Pen Names: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Hello, SE readers! Mae with you today. If you’re a writer, at some point or another, you’ve probably considered using a pen name. Authors use pen names for various reasons ranging from privacy, to branding, to multi-genre writing.

Privacy is huge, especially in an online world where self-promotion is all but mandatory. I admit I’ve always been freaky about Facebook. Before I started publishing, I neither wanted nor had anything to do with it. As an author, I had to embrace it, but even that was a reluctant endeavor. Eventually, FB and I parted ways, but it’s still necessary that I promote myself elsewhere. If you’re an author, privacy only goes so far.

I’m fortunate that “Mae Clair” works in multiple genres. If I wanted to write hard-boiled crime thrillers, I might become M.L. Clair, but I can move around pretty easily with my name.

Writing note showing Storytelling. Hand holding pen resting on open notebook, reading glasses lying wooden table.

Those who are familiar with my work know my preferred genre is supernatural mystery/suspense. I’ve put a lot of effort into branding myself in that genre. Recently, I released a comedic, buddy-trip novella. Not at all what my readers would expect. I gave serious consideration to publishing In Search of McDoogal under a pen name. I didn’t want to cloud the branding I’ve worked hard to achieve.

I was entertaining names to use, when I realized that whatever I picked, that author name would have no track record. When I thought about creating separate Twitter, BookBub, and Goodreads accounts, my groan of frustration could be heard across the blogosphere. Not only would I need to create those accounts (and manage them in an already too-tight schedule) but I’d have to build followings, too. That sealed my decision to stay with “Mae Clair” no matter what genre I write.

But pen names can be valuable. Let’s take a look at the breakdown.

THE GOOD
Privacy
Don’t want your co-workers to know you’re writing erotic romance? You might want to use a pen name, keep your identity under wraps, and away from the office.
Don’t want to expose the real you to a world of social media that has its share of trolls? Using a pen name can be a shield, protecting the real you.

Businessman use a woman portrait as undercover, hiding his face behind photo sheet, like a fake mask. Private life, split personality and unreal identity concept.Branding 
If you’re a man writing romantic suspense, you may want to choose a feminine pen name. By the same token, if you’re a woman writing tech-heavy sci-fi and your first name is “Bunny” you may want to choose something different or use your initials. Although not a hard and fast rule, gender can be a factor in a variety of genres.

Convenience 
Your name is hard to pronounce or spell. In this case a pen name will make you easier to find when someone goes searching for your books. I’ve already searched for books that I couldn’t locate because I couldn’t spell the author’s unusual last name.


THE BAD
You don’t get credit as the real you. Remember when you were a kid, dreaming of becoming a famous author? School friends, past acquaintances, teachers—all those people you’ve lost touch with—won’t know you’ve succeeded in your dream and achieved literary satisfaction.  You should also be prepared to explain why you aren’t using your real name when someone you know questions your choice.


THE UGLY 
Using a pen name can become tricky when it comes to royalties and accounting. You have a few extra hoops to jump through that, over time, can become more complex.  Copyrights, taxes, and online accounts such as PayPal are just a few examples. If you accept checks at book signings, how are they made payable—to your pen name or the name on your bank account?  If something should happen to you, do your heirs understand how your two identities overlap and are segregated?


THE TAKEAWAY 
Before you add a pen name to your writing resume, make a list of pros and cons, carefully weighing the benefits of both. Pen names rarely come without extra work but can be a huge benefit if you’re willing to go the miles. Most advice appears to lean toward not using one if you can avoid it, but you have to weigh the factors for yourself.

If you suddenly switched genres, would you consider using a pen name? If you had/have a name that is hard to pronounce or spell, would you find a pen name of value?  Time to chat and share your thoughts. I’m currently off line for several days, but the rest of the Story Empire group is covering comments for me, so please share yours with the group.

Ready, set, go!

Bio box for author, Mae Clair

132 thoughts on “Pen Names: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

  1. Great article. I used a pen name at the start, a year down the line I have found when searching my pen name very similar authors would come up first and my readers often struggled to find it. So I decided to use my actual name and rebrand my books, my surname is not common and now I’m first to find. 👌🏻

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi! Many thanks for stopping by to share your perspective. I think you made a wise choice by going with your actual name, given the problems readers were having in finding you. My last name often gets misspelled with an “e” on the end, but readers usually still find me.

