The Business Rusch: Pen Names

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 Business Rusch logo webAt 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.

And then there are my main pen names—Kristine Grayson and Kris Nelscott. Those pen names are for different genres, and more importantly, to me as a writer, they have different tone to their work.

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

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.

Some Don’ts

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.

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“The Business Rusch: Pen Names” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

63 thoughts on “The Business Rusch: Pen Names

  1. Hi Kris,

    Great article! Thanks for taking the time to write it. I’m about to publish my first book…going through the process now, and I’ve been considering using a pen name. The thing is, my real name is pretty unique–when I do a Google search I pop right up–but it’s not exactly easy to spell. Any thoughts? And yes, I’m using my real name on this post!

    1. My name is impossible to spell, Caron. Every single name (Kristine, Kathryn, Rusch) has a variety of alternate spellings–and believe me, my publishers have misspelled them all. An unusual name is a good thing. Go with it. Use a pen name if you have a legal reason to do so. (Confidentiality issues or something) Otherwise, use your own name. It’s memorable.

      1. Thanks for the feedback, Kris! I’m going to do that. Funny thing, I’m actually a lawyer (not currently practicing) but since I’m writing a middle grade novel there’s no reason not to use my own name. BTW I thought the article was not only informative, but super funny! I actually gave it to my husband to read! LOL

  2. Interesting post. I’ve published an adventure trilogy under my name but am about to publish a series of romances, almost certainly under a pen name. I’ve been debating what to put on the copyright page. Many authors use their real names for the copyright, I’ve noticed. Kris, how did you handle it?

    If you file officially for copyright, a completely pseudonymous copyright application leads to fewer years of copyright, interestingly – so it makes sense to use your pen name on your application. However, your real name becomes public record if you register the copyright this way. (Government copyright summary of pen name practices is here.)

    What a muddle.

  3. Very interesting! I had no idea that stage names and pen names were so common. I feel so naive. I recently started a business, and I’ve been using this pseudonym online for decades. It’s my intention to be honest about who people are doing business with, so I display my real name for business purposes but write under my pseudonym. This does make me feel better about using a pen name.

  4. I decided on a pen name because my real name, Kevin Smith, is not only fantastically non-descript but is the name of at least one person with a huge following. I figured using my real name I’d never out-google the other Kevin Smiths out there. I did consider the possibility of using my real name and selling a load of books to people who thought I was that other Kevin Smith; even if it pissed some people off, hey, there’s no such thing as bad publicity (or so I’ve heard).

    Good call on anybody’s part to keep their pen name dealings separate from their ‘real’ business. Using my pen name in my email address has caused more than adequate confusion among people – though it has been a conversation starter.

    Question: does anyone who uses a pen name have difficulty keeping multiple social media accounts clear and distinct? In particular I have Smith and Kato facebook profiles and I tend to share stuff between the two for an extra boost of exposure for whatever it might be worth.

    Thanks for the post Kris! (Hey is that really your name??)

  5. When I was deciding on the “pen name vs real name” issue, I decided to go with my real name. I felt like I should be able to stand behind anything I write without fear of repercussions, since when I came to this country I was promised a whole Bill of Rights and freedom of speech and all that. “I am in America and I can do whatever I want” used to be my teenage war cry.

    Fast-forward 30 years. I broke into the fairly forgiving genre of gay romance. Aside from being intrigued by the relationship dynamic in the absence of societal pressures on women when it comes to career choice and child-bearing, writing guys is fun for me. However, not so for my husband. Now he wishes I had a pen name! It never even occurred to me that he might have any reservations, especially as he never reads what I write in this genre. Which is, actually, why I started writing it: he can’t stand reading my writing without a red pen in his hand. His comments are useful, but there is so much and there are so deep, it caused tears and discord and a temporary lack of writing.

