The Pros & Cons of a Pen Name (With a Little Help from KK Ness)

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In 2012, when I released my debut novel, Enemies Closer, I decided to use the pseudonym “LE Truscott”. The book was action adventure and I was concerned (perhaps unnecessarily) that male readers wouldn’t be interested in reading a woman writing in the genre. I didn’t think too long or too hard about what the drawbacks might be. But just as there were benefits, there were also disadvantages.

KK Ness has recently released her first book, Messenger, in The Shifter War fantasy series and her pseudonym is a complete departure from her actual name (as opposed to the partial disguise I chose). I asked her a few questions about her choice to help illustrate the pros and cons of using a pen name.

Pros
Anonymity/Freedom
“I feel an immense freedom writing under a pen name,” KK Ness told me when I asked why she’d decided to do it. “I’ve wanted to be an author for years but I’ve placed so much pressure on myself that I often become frozen at the thought of releasing anything that isn’t perfect (an impossible goal, right?). Using a pen name has somehow released me from that unrealistic pressure. KK Ness had no emotional history and could do whatever she wanted and write what she wanted.”

It makes sense, doesn’t it? Writing isn’t just writing – it’s complete exposure. Writers expose the inner workings of their minds, the secret and sometimes guilty pleasures they indulge in, even their talent (or their lack of it – at least that’s what they worry people will think). So using a pen name gives them the freedom to explore without letting those worries impact directly on their everyday life.

EL James is a great example. The subject matter of her book isn’t to everybody’s taste – not something they would admit to publicly anyway – so her initial anonymity allowed her to bring her work and a genre that had pottered on the fringes of fiction for a while into the mainstream without worrying about embarrassing herself, her family, her co-workers and her friends. By the time her real identity came out, it was such an enormous hit that the only embarrassment was how much money she was making. Besides, if everyone was reading it, they could all be embarrassed together.

Anne Perry is another example, although for very different reasons. In 1954 in Christchurch, New Zealand, Anne Perry – then known as Juliet Hulme – and her best friend murdered her best friend’s mother. She was just fifteen years old at the time. It’s a reasonably well-known story within the publishing industry and became even more so after Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures movie about the crime. Anne Perry’s name change wasn’t just anonymity; it was freedom from her infamy.

Differentiating Yourself for Diverse Audiences in Multiple Genres
JK Rowling was so famous for her Harry Potter series that when she wrote The Cuckoo’s Calling, she decided to publish it under the pen name Robert Galbraith. She didn’t want to confuse the children who had grown up on her magical adventures with the adult crime fiction she was now writing. And she’s not the only one (although there are many reasons thrown about). Stephen King wrote four books as Richard Bachman. Ruth Rendell wrote multiple novels under the name Barbara Vine to separate them from her immensely popular Inspector Wexford series. Nora Roberts has written dozens and dozens of romance books but she publishes her crime under the name J.D. Robb.

Is KK Ness planning to do the same? “Hmm, I’ve got a heap of sci fi and urban fantasy stories rattling around in my brain that I want to write. As for whether I’d write them under the same pen name… I don’t know. Many authors recommend using different pen names for different genres so that your readers of war stories don’t end up purchasing your steam punk comedies by mistake. Multiple pen names are also important for developing multiple streams of income. Other authors, however, seem to do perfectly well having all of their genre-diverse publications under one name. I’ll need to research more on it before deciding.”

Disguising Gender
This was certainly my motivation and JK Rowling’s publishers were the ones who asked her to publish under initials, thinking that the target audience of young boys might not want to read a book written by a woman (just goes to show you how much publishers know). She didn’t actually have a second name and had to pick an initial (she chose K for her grandmother Kathleen).

It’s conventional wisdom that readers of one gender won’t read books written by writers of the other in particular genres – men writing romance, for example. But this seems to be less and less an issue (Nicholas Sparks certainly doesn’t seem to have any problems) as quality is prioritised over stereotypes.

I asked KK Ness if this was one of her considerations. “I haven’t disguised my gender (anyone who reads my ‘About the Author’ page will know I’m female). I thought it was important to indicate my gender because anyone can write about any topic or relationship. The aim is to do it thoughtfully and well.”

Disguising Multiple Authors
Frank and Wendy Brennan, a husband and wife romance writing team, published as Emma Darcy (the inimitable Emma Darcy – sigh!) until Frank’s death in 1995, after which Wendy continued using the name for her solo writing. Nicci Gerrard and Sean French are another husband and wife team who write as Nicci French.

