Why write fiction under a pen name? - Authors A.I.

Ethan Cross
September 23, 2020

There may be personal, business or professional reasons to use a pseudonym

Editor’s note: Following is a converation between author Ethan Cross and publisher-editor-author Lou Aronica, who has appeared on Authors A.I.’s First Draft Friday.

There are many reasons for authors to use a pen name. For example, you may have a name that people can’t say, spell, or remember. I also know some authors who use a pseudonym because of a conflict with their day job. For example, one such author writes dark, bloody horror novels by night and is an assistant principal by day. There are other authors who change names to reinvent themselves and escape a poor record of sales under a separate alias.

But yet another great reason to do so is because you want to explore multiple genres.

The publishing industry wants authors to be established as a brand just like any other product. They want people to be able to pick up any Ethan Cross novel and know what to expect. It’s a sound business principle. It’s kind of like the concept of Pepsi versus Mountain Dew. If you opened up a Pepsi and it tasted like Mountain Dew, you would probably be shocked and disappointed. You might even like Mountain Dew, but you sat down expecting a Pepsi, since that’s what you bought.

“I want readers to pick up an Ethan Cross novel and be able to count on a breathless, fast-paced suspense thriller.”
– Ethan Cross

It’s the same idea with an author. I want readers to pick up an Ethan Cross novel and be able to count on a breathless, fast-paced suspense thriller.

I do plan, however, on writing books in several different genres including action-adventure, science fiction, literary fiction, horror, fantasy or whatever good idea comes along. I love all types of books and stories and have ideas that don’t fit into one type of box. But those ideas will fit into a box because they will be under different names. So nobody will buy an Ethan Cross book and get a bad taste in their mouth expecting Pepsi but receiving Mountain Dew instead.

However, many authors do get away with writing in multiple genres under a single name. Others brand each book as a certain type with the packaging and titles but leave the books under one name. Both scenarios—using a separate name or a unified name—present different problems.

One author, multiple story styles

Use one name, and people may be disappointed with what they get. Use multiple names, and people may not discover your writings in another genre that they would equally enjoy. As with almost anything else, there are no steadfast rules. I think in this regard the rule of thumb is simple. We each have to find what works for us.

While I can’t tell you that one way or another is better, since you have to look at your own unique circumstances, I can share with you some of my experiences.

To give you a little background and context: I write thrillers under the name Ethan Cross, and I chose to use a pen name because I want to write in multiple genres using each name as a brand for that genre, as I mentioned above. But right now, that’s the only name I’m published under. When I go to writers conferences and events, I introduce myself as Ethan Cross. It’s become as real and natural to me as my birth name. I have an Ethan Cross website, an Ethan Cross Facebook fan page, an Ethan Cross Twitter page, etc.

Ethan Cross
Ethan Cross’s author page on Amazon.

But this article is especially timely for me, because I’m about to embark on a new adventure that will pose additional problems in the pen name department. I’m starting a new series with a co-author who writes in an entirely different genre, and we are planning on marketing the book under one name instead of two. So two writers with one name on the cover. For this venture, we’ll also have a new website, Facebook and Twitter account, etc.

I don’t know about you, but I already have trouble keeping up with all the requirements of authors for social media, marketing, building a brand, etc. and finding time to actually write. Now I’m going to be throwing another set of accounts into the mix. And what happens when I write that space opera or epic fantasy that have been rattling around in my brain? You see the problem. Things can quickly spiral out of control to an unmanageable level.

So how do you find the right balance? The right mix between satisfying reader expectations, writing the books you want to write, and managing all that goes with it?

Lou Aronica has had more than his fair share of experience on the subject, from both a personal and publishing standpoint. So now I’ll turn it over to him to share some of his experiences and insights.