    A pen name might have helped… 😉

  6. My last name is a national food brand. While Alice Sheldon found that was amusing (Tiptree) I think mine would get in the way. The question is, though the name I have chosen is wonderful and unique, the surname is nine letters long. It’s easy to pronounce, just lengthy. Besides writers cramp from signings, could that be a problem?

  7. Really interesting read. I’ve been planning on releasing erotica on the side to supplement my income from my fantasy and science fiction stories and I was pretty much set on using a pen name for that, and this article solidified that decision. I also wanted to do a few romance and urban romance stories under a female pen-name in the future. While reading I considered if the romance novels could be written in my name, but at the moment the pen name still makes the most sense even though I’m indie publishing. But we’ll see how it turns out 🙂

  8. Very interesting & horrifying post. One thing I don’t understand: You say,

    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.

    But then you say,

    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)

    Why would the bookstores ignore genre in the first case, but order by genre in the second?

    1. My bad communication. If you look further, you’ll see that I hedged my bets by saying even if the bookstore did order at the previous level. You see, in some bookstores, people order the books. In others, computers do all the orders. So computers look at name/genre/sales. People look at name/sales. Since most books are ordered by computer, guess what, name/genre/sales trumps name/sales.

  9. I keep a pen name for professional reasons, but slightly different from the one you listed. Since my “day job” is done on a freelance basis, I have clients and associates googling my real name all the time to find out if they want to work with me. I don’t want them to end up at my blog or my writing, since not only are those full of cursing but it’s also not even remotely connected to what I want them to hire me for. I keep my real name separate so that everything under that name is focused on a different profession.

  10. I really like the information presented within this post; it’s helped me to decide for sure to use a pen name for my upcoming ebook. I’ll be writing a post about my decision, too.

    Thanks for sharing this!

  11. I don’t have a common name but there is a business author with my name and she’s already been published. As I also write some articles about acupuncture under my name I decided a pen name for fiction would be a good idea. To use my real name felt like there weren’t just TWO people in the mix (the acupuncturist and the business person) but three and I was starting to feel like that WOULD be confusing particularly since I don’t even know the other woman.

    I did think about BE Koenig, or Bonnie E Koenig but those sound far more formal than I am. My middle name is Elizabeth and BD (Before Dean’s class on covers) I couldn’t figure out a way to make the full name look right. I took that class AFTER launching a book so I’ve decided the first and middle name are here to stay.

    As pen names, go it’s not much of one, but it’s easy to pronounce and for the most part I want to concentrate on writing fiction, so it shouldn’t be harder to build a brand under this name than to build it under my real name.

  12. Great detail. Thanks for the recap.
    I use a pen name for my book reviews Facebook, etc. I’m not a doctor or lawyer but am a professional that doesn’t want to mix work and pleasure.
    And btw I loved the Grayson novels. Still have most of them.

  13. Great post. Thank you!

    I write fitness and nutrition books, but I’m itching to get back to fiction, which was always my dream. I never really thought I’d get to be an author, but now that I am, I want to write more and more, and different things.

    What’s your opinion on non-fiction authors who want to branch out into fiction?

    Thank you for writing for us.


  14. I am a writer who started using a pen name because of my Academic work. I started in Romance and it was not considered acceptable. When I decided to write YA I thought I needed a different pen name. I mistakenly believed that mothers of teens would not want their daughters finding a book with sex in it by the same person.

    If I had it to do over again, I would have only one pen name for all fiction. My resolution to that is to create a single website that has all names, and for all metadata on my books to have all three names. Then readers can choose if they want to cross genres or not.

  15. Wonderful post, thank you so much. I have been wondering about this for a while – I technically use a pen name but it’s literally just one letter swap off my real one to make it more easily pronounceable. So far, I’ve written romantic fantasy, UF, and erotica and I didn’t see the need to keep that under different names.

    However, I am currently putting the finishing touches to a pretty tame literary YA piece and it makes me wonder. It just doesn’t fit with the rest of the material and while I personally have no issue with teenagers reading adult material (I certainly did) I wouldn’t want to push it onto them either.
    My question is — do I approach agents/publishers with a new pen name already or do I leave it up to them? Do I tell them what I have published under my other pen name?

