At least one per week, I get e-mails from writers who ask me if they need a pen name. The question used to be really easy to answer. If you wrote in multiple genres at the same time, you needed a pen name.
Now, the answer—like the answer to everything else in publishing— is it depends.
I suppose it’s only sensible to ask me about pen names. After all, I have about a dozen of them—some I admit to, and others that are extremely secret. I share two pen names with my husband. We used them on dozens of collaborations. I have other pen names which I must remain silent about for contractual reasons.
I will keep those pen names, for reasons I’m going to discuss below, but some of the others can and probably will go the way of the dodo (which I initially typed as “doodoo.” Freudian slip or simple typo? Enquiring minds…).
I’m going to use this blog to explore the various reasons to have or not to have pen names. Then you folks can decide what’s best for you. Because these days, it’s a personal decision that’s between you and your readers—literally.
People Who Need Pen Names
Some of you need pen names, and always will. There are two types of folks who need pen names: those who need a pen name for professional reasons, and those who need one for personal reasons.
First, the professionals: If you’re a practicing doctor or psychologist, if you work in a field that has confidentiality as one of its bedrock principles, then the best thing you can do is write under a pen name.
Why? Because people can sue for any reason, and often do. I tried a quick Google search to find references to the cases I know about, cases in which someone “recognized” himself in a writer’s work, and then sued the writer for “stealing” that person’s life or failing to keep confidentiality in some way, but I couldn’t find anything quickly, probably because most of the cases I know about were settled long before anything reached the mainstream media.
But here’s the thing: If you’re a practicing attorney who deals in family law, and you write books about a practicing attorney who deals in family law, you’re opening yourself up to some former client claiming that you broke confidentiality in their case. Your book might not be about them at all—I mean, most of you reading this are not lawyers and I’ll bet you all know someone who got divorced after spending years in child custody agreement hell. The facts of each case are different, but the overall description of the cases are probably the same: a couple gets married, has kids, then the couple has irreconcilable differences, and someone starts divorce proceedings. Things get ugly, the couple is in court a lot, and eventually custody gets assigned—and litigated. And relitigated. And litigated some more. Write about a case with those bare bones, and it might sound personal to one of those couples, even if the fictional case has nothing to do with them.
See how that works?
The same thing happens to doctors and psychologists. Things can be even more difficult for you if you have high security clearance in a government agency like the CIA. You’ll need to vet your manuscripts through that agency, and even if the agency finds that you have revealed no secrets and told no lies, they still might request that you use a pen name.
If you want to avoid conflicts and/or lawsuits, if you don’t want some former patient to see himself in that narcissistic sociopath you describe, then you need to consider a pen name.
Personal Reasons: Some of you work best in a vacuum. You don’t want your friends and family to know that you write and publish. Or you don’t want them to know that you publish that kind of fiction, whatever it might be.
For me, that kind of fiction wasn’t romance or erotica or even violent fiction. It was humor. In their later years, my alcoholic parents had devolved into arguing about what was funny and what wasn’t. Those arguments were vicious, and I had internalized them (as the only child remaining at home) by pretending I had no sense of humor at all. I laughed, yes, but not around them. My sense of humor was private, and so I took to pen names to give myself permission to write something funny.
Some writers have “burner” pen names—pen names they use to publish things they think are “awful” or “not up to the usual standards.” For some folks, a pen name becomes a secret identity—and no one else’s business.
Into the personal category, we can also add the “stupidity” pen name. The writer has done something truly idiotic in the past, alienating all of publishing or an important part of it, and so needs a pen name in order to keep writing.
Before indie publishing, stupidity pen names abounded. From the writer who cursed out the owner of a major chain bookstore (getting that bookstore owner to vow never to buy one of the writer’s books again) to the writers (yes, more than one) who hit an editor, shoved an agent in a closet, poured beer on a major reviewer, or aired (rather disgusting) personal habits on national television (making yet another bookstore chain yank books off the shelf), writers found that stupidity pen names saved their careers.
