Jun 30th, 2020
Hi everyone, and thank you for tuning in to another episode of the We Make Books Podcast - A podcast about writing, publishing, and everything in between!
This week we are talking pen names! What is a pen name and why would you want to use one? We know what you're thinking, practically every episode we've mentioned your website, your social media, your brand - wouldn't a pen name just make it harder to for people to find you and check out your work? The truth is there are lots perfectly good reasons to want to use a pen name instead of your own and in this episode we get into those reason plus some of the fact and fiction of pen names (there is some really weird misinformation out there about what a pen name can do for a writer).
We Make Books is hosted by Rekka Jay and Kaelyn Considine; Rekka is a published author and Kaelyn is an editor and together they are going to take you through what goes into getting a book out of your head, on to paper, in to the hands of a publisher, and finally on to book store shelves.
We Make Books is a podcast for writers and publishers, by writers and publishers and we want to hear from our listeners! Hit us up on our social media, linked below, and send us your questions, comments, concerns, and the best pen name you've ever come up with!
We hope you enjoy We Make Books!
Episode 38: An Author Called By Any Other Name Will Still Write Amazing Things
transcribed by Sara Rose (@saraeleanorrose)
R: Welcome back to We Make Books, a podcast about writing, publishing, and everything in between. I’m Rekka, I write science fiction and fantasy as R.J. Theodore.
K: And I’m Kaelyn Considine, I am the acquisitions editor for Parvus Press and—
R: But is that your real name?
K, sighing: Well, um. The acquisitions editor for Parvus Press is a suffix that I use to—
R< laughing: I was gonna say, don’t you get tired of saying the whole thing every time?
K: It is a bit of a mouthful. Sometimes I do just introduce myself as Kaelyn. So, yeah, we’re talking about pen names today in this episode. What are they? Why do people use them? Why are they beneficial? How do you pick one? All of these important aspects.
R: And what not to expect from your pen name.
K: Yeah, things that a pen name will not do for you. There’s some frightening stuff on the internet.
R: There’s some bad advice out there, did you know that?
K: Yeah, who woulda thought? Just because it’s on the internet, doesn’t mean it’s always true.
R: Yeah. Yeah, imagine that.
K: Pen names can be an important and valuable tool, so that’s what we spend some time talking about in this episode. You know, if you’re going to use one, getting the most bang for your buck, so to speak.
R: If you’re early enough in your career that you might wanna choose a pen name, I hope this is something that gives you stuff to think about. If you’re mid-career, you know, you might still decide that you’re gonna launch a new career in a different genre or something. But it’s also, you know, maybe it’ll help reinforce the decision you did make. So take a listen and enjoy!
K: Enjoy, everyone!
[intro music plays]
K: My bluejay nemesis.
R: Is back?
K: Well, here’s the thing, it turns out it was never gone! Because I found out that bluejays are actually excellent mimics, so—
K: I saw it and it was like… it was very jarring because it was not making the normal bluejay noise. And I was like, “Oh my god!” And it… it can imitate other birds. I hate this thing so much! It’s… it’s terrible. I mean, thankfully it’s not sitting outside my window every morning screaming and waking me up like it has been in previous years. But I feel like it is tormenting me now. It is absolutely, now, pretending to be other birds.
R: Maybe that’s a courtesy to you. Like, it knows that you don’t like the jay. So you might better enjoy a chickadee.
K: Okay. I live in New York City. There’s no chickadees here.
R: Which is why I could never live in New York City. Chickadees are my favorite birds.
K: No, but apparently it can imitate hawks?
K: So it’s been doing that, a little bit. And then, now I’m like thinking, “There have been other weird bird noises I’ve been hearing. Is that also this damn bluejay?”
K: Oh, god I hate this thing.
R: It’s putting on a performance for you! It’s dedicated its life’s work to this portfolio of bird calls and it knows that you, alone, in the world can appreciate them.
K: I would just appreciate it if it went away.
R: Well, yes. You, alone, would also appreciate that.
K: But hey! Speaking of pretending to be other things!
[R and K laugh]
K: You see what I did there?
R: I see what you did there.
K: Today we’re talking about pen names.
R: Nom de plume!
K: And pen names are not necessarily pretending to be another person all the time. There’s a lot of reasons you could have a pen name.
R: Yeah. It’s funny because the first thing I ever remember about encountering the concept of pen names was when I learned that Charles de Lint wrote horror under another name. And I thought that was the most bizarre thing in the universe, that someone would change their name and hide their books from their fans!
Because to me, I liked Charles de Lint so much as a teenager, I read everything I could get my hands on and then I was out of books—Well, I say I was out of books, the other books I couldn’t find were out of print. And so to find out that there were more books I could have been reading! I was very upset, even though I wasn’t a horror reader. I would have gotten into reading horror because this author that I liked so much wrote it. And that was my first encounter with the concept of an author name.
K: I think we all have that jarring moment, somewhere in late elementary school when we were told that Mark Twain was not Mark Twain’s actual name.
R: Oh! Yeah, okay. So, yeah, I did know that but for some reason that didn’t count. Maybe because he was a historical figure.
K: Yeah, and also because I think we only knew him as Mark Twain. When you find out that his real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, you’re kinda like: “Oh, you know what I see why he went with Mark Twain.”
