The New World of Publishing: Pen Names

I get the “pen name” question more than any other question. Period. And that’s because I am very open about writing under different names and I have varied reasons for doing so. And weirdly enough, I have written under pen names since I started writing.

So after a few more varied questions this last week about pen names in indie publishing, I figured it’s about time I give a full and complete opinion on the topic. But let me be clear here once again.  Ready?

NO WRITER IS THE SAME AS ANOTHER WRITER.

Or as a sign in our workshops say, “You are responsible for your own career.”

Take my opinion on this topic as opinion. Nothing more. Then do what you damn well please because… well, because you can. And should.

History

Pen names have been with fiction writing since the beginning. And the reasons for writers to take pen names is as varied as the writers doing the writing. I’m sure some of you English majors out there could even tell me a bunch of pen names of major literary writers through the centuries. But honestly, please don’t. (grin)

The pulp era of popular fiction brought in thousands and thousands of pen names. There are entire books that have been done trying to track the pen names of the pulp writers, from Max Brand to Kenneth Robison to all the hundreds of pen names of Edward Stratemeyer and his “Syndicate” of writers. (You remember Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and so on.)

Many of today’s major writers wrote under pen names, sometimes many, many pen names over their careers. And almost always for different reasons. I don’t think Robert Silverberg can even count all his pen names. Lawrence Block wrote under many, many names as well, sometimes in the erotic markets of their day. I was at Harlan Ellison’s house one day and asked him off-handedly that if next trip I brought down a copy of Adam Magazine that he had a story in, would he sign it. He laughed and said sure, and he would sign two of the articles in the same issue as well, since he had written those under pen names. I was impressed he remembered.

In fact, in the high peak of science fiction magazines, there were often only one or two writers per issue, even though the magazine showed six or seven authors.

So pen names are nothing new. And the reasons for using a pen name or not using one are varied depending on the author, the time, the publication location, and so much more.

Major Reasons to Use Pen Names

Again, there are thousands of reasons to use pen names, each depending on the author’s situation at the moment.  But let me give you a few of the main ones that have lasted over history.

Top Reason: Writer is too “fast” for traditional publishing.

In other words, the writer has a work ethic and has trained himself to sit at a typewriter or computer for more hours per day. And by doing that, the writer will just produce more work than someone who spends two years writing a novel. Just nature of the beast.

In the pulp era, it was fine to write fast and hard and long under one name. The writers had other reasons to switch names back then that I will get to in a moment.

But with the advent of the influence of the university system and editors coming out of that university myth-filled system, the belief started to sink into the traditional publishing offices that writing more than one or two books per year was a bad thing (except in a few genres like romance). And besides, the big machines of modern traditional publishing just couldn’t keep up with a fast writer. In fact, fast writers just scare hell out of them.

So those of us who have a work ethic and can sit at a computer for a regular work day, we flat had to have more outlets. So instead of putting novels into drawers, we came up with pen names and started many writing careers, often with numbers of them going at once.

At one point, Kris and I were joking around at a conference and actually counted the career income streams coming into our home at that moment in time. We had nine writers’ incomes coming into the house. That was more than we had cats at that point.

Today we have about that many, maybe a few more, but some are not making much, at least not enough to live on. Luckily the pen-name writers don’t eat much.

The key is the same with all aspects of the publishing industry: Diversity and a lot of product. If you have three or four writer’s incomes hitting your house, it’s a ton better and safer than only one. And nine or ten incomes just makes things much easier.

The idea of multiple income streams from different names is not something most writers think of until they happen into it by overwhelming their own publisher and deciding to not slow down (meaning spend less time at the computer or playing Angry Birds) as their agent wants them to do.

However, now with indie publishing, fast writers have far, far more outlets and the idea of being a “fast” writer, meaning spending more hours writing, is once again becoming a good thing. At least outside of traditional publishing. Inside of traditional publishing being fast still scares hell out of people and they will do everything in their power to get you to spend less time being a writer and more time being an author.

Second Major Reason: Help Your Readers While Writing What You Want To Write

This also has been basic from the early days of fiction writing. Readers identify certain types of books by the name of the author. You pick up a Max Brand these days and you expect to get an old-style western. (Max Brand was a pen name of a failed poet.) A Max Brand reader would be very angry if they started to read a Max Brand novel and discovered an old vampire lusting after young girls.

