On Choosing a Pen Name

Last week’s post about the importance of branding your writing with different pen names for different audiences prompted a friend to suggest that a post about how to choose a pen name might be appropriate. At first I balked, because this is an area where I’m very much not an expert. But then, I remembered the power of the blogosphere, which is that we can all comment and post responses in our own blogs. In other words, this a wonderful opportunity for a community roundtable on the subject! So, here are my thoughts, which I would love for all of you to chime in on.

Perhaps it’s best to start by stating that I’m operating on the assumption that we’re all on the same page that a byline is a brand identity. You know what to expect from a Lemony Snicket book, and it’s not the same of what you expect from Daniel Handler. (And thanks to my friend Anna for reminding me of that excellent example of what I’m talking about.) But the operative question is this: How do you decide what name to use?

The truth is, readers make a lot of judgments based on the name of the author, even if it’s an author they’ve never heard of. For example, let’s take a look at two hypothetical books you come across in a bookstore. Each has a picture of a Katsushika Hokusai woodblock print as the cover art. One is The Art of 19th Century Japan by Michael Jones, and the other is The Art of 19th Century Japan by Daichi Yamamoto. What assumptions do you make about each book?

O.K., you’ve probably noticed that the only difference between them is the byline. The first one has a generic American byline, and the other one has a generic Japanese byline. But based on that — and only that — readers make some basic guesses about the content of the book. Most likely, they assume the Jones book is a Western perspective meant to examine the artwork as an influence on American artwork and as it relates to American values, while the Yamamoto book would be perceived as an exploration of Japanese art from a Japanese perspective (assumedly still addressed to a Western audience, of course) to understand its history and context as an independent cultural body. [For the record, neither approach is “right.” Each plays to a different audience need.]

Well, this works in fiction, too. Without consciously realizing it, we expect a different story from Michael Jones than we do from Daichi Yamamoto. Even if we’ve never read anything by either author before. And even if we’re aware that they’re actually the same author using two different bylines.

So this brings me naturally (almost as if I’d planned it) to an example of one thing you should consider when choosing a pen name: perceived nationality.

Some names are distinctly Anglo-sounding. Others sound Eastern European. Others sound African. Still others sound Asian. Some are clearly French, or German, or Italian. There is a strong assumption that storytellers draw from their cultural heritage as they learn how to tell stories. That’s not to say we all necessarily do. But when we don’t, it may benefit us to choose a name that matches our style more than our actual family history. Even keeping the names very “white,” audiences bring different expectations to the work of Peter Smith than they do to the work of Pierre Forgeron, even though both names mean the exact same thing.

But nationality isn’t the only thing readers guess at based on the name. There’s also perceived class.

This can be partly related to nationality, because American and English readers will tend to assume someone with a “foreign” name is lower-class, but it even works within the Anglo names.  Emmerson Stropshire IV would be expected to write in a very different style than Ricky Tanner. For that matter, Ricky Tanner would be expected to play to a different audience than Richard Tanner. Even the decision to use a diminutive tells the audience who the author’s peers are, and therefore tells them whether or not you’re talking to them or to someone else with your story.

Along the same lines, you need to consider perceived gender.

Now, it would be lovely if we lived in a world where the gender of the author made no difference. But we don’t. How many romance readers are going to pick up a book with the byline James Clapp? I do, in fact, know a woman named James. Clapp is the real surname of old family friends. So it’s very possible that this book is, in fact, written by a woman. But romance readers have a very, very strong prejudice against male authors in the genre, and as a result most men who write romances do so under a female pseudonym. Until fairly recently, women who wrote science fiction did the same (or used initials, such as A.C. Crispin and D.C. Fontana did) to combat the “girls can’t write science fiction” prejudice. J.K. Rowling was reportedly asked by her publisher to use the gender-ambiguous initials as her byline for the Harry Potter books (despite the fact that she did not actually have a middle initial) to avoid young readers refusing to accept a woman writing a male hero. And that wasn’t that long ago, folks.

If your work would play more to a female audience, you want a female or gender-ambiguous name. If it would play more to a male audience, you want a male or gender-ambiguous name. That’s not to say you’ll turn off readers of the other gender. (O.K., if you’re writing romance you probably will.) Many if not most readers will pick up a book written by someone of a different gender. But even those readers come to your work with assumptions about how the story will be told based on the perceived gender of the author.

And, you also want to consider perceived age.

You probably expect a different sort of story from Gertrude Whittaker than you expect from Ashlie Whittaker. Same surname. Both female. Both Anglo. But Gertrude is an old lady, and Ashlie is a young woman — or so the perception would be. A lot of writers fall into the trap of selecting pen names by pulling old family names, without realizing that they’re aging themselves in the process. This is great if your writing tends to be more old-fashioned or is geared for a more educated audience, but if you’re trying to crack the hipster market, you probably need a name that’s more young and, well, hip.

So we’ve looked at the perceptions the audience will make about you, the author, based on your name alone. But that’s not the only consideration. There are some practical things to bear in mind, too. First and foremost, your byline should be easy to spell and to pronounce.

O.K., full disclosure, I know I flunk this one. So does Lemony Snicket. But that doesn’t make it an invalid point.

You see, most readers discover new authors by word of mouth. In the old days, you could walk into a bookstore and mangle the author’s name, and the very knowledgeable staff would direct you to the right area. Today? Well, if you’re lucky enough to still have a bookstore where you live, odds are good that the staff won’t know any more about who’s writing what than you do. They’ll do the same thing you do — which is type it into a search field and see what pops up. So if your byline is Oasdkf Pwejrwe and is pronounced Isadeekoff Faith, no one is ever going to be able to find you by word of mouth. Those who know how to pronounce your name (because they heard you on a talk show or met you at a con, for example) won’t be able to spell it.  Those who only know you as text on screen won’t have any clue how to recommend you to others verbally, and almost assuredly won’t be able to spell it out without practicing first. Why make your readers’ lives difficult? They’re not only your customer, they’re you’re strongest advocate.

But don’t go too far to the other extreme. Your byline should be unique.

If you’re writing under the name John Smith, anyone looking for your work is going to have to wade through all the other works by every other John Smith who has ever written anything looking for yours. Do a web search before settling on a name, and make sure there isn’t another author with the same or a very similar name.

And, relatedly, your byline should be ownable.

By that I mean, that your byline is your brand name, and it shouldn’t be associated with another product or service.  It may seem like a cute idea to call yourself Diet Pepsi, but then anyone doing a web search for you isn’t going to find you at all, they’ll find a soft drink.

You should also check to see if the name you want to use is available as a logical URL, and then immediately purchase it. Your readers aren’t going to remember that your URL is katesmiththeauthor.net to differentiate you from katesmith.com and katesmith.net, both of which have nothing to do with you or with writing. [No, I haven’t looked to see who, if anyone, owns those URLs, and I apologize to anyone who does.] If you’re going to be competing with some computer consultant (or, worse, porn star) for the name, just pick another one.

And, most importantly, your byline should be YOU.

When you make it big, whichever byline breaks through is what people are going to call you. No one goes to Connecticut to visit the Samuel Clemens house. They go to visit the Mark Twain house. When fans ran up to him — even ones who knew his real name — they said, “Mr. Twain, may I have your autograph?” Not “Mr. Clemens, I really appreciate the work you do under the pseudonym Mark Twain.” Be sure you’re using something you’re comfortable with, and will be happy to use as your identity if need be.

Well, you may have noticed two things.  1) This post is already long.  2) I keep talking about the need to make your byline appropriate for your audience, but haven’t addressed how to identify your audience. So let’s say that’ll be the topic for next time…

Comments are closed.