R: See, I always thought, because I knew Mark Twain and the name is so familiar, Samuel Clemens sounded like the more intriguing name, when I heard that. But the—Yeah, I guess Mark Twain wasn’t something that I read a lot of. And it wasn’t like Samuel Clemens had another collection of books that I could’ve been reading.
K: Exactly, that’s the thing is that he only wrote under Mark Twain, I think even with his newspaper writings.
K: I’m pretty sure he only wrote as Mark Twain, as well.
R: That sounds right, yeah.
K: I don’t think he ever really published much under Samuel L. Clemens. But there’s a long history of people using pen names. There’s a lot of pen names out there that people do not realize were pen names. For instance, George Orwell is a pen name. His actual name: Eric Arthur Blair. It’s not even close!
R: No, not even. And how do you come up with Orwell?
K: I… there’s a lot of things I wonder how that man came up with.
R: That—Fair enough. Okay, we’ll give you that one.
K: Jack Kirby, a famous early comic book writer and artist: Jacob Kurtzberg
R: Okay, so—but that’s gonna bring us into the whys of some of these, right? Because when he was working, there was a certain amount of prejudice against someone whose name would have been Kurtzberg.
K: Yeah. Yeah that—
R: Professionally, he would have had an easier time being Kirby.
K: Yes, definitely.
R: And that’s a shame. And that’s, unfortunately, still going on with pen names. I mean, we’ll get into some of that. But that is definitely still rampant is that there are preconceived notions of who belongs in what genre and who is worthy of respect. And people might choose a name that corresponds with people’s expectations of Greatness or Classics or anything like that. I mean, I will say I write under a pen name. You all know that.
K: We say at the top of every episode!
R: At the top of every episode, yeah! And I chose my pen name as an homage to someone who encouraged me a lot, but I also picked it, wrote it out and said, “Aww yeah that sounds like a author name!” And what does it sound like? It sounds masculine. It sounds like a white man’s name! And I’m half of that, but it was not really my intention to broadcast a masculine name that might fit better next to other masculine names on the shelf that get all the attention and draw. But to me, socially conditioned by the other names on the bookshelves in the store, I said, “Yeah! R.J. Theodore! That sounds like a real author’s name!
R: I mean, honestly, if I could go back I’d pick something else. But I’m committed at this point. So.
K: So why do some people choose to write under pen names? Well, there’s a lot of reasons, obviously. Rekka just enumerated one for us. Would you call it branding, what you did?
R: Oh, definitely! Definitely. I mean, if you start a company, you name your company. And when you become a writer, if you intend to make a living at it, or at least make a career—whether or not the money is the point. But if you wanna do this for the long haul, you’re thinking about your presentation. Not just of your books and your stories, but yourself. So it is not unreasonable to sit down and come up with an author name and then because we DO NOT USE our legal signatures. Please, people. We practice the autograph of that author name and maybe even do that as part of feeling out whether you like the name and wanna stick with it. You know?
K: Branding is certainly a consideration when figuring out if you’re gonna use a pen name. Let’s be clear, right at the top, if your name is John Smith and you just feel like that’s your name and that’s what you want to write under, there’s absolutely no problem with that. You do not need to use a pen name. You do, however, need to be really good at marketing and maintaining your website and your internet presence, so that people can find you easily. Search engine optimization is going to be a key component to being successful here.
R: For John Smith, you are going to have to compete with police records, white pages, direct relistings—
R: That, too. You know, Florida Man. Everything is going to be a competition for you. So, you know, the elements of my pen name are not particularly unique but when you string them together and search for that, then that narrows down the field quite a lot.
K: Now, conversely, my name is very unique. I, as best I can tell, am one of the only two Kaelyn Considines in the world that spell their name this way. The other one is very clearly not me, if you punch it into Google. I will say that I have done different things, out in the world, under pen names. I am not going to say what they are or what that pen name is, explicitly because of privacy reasons.
K: Because I have a professional life in publishing and a professional life outside of publishing. And, believe it or not, there are some things that I just don’t want intermingled all together with that. For the record, I am not doing anything nefarious or illegal. It’s just a matter of—
R: For the record, wink wink. If anyone asks...
K, laughing: Wanting to maintain some separation with different projects in my life.
R: Right. It’s privacy, but it’s specifically because you have aspects of your life that don’t need to mix. It’s not because you are trying to hide from anybody in a—it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if somebody found out the other name. But it would be annoying.
K: Well, I’ll be honest with you. When I started getting into publishing and when I came on at Parvus, I had a very frank conversation with Colin, who’s the publisher at Parvus Press, that I may need to do all of this under a fake name. Because my job at the time—I didn’t want it coming out that I was also running a side business, for a lot of reasons. And then, eventually, I decided, “Ugh, this isn’t worth it. I don’t have the energy to maintain this alternate presence!”
But the uniqueness of my name makes it so that, if you punch “Kaelyn publishing” into Google. I come up. I am the first result. If you punch “Considine” and anything vaguely associated with my name into Google, you will also find me very easily. When I started my previous job, when I was 26 and just out of grad school, years ago, I—the people that I worked with very quickly were able to punch me into Google and find all of these academic papers that I had published. That’s not a big deal, but they definitely had a lot of comments about how nerdy I was, as a result.
R: See, in the circles I run, that would be incredibly cool. So, don’t worry about it.