People Who Should Consider Pen Names
If you plan to spend your entire career in traditional publishing, then you need to have a pen name in your pocket. If you want a career that’s not based on luck or that will last longer than five years, you’ll need to keep pen names in mind.
In traditional publishing, writers need pen names for business reasons. To understand why, you need to understand how traditional publishing works.
In traditional publishing, books are commodities. They’re not considered art. They are things that publishing companies sell to bookstores. Not to readers. No traditional publisher cares how many positive reviews your book gets or how many awards you’ve won. If the reviews and awards don’t translate into sales, then your career is done.
Here’s the weird thing: For traditional publishers, sales aren’t how many copies your book actually sells. In fact, that number has always been hard to calculate for a variety of reasons (which I’ve dealt with in many previous blog posts). What traditional publishers care about is how many orders your book receives from the moment the book is announced to roughly one month after publication.
Bookstores reserve the right to return books, but those returns—unless they’re scandalously massive—rarely figure into the books ordered, or, as it’s called in the business, the books shipped. That’s the number that matters: how many books get shipped. Every publisher knows that copies will be returned, and that gets figured into the books-shipped number.
Unless the book takes off almost immediately and its sales go through the roof, the books-shipped number is the number that your traditional publisher will use to calculate whether or not it will buy your next book and maybe the book after that.
Bookstores, on the other hand, will look at how many copies of your previous book actually sold, and then order that number of copies for the next book. It’s called ordering to net. Ordering to net is not as prevalent as it was five years ago, but the larger bookstores like Barnes & Noble still practice this. Now, fortunately, these bookstores look at combined online and in store sales. Rather than say, “We ordered five copies per store and only sold two per store, so we’re only ordering two this time,” the bookstore will make a slightly different calculation. Now the store might order two copies for its store fronts and three extra copies per store for its warehouse.
Returns are down industry-wide, bookstores are doing a better job of ordering, but the books shipped number is down as a result, and publishers are less willing to part with money for new projects because they don’t know how to plan for sales that occur over months instead of weeks.
Another problem that traditionally published writers have is genre expectation. Publishers have always believed that some genres sell better than others, and so these publishers put out books to those expectations. Right now, romance sells better than mystery, mystery sells better than science fiction, science fiction sells better than “literary” fiction. Bestsellers are considered their own category. You’ll generally see them classified as “fiction” in a bookstore, as if they have no genre at all.
Ignore the bestsellers for a moment: if your book has a genre label, then it automatically has a genre expectation. To give you examples, I’m going to pull some numbers out of my butt because I’m too lazy to do the actual research for 2013. My numbers are probably high, because I’m going to use mass market instead of hardcover. (Not all genres publish in hardcover.)
So, let’s say you’re going to traditionally publish your first novel in 2014. If that novel is romance, it will ship at a minimum of 20,000 copies. If that novel is mystery, it will ship a minimum of 10,000 copies. If that novel is science fiction, it will ship a minimum of 5,000 copies, and if it’s literary fiction, well, it probably won’t be in mass market at all.
(If I were to do the same breakdown by trade paperbacks, I’d have a different problem. Very few first romance novels are published in trade paper. Mysteries and literary novels do well in that format, science fiction does not do as well.
(If I were to do the breakdown with hardcover, then we’d have no first romance novel at all—many of the romance bestsellers never get published in hardcover—and mystery would dominate the category with maybe 5,000 copies printed. Then science fiction and literary fiction would vie for the next position down. As you can tell, genre expectation gets very complicated.)
When a multi-genre author encounters both genre expectation and ordering to net, a crisis can happen. Let me explain.
Books are ordered by author name. So if Janet Q. Writer’s first novel is romance, it will ship at 20,000 mass market copies. Somehow, Janet Q. Writer’s next published novel is science fiction. It will probably get orders for 10-15,000 copies because bookstores won’t look at genre when they order.
However, the publisher will only provide 5,000 of those books because the publisher, knowing it has a science fiction title, will only have printed 5,000 copies due to genre expectation. Or, worse, the publisher will fulfill the 10,000 to 15,000 copy order, but bookstores will shelve the books in the science fiction section (because the book will say science fiction on the spine), and so the romance buyers who liked the first book will never find it.