In the pulp era, authors often changed their names when moving to another genre magazine. Only a few major writers that jumped around (such as L. Ron. Hubbard) did not change names much. Writers of that level sold magazines in almost all genres, so editors didn’t want the writer to change the name.

However, the basic reason is that authors get bored easily and want to try new things, new genres, new plots. It’s the rare writer who can write the same story over and over as traditional publishers want them to do. Most of us would rather have teeth pulled than do that. So we write around like a wayward husband and change names on publishers to stay out of their contract traps.

But really, it’s the readers that matter on this one.

My wife, Kristine Kathryn Rusch writes under some major names. Her name is known as a science fiction and fantasy writer. And her fantasy series, The Fey, is a dark, high fantasy with lots of blood and death. So when she came up with a light, warm, humorous fantasy series set here and now using fairy tales, she didn’t want to confuse her readers and make the readers that liked one kind of fantasy and not the other angry. So Kristine Grayson, the bestselling paranormal romance writer, was born for the funny fantasy books.

Then Kris came up with a dark mystery series set in the late 1960s that dealt with race and politics of the time. Again, not something her normal science fiction readers would enjoy, so multiple-Edgar-nominated Kris Nelscott was born. And now in romance this next year she has a wonderful science fiction romance series starting out of Sourcebooks under the name Kris DeLake. Pure space opera with a romance touch. But again the readers that love Recovering Apollo 8 or the gritty Diving into the Wreck series would not be very happy. Thus the new author is born.

You want a more major example than my wife? How about Evan Hunter, which was a pen name. Evan Hunter wrote a book called The Blackboard Jungle that won some major awards such as the Pulitzer Prize. But he was a writer, and wanted to write other stuff.  He got an offer to write a new series for a paperback house that needed short novels fast. So he created a new name and wrote police procedural novels for decades under the name Ed McBain.  Also, Evan Hunter, to help pay for a girlfriend or some such thing now lost in publishing lore, wrote soft-core erotica quickly, often finishing a book in a day or so, to help pay dating costs. Of course, those books were also under other names.

So writers, help your readers find a book they will enjoy because they read an earlier one like it. I know it’s alien for writers to think about helping out readers, but the more you do, the more fans you get and the more readers over time. It really is that simple.

Also, I suppose I should say something right here about “branding” your books and name or pen name. In other words, indie publishers, if you have a pen name, make all the stories and pen names under that name seem similar in covers and look, yet be different enough from book to book. That also helps readers. If you don’t know what I’m talking about here, go study branding because it will help you in publishing.

I’ll talk in a minute about keeping pen names secret or not. 99% of the time there is no reason to, so if the reader of your fun fantasy wants to read a blood-and-guts fantasy and you are clear you write that under that other name, let them be able to find it on your main web site.

Third Major Reason: You Have A Difficult Day Job

This reason is just obvious. You are an MD and you are writing medical thrillers. Really good plan to do that under a pen name to save legal problems with some patient believing you took their personal information and put it in your book, even though you didn’t.

And yes I know about Michael Crichton writing his way through medical school. Under pen names. He wrote under the names John Lange and Jeffrey Hudson and one of the books under one of those names won the Edgar Award for best novel.  He wrote numbers of novels per year all the way through med school, all under pen names, and got his MD the year he wrote three novels. (Yeah, you don’t have enough time to write.) By the way, his real first name was John.

Another example: James Tiptree Jr. was a long-term spy in the Second World War and in the Cold War, a CIA agent, and an experimental psychologist, so she came up with a very hidden pen name to write under. Her real name was Alice Sheldon, but everyone swore Tiptree was a man for a very long time.

Some Other Smaller Reasons to Change Your Writing Name

— Sales Record Goes Bad.

In traditional publishing, your sales record is tracked by your name. You write a book and something goes wrong along the way, often through no fault of your own, and your sales numbers go down and you can’t sell another book under that name.

Smart writers change their name and keep writing. Authors, on the other hand, sit in bars at conventions and complain they can’t sell a book.

So bad sales record in traditional publishing is one reason. That makes no difference at all in indie publishing. In indie publishing, writers publish the book and let the numbers of readers grow slowly over time.  In traditional publishing, they have to gamble that your book will sell a certain number in a certain amount of time. Remember the produce model? In traditional publishing, your books spoil, so if they paid you too much in comparison to your sales numbers, you can’t sell another book UNDER THAT NAME.