K: Oh, yeah, no it was kind of cool. But it was like, “Wow, you really are a huge history nerd, huh?” I’m like, “Yeah, I am. It’s you know.”
K: So, uniqueness or non-uniqueness are two factors here. In some cases, maybe your name is John Smith and you want to have something more akin to Kaelyn Considine where it’s easier to find you. Or, if you’re a Kaelyn Considine, maybe you—
R: Need a little more John Smith in your life.
K: Yeah, maybe you don’t always want to be found that easily. As we say on this show a lot, I am a pretty private person. I’m not super into social media, I don’t like to put a lot of myself out there. So I don’t like the idea of people being able to find me really easily.
R: But we should mention that just writing under a different name is not going to be enough to protect you from someone who wants to dig and find out who you are and how to find you.
K: Oh, yeah, no. It’s uh…
R: This is a very light coat of disguise. This is covering the Volkswagen bug that you’re racing with a grey cloth to make it look like a boulder. It only works because it’s a very low-fi film.
K, laughing: Yeah, exactly. I will say—So another reason you might wanna use a pen name is maybe what you’re writing, you don’t necessarily want everyone to know that you’re writing it.
R: Right, that is definitely a possibility. Or, you know, maybe you have a family that you’re separated from and you don’t want them to know that you are writing at all.
K: Well, I will use an example from my real life. We have family friends that I grew up with and they have a daughter who’s a little older than me. Her mom started noticing that her and her husband seem to have some extra money. Not like a ton, not like a life-changing amount. They weren’t buying lamborghinis and moving into mansions, but they were—
R: Not stressing over small purchases.
K: Yeah, they put a lot of money into upgrading the house and took a really nice vacation. And her mom finally asked her, “Hey, did one of you get a raise or something?” and she said,” Oh, well you know how I wrote this book?” and she was like, “Oh! Did it start selling really well?” She’s like, “Well, no. But I kind of transitioned into writing some other things…”
Anyway, after some back-and-forth it came out that this person became one of the top ten selling erotica novelists in England for a long time. And she was doing this under a pen name. I think she kind of really nudged her way in right when Kindle unlimited was really taking off with this.
R: That’s the time, there you go.
K: Yeah. And she will not tell—we still have no idea—
R: What the pen name is.
K: Who she is, or what the pen name is! But she made a pretty decent amount of money off of it. Which, you know, good for her. But maybe you’re writing erotica and you don’t want everyone to know that you’re writing erotica.
R: Yeah, or just anything that you think you’d professionally or socially be shunned for, but it brings you joy. You know, just change the name and write under that. Again, if someone suspected it was you, it would probably be easy for them to figure out that it was. But if they’re looking for your name, this other name should not come up. As long as you’re just slightly careful about things.
K: That’s a good point, too, is when you’re deciding if you’re gonna use a pen name, one of the things you have to decide is how open you’re gonna be about this. Rekka is, for instance, very open about it.
K: “I write science fiction and fantasy as R.J. Theodore.” Some people don’t ever really want you to see the person behind the pen name. Now, in the age of the internet this is very difficult to do.
K: There have been very famous writers that went their entire lives under a pen name that nobody ever—Like, Anne Rice’s name is not Anne Rice.
K: Her first name’s actually Howard.
R: Which is interesting. That’s a whole other conversation.
K, laughing: That’s a whole other conversation.
R: I mean, you know, again. Uniqueness. But also expectation of your genre. If Howard was a name that she chose to write with, why wouldn’t she use it? It’s because it doesn’t sound like a female-presenting name that is going to write bodice-clutching, tense semi-romantic vampire stories. There’s an expectation from readers that, you know, vampire authors are going to be female. There’s an expectation of readers that thriller authors—or at least the “good” ones—are going to be men. And then that ignores the non-binary spectrum entirely and then, what are the expectations there?
There are very cool names out there for some non-binary authors and I just think, “Wow! If I could go back and understand that gender was a spectrum not a binary, I might’ve picked a very different pen name.”
K: Yeah, and so that’s actually a good point. So you’re getting ready, you decided you’re gonna use a pen name. You’re getting ready to choose one. We talked a little bit before about branding and it is something to consider. Look, if you’re gonna be writing hard military science fiction, Florence Lilac deForest is probably not the best name to start writing that under. Now—
R: Although it would stand out in the field of military sci-fi, but…
K: That will certainly stand out, but emulating that is marketing at that point. Working on a pen name that you think is going to appeal to your readership. There’s nothing wrong with that.
R: If you think about it like the packaging on a box, you know, if you’re going to buy a microwave, you expect the microwave brand name is going to be of a certain ilk. You expect that the—just like there are cover expectations in genre—you expect that there’s gonna be a photo of a microwave on the box. There are expectations and those expectations are because human brains are designed to put things into categories very quickly. So you wanna help other brains put you into the correct category. And that’s why you choose a name that matches a category, rather than going with it and hoping for the best.
K: Yeah, exactly. It’s unfortunate, but as Rekka mentioned there are some inherent biases in our brains and, you know, one of the most famous ones, J.K. Rowling. She does not actually have a middle name. Her name is Joanne Rowling and they told her, “Listen, we don’t want people to know you’re a woman.” And she said, “Okay, I can’t just be J. Rowling,” so she took K for Katherine, from her mom’s name and made it J.K. Rowling as, you know, things like George R.R. Martin. And J.R.R. Tolkein. And I think that’s a holdover from how letters in authorship used to be addressed. Used to cite off your first initial and your last name. Like, “Your Obedient Servant ___”.
