WANA Wednesday—It’s a Pen Name, Not Witness Protection

WANA Wednesday is the day I am dedicating to blogging about social media tips I give in my new book We Are Not Alone—The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and even some tips I didn’t include so that the book wasn’t 170,000 words. Also, as I stated in last week’s post, social media will change so quickly it will give your brain whiplash. There is nothing like writing a book that is trying to beat obsolescence to keep you on your toes.

Today’s tip? Think about why you want a pen name.

There are a lot of good reasons to have a pen name.

  1. You have an embarrassing last name. Won’t mention any so I don’t hurt any feelings, but we have all met them and went, Seriously? No, really. What’s your real name? If you have a name that really should have been changed when your ancestors stumbled off on to Ellis Island, then pen names ROCK.
  2. You have a last name that is difficult to spell, remember or pronounce. All my Polish, Czechoslovakian, and Russian readers…yeah. That probably includes you guys. If when we read your name, we need a phonetic pronunciation guide or have to ask if it is possible to buy a vowel, then a pen name might be a good idea.
  3. You have the fortunate (or unfortunate) luck of having a name that is exactly the same as a mega-author. Gonna go all Highlander here on you… “There can only be one.” So if you write horror and your name is Steve King, you might want to change it. In fact, it is likely that an agent will encourage this. Could people pick up your book thinking they bought a book from Stephen King? Yes, but that kind of bait and switch is just likely to tick people off. So for all the Dan Browns…Daniel Browne might fare better…or not. Do you really want to be the Rotex author, Guchi writer, or Prawda storyteller? Just saying. Best to become your own great brand than a perceived knock-off.
  4. If you write more than one genre, pen names are a good idea. Nora Roberts and J.D. Robb. Two different types of books and two separate audiences (which eventually merged).
  5. You have a name that is very vanilla and similar to too many other names. I really feel sorry for the real John Smiths trying to check in to a hotel.

What’s your name?

John Smith.

*wink, wink* Suuuure it is.

There are all kinds of good reasons to have a pen name, and these are just a few. The problem that I have seen in my career helping writers become authors, is that there are quite a few writers who have a very bad reason for using a pen name.

FEAR.

We will use a non-writer example. My sister-in-law is a brilliant interior designer. She wants to start her own business next year so she is taking a class in entrepreneurship. As an assignment, she had to turn in an executive summary of her business. Instead of using Designs by Kimberly (which I have been suggesting for YEARS, because she is THAT brilliant) she chose Second Nature, which to me sounded like a brand name for eco-friendly toilet paper, wireless bras, or absorbent diapers…not high-end interior design.

When I took a look at the name of the business, I asked, “What happened to Designs by Kimberly?

She waffled a bit, so I interrupted (shocking, I know, :D).

I said, “If tomorrow, a wealthy benefactor stepped in and said, ‘I am going to funnel ten million dollars in to you designing your own brand. Not only that, but I will pull some strings and guarantee that you get a layout in Texas Monthly, Fort Worth Magazine, and Architectural Digest, and, heck, throw in Better Homes and Gardens.’ Would you, after all of that, call your business Second Nature, or would you call it Designs by Kimberly?

I am guessing all of you have figured out her answer.

See, Kimberly was doing the exact same thing I see happen to so many aspiring writers. The pen name becomes more about a cushion in case of failure. The problem with that type of thinking is two-fold. First, you have essentially planned to fail. Secondly, you will double all of your social media efforts by using a pen name at the expense of your own.

How?

These days, a lot of writers are already on social media. Many have Facebook pages or MySpace pages that they’ve built for years under their real name—friends, colleagues, business connections, people they knew in high school and college, etc. Sometimes, they even have hundreds of followers.

Then they decide they want to be writers…

And then half their life becomes State’s secret.

When I talk about building a social media platform, I can almost see the panic flicker in their eyes because they are staring down the barrel of building from scratch…new pages under a new name and totally new connections. Why? They are terrified of failure. It’s the idea of I’m gonna try out this writer thing and if it’s successful, then I will tell my friends, family and close connections. What is flawed about this thinking is that it is very defeating. You will do better as a writer if your family is part of your team. Building a platform of fans if far easier when you activate those close circles in your network.

My great aunt who is 96 years old was so proud of herself for reading my book, and she brags about me to everyone she knows. This is a woman who began life in a horse-drawn carriage reading a book about Twitter. But she loves me and wants to support me and she bought her own copy of We Are Not Alone—The Writer’s Guide to Social Media even though she is not a writer, has never used a computer, and has severe macular degeneration and can barely see. The point of this story? There are probably some unlikely friends and family who will be there to help you succeed. Don’t so quickly count them out. 

