Let’s jump straight into the 3 main pros of using a pseudonym:
Privacy and Anonymity – Perhaps the most obvious advantage of authors using a pseudonym is the protection of privacy which, in most cases, means they’re able to keep their real identity a secret. There are numerous reasons why authors choose (or need) to do this. Of the authors we’ve represented who use a pen name, some were whistleblowers – in government, the military, the media, local authorities, the prison service and the NHS, amongst other organisations – and they felt it necessary to stay in the shadows for reasons of personal safety or job security. Others are bound by employment contracts that prevent them from working (or at least earning money) on the side. Others, meanwhile, decide a pen name is needed because they feel that their own identity, gender, or culture/ethnicity doesn’t suit the style of their writing or genre and/or that societal biases and preconceived notions will prevent them from achieving recognition based solely on their name, skin colour or country of origin. By far the biggest reason for using a pen name, though, seems to stem from authors’ reluctance to put their own identity ‘out there’, usually for reasons of pride or fear of being criticised by the public. Which, of course, is perfectly natural. Creating content and putting it out into the world is a brave thing to do. With the rise of social media and immediate media, authors can become targets for various forms of unwanted attention – and, in some cases, trolls. A pseudonym allows them to maintain a personal boundary between their writing life and private life.
Separation of Identity – Pseudonyms offer authors the freedom to experiment with different writing styles and genres without confusing or alienating their existing readership. An established author known for a specific genre could explore new territories without the risk of disappointing fans who have come to expect a certain type of content. We’ve represented numerous people who are widely known by two pen names for two very distinct books or series of books.
Marketing Flexibility – I’ve included this as a ‘pro’ because pseudonyms can, on occasion, be helpful in online advertising and social media marketing where there is no direct interaction with the reader or reason to be photographed. Authors can adopt names that better suit the tone or themes of their work, potentially boosting marketability and attracting readers who might not have otherwise considered their writing.
Above: Some authors, including the writer pictured here, write books that lift the lid on hitherto secret, unjust or unlawful practises in public organisations like government and the NHS. Using a nom de plume masks their real identity and keeps them safe from reprisals.
And now let’s turn to the cons of using an author pen name…
The Fine Line Between Fact and Fiction – By extension, most authors who use a pen name for reasons other than privacy and anonymity will also use a fictionalised biography in marketing literature, on social platforms, and on the book’s blurb/inside flap. As you might imagine, many are ‘sexed up’ for the purposes of marketing or, quite simply, because a fictionalised biography is typically more interesting than a factual one. But the question of whether doing so is ethical is another matter, primarily for reasons of transparency. Whilst authors have creative licence to present themselves or their life stories in any way they choose, some say that this should be done within the boundaries of honesty. Blurring the lines between reality and fiction is one thing but exaggeration for marketing purposes is quite another. Fictionalised biographies that push those boundaries – and in some cases shatter them entirely – should, critics argue, be marked as such so as not to purposefully deceive readers and the media.
Potential Legal and Contractual Complications – Aside from those marketing challenges, above, using a pseudonym can also complicate matters related to contracts, royalties, and copyright. Ensuring that proper legal documentation is in place for both the pseudonym and the real identity is essential to avoid any legal disputes down the line.
A Barrier to the National Press and to Broadcast Interviews – This is the biggie. Using a pen name isn’t an automatic barrier to obtaining national press and broadcast media coverage for books but it can certainly impact it – or make it more challenging – in a variety of ways.
Obtaining national press coverage and broadcast media coverage for works of fiction isn’t easy at the best of times, so most successful PR and marketing campaigns will focus on the author behind the book, rather than on the book itself. If the author can be pictured and/or interviewed, and if her biography is real, then this isn’t normally an issue. But if the author can’t be pictured (because, say, she is woman writing under a male alias and doesn’t want to divulge that fact), or if that same author can’t be interviewed on air for the same illustrative reason, then this can and does present a problem. If a fictionalised biography is also in play, then the problem becomes bigger and, in some cases, insurmountable because (reputable) book marketing agencies won’t knowingly hoodwink the media. I’ve lost count of the times that authors of fiction have suggested we use silhouette images (and even photographs of models) to mask their true identity in book marketing campaigns. But much like fictionalised biographies, reputable agencies won’t knowingly mislead the media or otherwise agree to such tactics without a legitimate reason.
Should the author of a non-fiction book also write using an alias, meanwhile, she will most likely experience the same issues. The major (but not only) exception to this general rule relates to whistleblowers who use an alias for legitimate reasons of personal or professional safety. In such cases, the national press and broadcast media will accept silhouette images and use voice actors to protect anonymity.
You can read more about the importance of broadcast media coverage for books here The Power of the Airwaves: The Impact of TV and Radio Appearances on Authors’ Book Sales
A Summary, of Sorts…
As I mentioned at the start, there’s no ‘right’ answer here. Authors using pseudonyms gain privacy and anonymity, crucial for whistleblowers and those bound by employment contracts. Some use pen names due to identity mismatches or fear of public criticism. Pseudonyms can also help authors explore new styles without alienating existing readers.
But pen names can complicate legal matters, and using fictionalised biographies (or fictionalised imagery) raises major ethical concerns. Obtaining media coverage in the national press and on radio can also be challenging.
Authors thinking of using a pen name should therefore consider the pros and cons before making a considered decision to suit their own specific, personal needs.