Juggling multiple pen names

Let’s look at this first from the publisher’s perspective, since that’s not one that would come naturally to most of you, and publishers can be somewhat difficult for the rest of the world to understand (and I say that as someone who has been involved with publishing for a very long time). There are some definite advantages to writers using pseudonyms. As Aaron already pointed out, a pseudonym can erase a poor sales history, which can be valuable with talented writers who have yet to find their audiences. A pseudonym can also simply sound better—Amelia Storm sounds way cooler than Emily Schmabowski, for instance. Some writers also find it much easier to market themselves if they’re using an alter ego. This happens far more often than you might imagine. I know several writers who have trouble promoting themselves because they’re worried about how family, friends, and colleagues might perceive them. However, when Emily becomes Amelia, she has no trouble putting herself out there. Since all publishers recognize that author interaction with readers is critical to a book’s success, anything that makes the author feel more comfortable with that interaction has value.

Lou Aronica
Publisher-editor Lou Aronica

Another marketing advantage comes from the perspective of gender. For whatever reason, readers in general have certain gender expectations when it comes to certain genres. Romance buyers have a tough time buying romances from men (with some notable exceptions like Nicholas Sparks). Readers of hard-boiled detective novels tend to buy way more of such novels written by men (again, with some notable exceptions). There’s no literary logic to this. I know several male writers who write beautiful love stories, and I know several female writers who are terrific at penning bloody pulp fiction. But if Emily Schmabowski wants the best chance at having a breakout career writing ultraviolent suspense, doing so under the name Brad Bowers might be the best move.

But there are also downsides, especially if the reason you’re choosing to use a pseudonym is that you want to publish under several different names. Here, commitment becomes an issue. There’s just no way Emily can be anywhere near as effective in dealing with her readership and potential readership if she’s Amelia Storm or say, Millie Schwartz. Each of these pseudonyms requires an online persona and a unique way of dealing with a readership. That’s a huge amount of work.

Now, all of my fiction appears under my real name. For me, that was the only realistic way to go.

Let me switch over to the author side to tell you my own story, as it might be instructive. I published my first two novels under the name Ronald Anthony, and then went on to wrtie under the pen name Michael Baron. I did this because I’d been in the book business for a long time at that point, and I didn’t want to worry about preconceptions people in the industry might have. Having gained some traction as a writer, I decided that it might be okay to have my own name on a book. The second title I put my own name on, The Element, which I co-authored with Sir Ken Robinson, became a New York Times bestseller. At that point, I decided that all of my future nonfiction would carry my real name.

Meanwhile, though, I had been spending a few years writing my most personal novel, Blue. Logic suggested that I publish this under my pen name Michael Baron because that pseudonym was doing so well. But this novel meant so much to me that I didn’t want to hide behind another name. I therefore decided to publish it under my own name, which of course meant I now had three fiction names going at once. That didn’t seem at all sustainable to me, so I retired Ronald Anthony and republished those books under my name. I still had two fiction personas to manage, and I was finding it increasingly challenging to do so. I’d created a bio for Michael Baron that was based entirely on my own life but didn’t share any of the details from my life that I was sharing in my Lou Aronica bio. It was getting complicated, and blogging was a crazy juggling act. Meanwhile, I’d had bestsellers with both names, but I wasn’t benefiting from the combined value of those bestsellers.

Finally, this summer, I decided to say goodbye to Michael Baron (at least on the digital side; there are still some Michael Baron paperbacks out there). Now, all of my fiction appears under my real name. I’m in the process of repackaging all of my novels so that there are distinct “domains” within my fiction, but they will all appear in one place, on one website, and in one social media stream. For me, that was the only realistic way to go.

There’s no one right decision here. Just consider the pros and cons of each and project forward a bit before you make a choice.

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Lloyd Lofthouse
1 year ago

I have a few thrillers published under my real name, but plan to publish a Si-Fi Fantasy soon. I don’t know if this is a good idea, but I’m thinking of publishing the Si-Fi Fantasy under a pen name while being up front with my readers (through my blogs) that have read the thrillers, so they know what I’m doing before I release the Si-Fi Fantasy under the pen name. And when the SF-Fantasy is released I’d also mention in the book’s author bio what I’m doing, too, revealing my real name and pen name. I’m interesting in knowing what… Read more »