The Pseudonym Debate
As far as I’m concerned, there is no debate about this.
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Pseudonyms have been around as long as there have been writers. Charlotte Bronte, Benjamin Franklin, and Samuel Clemens all used pseudonyms. I bet it goes back much farther than that, to papyrus and cuneiforms. Mary Ann Evans wrote as George Eliot. Alice Mary Norton became Andre Norton. Alice Bradley Shelton wrote as James Tiptree, Jr. Frank L. Baum wrote the Aunt Jane’s Niece series as Edith Van Dyne. Tom Huff wrote romances as Jennifer Wilde, Edwina Marlowe, and Beatrice Parker, among other names. Dean James writes the Cat in the Stacks Mysteries as Miranda James and other novels as Jimmie Ruth Evans and Honor Hartman. “Carolyn Keene” is a famous pseudonym used by countless ghost writers over the years for Nancy Drew.
An individual’s reasons to choose a name and where to use that name (or names) are that individual’s business. Be it a name or a photograph, it should always, ALWAYS be the author’s choice how much to reveal about themselves. The readers are owed good books, not personal information.
I’ve lived, worked, and travelled all over the world, deciding under which name I appeared where for which project, and never had any issues or bullying except for my time living and/or teaching in my previous location. A quotient of the very loud and the very rude always yap about it. “Are you in witness protection?” “Why should anyone believe you if you use a fake name?” “You don’t have the right not to use your real name.”
All of the above are bullshit comments.
Actors use stage names. Authors use pseudonyms. All individuals get to choose how they present themselves.
Let me also point out that, in my experience, the Venn diagram of people who make these types of inappropriate and bullying comments and the people who complain about having to learn and respect other people’s pronouns or respect the use or nonuse of other cultural terms is a circle.
Occasionally, some newbie gets on social media, after reading some clickbait article on “engagement questions” to post and asks about writing under a pseudonym. It’s very rarely a genuine question.
It comes up as a genuine question, more often at the bar during a conference, or in workshop situations (be they virtual or in person) when people are talking seriously about how they want and need to shape their careers.
I have multiple reasons for using multiple pseudonyms.
The simplest is that my work is public, and my life is private. My life isn’t particularly interesting to anyone else, or salacious (at least, not at the moment), but it’s MINE. Having spent decades working closely with actors and seeing how fame (and even a little acclaim) distorts even the most grounded individual’s life, that is not something I chase or choose.
When I started my career, way back when, marketing and gatekeepers were adamant that readers wouldn’t follow writers from one genre to another. Different names were necessary for different genres. That has changed, as many readers proved they are perfectly capable of enjoying more than one genre. As reader bases grew and changed, one could choose when and where to cross promote, and when to keep it completely separate. Each pseudonym develops its own voice, although readers who follow from genre to genre can usually spot the similarities.
On top of that, there was/is a belief that prolific writers overwhelm the market and readers lose interest. Nora Roberts pretty much blew that one out of the water, with the way she built her audience, but even she puts her science fiction crime romances under the J.D. Robb name. Yasmine Galenorn is a prolific author who went indie, because traditional publishing restricted her, as far as genre, scope, growth, and quantity. She even had a quick mystery trilogy initially under the name “India Ink” which she has re-released under the Yasmine Galenorn banner.
Jayne Ann Krentz mastered the art of the pseudonym and how to entice readers to cross genre and name borders. If you look at her “Book Lists” page, you’ll see the long list of names she’s used in her career.
It’s interesting how she wove the Arcane Series into three of her names. The books in the series under the Amanda Quick byline are historical; the Jayne Ann Krentz titles are contemporary; the Jayne Castle titles are futuristic science fiction on another planet. And yet, the stories connect, and move through the series, the names, and the time periods. Take some time and explore them; the way they work together and work apart is fascinating.
When I started out as a writer (working full time in theatre), I was part of the shift, in the late 80s and into the 90s of women writing erotica, and making major changes in the genre. This was back in the day when skin magazines paid real money for fiction and their erotic fantasy shorts. One 3K short story paid two months of NYC rent (and it wasn’t cheap back then, either, if you didn’t have rent control). There were some months, in certain publications, where there were six stories in the publication, under six different names – all written by me. Then, of course, they realized that readers would submit pieces and not expect to be paid, and the market was destroyed. But for awhile there, it was a good gig AND it shifted the genre, at least for a little while, into more genuinely interesting and erotic stories, rather than just those about power and control and misogyny. Susie Bright is a leader in this, and I learned so much from her about writing, about the business of it all, and about fighting to change the genre.
