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 :).
Often authors choose to use different names for different kinds of books, so readers won't be disappointed. 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. 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, all of my content is teen-friendly and I decided to do a project that was more adult oriented. I created a pen name to ensure the teens did not happen across this new material and become upset.
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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