Sales might spike a bit online, but they won’t be at romance numbers. Janet Q. Writer’s all important sales figures will be on a downward trajectory, which means that her publisher will either cancel her third novel or never buy it in the first place.
Sadly, genre expectation does not work in the other direction. If our buddy Janet got her start in science fiction, then wrote a romance as her second novel, the bookstores would order the romance at the science fiction number (5,000 copies) and the publisher would consider the romance novel a failure.
Again, Janet will be screwed before her third novel gets published.
The way around this is to publish books under multiple names. Janet’s romance novel can be by Janet Q. Writer. Her science fiction could be written by J. Quartilla Writer and her mysteries by J.Q. Writer. All of those names would be listed differently in catalogues, and no bookstore would realize that they are the same writer for ordering purposes. But the names are similar enough that readers would know.
That’s why so many writers over the years have so many pen names. It’s why I have them.
My Kristine Grayson romance novels have always outsold my Kristine Kathryn Rusch science fiction novels. The Rusch novels are successful in the sf field, the Graysons not nearly as successful in the romance field. We won’t discuss the Nelscotts because, in my opinion, St. Martins never tried to sell those novels at all. I hope to have real numbers on those books when the seventh book appears in March of 2014.
If a writer’s books have that downward trajectory like Janet’s books did above, then she can’t sell another novel under that name. If she’s good and easy to work with, her editor might ask her for a new novel series under a new name. That’s how Mike Moscoe became New York Times bestseller Mike Shepherd, and why so many writers have moved back and forth within the same genre under different names.
It’s because early on, the numbers for the really good first books were bad and the publisher wanted to hang onto the writer, but not the writer’s byline.
Let me stress here that this is a traditional publishing problem only. When traditional publishing was the only game in town, then every writer had to play. Now, with indie publishing, a writer can keep her name and write in any genre she damn well pleases.
Writers Who Don’t Need Pen Names
Indie writers don’t need pen names. For a while, I thought they did because I’d been raised in traditional publishing with traditional publishing genre expectations. But indie publishing is a whole new game, and you could probably name that game Trust The Reader.
As Scott William Carter says in his blog about getting rid of pen names, readers are smart enough to figure out for themselves what they want to read. If they don’t like fantasy novels, they won’t pick up Scott’s fantasies. If they don’t like mysteries, they’ll ignore his mysteries.
I stumbled into this one on my own with my short stories. While I played the pen name game with my novels, I never did with my short fiction. So I have romance short stories mixed with mystery short stories mixed with science fiction short stories, all under my Rusch name. And as WMG Publishing started releasing my entire backlist, including all of my short stories, I watched the sales jump around—by story, not by genre.
If you look at the Amazon algorithms for a particular story, it will often say that readers who bought Mystery Short Story A by Rusch also bought Mystery Short Story B by Rusch—even though they could have chosen romance or science fiction. In other words, the readers themselves figure out what they want to read.
If I were just getting started in the publishing business and I was going indie, I wouldn’t use a pen name at all—unless I personally felt I needed one.
I think it’s probably prudent to use a pen name if you’re writing both middle grade fiction and erotica. You don’t want some ten-year-old downloading your version of Fifty Shades of Gray. So if you’re writing for kids and the most adult of adult fiction, then you will want a pen name.
But if you’re writing westerns and also writing urban fantasy, your readers will be able to know the difference—provided you brand the books.
What do I mean by branding? Well, that’s another whole blog post, but suffice to say that you should make sure your science fiction novels look like science fiction novels, and your mystery novels look like mystery novels. Even more than that, your latest science fiction novel should share a look, a font, and a design with your previous science fiction novel. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you have some studying to do. (Dean Wesley Smith and Allyson Longueira of WMG Publishing have a covers workshop in which they teach branding and oh, so much more. You can find it here.)