    I also have a friend I often collaborate with and so far we always queried as both of us, figuring that if a publisher wanted to take it, they could tell us if they thought a pseudonym for both of us would work better. What do you think?

    And lastly, I promise, do you then have to start all over again building a social media platform?

    1. Let me answer the last first, Laila, because it’s the easiest. You need a static website for your pen names, a website that readers can go to and find what books the pen name published and where to find them and/or what order a series is in. Other than that, no, you don’t need any social media presence.

      As for pen names and their usage, you control. Remember, it’s your career. So the decision is always yours. A publisher might say that they won’t buy a book without a pen name, but then you get to decide: do you want to sell to this publisher? Your decision, 100%

  16. Interesting. I have one pen-name who has never sold a book. He has a couple of relatively ‘squeaky-clean’ titles that I’ve been thinking of re-branding. The trouble is, he’s a pretty good kid and I sort of hate to kill him off. My own pen-name, which began as a tribute to Louis L’Amour, the only writer who could make me cry regularly, ( and no doubt another pen-name,) at least has some traction and some sales, although he might get some interest from traditional publishing in the future. In that case, I would be strongly tempted to ‘kill myself off,’ (figuratively speaking.) I live in a small town, and it is sort of impossible to keep a secret when you have a blog or website, and use your own picture under a pen-name. The world is just too small these days. I tried to figure it all out in advance, but yeah, there are a lot of considerations. I don’t think I need or would like fame…in my own home town; where everyone already had a comfortable set of expectations that they might not wish to give up.

  17. Yup, I remember when I asked one of my publishers about this a couple years back. Having done Trek and all that, I wasn’t sure if I needed a pen name for YA, or to switch subgenres within YA. Really, it was old-style thinking, and he told me so. (Plus, YA is a very fluid and forgiving genre where mashups happen all the time. It’s just as not rigid.)

    But if a book or two tank in traditional publishing and I still want to make a go of it with another traditional publisher. . . you bet I’ve already got my pen names picked out and right handy.

  18. Hi Kris,

    what about having a weird, hard to pronounce last name? Do readers really care? I mean, Johnson or Jones would be nice and all, but that’s also generic, I guess. (sorry to those so named!).

    1. REaders don’t care, Joe. And weird in one country is normal in another. I was told that David Baldacci was asked to use a pen name in Italy so that the Italians wouldn’t think he was a native. I don’t know if that’s true, or if he decided to use a different name, but it sure sounds true. 🙂

      1. Readers do care, if they don’t know how to ask for your book. My name is impossible to pronounce correctly, since it’s a bastardization of a name in another language whose vowel has no phonetic equivalent in English, and the convention for translating that letter into English is… wrong. The “correct” way of pronouncing my name in English is a bastardization of the bastardization which makes no sense from either perspective. People always stumble over my name and look uneasy when saying it for the first time. And if someone recommended me to you, but didn’t spell my name out, you wouldn’t be able to find it from the pronunciation.

        1. Same with mine, though. My name is Rusch pronounced with a German sound in the middle. But most people pronounce it “rush” and so they will misspell it every time–without the “c” Readers will find you, but if you’re worried, use a pen name.

    2. I may not be able to spell “Paolo Bacigalupi” correctly off the top of my head, but I remember his name and books in a general sense. (It helps to be a really damn good writer.)

  19. Thanks, Kris. I’m just going to put this out there. I am a doctor, and I do write under pen names, but my medical humour sells relatively well under my own name, for the past few years.

    My options, as I see them are, 1) change my name, and lose sales, but maybe decrease my liability, and/or 2) media insurance. Does anyone have advice on media insurance in Canada?

    Many thanks!