So, is that a shitty, unfortunate thing about society? Yes. Absolutely. But would J.K. Rowling have been as successful as she ended up being if everyone knew she was a woman from the offset? Who knows! You know, Harry Potter came out before the advent of the internet. That said, there’s a giant fricken About the Author in the back, so.
R: Yeah, yeah. I mean, the story—I know when Oprah picked it up for the book club, the story of J.K. Rowling writing these things on deli napkins and reading it to her kids every night because they wanted a story, and then turning it into a book eventually, became part of the romance of why people flocked to J.K. Rowling as a personality and not just to the books. That’s part of the brand, though, is this rags-to-riches story.
K: That said, there are also cases of famous authors writing under pen names because they maybe want to try something new. So, like, J.K. Rowling—
R: Hey! Yeah, I was gonna say a J.K. Rowling story again.
K: J.K. Rowling published under Robert Galbraith, was the author name they used for the murder mystery novel she put out. Stephen King has written under a couple pen names. One of the more famous ones is Richard Bachman.
K: I do not know what the significance of that name is. Isaac Asimov wrote under Paul French. These were—I don’t wanna call them side projects, but they were different from things that they were known for writing, and wanted them to stand on their own merit.
R: Right. Michael Crichton also had a couple of pseudonyms.
K: Yes, yep. What does that mean, in terms of legality with an author? Now, again, in the age of the internet this is a little different because if you start digging around, looking for Richard Bachman, and this book. Through the availability of information, you’re probably gonna be able to figure out that it’s Stephen King.
R: But you have to be interested in Richard Bachman enough in the first place.
K: Yes! Yeah.
R: It’s not like you’re gonna search for Richard Bachman and the first site that pops up is gonna be Stephen King’s. I mean, that was the whole point was to not show up as Stephen King. So Stephen King’s not gonna make it easy for you to figure it out, unless he decides to debut. Like, “Oh, by the way, pulling back the curtain, that was me.”
K: Yeah, you’d really have to dig in with that. So, Rekka, how about copywriting pen names?
R: Well, so. You can’t—there’s a whole bunch of issues over trademarking names, anyway, but J.K. Rowling is bound to have that name trademarked. If not by her, then by her publisher.
K: Well also because it’s a fake name that is not her real name.
R: Right, so there may be a J.K. Rowling out there, though. That doesn’t automatically mean that person is going to be sued for signing their bank checks.
K: Or if they write, writing under that name.
R: Right, you cannot stop them from using their legal name. But—
K: Now, if your name is John Smith and you decide you’re gonna start publishing books under J.K. Rowling, you’re gonna have an issue.
R: Now you’ve got a problem.
K: Yeah. Because what you’re doing there is using a trademark to attempt to deceive people into thinking that this was written by J.K. Rowling.
R: That is something that J.K. Rowling and her lawyers are going to have to come after you for. And when I say ‘going to have to’ what I mean is, if you register a trademark you have to defend it in order to maintain it. We’ve talked about this before. So, she’s going to have to come after you and find out, is that really your name? And if it is, how much money do I have to pay you to write under a different name, please?
K: By the way, it probably won’t even be J.K. Rowling that comes after you—
R: Oh, yeah, it’ll be lawyers.
K: Her publisher’s gonna get to you before she personally—
R: They’re gonna find you first, yeah.
K: —gets involved in this because it’s branding. That name is a commodity at this point.
R: Yes. That name has value to it that is separate, sort of, from the IP that she has created.
K: Now, that said, let’s go back to our other example, Stephen King. Stephen King is a much more common name. I know a Stephen King! I know Stephen Kings, a father and son, who are Stephen King!
So if they decided: hey I’m gonna write a book and publish it. There really isn’t anything that actual author Stephen King can do about it because you can’t stop someone from using your name. Now, as Rekka said, maybe you’re offered some incentive to publish under a pen name.
R: In which case, hey, not a bad deal! Maybe consider it.
K: Now, here’s the thing. I imagine Stephen King does not care that much. Stephen King’s publishers are going to care a lot.
R: Right, right.
K: So, now… how about just some other random person’s name. Let’s say I wanted to start publishing books under Rekka Jay.
R: I mean, I—Well, I can’t say I don’t publish books under Rekka Jay. There is one book out there with my name on the cover, of Rekka Jay. So I might ask you to not. But I don’t think I have a strong enough case to stop you.
K: Yeah, so there’s some weird legal issues that come into play here. So let’s say I wanted to start writing books and I’m gonna publish them under… I don’t know, Colin’s fair game. Let’s say I’m write books under Colin Coyle. Colin would have real, legal reason and recourse to stop me from doing that. He would have an interest in saying, “Kaelyn, we own a business together. We work together. We publish books together. I don’t want people thinking that this is me writing these books.”
That’s where all of this gets a little gray. But, as a general rule, using the names of people that you actually know is probably something to avoid.
R: I mean, the same can be said for using them for character names in your books. You just don’t wanna! This is just muddy water that you are gonna find yourself lost in.
K: Right, hold on, I gotta email an author real quick because I told him to change the names of two of his characters to Rekka. Both of them.
