I recently got a question from a new author about whether or not to use a pen name.
The closest I’ve come to a pen name is that on this site and on my non-fiction books, I use initials. So I’m L.M. Lilly.
My fiction is all under my full name—Lisa M. Lilly.
(I was once asked why the “M.” Basically because otherwise my name sounds a little too much like a romance writer—or an exotic dancer as my godmother once said. As I write mystery, occult, suspense, and thrillers, I thought that might confuse potential readers.)
Why Use A Pen Name
Here are a few reasons authors use pen names:
- To keep writing separate from other professional pursuits
If you have a job or profession where you fear your writing might affect how colleagues, bosses, clients, or others see you, a pen name can be a good option.
Writers who cover potentially controversial material or otherwise write something that they don’t necessarily want business associates to connect with them often use pen names.
If you’re a professor and you write erotica, for instance, you might prefer your students not to know you wrote the steamy book they’re reading.
Also, you may worry that your boss or clients will think you’re not focusing on their work/business/issues if they know you’re also pursuing another goal.
As someone who wrote while also running a successful and busy law practice for many years, I think there’s no reason you can’t do both.
But that may not be everyone’s view, so you need to weigh whether that’s a concern.
- To stay anonymous among family and friends
Similarly, some authors don’t want family and friends to know what they’re writing.
If you’re writing political thrillers or essays that espouse a certain point of view and it differs from your family’s, you may not want to get embroiled in the political discussions you could otherwise sidestep.
If as you write you’re thinking about people you know reading your words, that could inhibit your creative process. A pen name is a way to avoid that feeling.
It also avoids friends and family (and enemies–but you don't have any, right?) trying to figure out if characters are based on them.
- Separating genres for readers
I use initials for non-fiction to make it easier for readers to find my other similar books.
If you read Super Simple Story Structure that doesn’t mean you’ll be interested in my Awakening supernatural thriller series or my new Q.C. Davis mystery series.
And the converse is likely to be even more true.
So I prefer that when a reader of The Worried Man clicks on my author name, the books that display are my other novels.
Likewise, when a reader of one of my Writing As A Second Career books clicks on L.M. Lilly, that person will see my non-fiction.
Pen names also can be handy for different types of fiction.
If you write both hard science fiction and romance, you may want to write one under your actual name and one under a pen name. That way, readers of one genre will more easily find the type of book they like.
- Separating genres for algorithms
From what I’ve read, Amazon’s algorithms also try to match readers with authors.
Using different names for different types of writing helps the algorithm send readers to the “right” books.
The Downsides Of Pen Names
Using a pen name–or more than one of them–has downsides.
- More names = more work
If you are writing under more than one name and you want to publicize your work, you’ll need to spend more time building your pen name’s identity.
You will likely want to create social media accounts for each name, as well as author profiles, websites, and printed materials.
- You won’t be able to leverage existing social contacts
If you truly want to keep your pen name separate or anonymous, you won’t be able to use your existing social and work connections to help market your book.
If you don’t want to stay anonymous and are using a pen name for other reasons, you’ll still be adding a hurdle to people learning that you're an author.
As I noted in The Top 5 Reasons Your Friends Won’t Read Your Book And What You Can Do About It, often friends and family aren’t the best source of sales or support for your author career.
But some of your connections will be.
I published the first two books in my Awakening series while still running a busy law practice. I was regularly in touch with hundreds of lawyers all over the country.
Because I published under my own name, it was easier to let them know about the books and for them to find them organically.
Some have bought the entire series.
Others have told friends and colleagues about it, and some connected me with other professionals (such as graphic designers and other writers).
Using a pen name would have added a layer before my business colleagues could find me. It also would make it more difficult to connect with them on social media.
- True anonymity is hard to find
Staying truly anonymous can be a challenge in today’s world.
Author’s notes, biographies, and comments on social media all give clues to your real identity. Ensuring that doesn’t happen takes extra time and effort that you could devote to your writing instead.
And no matter how much you do, readers may still figure it out.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to stay anonymous if it’s important to you. Just know that you may put in that effort and still find you can’t really be anonymous.
I’m sure I’ve missed a few pros and cons, so feel free to share in the comments.
Also, if you have a question please send me an email at [email protected] and I'll do my best to answer in a future article.
Until next Friday—