  20. I’m one of those who uses a pen-name to eliminate confusion, so people looking for sci-fi don’t end up with a book about water law. And to reduce the likelihood of job trouble because of the politics (or lack thereof) in my fiction. Although it makes it hard to brag about getting the next book out when you can’t say that “you” just released your next book. *wry grin*

  21. Totally hiding your real name makes sense these days when any nut can look you up online and arrive at your doorstep. They will also know way too much about your kids, pets, and significant other.

    Some of my friends in the romance community have had scary incidents with ex-prisoners. (Apparently, male prisoners LOVE romances.) Food for thought in deciding on a pen name or not.

    If I had to do it over again, I’d probably use a name that was easier to spell. One award I won had my first name misspelled as well as the name of the book. In these days of online stores and search engines, a misspelled word offers useless results which means fewer books sold.

    1. Wow, Marilynn, thanks for that info about romances. Scary. This one thing may make me keep my romance pen name after all.

    2. Okay, can’t resist some quick flash fiction:

      Crazy prisoner falls obsessively in love with a woman writer of romance novels and decides to kidnap her when he gets out of jail. His bunk mate, who is also secretly in love with her from the same novels, tries to warn her, but no one listens. He has to break out of prison to go rescue her before the other prisoner gets to her first.

      But then the crazy prisoner uses the escape to convince the writer that the bunkmate is the crazy one, and so she ends up running off with him, only to learn that he is the danger…

  22. I started writing with a pen name mostly because I wanted to build a brand. However, I had to reboot ’cause the first one was very bad. The pen I use now is simply a condensing of my regular name.

    The main reason why I use a pen name now is not really to keep people in the dark about me, but more to give people a solid separation between me the person and me the writer.

  23. Things can be even more difficult for you if you have high security clearance in a government agency like the CIA

    Which is precisely why Racoona Sheldon wrote under the name James Tiptree, Jr. She also thought that having a woman’s name in the SF field would be a hindrance. She was so successful at this deception, she fooled Harlan Ellison. 🙂

    I’m not a letter carrier, like Bruce, but I can totally relate. Nowadays, if you’re looking for a job, the HR department will Google your name. If it turns up associated with “questionable” genres (which can be whatever you define, but almost always includes erotica), you may lose that opportunity. I actually saw this happen at one company I worked for. When your mortgage or the kids’ tuition is on the line, you don’t fool around: you get a pen name.

    If you don’t want anyone to know you write books, then don’t ask your publisher to keep the secret for you.

    Or, of course, become your own publisher. 🙂 I can pretty much trust myself.

    1. And of course, Racoona was a cover for Alice. 😉
      The name Tiptree was borrowed from a jar of jam, by the way.

  24. Yeah, when I began self-publishing I was trying to separate stories by pen name (OK, I admit it, I didn’t want the early ones anywhere near my real name in case I was embarassed by them later :)), and I’ve come to realize that was a bad idea. Sales bumps mostly seem to come from releasing something new, and, with a busy day job, I can’t release something new for every name every month.

    Now I’m trying to eliminate one of those pen names and republish their stories under this name, it’s turning out to be much harder than I expected as getting them off Amazon seems impossible, particularly when you have PoD versions available (Createspace also won’t let you change the author name, unlike KDP).

      1. Yeah, I’ve been trying to take the old books down, and it’s worked at sites other than Amazon. At Amazon, the Kindle books go to unavailable, then do actually vanish after a while, but Createspace books seem to haunt you in ‘out of stock’ forever :).

        Thanks for pointing me toward Scott’s post. I hadn’t thought of adding myself as a co-author instead, and that might work.

  25. WRT getting sued for “portraying” someone in a novel… Apparently, there’s something in Spanish law that allows you to portray people as long as the can’t be singled out any narrower than 1 in several thousand. Isn’t there something equivalent for US fiction?

    Take care

  26. I rarely mention my writing outside of fannish circles. A big reason for this is that back in 1990, when I managed to sell a script to ST:TNG, I was still working full-time as a letter carrier. I was, briefly, a minor local celebrity, with an interview in the local newspaper, etc.