R, laughing: Both of them in the same book? Are they love interests, I hope?
K, laughing: Both of them are—Well, they are now.
R: But, yeah. You don’t wanna—just don’t mess with people you know. Because we don’t know how relationships are going to evolve over the years. This might be something—even if the person doesn’t care, you may just end up regretting someday. This person may end up making you grind your teeth in annoyance—
K: Now, forever.
R: —and then you’ve gotta go back to your books and those characters are named for this person, or you’ve used that pen name for your professional work. And you’re like, “Now I’m reminded of this person that I no longer want anything to do with.” To that point, some people choose pen names if they are married, just in case the marriage ever doesn’t end well. Or there’s another reason to change the legal name. If you separate your pen name from your legal name, you can detach yourself from some of these relationship issues.
K: Now, that said, here’s another really good reason to not use a pen name. If you are writing negative things about people.
R: Oh, yeah.
K: Here’s the thing, a pen name does not protect you from defaming someone.
R: No, there’s no legal protection from any laws that you break.
K: So, if you’re going, “Well, I’m gonna write a bunch of nasty things about this person, so I’m gonna write it under a fake name.” First of all, you suck.
Look, if you don’t have the guts to say negative things in public under your own name, then you probably have no business saying them. Whistleblowers are obviously a different story, but we’re not talking about that here. We’re talking about published stories.
R: We’re talking about trolls.
K: Well, we’re talking about reasons you’d wanna use it professionally for—
R: Well, okay, but to be mean to other people is not a professional reason.
K: Yes, exactly. Writing under a pen name will not protect you from defamation and slander charges. Slander is very hard to prove in the U.S., in the U.K. it’s not as hard, for instance. And there have been some pretty famous cases of internationals being taken to court in the U.K. for slander and defamation charges. A pen name does not protect you from that.
A pen name, and I can’t believe I have to say this, but this is something that I kept coming across when doing some research for this. A pen name does not protect you from having to pay taxes!
R: Oh, yes, please don’t think that there’s any reason to not behave like a normal citizen, when you have a pen name.
K: There is, in some corners of the internet—and I did find this mostly in bizarre, fringe-libertarian groups, that would come into discussions and say this—some people, for some reason, think that if you write under a pen name that means that, that person does not legally exist and therefore cannot be taxed.
R, exasperate: That’s… a theory.
K: Yeah, so this is wrong for a few reasons. One of which is, when you write a book under a pen name, you still have to sign a contract when you get it published. And you have to sign your legal name to that contract.
R: And if you’re self-publishing, the same is true for when you register the copyright.
K: Exactly, yeah.
R: And also for setting up your payment account through the various distributors, et cetera. People are gonna know your real name, so as soon as you have to write that out, it has to match your bank account. Like, have a care that this is gonna come back to you.
K: Yeah, so there’s no such thing as a pen name that just exists in a vacuum where there is no possible way to trace this back to you. The only circumstances under which I can imagine that happening are if you create a manuscript, mail it to a publisher, or I don’t know, an article getting published in a newspaper, and want nothing back in return for it. You want no money, you want no attention—
R: Or if you write the thing, sign a different name, bury it in a time capsule, and never admit. And then in 500 years someone finds it, thinks you’re genius, but doesn’t know who you were. But that’s not the kind of career most of us are aiming for.
K: Yeah, if you wanna get paid for your work, you’re going to have to associate—
R: Admit who you are so they can pay you.
K, laughing: That’s exactly… that’s my life. Just having to admit to people who I am.
R: Kaelyn it’s time to admit who you are.
K: I’m gonna have to figure that out and then I’ll get back to you. So, one last thing and, again, I can’t believe I need to say this, but apparently I do. Writing under a pen name also does not help you avoid breach of contract.
K: This one’s a little less… less.. Maybe there’s a little bit—
R: It depends on how the contract’s written!
K: ...Yes. Then the taxes one. You have to pay taxes no matter what, okay? There’s no escaping taxes. But writing under a pen name does not absolve you of contractual obligations to other books. Now, there can be things written into your contract that say, “You will provide to us three science fiction books.” And let’s say you suddenly really wanna write a nonfiction military history of the Civil War.
R: You can write that!
K: You can write that.
R: The publisher doesn’t want it! They put it in their contract, they want the science fiction books.
K: Yeah, and all contracts are structured differently. Maybe you have a time frame, maybe it’s, “We get to publish the next three books of whatever you generate.” So, you know, if you switch from military sci-fi to Civil War military history, it doesn’t matter if you’re writing that under a pen name now. They still get that.
K: So this isn’t, again, you’re not creating a new person here. There is not now—
R: This is not your Get out of Jail Free Card to change your name.
K: Yeah, there is not now a legal entity that exists under this separate name that you created for yourself. There is no person there. It’s just another version of you.
R, laughing: Just like there’s not, not a person, there’s also not a person. Just to be clear.
K: It’s all very existential. There’s a lot of layers here.
R: So, I mean, don’t try to get out of trouble or get out of a contract you don’t like, or anything like that by changing your pen name. That’s not going to work. There are better reasons to have a pen name or not. And some people might start writing under their real name, or might start writing under a pen name and then switch to their real name. There’s also the possibility that later in life you change your mind and then all your books, again this is like Michael Crichton, get rereleased under the more popular name, either posthumously or not, because there’s a better chance that they’ll reach the audience that you’d like. I mean, he wrote in college under a pen name because he didn’t want his professors to think he had too much free time and give him more work.
