but they essentially boil down to two things:
- Market segmentation/branding
I get it: publishing your writing leaves most of us feeling… exposed. Naked. Hundreds — or, hopefully, thousands upon thousands — of readers are going to read your words, and are going to judge you by them. They’re going to leave reviews, and not all of them are going to be nice.
I was a professional actor for many years and have been publishing my writing since 1997; thick as my skin may have gotten, it still feels unpleasant knowing there are people out there who think unkind thoughts about my work, and by extension me.
Having said that, the thoughts are going to arise whether they’re attached to my real-life name and face or not.
Still, this is a particularly difficult issue for many authors, especially those writing in extremely personal genres like memoir or roman à clef, not to mention those who publish works containing content some might find uncomfortable, whether that involves sex, violence, or morally polarizing.
This is part of why beyond-bestselling kids’ fantasy author J.K. Rowling tried to release her adult mystery novels under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. (Spoiler: it didn’t work.)
A lot of women over the years have published either under male names (i.e., George Eliot, aka Mary Ann Evans) or using initials (i.e., J.K. Rowling, again!), since they believed, not unreasonably, that they wouldn’t be able to publish at all, let alone be taken seriously under their real names.
In such cases, it’s understandable that the author wants to publish anon- or pseudonymously.
This is, in a way, the opposite of the previous reason, and the justification I see bandied about by a lot of authors, both traditionally and independently published, for using multiple pen names. The impulse here is the desire to get the name of the author out there as clearly and aggressively as possible — just not the author’s actual birth name.
Essentially, the idea is that authors’ names are a central part of their brand. The idea is that you want readers to build up a relationship with you, identifying the persona you take on in writing a particular kind of book and returning to that brand name whenever they’re hungry for another fix of that particular kind of writing.
For authors who write multiple genres, it can feel particularly tempting to want to split their readerships into separate groups so that they can target ads, blog posts, mailings, etc. with great precision.
This is called market segmentation.
So I’ve heard about lots of fellow authors creating pen names for their work in different genres — one for mysteries, say, and another for romance; or one for business nonfiction and one for historical mysteries.
This can be taken to the extreme. I was talking recently to an author who publishes a line of very popular paranormal romance books for teens (what she calls YA PNR — think Twilight). She was setting up a separate alias because she wanted to write a series of middle-grade books (aimed at pre-teens) about young vampires and wanted to segment the audiences.
In the old days, publishers had a strong incentive to encourage successful and prolific authors to use noms de plumes if they published in multiple genres, since each of the publisher’s imprints generally stuck to a single genre (or sometimes sub-genre). The publisher wanted the reader to associate the brand with the imprint, not with the author name — why advertise another publisher’s books? This is why you can find some early Stephen King books written under the name Richard Bachman and a quartet of very, very racy Anne Rice books under the name A.N. Roquelaure. (Really — they’re extremely sexual and not everyone’s cup of tea. Not mine, for sure. So if you check them out because you liked Interview with a Vampire… Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
With those very compelling reasons to use one or more pen name, then, what’s to lose?
Argument against aliases
I’m a big believer in avoiding separate pen names unless they’re absolutely necessary for one major reason that sees those two pros as cons.
The central concept behind marketing books these days is what’s called the author platform. And having multiple pen names means having multiple platforms.
And let me tell you — that’s a drag.
Essentially an author’s platform consists of all of the ways the author has to reach out and connect with their potential readers and existing fans. A website and/or blog, social media, a newsletter or email list — all of those are part of the author’s platform.
A platform allows you to connect with readers, offering them sneak previews of a work in progress, share covers, discuss the issues central to your book(s), offer raffles and discounts, announce events and (of course!) link to places to buy your titles, and much more. It gives you a way to build up a relationship with readers in a way that authors twenty or a hundred years ago would have given a hand for. (Or at least a foot, since who needs a foot to write?)
The thing about an author platform is building one takes a lot of time, a lot of effort, and, yes, not a small amount of money. You’re building relationships with people, not just selling widgets. You want them to come back and read your other books. You want them to evangelize your book(s) to their friends and family.
I’ve managed the literary estate of a dead author for the past two decades, in addition to writing my own titles. I have had no choice at all about creating separate platforms for his works and for mine. I am very, very clear, then, about just how much effort it takes to maintain these separate personae. And let me tell you: it’s a drag. I spend (on average) about eight hours a week promoting his work, and about the same on mine (and on those of the authors I publish through my micropress).
That’s two work days completely gone — before I’ve done any writing, before I’ve paid any bills or balanced my (ledger) books, and before I’ve done any paying design or editing work that helps me to pay those bills or balance those books. (Not to mention before spending time with my family.)
Promoting his work does nothing to promote mine. Promoting my work does nothing to promote his. While my name appears as an editor in his books and my publishing imprint shows up on the copyright page of his ebooks, that does little to drive folks toward my own literary creations.
That’s the downside of market segmentation. There are no economies of scale when you’re dicing up your platform like that. Each pen name requires its own complete platform, with a blog (if not its own separate web site with its own URL), a presence on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram, etc., an email list, and more. Each of those parts of each of those platforms needs to be fed regularly:
- regular blog posts
- regular Tweets
- regular LinkedIn articles
- regular newsletters, etc.
It’s a lot of work, and it needs to be done, or you certainly won’t reach the audience you deserve — and you will slowly lose the ones you’ve reached already.
More than that, the time, energy, and money you pump into building up one platform will come either from the other platform(s) — or from the rest of your life, including your writing time. There’s no crossover. If you’ve used separate noms de plumes, readers who love your New Adult fantasy thrillers will never know a thing about your young-adult dystopian science fiction. Advertising your Western “sweet” (that is, sex-free) romance books won’t sell any of your slightly more bodice-ripping Regency romances.
The thing is, there are other ways to segment your market and so focus your marketing. You can create different brands — with different cover styles, different fonts, different color schemes, etc. — that will make it clear that these books are different from those books. Most email providers make it possible to segment your audience by asking them what kinds of emails they’d be interested in receiving, without having to create completely separate lists for each.
Since discovery and author platform are now the name of the game, it seems as if there’s more of an incentive for authors to work with a single name. These days, the old marketing segmentation logic makes less and less sense. As writer Conda V Douglas says, “Readers will read stuff by authors they like.”
You are your author brand. Why water that down?
So when should I use an alias?
That said, there are times when it really does make sense to publish under a pseudonym.
The obvious examples have to do with writing in genres that really don’t play together well. A classic: children’s picture books and erotica. Yeah. Those wouldn’t be a good combo — and yes, there are authors who do well writing in both.
I work with an author who is a teacher who writes YA books, but also very racy erotic romance. Not only would the teacher’s colleagues and students be shocked by the revelation, but it would make marketing either genre more difficult. And it’s not just erotica, though that’s obviously the biggest problem. I know a lawyer who doesn’t want her partners to know she has written murder mysteries, and a writer who publishes both children’s picture books and paranormal romance. Not a good crossover!
And if you really, really don’t want your legal name associated with your writing? That’s fine, too.
But consider using a single nom de plume for all of your work, so that the pen name becomes a recognizable trademark.
If it was good enough for Mark Twain and Voltaire, it ought to be good enough for you.