    My supervisor at work had, up to that point, been a fairly reasonable guy, who I hadn’t had any problems getting along with. After I sold that script, all of a sudden I was complete and utter shit to him. I wasn’t doing my job any differently, but now nothing I did was (supposedly) up to standards or competent. When routes were adjusted a few months later, almost all of the mostly-business area I’d been delivering mail to was swapped out for the slummiest, most-dangerous parts of the station’s territory, with more than double the number of deliveries I’d had before.

    It was bad enough I ended up in the ER for stress-related reasons. I eventually had to transfer to a new route at a different station to get away from the situation.

    It was very perplexing and frustrating, and I had a hard time understanding why that supervisor acted the way he did. I finally decided that he must have had his own dreams of accomplishing something special (not necessarily writing), and when one of his subordinates managed to -do- something special… well, if he couldn’t match that accomplishment, he could at least try to tear that individual down.

    But ever since I’ve had a certain reluctance to “go public” about my writing.

    1. I’m sorry to hear about your experience. Sometimes it just takes one thing. I didn’t write for a long time after getting harassed for my book. Pen names always for me now.

  27. I’m an indie and I like having different pen names. It’s just easier for readers that way. I suppose indie authors with very few titles under each of their pen names might be tempted to publish everything together, just to have more titles showing under their name. If they just keep writing, like I do, they’ll see their list of titles under all their pen names grow quite quickly. It was actually really bad for readers when I had all of my various genres published under the same name.

  28. Thank you for this, it’s timely for me. I’ve been planning on using my real name, which happens to be unisex, because it’s so bloody common in my generation that it’s the same as using a pen name. It’s so common that I assumed I could do fiction alongside the nonfiction using the same name. What I didn’t consider was that someone would actually *need* to know if I’m a she; I’m not sensitive about people getting it wrong. When your name is Jamie you can’t bother getting upset about that. After reading this post I will go ahead and include my middle name, it would definitely end the “It’s Pat” game.

    I am surprised about the mysteries, as you mentioned they do trade paperbacks. I’ve always understood them to either be mass market OR hardcover, but never trade. I used to wonder why I never saw a trade paperback version of mysteries, since I actually prefer that format. Is indie publishing to thank for this shift, or have I just been away from the genre for too long?

    Thanks again for the Business Rusch; they’re a public service and I look forward to them.

    1. Traditional publishers don’t want to do mass market much, so in mystery, they’re moving to trade for the mid-list. Trade and e-books. Mystery readers who don’t want the hardcovers appreciate it; those who want mass market don’t. 🙁 And you don’t need the middle name on the book, as long as your publisher can mention your gender. In both cases I listed, the writer wanted us to keep the gender secret. If the writer has that many issues that they need secret, they need to hire a lawyer and work through the lawyer.

  29. I do write erotic so I will have a pen name for that to separate it from the rest of my stuff which is mostly fantasy. I’ve been on the fence about pen names because I always seen them as a filing system to put different styles of stories into but since most of my other stuff is fantasy based I see that I can use one name which will be another pen name. I don’t wish to use my real name for person reasons.
    I’ve been studying this branding thing and I think I see what you are talking about. When I do my different styles of fantasy. I’m talking gothic fairytale fantasies to epic fantasies that I have to present that name in a style that of course matches the cover and sets them apart from each other. I see that now.
    Great post!

  30. When you file a DBA, or fictitious name statement, with your county in California (and probably elsewhere in the U.S.), your legal name becomes public record.

    If you’re referring to the U.S. SS-4 tax form, it’s now called an EIN.

    1. I wasn’t referring to the tax form in any way. We are not going to discuss taxes here. 🙂 And yeah, your name becomes public record, but someone would have to really want to figure out who you are to do that. And if you’re starting from scratch and want a secret pen name but can’t afford a lawyer, use a DBA. Most writers aren’t Rowling or King, so no one’s going to go hunting.