R: Later in life, they changed, they re-released those books under his Michael Crichton name and that was so that people who had already read Jurassic Park and Congo and Andromeda Strain would be like, “Oh my gosh! I thought I’d never get another story from Michael Crichton, but even though he’s dead, there are ten more books I’ve never read of his!” Turns out, you can’t really go back. They were his first books and they read like them. They were not great. But, boy was I excited to think that there were more of them.
So, there’s no final answer in your writing career. You can change it at any time. And some people do choose to rebrand if the, you know, first trilogy they released just kinda didn’t make the splash that they hoped it did. Then, maybe, their publisher drops them. They get picked up by a new publisher. That new publisher may be like, “Hey! Would you consider a new pen name so we can launch you as a debut?” Because there’s a certain amount of excitement, especially in YA, the debut break-through novel is a big deal and that’s what everybody wants, is to discover the next new voice. That next new voice may have already been writing for ten or twenty years. I mean, they keep saying every overnight success is an author who’s been working at this for at least ten years.
K: Yeah. Again, just remember when you’re doing this. You’re not creating a new person. So, yes, you may be creating a new debut author personality. But this is not one of your characters, this is still you, the writer, the person.
R: Oh right, yes. So don’t cosplay as your writer.
K: Yeah, and—
R: Okay, I should actually retract that because Gail Carriger kind of does cosplay as her author self. Which is just to say that she has a visual brand, and when she goes out to conventions she’s going to dress the way that you would expect to see her at conventions. That’s different from writing a backstory for your pen name and then play-acting and half of these things are actually lies about you. If you try to convince someone—
K: Yeah, and—
R: The idea being that you want to be authentic so your readers can connect with you.
K: Do not create a character for yourself to make yourself seem more legitimate. If you’re writing a book in which the main character is a doctor and there’s a lot of medical science and medical science fiction things in there, do not pretend you’re a doctor so that people look and go, “Oh! This person came from a place of real experience!” You’re not creating, again, you’re not creating a fictitious person here.
R: Right. And don’t use it to misrepresent any part of yourself, except for your name.
K: Yeah, exactly. And, look, names are powerful things. There’s a lot of cultures around the world and through history where you maybe didn’t tell people your real name all the time because then they could use it against you.
R: Right. A name has power.
K: Yeah, a name does have power.
R: And for that reason, you may want to change the name that you were born with—not for escaping magical curses and stuff, but you may just—
K: Maybe escaping your family.
R: Yeah. But you may also just not really be totally in love with your name. And so that is a perfectly legitimate reason to just pick a different name. It might be unique, it might be all the things you want. It might be easy to remember, easy to spell, unique enough to come up in search results the way you want. It might even match your genre. But maybe you just don’t like the name. You could change it.
K: Well, I mean, I’ll use me as an example again. In publishing, I think Kaelyn’s a great first name to have. It works. In my professional life, sometimes, it feels a little immature.
K: I wouldn’t change it, it’s my name. I do like my first name.
R: It hasn’t held you back. Or do you feel like it might have?
K: Well, sometimes—and that’s the thing, sometimes I wonder. Now, one of the things I will say about my name is people look at it and frequently read ‘Katelyn’.
K: Very quickly. I—We always had a joke at my job when we’d go out, if we were going out to pick up lunch and you’d tell the people your name, I’d always give them my middle name which is Elizabeth. Because if I gave them Kaelyn, there was no way they were gonna write it down correctly—
R: Or say it correctly in that context, yeah.
K: And then whoever was reading it later was gonna then further butcher whatever they wrote down. So I’d be standing there and the guy would be standing with my sandwich going, “Uh, Carol? Kaylete? Colin?”
R: A-ha! So you are Colin, after all.
K: Oh, what was more of a “KA-lyn.”
R: Oh, okay.
K: So, I do wonder sometimes if that, it does—Now, as I’m solidly in my mid-thirties, I do wonder if it sounds like a younger person’s name. Because I do know some other Kaelyns, they’re all a lot younger than me.
R: Okay. Well there is the generational thing, where every generation has its popular name. I feel like when I was growing up, everyone was named Melissa or Amanda. And so, two years later, if you had that name it was a ‘mature’ name because that was the previous ones. But a couple years past that and it’s like a weird, old, funky name. And then it comes around again.
But, you know, these things—especially when you’re choosing a name, because you get to choose one. All of a sudden you go down rabbit holes of things to think about, all this kind of stuff.
K: Oh, god yeah. You could.
R: You can just close your eyes and be like, “What sounds good? What are letters I like? How do I string them together? Who cares if it’s actually a name?” Although, if you do make up a word, make sure you Google it to make sure it doesn’t mean something awful or sacred to a culture somewhere that you didn’t even consider.
K: So, I will say pen names I’ve made up. I have gone on Wikipedia or This Day in History and found famous people that were born or died or did something significant on my birthday.
R: Okay. Or you can pick the first day of your endeavor or something, the day you finished your draft. Stuff like that.
K: Yeah, and come up with some names that way. I’ve also taken my name and what it translates to in Gaelic, in Irish, and then picked other names—
R: With the same meaning.
