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The Name Game: Pen Names Exposed

Writing.ie | Resources | Getting Published | Submission Tips

Sarah Downey

What do Mark Twain, Sophie Kinsella, Stephen King, George Orwell and Lemony Snicket all have in common? They’re all well-known writers of course but they’re also all pen names. Sarah Downey delves into the phenomenon of pseudonyms for writing.ie.

So what’s really in a name? Quite a lot it would seem. Down through the centuries pen names have been employed for a myriad of reasons from concealing a writer’s identity to hiding their true gender. Famously the Bronte sisters wrote under the names Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell to publish their books in a literary landscape dominated by males.

You may judge a book by a cover but do you also judge an author based on their name? These days authors choose pen names relating to words that rank highest in Google searches, because they are easier than their own names for readers to remember,  and also to appeal to the book’s particular audience – J. K. Rowling, for instance, created a gender-neutral version of her name so that boys would be more likely to read her books.

The Google Effect

For author and blogger Catherine Ryan Howard, her name change stemmed from the need to rank high in Google searches and illustrates the increasing importance of social media in all aspects of publishing. “My actual name, Catherine Howard, was also the fifth wife of English King Henry VIII. Therefore if you Google “Catherine Howard”, you get pages and pages of stuff about the historical figure. I knew that if I’d be selling my books through social media, making Google my friend would be extremely important. It wouldn’t do if, when you Googled my name, you didn’t find me until page 10 or 11 of the results (if that), because you’d have given up long before then!” Catherine’s solution? To add “Ryan” in the middle, which is her mother’s maiden name. “Everything I do with regards to writing is under that name, and if you Google that, I’m all the top results. I didn’t want to use a different name entirely, because I still wanted people to know it’s me. Now I feel like that’s my real name, I’m so used to using it! What’s funny is that my brother, who is an actor, liked it so much that he uses “John Ryan Howard” professionally too!”

Pseudonyms can also provide a great sense of privacy and even distance that some writers may crave.

Dubliner Zoë Miller leads a double life, working as a training specialist and a bestselling author and you’ve guessed it, she uses a pen name.  “It puts space between my writing life and the ordinary, everyday hustle and bustle of the day job and running a home. Once I go into my writing room, I shrug off life’s little ups and downs, and go into the glitzy world of Zoë Miller, author.” She notes “I’m a private person, so it sets me free to put my heart onto the page without feeling too defenceless or exposed. You know the way you feel like a different person, a lighter, freer version of yourself when you’re on a good holiday, away from the daily grind? Well, it’s a bit like that as well.”

Privacy

For Zoe Miller it’s like having another identity, ‘its fun for my friends and family, and me, almost like having an alter ego. “Sometimes people are very surprised to hear about my double life, so it adds a little touch of excitement!”

Exciting as they may be noms de plums also can have their downsides. “I suppose the main disadvantage is that if you dream of seeing your own name on the cover of a book, it ain’t going to be there.”   Zoë advises writers that they “need to avoid confusion, and ensure that any publicity generated is under the pen name. I have a separate Zoë Miller email address and use it as far as possible for the business end of writing. Same goes for Facebook and Twitter.”

For writers like Zoë, the pen name forms part of their brand and therefore needs to be chosen very carefully. Weeks may be spent deliberating over the name of a central character and the same thought should be given to choosing the perfect pen name. It then needs to be fully embraced, becoming a completely separate identity – the reasons behind using a pen name need to be concrete. Writers need to be prepared to make all their public appearances and do interviews under their adopted alias just like Zoë does.

Multiple Identities

Writing,ie’s very own Vanessa O’Loughlin also uses a pen name for her fiction – two in fact. She has recently released a contemporary romanceTrue Colours on Kindle under her maiden name Vanessa Fox and writes crime as Sam Blake. She told me “I have multiple identities! The main reason is that O’Loughlin is a tricky name for readers outside Ireland to remember, spell and pronounce, and Vanessa O’Loughlin is quite long to fit onto a book jacket, so to keep things simple, I use Fox. That said, readers who enjoy work by Vanessa Fox may not be at all impressed if they find themselves reading gritty hard hitting crime, so it makes sense to keep the two genres apart. My agent came up with the Sam Blake name – again it’s easy to remember and is gender-neutral – at first glance it won’t alienate any male readers who don’t like reading crime written by women.” Sam Blake has a busy blog www.bloodredink.com where she reviews crime, chats to crime writers and, Vanessa says, ” collects her various random thoughts each week – but she does need to spend more time writing fiction!”

Vanessa also used a pen name when she successfully entered two national competitions earlier in her writing career. She told me, “I’d already set up Inkwell and my name was known in the business – I wanted to enter the competitions anonymously, so I used a pen name Katie Cox for both the Poolbeg/Seoige and O’Shea Write a Best Seller competition and the Today with Pat Kenny/Mills and Boon short story competition. I was a finalist in both which was fabulous, but the pen name did cause a bit of confusion when I got to RTE – minutes before we went on air, the researcher blanched because she thought they had the wrong person!”

Launching a new career

American author Patricia O’Brien had had five books published when her agent, Esther Newberg, set out last year to sell her sixth, a work of historical fiction called “The Dressmaker.” As the New York Timesrecently reported,

“A cascade of painful rejections began. Ms. O’Brien’s longtime editor at Simon & Schuster passed on it, saying that her previous novel, “Harriet and Isabella,” hadn’t sold well enough. One by one, 12 more publishing houses saw the novel. They all said no.

Just when Ms. O’Brien began to fear that “The Dressmaker” would be relegated to a bottom desk drawer like so many rejected novels, Ms. Newberg came up with a different proposal: Try to sell it under a pen name.

Written by Kate Alcott, the pseudonym Ms. O’Brien dreamed up, it sold in three days.”

With a high five figure deal, the New York Times goes on to say “Doubleday has 35,000 copies in print after two printings… That gives “The Dressmaker” a major head start over “Harriet and Isabella,” Ms. O’Brien’s previous novel, which was considered a flop. It has sold 4,000 copies, according to BookScan, which tracks about 75 percent of retail sales of print books.”

Read the full article here.

Choosing a pen name is a big decision, consider it if you can say yes to any of the following:

  • Your real name is hard to remember and/or spell correctly
  • Your real name has a double entendre or sounds all wrong for your genre,
  • Your real name is the same as, or similar to, another author or a famous figure.
  • In real life you have an established career that might clash with your writing.
  • You want to distance your private and writing lives.
  • If you have been published under one name but are struggling to get a new contract and you want to revitalise your career.
  • You write in more than one genres or want to launch a career in a new genre.

Pen names have been around for many years and play a vital part in author promotion for many – if you are submitting to publishers, your name is something to think seriously about.

About the author

(c) Sarah Downey March 2012

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