But there are others—myself included—who don’t mind anonymity. And in some cases, actually seek it.
The big question I’m always asked is why, after all that work, do you want to publish under anything but your own name?
I hate to suck the joy or mystery from the creative process, but it often boils down to the business of branding. An author might write for multiple genres; in competing markets; or want to create an identity as an expert on a very specific subject. They may also want to write about deeply personal issues, be extremely shy, or want to distance themselves from a particular subject or controversial stance. And sometimes, a writer has no choice.
The publisher or agent wants a sexier name, a different image, or has a marketing crisis because your name is too similar to another author on his/her list. They may even want to ‘place’ you on the bookshelves next to an already established author—as in the case of Ian Rankin, who took the name Jack Harvey so that it planted his work in the middle of the shelf (close to Jack Higgins).
I first used a pseudonym in a Cosmo-type magazine, for two reasons.
Firstly, because I still worked in the corporate world and my boss would have deemed it inappropriate for a manager in my position to write about ‘such things’. I’d have received a quick adios amigo … and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
Secondly, because I’m a very private person who believes that my personal life is just that—personal. (So no, I'm not sharing my other names here!)
Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander, says: “Anytime you work with materials that are deep parts of yourself, you feel revulsion at sharing things about yourself that you do not want people to know.” *
I don’t know that I’d use the word revulsion. Embarrassment. Fear. Vulnerability. Feeling over-exposed, all ring truer for me.
As someone who’s known for never broadcasting love’s highs and lows, or family issues, or friends’ secrets, I wanted to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge a few years ago when a deeply personal and intimate story—involving a man I loved very much—was “accidentally” published under my own name in a very popular international anthology.
Of course, no one else knew or cared, and the publisher was very apologetic. But I couldn’t have felt worse if I’d been stripped naked and made to stand in the middle of Times Square next to the singing cowboy and his dirty yellow y-fronts. I did, however, learn a very valuable lesson about double and triple-highlighting the “publishing as nom de plume … ” box on all future releases.
So why do other writers use pseudonyms?
Writing across multiple genres or different character series
Less than a hundred years ago publishers rarely signed female authors, and to avoid automatic rejection, many women submitted their manuscripts using male pseudonyms. Even today, women who write for genres typically considered male-dominated, often publish using male names, or just initials as in the case of J.D. Robb.
- Charlotte Bronte published under the name Currer Bell.
- Mary Ann Evans wrote as George Eliot.
- Katherine Alice Applegate writes as Nicholas Stevens.
- Ian Blair writes as Emma Blair.
- Hugh Rae as Jessica Stirling.
- Roger Sanderson, as Jill Sanderson.
- Author Eric Blair believed his family would be devastated once they discovered he’d lived down-and-out in Paris and London, and so George Orwell was born out of embarrassment.
- Collaborators F. Dannay and Manfred B. Lee published their mystery series under the name Ellery Queen.
- Teodor Jozef Konrad Korzeniowski wrote Heart of Darkness as Joseph Conrad.
- By dropping the Pearl and adding an e, Pearl Gray became the very successful Western author, Zane Grey.
- And doesn't Isaac Asimov sound much more of a sci-fi expert than Paul French?
Rather than use a pseudonym to determine if his work as an “unknown writer” would receive as much interest as his "non-pseudonym work", Stephen King created a whole secret identity. Publishing under the name Richard Bachman, book jackets displayed a photo of an anonymous male claiming to be Bachman.
Bachman was eventually killed off with ‘cancer of the pseudonym’ after word got out that King was the author. And yes, the Bachman sales shot up.
That’s branding folks!
* Oleandar quote excerpted from a Writer's Digest interview.