K: —from other, yeah, other languages with the same meaning. That were kind of… you know what’s funny is they all kind of sound similar to Kaelyn!
R: I was gonna say. You could also do the Tom Riddle thing and just go for an anagram.
K: I have one of those. It was not easy to come up with.
R: Yeah, it depends on the selection of letters you start with.
K: Yeah, yeah. So, look, there’s lots of different ways to pick one, especially if you want it to be significant or meaningful to you. But if you’re doing it, as we said at the beginning of the episode, from an author perspective, keep in mind that you are going to be using this to sell your book.
K: And it may not be what you want to hear, but branding and planning accordingly is only going to help you sell the book.
R: Yep, yep. Meeting reader expectations. I gotta say. If you’re gonna write sci-fi, you don’t want a name that sounds like you’re a romance author.
K: Yeah. So maybe you loved your grandmother to death and she was just this beautiful, wonderful woman who encouraged you and helped you to get your start writing and so you want to honor her and make your pen name [in a v. French accent] Eleanor de Fleur.
K: That’s probably not the best name to write science fiction under.
R: Right, right. You don’t want anything that sounds too cursive. Like, it needs to be written in some sort of cursive calligraphy. Just think of the fonts faces and think of how cool the name will look written in those font faces, as opposed to what the name’s screaming out for.
K: If you’re mentally pronouncing anything with a French accent like I just did, that’s maybe not the direction—
R: Hey! There are decent French science fiction authors out there.
K: Oh, absolutely! But, you know—
R: But they all use pen names!
K, laughing: That’s because French is a very confusing language. You get words with like ten letters in them and you only pronounce four.
R: Yeah. And speaking of confusing, there’s also the pen name for joint-author endeavours.
K: Oh, yeah! That’s another good reason to use a pen name is collaboration.
R: Yeah, so maybe you don’t want both names on the cover. You’d rather just silo it and write, especially if you plan to continue this together, write with one new pen name that you pick together.
R: Then, be prepared if you are entering into a contract with a traditional publisher, that they might actually push back on your pen name. For the reasons that we’ve talked about, they may say, “This doesn’t really fit the genre. Can we fiddle with it?” or “Hey, let’s just use your real name.” I have a friend who had a pen name and when she got picked up, the publisher was just like, “Nah, we just wanna use your real name, it’s way more unique.” So…
K: And they might push back for the opposite of the reason I stated earlier. Maybe you’re writing military science fiction and you were a pilot in the Air Force for a long time. They’re gonna say, “No, we want people to look this up and see that you’re writing about stuff you know.” Like, your credentials lend themselves to your success at that point.
K: So, yeah, I mean publishers always have an opinion about everything. So, don’t think your name was gonna be—they even will have an opinion about your name.
R: They absolutely will. Although, you may be able to make a case for it. Colin did ask, like, “Are you sure you don’t wanna write as Rekka Jay?” I was like, “Well, no? I have a pen name, thank you.” I had a reason. And, you know, he was fine with it. It wasn’t like it doesn’t sound like a science fiction author’s name. But he was like, “Rekka Jay’s a cool name, so…”
K: Rekka Jay is a cool name. That’s the thing.
R: But it was a matter of, like, I would rather keep it separate from when people are searching, that they’re gonna find something other than the Rekka Jay. That was my decision, but obviously I’m not using it to hide. It is literally SEO purposes. It’s like key words. I’m choosing the keywords that people are going to find me for.
K: Yup. Yeah, so, that’s pen names. If you’re gonna use one, make sure you use one that’s gonna be to your advantage.
K: Whatever reason you have for using it, there’s no reason it can’t work for you.
R: And take the time and play around with a couple different ones. This is something that you’re going to have to live with for a while. It’s not choosing a box of cereal, it’s choosing the paint for your den wall. You know? So you want to really be okay with it, before you move ahead and commit to it.
K: Yep. Hey, if you, uh—Everyone Tweet at us what your favorite, weird pen name is that you’ve come across. Or the thing that you were most surprised by, to learn was not somebody’s actual name. I think mine was Anne Rice, mostly because then I found out her first name is actually Howard.
R: Yeah, that one’s just got, like. That’s gotta be a two-parter, as opposed to just, “Oh, that’s not your name? Oh, that’s a shame.”
K: Yeah. Or you can be like Ben Franklin and all you did was write to newspapers and pamphlets and stuff under different names. Let’s see, he had Richard Saunders for a certain personality. There was Constance Dogood, yeah, clearly fake names but the point was that he was writing to newspapers exalting revolutionary American ideas, and writing trying to appeal to a certain group of people.
R: Right. Saying the things that would make that group agree with him and to sway their opinion.
K: He was saying things that he wanted everyone to hear, but knew that they would hear it better, if you will, coming from Constance Dogood versus Benjamin Franklin.
K: Which was very smart and insightful, especially for the time. Although that was fairly commonplace back then, to uh…
R: Which is so bizarre to me because we think of our common news production situation as being less honest these days. But you go back and like, everybody’s always been writing in under fake names and all this kind of stuff. So I say it was a matter of ego, but it was more like, “You must listen to me! And I will make you listen to me by faking who I’m speaking as!”
K: Well, it’s the same way. He’s trying to appeal to a certain group of readership.
R: Yep. So, that’s what we’re telling you. Go out and make people listen to you by appealing to a certain group of readers that can connect with the name.
