Authors have used pen names for centuries and I make no secret of the fact that I use one. Reasons vary. There have been some authors in history who used pen names to protect themselves or their families from unpopular views or to mask their gender, a practice that is still fairly common as we all saw when JK Rowlings’ publisher ‘outed’ her alternate pen name in the Mystery genre. This is the most common reason for alternative pen names these days; for genre jumping.
My own reasons were a little different at first, but considerations of genre followed. I’ve had a varied life and have changed my real name several times, mostly just the surname, because of marriages, divorces, distancing myself from paternal association and choosing to revert to my mother’s maiden name instead, etc. My last change was done through a lawyer, to a name of my choosing because I wanted to lose and ex-husband’s name but didn’t want to revert to anything I had used before.
Through many of these changes, my pen name has remained stable so my readers do not have to try to keep up. This isn’t the reason I chose to use a pen name in the beginning, but it has proven a practical course for me. My current partner brings up marriage periodically, so the legal name could easily change again.
The original reason had more to do with separating my writer persona from my day to day self. This is something that many writers do, but because I’m a Scorpio I simply enjoyed the idea of being able to discuss my books with people without them knowing I was the author so they would speak freely and give their real opinions. I ‘outed’ myself when I went on television in relation to my filmmaking so its all publicly known now, but only a close circle of friends knew for some time and I enjoyed having that level of privacy.
When I was about to release my first fiction novel, I put a lot of thought into whether I should choose a different pen name. JDH had established a place in the occult field with several books on the subject and had actually become fairly well known among people who have interest in that area. My first book on chaos magic had even been described as ‘definitive’, which considering that it was written for the purpose of explaining it when all literature on the subject at the time was couched in obscure, inside terms and references, isn’t all that surprising.
The question was, would it be more beneficial to connect my established readership with a new direction, or to separate it? A lot of readers of occult literature also enjoy Fantasy fiction, but a lot of other Fantasy readers may have religious affiliations that would object to an occult writer. In the end, I decided to go with the same name so that I could connect the two with my readers and never feel like I was hiding anything that someone might object to.
Later on I did develop a second pen name for another genre, one that would not be likely to be associated with me. The books are traditionally published and thriving, but I intend to maintain the separation because it’s not even a genre in which I read. That makes it hack writing, though until recently, more profitable than my chosen genres.
I’ve flirted with the idea of a variation for the science fiction stuff I have in progress. Just using my initials, to create the gender ambiguity that is useful for generally perceived male targeted subject matter, though there are plenty of female scifi fans. A quick Google showed me that there are already not one but two writers using the name J.D. Hawkins. One writes Mysteries and the other writes porn. So, back to the drawing board on that one. I imagine there is already confusion on book sites over that one.
I frequently see advice on the indie writer’s sites that say, “You need to establish an audience, i.e. your reader base, way before you release the book.”
I don’t necessarily agree with this. So far, what I’ve seen is a lot of people ‘establishing their base’ on sites like Wattpad, but very few of them going very far. You hear about the occasional writer who gets picked up by an agent from their writings on these sites, but they are few and far between. Meanwhile, one of the authors I know who make a good living from writing openly admits to having ten pen names. Ten! Can you imagine trying to develop followings for so many?
Instead, this writer has spent her time writing stuff and releasing it, using marketing methods that she now teaches. These basically come down to good cover design, well thought out titles, carefully written blurbs and the proper use of keywords to make the books visible. ‘New’ authors seem to sell fairly well, though not in the league of the big names.
For the moment, my scifi is destined to be released under my usual pen name. I don’t want to go looking for a totally new one for a genre that is close enough to my Fantasy writing to carry over some readership. Hopefully I’ll have a new book to release before long. The filmmaking is still requiring much of my time, but I’m making slow progress and the scifi has taken on some importance in relation to immortalising a significant friend who died. Those who knew him will recognise him in the pub between the worlds.