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Writer Wednesdays: The Prudence of Pen Names

What’s in a name? Happy hump day authors, and welcome to another Writer Wednesday. Today we are talking about pen names. What is a pen name? Why use one? Is it still worth using one in today’s highly digital age?

Nom De Plume

A pen name is a chosen pseudonym an author uses in lieu of their legal name. There are many reasons an author may choose to use a pen name but the use of pen names has been in practice for centuries. Historic reasons vs modern reasons for using an alias have changed in some ways, while also surprisingly remaining the same.

Women, in particular, used aliases or published anonymously in order to crack into the male dominated field of literature, one that barred women under the strictures of not only social reputation but laws that prevented ownership of their own intellectual property. Jane Austen originally published her novels as Anonymous, gaining little success or fame during her lifetime, in a period where women couldn’t legally sign contracts under their own names. If a woman wanted to publish in early 1800’s England, a male relative needed to sign the publishing contract for them. They could publish anonymously and take what they could get. Or they published using male or gender neutral pen names to be taken more seriously. Louisa May Alcott used the pen name A.M. Barnard while Mary Ann Evans published under the name George Eliot. Today, women in most countries do not have to contend with that legal barrier (though some do), but pen names are still often used to publish in male dominated genres where the gender of their name could affect sales.

A Rose By Any Other Name

As pointed out above, one reason for a pen name is breaking into a genre field. Men also use pen names for the same reasons in women dominated genres. There are numerous reasons for using a pen name.

  1. Separating Professional Spheres Many authors maintain a day job that doesn’t always jive with their writing life. While a pen name may not give them full anonymity in the digital age, it does provide a separation of creative space and non creative space, depending on their chosen profession. Or if they have work in a perpendicular field, such as Art or Photography, but need to keep their brands separate from one another. This separation of author from one’s other persona ties into another reason.

  2. Privacy Whether it stems from fear of reprisal in their professional or social spheres, or wishing to maintain an online identity separate from their everyday life, the need for anonymity varies across the board. With serialized fiction gaining ground once again in the modern market via serialization platforms, it is possible for an author to maintain a completely separate internet identity without becoming a publicly known figure. There is a freedom in anonymity that allows an author to be their truest creative selves and a pen name allows them to control the flow of information behind the name.

  3. Branding & Marketing Branding is a big part of being an author. Framing your author persona around your style of storytelling helps readers connect and aides in marketing your body of work as a whole. However, if you are prolific in several genres, pen names open up different marketing avenues. They also keep a separation of sorts, to the varying bodies of work, even if an author is open to the use of different pen names for different genres. In some cases, the separation helps if an author is writing for varying ages, such as if an author is writing for Middle Grade versus Adult.

  4. Fun? Yeah Fun Fun is a legit excuse. Sometimes you just want to be someone new and try a new adventure. Fun should never be discounted. Nor should it be considered unnecessary. Humans need joy.

Just as Sweet?

This list is far from exhaustive, but whatever an author’s reason, adopting a pen name is a personal choice for much the same reason an author publishes under their legal name. Using a pen name does come with some drawbacks. If you choose to use a pen name to traditionally or indie publish, much of the modern market is dependent on platform and presence. It is not easy, but it is possible to build a social media presence on a pen name. Generally, it can be a slower process to start. Depending on the desire and/or need for privacy or separation of spheres, it can be difficult to get the word out about your book/ work, but not impossible with time and effort. Whether you choose to write under your legal name, or a pen name, it is vital to surround yourself with supportive people, both in and out of the writing community.

Here’s to the first day of Camp Nano. Happy writing everyone!

Resources & Further Reading

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