      I’m glad you dropped by to check out the article. Many thanks for visiting and dropping a comment! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: What is in a Pen Name? – K M Hasling

  3. Excellent information, Mae. I learned the hard way that even a minor adjustment to your name (Going from Gwendolyn to Gwen) causes all sorts of hurdles with Amazon and others. If only I had read your post a few years ago, it would have saved this writer’s pain. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Wow, I didn’t realize that about shortening your name, Gwen. When I think it through, I can see where it would present hurdles with Amazon. Ugh! Sorry you’ve had to deal with that, but thank you for sharing. I’m sure your comment will benefit others!

      Like

  4. It was the accounting that determined it for me, Mae. Not only regarding royalties but bank accounts and taxes. It just wasn’t worth the aggravation. But, you make some great points too about other pros and cons. Great post. 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    • It does get tangled up when it comes to accounting, Diana. It certainly something writers should consider before publishing their first novel. Once you put your name “out there” you’ve already started branding and establishing the road ahead!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I had several people ask if I planned to use a pen name, but it never occured to me. Like Jessica, I guess I wanted to see my own name on a book. I have other author friends who use pen names for different genres – especially if they write erotica. I never even thought about all the complications with taxes, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think for many writers who use pseudonyms, the pen name becomes “them,” if that makes sense. Probably at the beginning there is a bit of a let down with not seeing their real name on the book, but afterward, I think they become the name they’ve created. I know if I wrote erotica, I would definitely use a pen name. That one would be a no-brainer, LOL. And yeah, the legal aspects can get twisty.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Working in a retirement village with a certain demographic, and publishing a dark horror/supernatural book gave me long pause about whether to use a pen name. In the end, I decided to go with my own name for two reasons: one, I’ve always wanted to see MY name on my books, and two: most of my residents wouldn’t have any idea how to download an ebook, so I hedged my bets I’m safe from any of them stumbling on my work!
    I did pick out my pen name though – J.B. White. I’ll keep it tucked up my sleeve for when I write that weird genre breaking book in my future 😁

    Liked by 4 people

    • But … but … but I am past old enough to live in a retirement village, and I LIKE supernatural and some horror, too. Maybe you’d have fans there, if they knew you were a writer? It’s possible. 😀 At any rate, I can see why you’d think it over carefully, though I suspect there are a few people in your community who might like to read your work. Thanks for stopping by and letting us know your thoughts, and now, when I come across some weird genre-breaking book by a certain J. B. White, I’ll know who REALLY wrote it. 😀

      Liked by 3 people

  7. I went through that decision making process when I first started writing. Do I use my current last name (my ex-husband’s last name)? Do I use my maiden name? Do I create something different altogether? Do I switch it up for each genre? In the end, I went with my current name because it’s just easier. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • Aye, there’s the rub, Flossie. So much to keep track of. I’m right there with you! Anything I can do to make life simpler these days seems like a good plan to me.

      Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

    • I have two versions of my name, Flossie, with two twitter accounts, two FB pages, two Goodreads pages and two blogs. Fortunately, Amazon has linked my two author profiles as the last name is the same. I wrote a post about it on Roberta Writes. I believe this has worked well for me as I write for two very distinct groups of readers i.e. children and adult. I didn’t want any confusion with my readers. My two profiles have different followings and some old followers have gravitated more towards my adult profile as they prefer my supernatural, horror and historical books and posts. I took some pain setting up the two profiles and it is extra work to maintain them but I think it was the right decision and I’m glad I did it. What I didn’t say in my post about this is that I have two computers which are set up with all the different accounts i.e. one for my adult profile and another for my children’s profile. This has saved a lot of time and effort and I always sit with both and alternate between them. The profiles are then all linked and I don’t make mistakes [well not very often anyhow].

