What is a nom de plume, and why should you care?
First of all, we’re talking about pen names.
Ever since J.K. Rowling began writing adult fiction under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, there has been a resurgence of interest in pen names and what they can do for authors. But the practice predates her and has quite a long legacy; many of your favorite authors are probably using pseudonyms. The author who is Nora Roberts writes romance under that name, futuristic science fiction under another (J.D. Robb), and still more under the names Jill Marsh and Sarah Hardesty. Her real name is Eleanor Marie Robertson. And then there’s Elena Ferrante, who remains as-yet “unknown” in that the author’s real name has not yet been revealed, and James S.A. Corey, which is a collaborative pen name for authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.
But there’s a right and a wrong way to go about using a nom de plume.
Back in the 18th Century, a pen name enabled writers, journalists, and artists to publish controversial and even illegal articles, letters to the editor, and other works of protest without being discovered––but these protections don’t necessarily hold true today, when publishing houses and companies can be subpoenaed for your contact information, among other things. A pen name can help you avoid overexposure, yes––as both Dean Koontz and Stephen King can attest––or to conceal your gender in a still-occasionally-sexist industry––as both Rowling and George Eliot were known to do––but it should never be used as cover for illegal activities, or trusted to protect you from political exposure.
Pen names are tied up with identity politics, and that’s a fact. But new authors should be focusing on the work itself, not on being “exposed” in the public eye, right? Well … probably. Maybe. If you’re writing a tell-all about the mafia, you still might want to consider a nom de plume.
PEN NAME PROS:
- You can put together a name which no one else “owns.” The world is unlikely to need two David Baldaccis, and you can avoid painful confusion by picking a pen name to differentiate yourself.
- You legitimately need to conceal your identity. Say you’re a physics teacher in a small town and you want to publish steamy romance books. It’s not illegal, but you want to avoid uncomfortable questions at work. Or perhaps you’re part of the LGBTQIA+ community, and you are afraid of reprisals from friends or family as you write your memoirs. There are reasons for concealment that have nothing to do with “lying.”
- Your branding is “off” for the genre. You know how it goes … you walk into a bookstore and you can immediately tell what section you’re in by the kinds of names on the shelves. Yeah, that’s a thing. And sometimes, having a catchy name which hints at your genre can be an important selling point. This point leaves room for those of us with difficult to pronounce or remember last names. Findability is key; “weird” names are sometimes perfectly memorable, and there’s zero shame in either sticking to yours or changing it up––but ultimately that’s a decision you might be forced to make.
- Your last book … didn’t go over so well. It happens. And when it does, sometimes you may need to put out your next book under a new name, to break old associations.
Next week, we’re going to take a look at some “cons” of choosing to use a pen name, like how obnoxious it can be to live and correspond with people under two or more names, and the legal side of things, too. Pen names aren’t the easiest thing in the world to pick up and use … but we’re confident that with the right information, you’ll make the right choice for yourself! So check back next week for Part II in this series on noms de plume!
You are not alone. ♣︎