Pen Name Summary
So, in short, you need a pen name if you have a profession that requires a degree of confidentiality or you really, really want privacy. You will need a pen name if you decide to stay solely in traditional publishing. And you probably won’t need a pen name if you’re an indie writer.
If you’re a hybrid writer—half indie half traditional—then you can maintain that name your traditional publisher wanted you to dump by publishing indie while writing new traditionally published novels under a new name.
Yeah, Yeah, I know You Have One More Question:
How Do You Set Up A Pen Name?
It’s really not hard.
If you’re indie published, you just put a different byline on your book than your real name.
If you’re traditionally published, you use your real name for payment, and your pen name as your byline. You inform the publisher of this using manuscript format. Your name goes in the upper left hand corner of your manuscript, along with all of your contact information, and your pen name goes underneath the title like this:Janet Q. Writer PO Box 0000 Nowheresville, Writerland, zipcode (pho)nen-umbe(r) firstname.lastname@example.org
My Really Great Novel
J. Quintilla Writer
Publishers know this is how it’s done, and they’ll work with you on it. Plus it’ll be in your contract, and you can make sure that the right byline is on everything when you see copyedits and galleys.
The problem comes in only when you need to have a super-secret pen name. Most writers, even those who have been incredibly stupid, don’t need a super-secret pen name. But some writers are paranoid or, like J.K. Rowling and Stephen King, they want to write without expectation at all.
Writers who need a super-secret pen name need to hire a lawyer to draw up documents so that the super-secret pen name can do business with a publishing company. Theoretically, the lawyer shouldn’t reveal this information. Unfortunately Rowling’s did.
In the States, you can set up a DBA (a doing-business-as) document through your bank or your state without a lawyer. You can be Janet Q. Writer doing business as Mona Secretive. The DBA will allow you to receive and deposit checks as Mona Secretive, provided you set up all of the business details properly. Do not ask me how to do that: it varies from state to state.
If you don’t want anyone to know you write books, then don’t ask your publisher to keep the secret for you. Use a lawyer or set up a DBA. You keep the secret. Publishing houses have hundreds of employees and there’s no way that you can guarantee that someone in sales will keep the secret that your editor promised to keep.
If you want your pen name to have no gender, get over it. You can write fiction with a male name even if you’re a woman or with a woman’s name even if you’re a man. However, don’t try to be genderless. Your publisher needs to be able to refer to you with a personal pronoun, especially if someone wants to contact you for subsidiary rights sales. If that someone is from Hollywood, they’ll want to talk with you on the phone.
Your publisher can easily say, “Janet is really a man writing under a woman’s name,” but your publisher can’t say “I have no idea what gender this person is” or worse, “I’ve promised to keep the person’s gender a secret.” That raises too many questions.
You’d think this is obvious, but it’s not. Since we started Fiction River a year ago, I’ve run into this problem twice, which is as many times as I’d run into it in all the years I was editing The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
Finally, don’t use an already established writer’s name as your pen name because you’re trying to siphon off a few sales. Yeah, you might write good horror novels, but you’ll do yourself no favors if you write them as Steven King (as opposed to the real guy: Stephen King.) What if your name really is Steven King? Then you might want to use your middle name as your pen name.
Before you establish a pen name, do a Google search under that name and make sure that the owner of the name isn’t a major felon or something. Then do a search on both Amazon and on Book Finder to see if someone who is currently publishing is using that name. If someone is, then make up a new name.
I’m Done Now. Really.
That’s it. That’s my opinion on pen names. Whether or not you use one depends on who you are, what your job is, where you’re publishing, and what you plan for your career. It’s your decision.
But now you can make an informed decision.
Good luck—and have fun.
If I were still 100% in traditional publishing, I’d have to publish these blog posts in book form under a different name. I don’t have to do that now. Yay! I love the freedom we have in this new world of publishing.
The one thing that’s not free, however, is my time. This blog needs to be self-supporting if I’m going to write something every week. So…if you’ve learned something here or you like what you’ve read, please leave a tip on the way out.
“The Business Rusch: Pen Names” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.