The Writing Life—Using a Pen Name or Not

Some writing experts say your name as a writer is your brand. Readers come to expect a certain kind of book from you. They expect me to write paranormal mysteries. They expect Diane Vallere to write cozies and love fashion.

These writing experts say that if you’re to going to write something really different to use a pen name. So if I’m going to write say contemporary women’s fiction, they think I should do it under a pen name.

Hugh Howey just recently blogged about how marvelous it is to be an indie writer. He said he had an idea for a story, wrote it, edited it, and put it up on the e-sites—all in one day. He said being indie allows him to write anything he wants—in any genre. He doesn’t use a different name to write in a different genre. He’s, after all, Hugh Howey, best-selling author of Wool. Readers want to read the next thing Hugh Howey wrote, and they don’t much seem to care what genre it is.

On the other hand, best-selling billionaire (or is it millionaire now?) J.K. Rowling uses the pen name Robert Galbraith to write her detective series. Why? Well, we can be sure she’s not using a male name to gain readers, but maybe she first used initials to gain more clout in the publishing world. Maybe she did it for the same reason Doris Lessing put out two novels under a pen name—to see how her writing would be received minus the fame. There is a certain pleasure in voyeurism—watching to see what people say about your work from the safe distance of a pseudonym. If readers find your work, that is.

The advantage to keeping the same name is that the more books you write using it, the more you’ll pop up in the search engines. And then there’s the mysterious algorithms on Amazon and other places that somehow magically catapult your titles to the top after you’ve reached some certain number. (Yeah, I don’t quite understand it.) Perhaps it’s worth it to keep the same name.

What do you think? To pen name or not to pen name—that is the question.


Author: Theresa Crater

Award-winning author Theresa Crater brings ancient temples, lost civilizations and secret societies back to life in her visionary fiction. In The Star Family, a Gothic mansion holds a secret spiritual group and a 400-year-old ritual that must be completed to save the day. The shadow government search for ancient Atlantean weapons in the fabled Hall of Records in Under the Stone Paw and fight to control ancient crystals sunk beneath the sea in Beneath the Hallowed Hill. Other novels include School of Hard Knocks and God in a Box, both exploring women in historical context. Her short stories explore ancient myth brought into the present day. The most recent include “The Judgment of Osiris” and “Bringing the Waters.” Theresa has also published poetry and a baker’s dozen of literary criticism. Currently, she teaches meditation, as well as creative writing and British lit.

16 thoughts on “The Writing Life—Using a Pen Name or Not”

  1. Great post, Theresa! I’ve always wondered about the pen name question. I’ve heard that sometimes the publisher actually asks for a writer to use a different name, and it seems to work for some (i.e. J.D. Robb vs. Nora Roberts), but when I see writers with three, four, or more names, I get overwhelmed. An interesting question!


  2. At Denver Comic Con, somebody was talking about a petite woman who writes heavy duty thrillers under a male pen name. I didn’t catch the name, though. She said it was a “well known secret.” Made me curious.


  3. I’ve heard it said, but not had it confirmed, that Rowling used “JK” for the Harry Potter series at the request of her publisher, because “boys don’t read books by women.” There were reports that her “brand” took a hit with A Casual Vacancy because people picked it up expecting YA fantasy, and well… And I think she said she used Robert Galbraith because she wanted to see how the fiction was received NOT using her name (I’ll leave the publicity conspiracy theories on why she was outde alone).

    Yes, publishers sometimes ask for writers to use a specific name, especially in “works for hire” so that if the first writer leaves, the publisher retains the name. And I don’t doubt that the publisher asked Nora Roberts to come up with JD Robb when she jumped genres.

    And Howey has a point, but I think you have to have a strong followership to pull that off.

    Me, when I published the first middle grade (and I used initials because I liked the sound of them better than my first name), and then the police procedural, I came up with a pen name for the mysteries. Why? Well, I’m not JK Rowling. I wanted people to know what if the book said “M.E. Sutton” it was one thing, and if it said “Liz Milliron” it was another. Part of that is because I was targeting 8-12 year olds, who really don’t need to be reading profanity and murder. I don’t think I would have worried if I’d written for older teens.


    1. That makes sense, Mary, especially when you’re dealing with 8-12 year olds vs. slightly dark mysteries. Nora Roberts is a big name, but even she needed a new one. Interesting.

      I heard a story at Denver Comic Con that a woman who was writing with initials was offered a huge (like really huge) deal, big bucks and movie, etc. When it came time to meet each other and her gender was revealed, the deal suddenly evaporated.


  4. Theresa, thanks for the mention in your post! Nice surprise! I do wonder about author name as brand. Does it limit an author? Would it be harder for me to get a traditional mystery, a romantic suspense, a women’s fiction, or a MG published because of my current focus on cozies? I don’t know. I do know that I have ideas that fall outside of the cozy umbrella, so I might have to think more about this one day. It’s almost like when the lead singer of a band goes solo. Fans of the band hope for something similar to the band they already know and love. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

    Mary, I think your reasoning for the two names makes perfect sense given your different audiences.

    Theresa–you hear some good things at Denver Comic Con!


  5. Great conversation! Yes, I can definitely see how choosing multiple pen names might be based on the intended audience. For instance, in Mary’s case, this make a lot of sense to me. However, perhaps if I wrote a traditional mystery and then a police procedural, both for adult markets, I might not need two names. It’s kind of fun to think about what name I would choose!


  6. Great topic and one that is topmost in my mind right now. I am putting out my first Mystery Noir series this October. I have a SyFy Trilogy coming right behind it. I planned to use a pen name for the SyFy. But this conversation causes me to think more on the cubject. I would enjoy hearing from others. Again, thanks Teresa! .


  7. Good conversation. I actually asked my agent this not long ago –whether my YA mysteries should be under a pen name and my adult mysteries under my name, but she didn’t think that was necessary. That’s not to say this wouldn’t change … but


  8. You make good cases for both sides above. Seems as though writers should be allowed to use their own names on whatever they write. If they WANT to use pen names, that should be up to them, in my humble opinion.

    Will admit that I am always baffled when publishers put “X writing as Z” on the cover…I mean: either use a pen name or don’t, but why put both on there?


  9. I enjoy using pen names. It’s fun, and I like the sense of anonymity. I admit that it would probably be smarter to stick with one name to build an audience. But I’ve never fit well into a box. So far, I have 5 published novels in 5 different genres. It would’ve been nice if those 5 novels were all in the same genre, but the muse just didn’t work out that way! I don’t think it’s essential, D.J., to separate your mystery from SF. Everyone has a different goal in mind. Mine is just to have fun.


  10. I write both literary fiction (based in magical realism) and cozies–so after a lot of thought, I went the way of a pen name for the latter, thinking these were likely two different audiences. I think it’s also not hard for readers to figure out when a favorite writer uses a pen name. However, I have had a wonderful time creating a different version of me to break out in a totally new genre. Magdalena is a lot more flamboyant and funny than I am, and she gets to own a part of my life from the past that no one knows much about these days. Rebirth!


  11. Deb, there’s something pretty fantastic and freeing in the way you mention Magdalena owning a part of your past that no one knows much about. I also know there are some subjects I won’t write about if I think my parents will read them!


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