  31. I thought it was interesting how your romance books outsell your sf even though you are better known in the sf world. I was thinking about writers who post their numbers and complain how low they are. Some of them write in genres where the pool just isn’t large to begin with.

    Slightly off topic from pen names, do you recommend writers write over many genres in this new world in order to make a living at this — especially if they write in a genre where the reader pool is small? I know before it was nearly impossible to make a living in one genre, unless that was romance and even then you had to write a lot and usually under at least two pen names. Or since we are given larger access to the readers could you stay in one small niche, but just write a lot in it?

    You probably have touched on this before, but I’m drawing a blank.

    1. I think writers should write what they love, no matter what it is. Don’t write romance if you don’t like/read it. Don’t write sf if you hate it. And then go from there. An audience will build over time. Just slower in some genres than in others.

  32. You bring up some very good points about pen names. I already have one for the couple of romantic comedies I have up, but I’m not sure I’ll ever use it again – seems I had those two stories in mind, but nothing else has fallen out of my brain that’s strictly romance in quite a while.

    But I’m good with that.

    Now, though, I really want to start writing some mysteries, which were my first love back when I was a kid and into my late teens. I’ve picked up a slew of mysteries lately, and I have a hankering to try it. I originally thought I’d used a pen name, but now I’m not so sure because of the points you’ve brought up.

    And I get the branding thing. 🙂 That would be my only concern, to make sure the covers of the mysteries are different enough so readers would know what they’re getting.

  33. What was it that Barry Eisler once said ? Ah, yes. Something like : “I’m trying my best to apply what the CIA taught me when I worked for them, and not to ask any authorization for my books.”

  34. No, you’re not done. 😀

    What about pen names’ biographies? Rowling got a lot of flak for Galbraith’s fictional military past.
    I generally find bios to be superfluous, except if you got some expertise relevant to the novel’s content (Gerritsen, Crouch). What do I care the late Tom Clancy was an insurance agent? That’s not the reason I read his books.
    So I’m not fond of coming up with fictional bios. “Janet Q. Writer lives with her husband, two children and a labradoodle in Fillintheblankspace…” is drivel, imo. And “SF-Writer Janet Q. Writer worked as an engineer at NASA for over 20 years” is imposture.

    I’d love to hear your opinion on this.

    1. I don’t think you should lie in the bio, like Rowling did. I think you use what you can. If all you have is she lives and works in Oregon, then that’s all you have. Eventually the pen name takes on a life of its own. Kris Nelscott has a mountain of mystery awards and nominations that Kristine Grayson does not. There’s one big name writer whose bio for (one of) his non-bestselling pen names is “J.Q. Writer is a pen name for a NYT bestselling author.”

      1. Thank you for your answer.
        On a related note: Do you think a bio (pen name or real name) is necessary at all?

        (And I meant Eisler in the post above, not Crouch. Always confusing those two)

  35. Another fine and needed entry, Kris.

    The classic literary case of someone suing for anything is Dr. Jane V. Anderson’s defamation case against Sylvia Plath’s estate and the filmmakers of the 1979 movie based on her novel.

    No one really knew that the amalgam character of suicide Joan Gilling was partially based on Dr. Anderson until she outed herself. However, the defendants settled for $150K and the statement [including by Ted Hughes] that Anderson was “unintentionally defamed”.

    Nowadays being “red-shirted” or Tuckerized is a privileged boast.

    Comics writer Archie Goodwin originally had a first-sale mystery-oriented submission acceptance qualified by the request that he choose a pen-name other than Rex Stout’s famous detective. When Mr. Goodwin explained that it wasn’t a nom de plume but his own, the byline became a meritorious selling point.

    Felix Salten serves as a real-life example of the need for distinguishing one’s work when writing in extremely separate categories. Nearly none of the Disney viewers has any notion that the author of Bambi wrote child-pornography.


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