Change your name and move on. Or move to indie publishing.

— Family Issues.

Sometimes some writers just don’t want their mother stumbling across that erotic book they wrote. Do that under a pen name if you have that issue. Or if you hate your parents and don’t want to give them credit for anything.

— Future Divorce

Women, caution on using your husband’s name as your writing name. Writing careers often outlast marriages. Just saying…

— Your Real Name is Stephen King

Let me think… Oh, yeah, write under a pen name. That name is taken.

— You Think Your Story Sucks

Writers are the worst judges of their own work, but alas, we all still have strong opinions of our work when finished. So when you write a story that sucks in your belief as a writer and you wouldn’t want anyone to see it under your main name, sell it under a pen name. This is becoming very easy in indie publishing. And has been a standard practice since the beginning of publishing. You might be surprised how well your bad story sells. Let the readers decide.

— You are writing a Work-For-Hire Series.

Fine to do some under your main writing name, but caution on writing too many and getting know for doing them only. I am still known as a Star Trek writer even though I haven’t written one Star Trek book in almost a decade. Do you know I wrote Star Trek under seven different names? I’ll give you Dean Wesley Smith and Sandy Schofield. The other five you Trek buffs can figure out if you want to waste time for a trivia contest.

Better to just do work-for-hire or media under a pen name from the start. Trust me on this one.

As I said, there are thousands and thousands of reasons for writers to write under pen names. Most make great sense to the writer. But now let me talk about the elephant in the room with this topic. Ready?

Ego

So many writers deep down are out to be famous. And they want their own name to be the famous name. So the idea of changing their name is just alien for any reason, no matter how much it makes business sense to do so. I’ve seen many, many, many writers just give up writing completely because they would not change their name and something stopped their books from selling.

This issue seems to be much, much worse for men than women. Women are raised to think they might change their name at some point in the future in a wedding. But men have this ego-thing about their name. Men, get over it.

For some reason I’ve never had that problem. No idea why not.  For me, when I walk into a store and see a book I wrote, either under this name or one I wrote for a major bestseller as a ghost novel, I know it’s my book. And that’s all that matters to me.

I walked into Safeway grocery store one night and saw three of my books there on the rack. One a media book with this name on it, one a ghost novel, and one a western under a series author name.  Fantastic fun. I didn’t need to show anyone or run up-and-down-the-aisles shouting what I had just done.  I just stood there for a moment staring at the three books, smiling.

Then I went home and went back to writing.

So before you start writing under other names, check the ego at the door. Evan Hunter is a pen name. At an Edgar Awards ceremony a number of years back he was the keynote speaker. In front of his plate was a name-tag that read “Evan Hunter.”  When the person doing the announcements called his name to come and speak, he introduced him as Ed McBain. Salvator Albert Lombino still stood up.

If you have ego issues, just stay with one name. And never ghost-write a book.

Indie Publishing Issues

Indie writers who are in a great hurry are usually the ones that ask me about pen names.  One of the truths of indie publishing is that if you have more products under one name, readers can find you easier and if they like a story they buy, they will buy more. And thus having more books and stories published leads to more sales. That is one fact most of us agree on about indie publishing.

But….  All those stories and books need to be in the same general area. If you write a vampire novel followed by a romance with rabbit-sex followed by a private detective novel, all under the same name, you are going to lose readers, not find more. So if you are moving across genres like that in your writing, you are going to need to realize that it’s going to take more time to build an audience. Because you are going to be building more than one career. Of course that takes more time. Duh.

That means as a beginning writer you are going to have to do what seems almost impossible to do. You are going to have to take the long view, meaning not just six months, but six years or more. (Please don’t scream at me. I’m being nice suggesting only six years. More than likely it’s ten years or more, just as it was in the old traditional-publishing-only days.)

I have no issue with a writer telling their readers they also write other kinds of novels under other names. I just told you about four of my wife’s names she writes in different genres. And sometimes readers will follow across genre lines. Give them the chance on a main web site under a main name.

Some Answers to Basic Questions

How do you create a pen name?

Simple. Put it under the title and put it in the author slots on the different sites. Have all the money go to your real banking name. In traditional publishing, on your manuscript, you put your real name where the check is sent in the upper left-hand corner of the manuscript with your address. You put your pen name under the title. It really is that simple. No need to set up any kind of legal anything.

How about copyright under a pen name?