And as a quick note, if you want to use a pen name simply because you are using family members or close connections as character templates, and you are worried they will find out and sue….here’s some good news. Most of them will not recognize themselves in your work. People don’t see their flaws the way others do. Why do you think we spend years in therapy? Some of us need to spend $150 per hour for half a decade to see that we might actually have something to do with our own problems. Duh. So relax. These individuals will likely read your book and say, “Boy that Suzy character was an awful and difficult woman. What a manipulator. She reminds me of such-and-such,”

…and you can just smile.

In order for someone to sue you for libel, there is a tremendous burden of proof on their part. They must prove that anyone reading your work, without a doubt, would know your character was based off of them, and that, as a result, their reputations have suffered irreparably. Tough to prove. So if you are adopting a pen name because you are worried the evil secretary at work whom you are using as your villain will sue? Just change up the character enough to squash any court argument…and go ahead and use your real name.

Being a successful writer is hard, and becoming a career author is getting harder by the day. Why make it any harder? Your close networks are going to be your first fans. Your family will be lined up for a copy of your first published book, regardless of whether they know postmodern literature from a comic book. They likely will also tell all their friends, family and coworkers about your book.

You really cannot “hide” in a pen name anyway. With the Internet and so much free information flying around, if someone is truly motivated to figure out the person behind the pen name…they likely can. So you really cannot disappear if that’s the motivation.

Am I against pen names? NO! But I do advise that you take a moment and ask some important questions first. If I the magic genie could wave a wand and GUARANTEE that in three years you would be an international success, would you still want the pen name? If the answer is yes, then go for it and make sure you get a copy of my book so you know how to tackle building a platform for your pen name without making yourself crazier than necessary.

Most of us will fare best by sticking with our real names. Sigh. Yes, Kristen Lamb is not exactly a glamorous name, but it is easy for me and others to remember. In the end, the name is about what can SELL the most books, and less about whether we always wished our mothers named us something cooler, like Anastasia or Isabella.

Happy writing!

Until next time….

Noteworthy social media links for authors:

Jaime Harrington’s Let’s Talk About Your On-Line Platform–Get a Gravatar

Writer’s Digest Editor Jane Friedman’s Recommendation On-Line Marketing for Authors-Interactions are Personal Not Business

Author Jody Hedlund’s Why an On-Line Presence Can Help Every Kind of Writer  (yes, even those who write for children!)

And finally, a short yet interesting blog on the pros and cons of using a pen name.

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  1. #1 by Donna on August 11, 2010 - 12:06 pm

    Oh hell, Kristen. Just when I think I am happy with something you come along with your logic!😀

    I think my name Donna Newton is really boring. My maiden name Donna Collins is just as boring so I thought i’d make up a name: Taylor James sounded so much better and just rolls off the tongue. Now after reading the above I am questioning it. No, actually questioning it is wrong…..I know I’m going to listen to you (just like I always do).

    Damn you woman lol.

  2. #2 by Kristen Lamb on August 11, 2010 - 1:37 pm

    Actually I think you would have done yourself a disservice with the pen pame. “Newton” is easy to remember because of word association–Newton, Father of Modern Physics. Easy to recall out of the grey matter,😀.

    So happy I could vex you…uh, I mean help you.

  3. #3 by Jamie Grey on August 11, 2010 - 2:49 pm

    Great post! I have one of those unfortunate “common” last names, as well as work for a company where if I were known I was published, there would be ramifications. So, for my sanity I’ve decided to use a pen name. But I’m making sure to establish my online presence using that name only. It may be a bit more difficult, but I’m hoping it will be worth it in the future. I would love to use my real name, but I can’t compete against the dozen or so other writers with the same one😦

  4. #4 by Kristen Lamb on August 11, 2010 - 3:05 pm

    Well, then you are using a pen name for the correct reasons. I do recommend you check out my book for how to do it effectively. Building a platform with a pen name poses unique challenges and I might be able to help mitigate some of the problems. Best of luck!😀

  5. #5 by Kayla Olson on August 11, 2010 - 3:23 pm

    Great advice, as usual! I like my name, and plan to use it. The only potential problem with it is that it’s easily misspelled (a la Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen), but that’s no more a problem than your first name might be (Kristin, Cristin, Christin, etc.). At least it is easy to recognize/pronounce.

