Using a Pen NameMost writers publish their books with their real name. Stephen King really is named Stephen King. Autobiographies are usually done in their own names :). That being said, there are many famous instances of people using pen names, or fake names, when they publish a book. A pen name is like a mask. It shields your true identity from the readers.
Mark Twain was not a real name - the author's birth name was Samuel Clemens. The phrase "Mark Twain" is what steamboat captains call out when they test the depth of the water and find that it's the right depth for a boat to be able to pass safely. Since Samuel was often writing about the Mississippi River, he felt that people might more easily pick up a book seemingly written by someone involved in that area.
A similar situation could happen if an author was writing a series of books about Chinese romance - but her real name was "Jane Smith". If instead she used a pen name of "Soon Liu See" she might get more sales, because readers would build an impression that the books seemed more authentic. Many romance novel writers come up with flowery pen names like "Millicent Renault" to hide their more "boring" name of "Joan Miller". The pen name lends a hint of exotic mystery to the book. The author figures that every little bit counts!
Stephen King - a prolific writer - did in fact also have a pen name! He published some books as Richard Bachman. Here is what he has said to explain why he also published under a pen name - "I've been asked many times if I did it because I thought I was overpublishing the market as Stephen King. The answer is no... but my publishers did. Bachman provided a compromise for us both. My 'Stephen King publishers' were like a frigid wifey who only wants to put out once or twice a year... Bachman was where I went when I had to have relief."
So there is one reason to use a pen name - you are putting out so much content that you don't want to overload the market and have people less excited when your next book comes out. Most new writers don't have to worry about that problem :).
An author I adore, Sarah McKerrigan / Glynnis Campbell, has this to say: I was asked to use a pen name when I changed publishers, because they wanted to start a new marketing campaign. One reviewer even called me a "fresh, new voice"! But often authors choose to use different names for different kinds of books, so readers won't be disappointed. She makes a valid point. If an author has written twenty books that are all hard core thrillers, and then she writes a gentle romance, she might want to choose a pen name for that project. That way the thriller fan base doesn't pick up the book, expecting the "usual", and then get upset.
In the old days, sometimes authors would choose pen names based on similar authors. That is, if I wrote hard-boiled detective novels set in New York City, I might choose a pen name of "Sarah Paster" in order to be right next to "Robert B. Parker" on the bookshelf. All the fans of Parker would see my book right there and maybe take a look. However, in our modern world of Amazon, that doesn't really work. Only a tiny number of authors, primarily those using large publishers, get into physical bookstores. As Glynnis pointed out, that publisher could easily "change your name" for you at the point of the bookstore process in order to get prime placement. So a new author shouldn't be optimizing for bookstores. They should be optimizing for Amazon and online sales. That means choosing a name that appeals to readers and creates a certain image in their mind. The only way a name could help in searches is if you exactly matched another author's last name - naming yourself "Sarah Parker" for example, so people searching for "Parker Mystery" found you as well.
For the longest time, I only published with my real name. I am an established writer with a large volume of visitors to my Lisa Shea website and to my other websites I write for. If someone looks to find more information about "Lisa Shea", I want them to find all of this content I've written. However, I've been doing Facebook marketing for a number of "explicit romance" authors and the volume of sales they get is staggering. One author wrote a short novel in three months and has already topped 100,000 sales with it. So, with National Novel Writing Month coming up in November, I decided I should give one of these a try. Given how tame all of my other stories are, and how I've trained my readers to *expect* teen-safe content from me, to spring an explicit novel on them in my real name could cause all sorts of angst. So this will be my first foray into a pen name. Yes, it'll be a chore to have to build up an entirely new Twitter feed, Facebook page, Google+ page, and so on from scratch, just for this specific book series. However, if the result could be 100,000 copies sold in a specific market, there seems to be a good reason to undertake that.
If you're interested in doing National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, let me know! I'd love to build a cheerleading group for this fun, rewarding project.
If you use a pen name, please drop me a note about why you chose to do that. I'd love to have more details here on why people use pen names!
Note: The mask image is a mask that hangs in my home office. A wonderful friend brought this back from Africa for me.
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