The Great Pen Name Debate

Once upon a time when the world was young and the internet only a gleam in some computer geek’s (or was that Al Gore’s?) eye, writing under a pen name was as simple as, well, writing under a pen name. Not that I know anything about what it was actually like, of course, but it seems simple: write the book, have it published with a pseudonym on the cover, and thence be known by that name as a writer at signings, writing events, etc.

But in our current world, writers are expected to have a web presence. This is where the whole question of a pen name becomes more complicated for me. I don’t suppose I’m alone. So I thought I’d post about it here and see if any of you out there have thoughts or suggestions on the topic.

I intend to publish (she said, attempting to use the power of positive thinking) under another name. I know the name, I’ve checked to make sure it’s not too close to anyone else in my genre, I’ve bought the domain name, and I’ve set up the email and the Twitter account, all ready to go.

But I’m not published yet. The agent hunt has been very positive so far, but is still in progress. Admittedly, I feel ridiculous introducing a pen name before I know for sure whether I’ll ever see that name on a book cover. That’s part of the problem for me in figuring this out. But more, I already have a public web presence for my day job, a job that involves interacting with the very same community I’d interact with as a published writer, and the same one I already interact with under my own name as an aspiring writer.

So this all feels very complicated. Most of what I’d post as my writer self I already post as my work self or my social self. There’s a lot of overlap. And I don’t want to change the name I use for work to my pen name.

Most of the people I know who’ve introduced a pen name have simply used it as their only online presence apart from personal email, either because writing is their only job or the only one for which they need to be visible online or because they were using the pen name long before a web presence became a necessity, so I don’t have an example – at least not one I’m aware of – to emulate in introducing a second version of a web presence while still needing to maintain the first. The very thought makes me want to run screaming into the night.

I’m not concerned about privacy, so much; I have other personal reasons for using a pen name for my writing. So I don’t mind if my worlds overlap. But how?

This has been a point of discussion at our house for awhile now, and we don’t seem to have any satisfactory answers, so please feel free to throw out any ideas you think are useful. I’d appreciate it.


  1. Julie K
    Mar 1, 2012

    I think it would be confusing for your readers to have your pen name identity and your personal identity overlap. The question then becomes why do you have a pen name if your personal name is good enough. It will also be difficult for your agent, not to mention your publisher’s promotional team, to have two ‘brands’ out there.

    The point of a pen name in the past was for privacy. Today it can be for that, or to separate two writing identities. If that isn’t your purpose, then why do you want/need the pen name at all?

    Sorry, this likely wasn’t helpful a bit :)

    • Kathy
      Mar 1, 2012

      Thanks, Julie! It could be confusing to have the overlap. That’s part of what I’m trying to figure out how to manage. :)

  2. Jennifer Landels
    Mar 1, 2012

    The traditional reasons for pen names in the past were:
    – anonymity (not quite the same as privacy). For instance, if your family, or employers might not approve of your work, or your reputation in society be otherwise tarnished by it. Nowadays this would be done to simply distance your writing from your life.
    – acceptance. In particular, women writing under masculine names. This is hardly necessary anymore, but some genres probably do still suit gender-neutral names.
    – catchiness. (Is that actually a word?). Sometimes a real name is blah, and a pen name just rolls off the tongue, or stands out on the shelf better.

    Since anonymity is almost impossible in today’s info-saturated world, and the necessity of disguising identity for acceptance arguable at best, that really only leaves the issue of whether you think your pen name will look better on your book cover, or lend more fun / seriousness / credibility / mystery (whatever you’re after) to your brand.

    • Kathy
      Mar 1, 2012

      Thanks, Jennifer. I think catchiness is a word. :) If not, it should be.

  3. Crystal Stranaghan
    Mar 1, 2012

    I’m actually doing the same thing. One name for my children’s books and professional writing (Crystal Stranaghan), and another name for my romance writing (CJ Hunt). (We won’t mention the other two pen names I write under in Korea!) You can check out the differences in what I post on twitter – that’s probably the most efficient way of seeing what can work. Partly I do this because I want to maintain very different branding for the two sides. It’s not to keep my identity secret, but to make it clear to readers what to expect when books come out under one name or another. Also, for my younger readers I want that extra step of separation between the romance stuff and my picture books!

    Yes, it ups the ante in terms of maintaining the web stuff, and is more complex that it used to be in the pre-internet days – but overall I think it can be very useful. I’m finding some things are appropriate for both identities, some not so much. It is tricky to juggle though – if you want to get together and strategize I’d love to share what I’ve discovered over coffee and pick your brain in return ; )

    Two famous examples are Jayne Anne Krentz/Amanda Quick/Jayne Castle and Nora Roberts/JD Robb. It’s all about reader expectation. They don’t try to keep them completely separate. It’s a marketing thing mostly.

    • Kathy
      Apr 2, 2012

      Yeah, it’s a marketing thing for me too, Crystal. Would love to get together for coffee. Email me!

  4. Ev Bishop
    Mar 26, 2012

    I’m not even planning to try to keep my pen name(s) separate from my real name (that I primarily write under). At this stage any work I publish under a pen name will be listed on my main website as “Writing as ….” and then the titles. If I start writing a lot of stories under one pen name, then I’ll consider a website, etc, for said name.

    And why the pen name(s) at all? For the reasons Crystal Stranaghan covered so nicely. My first love is speculative fiction – horror, sci-fi, fantasy . . . Yet I’ve now written an Inspirational Romance (??? :D). I don’t want readers to know what they’re getting.

    I think you should go for and not worry. You’ll manage it fine–and it will be great fun and in good keeping with literary tradition. :) Plus, imagine the scandal when we put and two and two together. Ahahahahahaha. Just joking!

    • Kathy
      Apr 2, 2012

      Not worried about keeping it separate either, Ev. More worried about having time all the social media that comes with three names (since I already deal with two for my own and the conference).

  5. Ev Bishop
    Mar 26, 2012

    Er . . . That awkward last sentence of the second to last paragraph should read, “I WANT readers ti k now what they’re getting.” Sorry!