      Liked by 2 people

  8. This is a very interesting topic, Mae. When I was offered the publishing contract with Wild Rose Press, I considered using another name to distinguish between the self-published books and traditionally published. But, in the end, for many of the reasons you listed here, I stuck with Jan Sikes. After all, that is a known name and anything else I’d choose would start back at square one. Thanks so much for sharing!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Branding is such an important part of selling our books, and I agree. Starting over from square one doesn’t seem like a good idea, if you already have name recognition going for you. It’s hard enough to get one name in front of a lot of folks. Aiming for two or three just seems impossible, at least to me. Thanks for stopping by today, Jan, and weighing in on this subject. 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

      • It sometimes does make sense to use two derivations of your name and have two profiles, Marcia. I think from me it made perfect sense. My horror readers are not interested in my fondant art and children’s books and some of my children’s book fans would be horrified at my darker side. It is effort but so is everything else in life that’s worthwhile. I wouldn’t use a different name just for a genre change though, my difference is, I believe, much more fundamental with adult horror and children’s books. Author Janice Spina who also crosses the children and adult spectrum, also uses two variations of her name.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. My pen name is actually my real name – but no-one in ‘real life’ ever calls me by it! 🙂 My first name is Hywela, and my middle name is Lyn. (Both Welsh names) and for some reason I’ve always been called just ‘Lyn’. I think being known by one’s second name is a ‘thing’ in Wales. When I started writing I thought it was a shame never to use my first name so I decided to do away with my surname and just use my first two names. Although ‘Hywela’ may be a bit hard for non-Welsh people to pronounce (Hoo-wel-ah) it does seem to stick in people’s memories and I’m pretty sure I’m not competing with other authors with the same name! 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

  10. Good post, Mae! I use a pen name for privacy and my last name is too hard to pronounce….lol. I used my real name in children’s magazines, though years ago. I was going to use two different pen names, one for adult and one for kids, but didn’t want double the social media to look after. I decided parents buy kids books so if they read mine adult they will find the kids that way. I did make my name a business in our county to cover all my bases. You are right people I know don’t know I write since I use a pen, but Denise is my real name:)

    Liked by 4 people

  11. Thoughtful post, Mae! Before I published my first book, I researched for other authors listed as Bette Stevens… Since there was one, I added my middle initial A. You’re right on target as far as branding goes. I use Bette A. Stevens as an author name period. Great job listing the pros and cons here–thanks for bringing up a timely topic that all writers need to reflect upon. 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

  12. I use my real name. I didn’t bother to change to my maiden name (Smith), it’s bad enough that I am a Jones. There are other Michele Jones authors, but I am who I am and I don’t have the time to be anyone else. Heck, I don’t have the time to be me. Good post.

    Liked by 5 people

  13. I started out writing urban fantasy as Judith Post, but when my agent sold a romance, she wanted me to use a pen name since the two genres didn’t overlap at all. It took me a while to get used to it, but it hasn’t been too much more work. I used my first and middle names for the pen name so that I’d remember Judi Lynn was me:)

    Liked by 3 people

  14. Hi, Yes I agree that there are positives! I used my pen name Diana Jackson for work too. It was my maiden name which I reverted to when my marriage broke down but when I remarried and began to write seriously I kept this pen name for both work and writing. Since I taught 17 – 19 year olds it was a way of keeping my private life to myself. Canny at that age! It became my public persona!

    Liked by 3 people

    • It’s great that it’s worked out so well for you, Diana, and your reasons for choosing a pen name make perfect sense.
      Thanks so much for stopping by today and taking the time to comment! Hope to see you here often! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  15. I gave the idea of a pen name some thought but then when I looked at the ugly side of it I decided it was too much trouble. I am troubled by the fact that I am branded as a thriller author and have other things I want to do. Like you, I have decided the whole start from scratch idea does not have any appeal. Excellent article, Mae.

    Liked by 5 people

  16. Thanks for this, Mae. My first book was about someone trapped in a sub standard care home. Shortly before it was published, my daughter-in-law started work at our local home. It wouldn’t have been fair to her or the home if I’d used my real name and so I adopted Alex Craigie (a combination of my father and grandmother). I’m now committed to using my pen name but I’ve adjusted to it. If people ask for a signed copy I give them a choice of Trish or Alex.

    Liked by 5 people

    • I can understand exactly why you’d want to protect their privacy, Trish, and choosing a pen name makes perfect sense. BTW, if I were buying a book from you at a signing, I’d ask you to use both names, even if I had to toss in an extra $5 to bribe you for the time spent. 😀 😀 😀 And I’d take pictures, and otherwise drive you crazy as long as I could get away with it, too. Hahahahaha.