If you ask this question you need to buy a copy of The Copyright Handbook at once. It’s from NoLo Press. Go buy it now.

But the short answer is copyright protection vests in the words as you commit them to a form, meaning as you write them down or type them onto a screen. The form of everything you write automatically has copyright protection and does not matter what name you publish it under. If you are worried, spend the extra money to get your copyright registered. But for heaven’s sake, go learn copyright.

Do I have to keep my pen name secret?

Up to you. I wouldn’t unless you have issues with your family or are a medical professional. Or unless you signed a legal document agreeing to not disclose the name. (I have signed many, many of those documents.) But if you are just starting a new name to help readers stay clear on which genre they are reading, I can see no reason to keep a pen name secret.

Should I have a web site for each pen name?

Of course. Author name is the most important selling tool you have over time. So before you invent a new name, make sure no one else is writing under that name and then go get the domain. When you go in search of the domain, don’t hesitate, just spend the ten bucks and buy it. Otherwise someone will grab it because it has interest in the search engines.

But at the same time don’t be silly and think you have to blog on the site and work it all the time. Just use it as a static web site where readers can get to your books or back to your main web site. That’s all you use it for. It’s an advertising site.

You want to see an example of a static web site for my Dee W. Schofield pen name?  Go to http://www.deewschofield.com/. There’s even a free story there. And notice the bio and picture. That’s a picture of me about two years old standing on a hood of a car.

Should I make up a fake bio for my pen name?

No need unless it’s going to be very secret, but then be careful. Better to say less or nothing about the author.

Do you need to do some branding of each pen name?

I would certainly try. Use the same font on the covers, use the same basic design, same type of art, that sort of thing. Anything to give the reader a feeling that you are sort of paying attention to stories being similar. I would do this more for novels than short stories. If you can’t or don’t understand branding, don’t worry about it. Minor at first.

There are many other minor questions about pen names, many I’m sure will get answered in the comments section.

Summary

Again, there are thousands of reasons to use a pen name. None are wrong.

For me, I’ve used pen names for business because I was writing someone else’s novel for them. I’ve used pen names on work-for-hire novels, I’ve used pen names in different genres. I’ve used pen names to write erotica. I’ve used pen names when my wife and I wrote together. And sometimes I used a pen name just for fun.  Why? Because I could, that’s why.

As a beginning writer, I had the silly idea that “Smith” was a bad name to write under, so I wrote stories under Wesley Dean. One very long day at Damon Knight’s house, he spent the entire day going out of his way to call me all the variations of “Wes” and “Wesley” and “Wesser” and so on. By the end of the day, even though the name was fine, I had decided I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life answering to that name. It just didn’t fit in my mind as a name for me. I went back to my real name after that day, but I had already sold four or five stories under that name. I got a couple of them changed before they were published.

And now when I pick a pen name, I imagine being called that name for the rest of my life.

So basically what I am saying about pen names is this:

There are no rules. Do what you want.

But if your ego stops you from starting a new name when you should for business reasons, then there are repercussions. As I said before, the simple desire to stick with a certain name has killed many, many writing careers. But those people, in my opinion, were not writers. They were authors.

Writers are people who write and don’t much care which name their writing appears under. They only care that they can keep writing and that readers in one fashion or another get a chance to read what they write.

And trust me, it was great fun to walk into that Safeway grocery store and see three of my books on the same paperback rack. Great fun. But if I had been so wrapped up in my own ego that I couldn’t write under another name, that moment would have never have happened.

So when deciding about which name to publish a book or story under, think first of your readers.

Then think about your readers some more.

And then decide which name would be best for them. And which name you can live with the rest of your life.

And then have fun.

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Copyright © 2012 Dean Wesley Smith

Cover art copyright Philcold/Dreamstime
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2 Comments

  1. August 3, 2015    

    What if I don’t want people to know who I am. What if I want my author’s life and other life to be separated. How can I hide my identity? How can I self-publish and avoid people finding my personal information linking back to the other me?

    • dwsmith dwsmith
      August 3, 2015    

      Got to your local state, obtain a DBA (Doing Business As) form, fill it out so that you are doing business other the other name, then take that to the bank and get a checking account under the DBA name. Then you can sign contracts and deposit checks under the other name. Very easy. And then you file a business return for that name.

      Not sure why you would want to do that, but if you have a major reason, it isn’t hard.

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