And, you know, it is ultimately up to you. There are pros and cons to both. Eventually, you know, your contracts might get more intricate and having a pen name might make them slightly more difficult, but you’re probably not writing them, so that probably isn’t going to, at least, create more work for you. Just, you know, you’ll have to be more careful about reading them. But I hope you’re careful about reading your contracts anyway!
K: Yes! READ YOUR CONTRACT. I’m going to make a mug.
R, laughing: How did we come back around to that?
K: We always come back around to it, because given the option I will always state: Read Your Contract.
R: Yeah. And so, yeah, thing to remember is that just writing under a pen name is not going to hide you from the world. It’s not going to protect you from legal issues. And it’s not going to make you impossible to find, it’s just a thing that you do. It puts up a certain measure of distance from your legal name and day-to-day personality. But it doesn’t… I mean, eventually you probably are at least going to hint that it’s not your real name. It doesn’t mean that you, say, I’m coming out as my real name. It just means, you know, eventually it’s going to get awkward to keep pretending that that’s your real name.
But if you have the right person, or the wrong person, decide that they’re gonna come after you, it’s probably not going to be enough. Because they’re gonna know where to look.
K: Yeah, look, in this day and age of the internet, there’s—Unfortunately, there’s no hiding forever. If somebody wants to find you badly enough, they’re going to. But it’s okay! Because, as Rekka said, the point of your pen name should not be to hide. If it is, maybe consider publishing.
R: Yeah, becoming a public figure. Yeah, it’s sad to say that you just can’t be an anonymous writer and collect your writing check because in this day and age, people feel like they’re paying for access to you as well.
K: Yeah, yeah. You are your writing. You are your brand. It’s, you know, go back and listen to our social media episode. We talk quite a lot about that. But pen names, they’re fun. Grab one, if you feel like it.
R: Yeah! And you don’t have to commit to it. You can still play around with just coming up with names. You might find one and be like, “I’m gonna save that. I’m gonna use that someday.” But you can relaunch your career at any point with a pen name, so if you’re happy or you’ve already started writing under one name, you don’t have to switch it if you come up with another good one. I mean, it can just be a character name. So, it’s up to you. If you come up with too many good names, maybe just use your real name and leave the good name creations to the characters in your books.
But if you find one of these reasons we’ve mentioned resonates with you, then that might be a good reason to try it. And if you aren’t published yet, it’s pretty simple to change your name at this point.
R: Just change the name that you put on the byline in your next submission and you’re on your way.
K: Yup. Yeah, so, that’s pen names.
R: That’s, I think, everything we have to say about them.
K: So, um, as always. Thank you for listening. We hope, I guess, by the time this comes out… I don’t know, maybe quarantining, social distancing may start being lifted?
R: As we record this, more Starbucks stores have opened.
R: I’m not sure that’s wise, but that’s what’s happening.
K: Well, we’ll go by the Starbucks metric, certainly.
R: I did hear that Disney Springs will start, I think, opening some stores. So Disney’s coming back. That’s a very telling metric.
K: Well, yeah. But the parks are not gonna open till next year, I understand.
R: So that’s… that they are even thinking about opening Disney Springs which can also be as crowded as a park sometimes. That’s pretty telling.
K: Well, we’ll go by the Starbucks metric. Society is measured based on what Starbucks is doing.
R, skeptical: Yeah… I don’t know how I feel about that.
K, laughing: Look, there’s a sad and uncomfortable truth in life that we need to face, Rekka, and that is that many people are entirely dependent on coffee in order to function as human beings.
R: I know you’re aiming that at me, but I’ll have you know that with my radiation treatment, I haven’t really been wanting coffee lately. So, uh, I don’t even know who I am anymore.
K: Oh, I can see. You’ve got a tea bag in that mug. Wow. Welcome to—
R: It’s also a throat coat because I’m gonna start having a sore throat with the radiation as well. There’s my little update, so if you were wondering how the cancer treatment’s going. I’m in good spirits, but I am ready to be done with radiation and on the other side of it and back to drinking coffee, hopefully. Although I don’t know if I will ever taste it the same again, based on the nerves they’re killing.
K: I have a feeling you and coffee will find your way back to each other.
R: One hopes. Actually, you know, if I had to choose between tasting coffee and tasting rib-eye, I think I would probably go for the rib-eye.
K: Well I knew that, yeah. I mean, yeah.
R: There’s more nutrition in rib-eye than coffee. And, you know, coffee only gets you so far. [long pause] I can’t believe I just said that. Who am I?
K, laughing: Well, you’re R.J. Theodore.
R: Oh, right! That person can drink tea and not eat steak every night and be perfectly happy.
K: Yeah, yeah. That’s what’s going on there. So, thanks everyone for listening! As always, you can find us on the socials.
R: That’s @wmbcast on Twitter and Instagram, and we are also at Patreon.com/wmbcast, where we would absolutely love your support if you’re able to. If you aren’t able to, what really helps us is to share our episodes with a friend who might find the content interesting, or just leave us a rating and review on Apple podcasts. That would be super helpful.
K, robotic: Feed the algorithm, people!
R: That is the one that really, really warms our dark hearts on a cold night. So, if you could do that, we’d really appreciate it. And we will talk to you on social, or we will talk to you in two weeks!
K: Stay safe, everyone!
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