    By the way, I’ve been wondering if Kristen Lamb is your real name, and am pleasantly surprised to learn that it is. I happen to think it’s a quite glamorous name! It’s simple and pretty, plus it kind of reminds me of Gwen Stefani’s L.A.M.B. line of products. Sounds rich.🙂

  6. #6 by Jane Friedman on August 11, 2010 - 5:14 pm

    Excellent post. (Really appreciate the reference to my article, thanks!)

    Couldn’t agree more when you say, “You will do better as a writer if your family is part of your team. Building a platform of fans if far easier when you activate those close circles in your network.” Amen!!!

  7. #7 by Rhonda on August 11, 2010 - 6:21 pm

    More great advice. Thanks Kristen!

  8. #8 by Dawn Maria on August 11, 2010 - 11:54 pm

    I use a pen name for many of the reasons you listed. I’m fortunate that I began using social media with my pen name only. For me, the decision was also based on wanting to have a name that represented only me, not anyone else. I use my real first name though, so I still feel like me when people talk to me or I see my name in print. This was a great post.

  9. #9 by ChelSierra on August 12, 2010 - 2:29 am

    I was going to use my real name, and one day my mother looked at me mortified and said: “You’re going to use your real name? People will know who you are and be able to find you.” So I came up with a pen name. Actually, I only started out using the pen name online, but then I Googled my real name and found there are a bunch of people with this name. One is in real estate, and another is a surfer. Although the surfer spells her first name with a ‘C’ and not an ‘S.’ And when I Google my pen name, only I come up. So I thought that was a plus.

    • #10 by Kristen Lamb on August 12, 2010 - 1:47 pm

      Well, whether you use a pen name or not…people can find you these days. If you have a fairly common name, so long as you put a lot of content on the web, you will dominate the search. “Kristen Lamb” ain’t exactly unique, but because of how I approach putting content on the web, I still often take up the entire first page of a google search (my book shows you how to do this).

      People run out and try to get a super unique name thinking that will help distinguish them. Your name is not what will distinguish you…your content will do that. People don’t buy a book from and author because she has a super cool name. They buy it for the story. “Sandra Brown” in fairness, is a pretty plain name. But years of great writing, hard work and steady promotion have made that plain name mean a heck of a lot more.

      I have no problems with pen names, so long as there is sound reasoning behind the decision…and expect more work. Not that more work is bad…it is just…more work😀.

      Thanks for all the great comments. Oh, and Kayla, “Lamb” only became glamorous after Gwen Stefani. I was teased mercilessly for years. My dad used to torment me and say he’d changed my name to “Mary Hannah Lamb.” Yeah.

  10. #11 by Joely on August 12, 2010 - 6:32 pm

    This is really interesting. I came here after reading PJ_Kaiser’s blog post about changing her Twitter account to her real name. She wondered if I’d change mine (I’m known as @TheCharmQuark) after reading this. I also have @JoelyBlack and @Amnar accounts, to cover all bases.

    Oddly, I’m not called @TheCharmQuark out of fear. Initially I wanted a bit of distance for my personal Twitter account so I could play on one and be a professional on the other. But since my real name appears next to all emails Twitter sends out, people can still see who I am.

    The Charm Quark is now so much a part of who I am, I go to a lot of networking gatherings and people will say, “Oh my gosh, yes, you’re the Charm Quark! You’re the writer!” So they totally associate me with The Charm Quark and with writing. It’s kind of cool.

    For all my writing, whether it’s articles for print media or blogging, I use my real name. For some reason though, The Charm Quark sticks, and works.

  11. #12 by Kristen Lamb on August 12, 2010 - 9:08 pm

    Joely, the critical thing about branding and a name is getting the maximum impact for your efforts. When we are unpubbed or newly pubbed writers, managing multiple identites and blogs is fine. But get that three-book deal? Funneling all your effort to a brand is more about time-management. We as writers must market, but we still have to have time left over to write great books.

    In my book, I suggest to readers that if they want to play or be political or rant about religion or tweet dirty jokes, then get a moniker. But for the purposes of building a brand (to eventually drive sales) your name is still the most vital component.

    Which if The Charm Quark is not to build your image as a writer, no worries. Play away. If, however, it is to build your brand as an author, you are giving up the most valuable marketing real estate any writer has…the top of mind. I recommend reading my blog “The Single Best Way for Writers to Become a Brand.” The moniker may work now…but we are planning ahead for huge mega success and laying a platform that is simple and easy to maintain will leave time for you to produce the product…books.

    Regardless, best of luck!

    • #13 by Joely on August 13, 2010 - 10:18 am

      Well, I’ve decided to do the ultimate Twitter thing, and have asked my followers what they think. I’ve been on Twitter a long time, and have an established reading following (I’ve been on Twitter since it started).