But this seems to be another one that is falling by the wayside. The recently feted Illuminae and its sequel Gemina were co-written and co-published by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristof (although both were already established authors in their own rights so it makes sense to leverage their existing popularity). David Levithan is establishing a routine of publishing multi-authored books (Will Grayson, Will Grayson with John Green, Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares and Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist with Rachel Cohn).

Differentiating Yourself from Other Authors or Famous People in General with the Same or Similar Names
I’m not sure I know of anyone specifically in writing who has done this but it’s very common for actors. Michael Keaton’s real name is Michael Douglas but, of course, Michael Douglas, the son of Kirk Douglas, was already using it and according to Screen Actors Guild rules, only one person can register under any one name. He chose Keaton as a tribute to Buster Keaton.

KK Ness has an academic namesake and given the protocol for listing academic authors by initials and last name, that’s how she appears in her many contributions to articles. I asked if she was aware of this when choosing the name. “I knew of Kristen K Ness and figured our target audiences were unlikely to cross paths. I Googled my real name and ironically discovered that there is also a woman of the same name working for Amazon, which is where my ebook is exclusively available at the moment. It seems most names are entangled with other names in some way. It’s a small world.”

Cons
Inability to Trade on the Reputation You Have Established Under Your Real Name
Regardless of what industry you have worked in or community you are known in, the networks and connections you have built are often crucial to starting the ball rolling when you publish and begin marketing your book. However, if you’ve chosen a pen name and you don’t want to reveal your true identity, you’re automatically at a disadvantage. It’s hard enough to get people who know you to buy and read your book, let alone people who don’t have or don’t know they have an association with the author.

KK Ness agrees. “Marketing a book under a pen name with no existing online presence is hard. It’s difficult to build an audience, but I think that’s true for most new authors. Personally, I would have struggled even under my real name, since I don’t spend any time on social media, and have been neglectful of my blog as well. That being said, savvy advertising and producing more books will impact sales far more than any number of Twitter and Facebook followers.”

Potentially Having to Market Multiple Names
It’s hard enough marketing one name, let alone multiple identities. If you choose to publish under a pen name or multiple pen names and your real name as well, you might have to repeat the same marketing step for each name and I don’t know about anyone else but I barely have time to market just one. Multiple names can mean multiple websites, multiple author profiles on Amazon, Goodreads and Smashwords, multiple social media profiles. I’m getting tired just thinking about it.

Difficulty Consolidating Works Published Under Different Names
It can be difficult to consolidate works published under different names if you decide you don’t want them separate. After initially publishing as LE Truscott and realising it made almost no difference, I published my next two books under my full name. Goodreads nearly had a conniption fit and in the end told me that I could either establish another Goodreads profile under my “new” name or stick with “LE Truscott” until they can figure out how to achieve changing the name (something their system doesn’t currently allow).

Amazon has a similar problem. Even though I published all three of my Amazon ebooks under the same KDP account, the online giant didn’t understand that “LE Truscott” and “Louise Truscott” were the same author. I had to apply to “claim” my own books and even though my profile links to my two most recent books, they don’t link back to my Amazon Author Central profile. It’s enough to make me want to tear my hair out.

Initials Can Be Difficult for Search Engines
Many authors writing and publishing under pen names choose to use initials, like JD Robb, like KK Ness, like LE Truscott and many more. But how exactly should these names be searched? Is it “LE” or “L.E.” or “L E”?

When I found out that KK Ness had published her first book, I went to Goodreads to add it to my list of “Want to Read” books. But when I searched “Messenger by KK Ness”, Goodreads told me it had no results. Was I jumping the gun? I wondered. Perhaps she hadn’t put it on the site yet? But, no, it was just that I wasn’t searching the right name. If I added a space between the Ks or even a full stop (just one, the second doesn’t seem to be necessary), the entry came up.

Google was friendlier in this respect, bringing up her website, her Facebook profile, her Twitter profile, the Goodreads entry and the UK Amazon site for Messenger. Perhaps Goodreads just needs to pick Google’s brains.

*****

To make sure you can find her everywhere, here are the links for you to check out KK Ness’s website, her Facebook profile, her Twitter profile and the Goodreads entry for Messenger. You can purchase the book in paperback from Amazon’s US site and as an ebook from all Amazon platforms.

You can also read my 4 star review of Messenger here.

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