Aside from fiddling with fonts, contemplating acknowledgments sections, and/or finding the perfect quote to precede the start of the book, dreaming up pen names is a favored procrastination tool for many aspiring authors out there.
As a result, I receive a whole lot of questions about them: should I include my pen name in the query letter? Do I need a pen name? Can I use “Dan Brown” as a pen name? What about “Stephanie Mayers?” See what I did there?
This post will hopefully answer all these questions.
You probably don’t have to decide right now
But before we get to the pros and cons of pen names, whether you do or don’t decide to use a pen name is something that can and should be figured out on down the line in consultation with your (future) agent.
When you send queries: query as your real self. I wouldn’t recommend send it from your pseudonym. When I was a literary agent, I wanted to know who I was really going to be working with.
If you’re considering using a pen name or have a pen name, mention it if you feel it’s really necessary and just put (writing as Mr. Pen Name) below your real name. Example:
(writing as Danger McDangerson)
Deciding whether to use a pen name
Now. As for whether you should or should not use a pen name, again, this is something that should be contemplated with your agent. Circumstances are inevitably different for every author, so generalizing will not capture all the ins and outs.
But here are some rough pros and cons:
Pros for pen names
- You can optimize for SEO. In this day and age of Google Searches, if your name is John or Jane Smith or something very common, a pen name can help you with SEO. What is SEO? Search Engine Optimization. If someone Googles “Jane Smith,” the author Jane Smith with the book out might be on page 47. Jane Jingleheimerschmidt, on the other hand, will probably be closer to the top. (Before the days of Google I never appreciated having a weird last name. Hooray for Bransford!)
- You want to avoid the attention of certain foreign governments. Some authors want a public persona that’s different from their passport name to avoid complicating future travel. (Honest!)
- Your previous books didn’t sell as well as you had hoped. A pen name can sometimes give an author a fresh start.
- Your publisher or agent feels your book might do better if the author’s name sounded more male/female/gender neutral to appeal to either a male/female demographic. Be very, very careful with this sort of thing, and it’s a practice that is largely falling by the wayside. Let the professionals decide this one and I wouldn’t try to over-engineer it.
- You want to avoid complications in your professional life. You might want your professional presence online to be different from your artistic persona online.
Cons for pen names
- It’s complicated. Many authors find it extremely annoying to have a pen name in the Internet age. In the past you just had to learn to answer to your pen name at readings and in interviews and otherwise you could go about your business. In the day and age of the Internet and Twitter and Facebook, constantly being another person gets exhausting, what with switching between e-mail accounts and remembering your alternate persona’s likes and dislikes, etc. etc.
- It can be harder to tap your network. With a fake name it’s more difficult to utilize your personal real life network to help sell a book. Regular non-book type people out there find pen names pretty confusing and difficult to remember.
- A pen name won’t give you cover when you’re defaming people. Not gonna fly in this day and age: The Internet will figure you out. And defaming people, even in novels, is extremely risky and costly business. Also it’s illegal.
In general I would recommend against using a pen name unless there’s a really good reason for it. In other words: don’t use one just to use one.
But if you really really need one…
Tips for pen names
- First check to see if the Internet domain is available. It will make your life much, much easier to have the FirstnameLastname.com domain.
- Don’t try and mimic another successful author. Be yourself.
- Many people find it helpful to stick with your first name at least so you don’t have to remember answer to a new name or accidentally call yourself your actual name.
- Make sure it’s memorable. If you’re going to get a new name, make it a good one!
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Art: Two tax collectors (detail) by Marinus van Reymerswaele