      As I already appear at literary festivals as an author – and have been found by the literary world as The Charm Quark, my concern is confusing users who already know the Charm Quark identity.

      I have, at the moment, only one other concern. My real name is pretty unique. A Google search for Isabel Joely Black will throw up hits and they’ll all be me (except for an Isabella Black, who’s new). But I don’t know what possible iteration of my name publishers would prefer.

      As a writer in multiple genres, I discussed this with my agent, and it’s suggested that I use I J Black for some, but Isabel J Black for others, and Isabel Joely Black for yet another. It’s the same situation as Iain Banks/Iain M Banks. Of course, he’s not on Twitter, so I can’t follow his example.

      Writing in genre requires using a name that will appeal to the audience. The use of initials to disguise a female writer in a male-oriented genre is pretty common, no matter how much it irks. Given this, as well as what you say about the importance of name, I have to work out which iteration of the name I use. If you have any thoughts about that, I would welcome them.

  12. #14 by Kristen Lamb on August 13, 2010 - 4:25 pm

    The main concern with using a name is it has to go with the content. Namely because I cannot go in to Barnes and Noble and look for a book under The Charm Quark. I recommend that whichever genre pen name is associated with that is what has front and center attention. Yes, there are the people who will know that the Charm Quark is Joely Black. But most will not. when you get a following that is in the thousands, using your name makes it easier for passive followers to support you.

    In my book I give the example of Kay Thomas. I happened to follow her on Twitter. Was not too familiar with her work. Had chatted with her and liked her. But when I saw her NAME at the bookstore, I just had to buy the book because I knew her on Twitter and I wanted to support her.

    Asking people to do a hunt for your name is extra steps most will not do.

    Pick the pen name YOU want to use, then gear all your content to THAT name and it will change the google results. If all the suddent you have a Twitter, FB and blog all putting content on the web under THAT pen name, you can establish any pen name you want. A name is ultimately about selling books and making marketing simpler so you have more time to write great books. I would pick the name you like and that is something easier for the reader to remember. Ultimately, it is up to you. I hope I have answered your question. Comment back if you need something more and best of luck!😀

  13. #15 by Dawn Joyce-Reno on December 15, 2010 - 4:24 am

    I am definitely going to pick up your book!

    I have been deciding whether or not, I HAVE ot use a pen name. My name is Dawn Joyce-Reno and there is a published author out there with the name of Dawn E. Reno. So, I am thinking of going with Dawn Joyce…and I especially love the Joyce part because it reminds me of James Joyce!

  14. #16 by Jennifer Joseph on December 25, 2010 - 9:33 am

    Great post! I do use a pen name but I am definitely not afraid to have all my high school friends, etc. spread the word that I’m a writer. My real last name is my ex-husband’s name which I keep to have the same last name as our daughter and *when* I become famous I certainly don’t want to be tied to that name!🙂

  15. #17 by Chloe on July 27, 2011 - 7:11 pm

    I see this is an old discussion, but I’m just finding you now, Kristen, so I hope you see this.

    I participated for many years on a large forum where I posted under the name Chloe of the Mountain and that’s the name under which I’ve built my online relationships. In 2008, I created a blog under that name so that people from the forum could read it. Then I weinered myself accidentally (hit the share button from my blog and posted it to my real name page instead of my pen name) and now people in my real life know about my blog. I’ve decided just to embrace it.

    Most of my real life people are pretty religious and, while they read my blog, some “religiously” (har har) they don’t admit it publicly which is frustrating and a bit demoralizing. I played with the idea of going back to my “real” name, but I realized that I’d just encounter all the problems you mentioned here with adopting a pen name.

    So I’ve decided to stay with Chloe because I like the name and that’s where my social media relationship are. If I had my way I wouldn’t even use a last name at all, but I’m not exactly a Madonna or a Cher so I’m afraid I don’t think I can get away with that. I use “Mountain” which I don’t really like but I can’t think of anything better.

    I’m not sure I had “good” reasons; it is just something that happened along the way.

    Anyway, I’m enjoying your materials and just wanted you to know.

  1. Three Steps to Fan Page Awesomeness « Kristen Lamb's Blog
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  3. 3 Steps to Fan Page Awesomeness « Kristen Lamb's Blog
  4. What’s In A (Pen) Name? « Peter Saint-Clair's Blog
  5. MySilentFury » Blog Archive » What’s In A (Pen) Name?
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  7. What’s in a Pen Name? | Jessi Gage

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