Not only was it crucial for me to use different names within the publication (if there were multiple pieces running in a single issue), but I had to be careful, because at the same time, I was writing material for middle grade readers. Parents did not want little Debbie reading perfectly innocent stories about having adventures and living her dreams if they knew the same individual wrote stories about consenting adults having wild times in wild places.
Few people who knew me in real life knew about the erotica, or, as one of my trusted chorus dancer friends called it, “friction fiction.” Being open about it caused a lot of hassle. Guys I’d dated assumed I wrote about them (you should be so lucky, sweetie). Guys I hadn’t dated assumed I was fantasizing about them (ibid). Of course, it never occurred to any of them that this was part of my JOB and had nothing to do with any of them. I stopped talking about it, to all but a few very close friends. When I got tired of writing it, and felt the genre was de-volving rather than evolving, and the pay wasn’t worth it, I retired the names and created other names more appropriate to the work that I wanted to focus on.
Creating new names is part of the business. Again, I’ll use the cozy mystery genre as an example. Especially in the heyday of imprints when 20+ new cozy mysteries dropped on the first Tuesday of every month, authors wrote under multiple names, and new ones were generated regularly. Publishers would publish three books (most of the contracts were three book cycles at that point) and then dump the series if it wasn’t getting enough traction. But the editor liked working with the writer, so they came up with another concept and tried again, sometimes under a different name, sometimes the same, to try to grow audience. In some cases, it helps start the series with a clean slate.
If the series has a “specialty” the team around the author might advise the author to use a different name. For instance, Diane A.S. Stuckart wrote the Tarot Cats mysteries for Midnight Ink under that name, and the Da Vinci historical mysteries for Berkeley as a limited series (and that’s the name she uses for her flagship website). She writes the Georgia B&B Mysteries as Anna Gerard with Crooked Lane Books (a name she used writing historical romance for Pinnacle Books). The Black Cat mysteries went under the Ali Brandon name for Berkeley, and they dropped the series after six books. She also wrote romances for Pinnacle Books as Alexa Smart. If you go on her website, you see the journey, the choices, and the interconnections.
Traditional publishers put enormous pressure on their authors to produce, produce, produce, but then often don’t give them enough support on the marketing end of it or don’t allow the authors enough room to deviate from formula. The pressure to constantly produce is often paired with a slapdown for being “too prolific” or trying to stretch and grow creatively. They saturate the market with two dozen new titles a month, but don’t want the same writer to write “too much.” At the same time, authors have bills to pay and have to keep a roof over their heads, while often being paid less per contract. To earn their nut, they have to write more, which often means writing under multiple names in different outlets.
Those who say “oh, just go get a real job and write on the side” contribute to the problem. This IS a real job. It takes hours per day of physical and mental work. Many authors who have a day job and write “on the side” also use pseudonyms to keep those two work lives separate, again, because of bullying and safety issues.
It looked like indie publishing was going to be somewhat of an antidote, until the formula sausage factory AI-generated content started up on KU.
Using a pseudonym to write and sell a book is not running a con. It is both a business decision and a personal decision. Those choices are made that best serve THE WORK, not the ego.
How to choose a name?
I take into consideration what works for the genre, and what has personal meaning to me. Some names are inside stories, known to only a few. Some are tied to women in my lineage who had an impact on me.
Every name needs to have meaning. Does it make more sense to have an androgynous name than one that causes a gender assumption? Does it make sense to use a differently gendered name, because of expectations within your chosen genre? Or do you want to challenge those expectation? If you’ve chosen something like “Arielle Tempest” do you want to use it in romance for the flow? Or do you want to play on the Shakespearean roots and use it for historical fiction, alt-history fantasy, or urban fantasy? When you see a name like “J.R. Tate” do you think suspense or noir or science fiction? Or do you want to use it somewhere less likely (which means more marketing)? I know a couple of authors who intentionally chose their names so they would be shelved near the beginning of the alphabet. There’s a whole psychology of the flow of consonants and vowels in names that you can research, and see if anything strikes you as fitting how you want to shape that persona.
However you choose it, make sure it resonates with you, and is something you can live with, promote under, appear under, and feel comfortable personifying. That’s even more important, in my opinion, then a genre expectation (although others will argue).
Do you use a pseudonym? How did you choose it? Has anyone every hassled you about using a pseudonym?
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I had never thought about pseudonyms at all before reading this. Obviously, I knew they existed, Mark Twain and such, but not how widespread their use is.
I do use my own name as a blogger and poet but usually use initials or nicknames for family when writing my blog to protect their privacy. I use my birth surname, so most of the family isn't revealed as their surnames are different; only people who know us "in real life" realize who they are.
If I ever decide to break into a new genre and need a pseudonym, I'll know to whom to look for advice!