George Orwell was a big liar. So was George Elliot. And Dean Koontz. And all three of those nefarious Brontë sisters. And Mark Twain. And Agatha Christie. And George Sand. And Nora Roberts, of course. And that most insidious of liars, Dr. Seuss.
So was Jane Austen, though to a lesser extent. When Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility came out in 1811, the phrase “By a Lady” was printed in place of her name on the title page. Anonymity was important at the beginning of her career, even though her authorship later became an open secret. But why not divulge her real name? Was it protection for herself or her family, was it the importance of propriety, or was it business?
All of the authors mentioned above are examples of writers who have used pseudonyms. Some of those pen names are actually the names we know them by. Okay, using a pen name is not exactly lying. There are lots of reasons for using them and “hiding” one’s identity.
George Orwell wanted to save his legal name for when he did his “serious” writing. Sand and the Brontës and Elliot and Austen were publishing at a time when it was difficult for women to get into print, never mind being taken seriously as writers. Or they wanted to protect their families or themselves, for a variety of reasons. Roberts and Koontz and Christie wanted to tell stories in other genres. Theodor Geisel was banned from submitting stories to the school newspaper for some infraction, so Seuss was born.
We’re liars too. When we published our first historical romance, the publisher insisted that we use a feminine pseudonym for business purposes. They even went so far as to invent a bio for us in the book that said something to the effect that “May McGoldrick lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, with her cat, where she is working on her next novel.” No picture. Our real names didn’t even appear on the copyright page.
That was okay with us. We were delighted about being published. Plus, those first books were romance, at that time the “infamous shady lady” of literature. Nikoo was working as an engineering manager with men reporting to her. Jim was teaching at a Catholic college. Oddly enough, our fiction turned out to be no problem there. The college administration embraced the novel, and we found out that the chaplain was even reading passages out loud at lunch in the school bookstore to groups of students.
About the cat business in the bio, however, our dog was seriously displeased. He sulked for months.
A few years later, another publisher wanted us to use the pen name Jan Coffey when we branched out into contemporary romantic suspense and thrillers. Jan is an acronym for Jim and Nikoo, and Coffey is an anglicized version of her Persian family name, Kafi. Fast forward to a couple of years ago. A publisher asked us to write a series of Westerns, and we needed a male pseudonym. So, Nik James was born.
For us, each choice was publisher-driven, with serious consideration about competition, book sales, crossover readership, and chain store retailer purchases.
So, the question for today is, are these factors for using different pen names relevant for writers in an increasingly post brick-and-mortar bookstore era? Or is it more important to have a single name so as not to cause confusion? After all, the goal is to bring the most eyes to our stories.
Issues to consider about pseudonyms
Using a pseudonym is still a valuable tool for protecting someone’s identity. Susan May Patterson, who openly employs four different pen names for a variety of genres, says that the pseudonyms she uses for writing erotica are “known only to me and God.” Jennifer Ashley’s traditional publishers had a “collective cow” when she decided to write erotic romance, so she came up with a new pseudonym. Mary Bly was an untenured college professor at a Catholic university and saw the need to separate her fiction writing from her academic work. She chose the name Eloisa James.
Finding a good name
Our first publisher wanted a female pseudonym because they were afraid women would not buy a romance that a man had a hand in writing. When we suggested Nikoo McGoldrick, they said it wasn’t feminine sounding enough. If Reedsy were around then, we could have used their Pseudonym Generator to come up with something other than Jim’s grandmother’s name. Also, you might want to choose a pen name if your legal name is too common or difficult to spell or happens to be...um, William Shakespeare or Virginia Woolf or Gabriel García Márquez.
Copyrighting and the pseudonym
If you decide to copyright your work on your own, the US Copyright Office is very accommodating for authors with pen names. If you write under a pseudonym but want to be identified by your legal name in the Copyright Office’s records, give your legal name under Individual Author and click on Pseudonymous and provide your pen name, as well. If you don’t want to have your real identity revealed, then click on Pseudonymous only and leave the individual Author blank. If you fill in your name, it will become part of the public record. Either way you want to do it, they’ll be happy to take your money.
If you’ve collaborated with a partner on a novel and have decided to use a pseudonym, decide in advance (and in writing) who owns the name. After all, one or both of you may want to write a sequel.
Cost and time
Suppose you publish a series of books using a pseudonym and then decide to write in a different genre. Should you use a different pen name?
One thing to consider is the cost and time involved in developing your online presence. Jennifer Ashley, whose various pseudonyms were (like us) driven by publisher involvement, has said that her preference would have been to put “all my books under one name.” Developing an online presence for several pen names is a major pain.
We think of it this way. Do we really want to have two (or three or four) different websites and Twitter and Instagram accounts that constantly need to be fed? We won’t even get into the nightmare of additional TikTok accounts. Seriously, how much dancing can a working writer manage to do? And one last thing. Distinct autograph signatures for each pseudonym! Enough said.
Pseudonyms for nonfiction
A pen name for a how-to or other nonfiction book doesn’t really work. The success of these books depends, for the most part, on the recognized expertise of the individual writing the book.
Something we’ve known from the beginning of our career was that readers buy books by authors they know or have heard about from someone they trust. What we’ve learned is that having two pen names doesn’t facilitate crossover.
When J.T. Ellison decided to write in a different genre, she didn’t foresee a large crossover in readership and felt that using her name would screw up the algorithm for Also Bought suggestions on the online retailer page. So, she used a new pen name. M.L. Buchman disputes that position and believes you should go with one author name. He cites Kindlepreneur creator Dave Chesson’s research (shared at the last NINC conference) that “the shopper’s eye [on those product page suggestions] will mostly skip to see only the genre they’re interested in.”
Barbara Keiler (writing as Judith Arnold) and Brenda Hiatt each chose to write under a single name. Like us, both established their readership while writing for traditional publishers. They assert the belief that their name recognition and the consistency of their approach to storytelling across genres draws and satisfies readers, despite the different types of stories they tell.
For the 21st century novelist, branding is essential.
Elaine Isaak, writing in multiple genres, wanted “more separation when the books came out,” and is working on better branding. On the other hand, M.L. Buchman uses one name and “brands the crap out of it.” His branding efforts focus on a specific hierarchy: author, genre, then series. Buchman’s bottom line, “One name, one website, court the superfans who pay me the most money and buy everything I write.”
So, where does that leave us? Using your own name or a single pen name or several, the choice is individual. But for us? NO more multiple pseudonyms. If we had a do-over, we’d follow Buchman’s route.
And by the way, Eric Arthur Blair—you of the Animal Farm—we know who you are.