      Thanks for stopping by today, and taking time to comment. Mae is unavailable for a few days, but when she returns, I know she’s going to enjoy reading your thoughts! And whatever name you use, just keep on writing, my friend! I have decided enough time has gone by since losing my mother that I’m ready to read your book. It will be at the top of my list as soon as I return to reading things OTHER than the Dresden Files. 😉

      Liked by 2 people

      • My book will wait until you’re good and ready, Marcia! I’d hate for you to be upset by the content if things are still a bit close to the surface and so I’d suggest waiting until you can properly smile again at the memories of your mother first. You’ve done such a huge amount for me and this little grasshopper is grateful for all your support – not to mention the laughs! ❤

        Liked by 2 people

      • I will admit, writing the nursing home scene in TE3 was very hard, but it was also a bit cathartic. I can’t hide from reality forever, but you are a kind and good friend to be so understanding. And I’m very glad if I have been able to help you in any way at all. Believe me, you’ve returned the favor ten times over! 🙂 ❤

        Like

    • I love the thought you put into that decision for your daughter and the home. Equally, I love that you chose names FROM your family, which still keeps you in your pen name and honors people you love.

      And it’s cool you let people decide how you sign your name.

      Liked by 3 people

    • HI Trish, this is interesting. How did you manage the whole taxes and finances issue. I had planned to use Roberta Eaton as my alter ego and not Roberta Eaton Cheadle. It was so complex with Amazon and PayPal that I reverted back to using my married surname.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Major confession here – I’m so scared of getting official things wrong that I hand over the form filling to my husband. If my books become bestsellers and he disappears I’ll know that I’ve made a mistake… Anyway, although I use Alex Craigie on my books, it’s my real name that goes on all the forms and there always seems to be a place on these forms for authors to put both so that the officials can tie in the one with the other. Don’t know it that helps!

        Liked by 2 people

  17. Reblogged this on The Write Stuff and commented:

    Ever thought about using a pen name for your work? Check out Mae Clair’s very interesting post today on Story Empire for all sorts of pros and cons about this very topic. Lots of things I never thought about when I decided to start writing, that’s for sure. And as always, please consider passing this one along so other writers can learn more, too. Thanks, and thanks to Mae Clair for another super post! 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

  18. Super post, Mae! I once thought about a pen name, then gave up the idea as just too much extra work. As an older-aged (yet new) author, I figure my time is best spent telling my stories, and I don’t want people looking for more of my work to miss some because I have books out under more than one name. That has happened to me when I’ve read a new author I really enjoyed and wanted to read more of, yet only found half of her books, because for years I didn’t know the other half was written under a different name. I don’t mind authors who write in more than one genre, as I always read the book description or blurb before buying, figuring no matter how much I enjoy a writer’s style, they may still have written some works I’d be more drawn to than others.

    I really like how you’ve given us the pros and cons to think about, some of which I never considered. This is great advice, especially for other new authors who have many more years (and genres) ahead of them. Sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 5 people

    • It does feel like extra work. But Mae did an excellent job of listing the pros and cons.

      I’m glad you eventually found the other half of that author’s books. Too bad her website or author profile or end notes didn’t clue readers in faster.

      Liked by 3 people

      • This was some time ago, and I’m not sure she wanted to be linked to the other books. Of course, it was way before self-publishing was an option, too, and I have no idea why the decision was made not to clue folks in, but if there were hints out there, I never found them. Of course, I didn’t have a computer at the time, either. (When I say some time ago, I mean like decades.) 😀

        Liked by 1 person

  19. I wrote my books as me. Then I started writing for a story studio and use a pen name there. If I had to manage the social media for both names, I’d lose my mind. But they handle my marketing. And I post info on my site (as me) about my alter-ego’s work. It isn’t necessarily ideal, but it’s not bad.

    Great post, Mae.

    Liked by 5 people

  20. I considered a pen name at first. I didn’t do it for two reasons. First was that I couldn’t think of one that worked. All the cool names I thought up sounded better for characters. The other reason is because if the Internet. It’s too easy to unmask an author unless they work hard to hide their identity. Once the secret is out, the pen name doesn’t make a lot of sense.

    Liked by 4 people

  21. Great post, Mae. I’ve used a pen name from the get-go and treat it as my real name in that I don’t change it to reflect genre, even though I’m definitely fully multi-genre. As you say, my name has become my brand. I agree with the point about readers finding it difficult to find you or your books under many different names.

    Liked by 3 people

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