There are many authors who write under one pen name (only) for privacy reasons. That is not the question I am answering here today, for privacy and security are very good reasons for writing under a different name.
The question I’m tackling is whether you should write under multiple names, whether they are all pen names or a mix of your real name + other pen names.
This is a question only the prolific fiction author would be concerned about.
If you only write and release a book or two a year, then spreading your work across genres, series or sub-genres would cannibalize your sales. Better to focus on one sub-genre and one series and focus your marketing efforts.
For the prolific author, though, multiple pen names is an option worth considering.
The general consensus on pen names these days, particularly among indie authors, is “why bother?” If authors are free to publish whatever they want, then pen names are no longer necessary.
Pen names were once a tool that prolific authors used to get around the non-compete clauses in their traditional publishing contracts. While publishers throttled authors to one book a year (and perhaps a couple more for the popular genres like romance), prolific authors would write under many names, with different publishers, and publish as many titles as they could write.
Also, publishers will sometimes insist upon a pen name if an author writes in a distinctly different genre from the one they are already established within.
But that’s traditional publishing. Prolific authors can release as much as they want under their own name. Besides, publishing four or more titles a year is now considered the absolute minimum for indie fiction authors to survive.
Can indie authors forget about pen names, then?
In a word, no. There are some good reasons to consider using an additional pen name.
Reasons Why You Might Use A Pen Name
You’re too prolific.
I’m in danger of this one myself. I publish a novel-sized romance title every 28 days.
However, I am writing romance, and romance readers are the most prolific readers on the planet. Also, I am writing in several different sub-genres and staggering their releases, so I’m not wearing out the welcome mat.
Your mileage may vary, depending upon which (sub)genre you’re writing in.
If you write and release a lot, and your genre’s norm is much slower, can you split your releases up into different sub-genres and release one of the sub-genres under a pen name?
You can always trial run a pen name to see if it catches on, or if readers complain about your original pen name not publishing fast enough. It’s easy enough to unpublish and re-publish under your first name, if the pen name doesn’t work out.
Plus, it gives the books a re-launch boost in sales.
You’re writing in two disparate genres
Erotic romance and Christian romance don’t mix well.
Neither do slasher horror novels and children’s fiction.
If the audience for one of the genres you write in would be horrified by the other genre, use a pen name, so no readers receive a nasty surprise.
Branding for indie authors is a way of keying the reader to the experience they will have reading your books. Stephen King’s brand is very distinct. You know exactly what type of reading experience you will get when you read one of his books (very long, angst-filled characters, horrible situations). So is Dan Brown’s brand distinct. And so is Nora Roberts’ brand…which is why she created the J.D. Robb pen name for her noir futuristic tales, which romance readers might find off-putting…or disappointing.
Even if the two different genres you write in are related enough that you could publish under the same name, consider (or ask your readers) if the reader of one genre/sub-genre would be disappointed/confused if they read books in the other genre.
If the responses are in any way negative, it’s time to consider a pen name and appropriate branding.
On the other hand, even if you’re writing in two disparate genres, but the reading experience is the same, then you can safely publish them both under one pen name.
If you already write under your own name, then add a contentious genre to your repertoire (erotica, for example), a pen name is absolutely necessary. It saves your family and friends from embarrassment and also protects your “normal” fiction from the wrath and exclusionary handling that Amazon and the other bookstores can inflict upon the controversial genres.
To Step Around Gender Bias
This is a contentious issue, which you may have to consider carefully and research, then make up your own mind about where you stand.
There are genres which are gender biased.
Romance is considered a feminine genre, with 95% women readers. However, you might be shocked by how many men write romance. They use pen names, because the belief is that women won’t read romances with a male author name on the cover.
Whether this is true or not has never been tested, to my knowledge. I know I might hesitate if I saw a male name on the cover of any romance I was contemplating reading, but that’s because it would be a novelty.
The super-hot debate these days is over the perception of science fiction as a “male” genre. It is certain male-dominated, with research demonstrating that women SF writers don’t publish as much, don’t win nearly the same number of awards and are missing from roll-calls of all types, including halls of fame and more. This is despite the genre being established by a woman (Mary Shelley).
There is a lot more I could say about this debate, but I think I have made my point.
If you are planning to write in a genre where getting published, or making sales, depends upon the reader’s (and editor’s) expectations of your gender, an appropriate pen name might be needed.
Or, you can choose to be a trail-blazer and fight for recognition in the new field, for being yourself.
It’s completely up to you, but do consider it carefully. Most productive indie fiction writers prefer sales over politics, so the lean toward a pen name is more pronounced.
Logistics of Using A Second Pen Name
There are two different ways to handle pen names.
You can make the pen name secret, known only to a handful of editors. Readers remain blissfully ignorant of your other writing life.
If you’re using a pen name because the genre is contentious, or for gender and other bias reasons, then keeping the pen name secret may work for you.
Or you can choose to “come out” with the pen name, so that everyone is aware that the two authors are really you.
Nora Roberts is open about the J.D. Robb novels being hers. J.K. Rowling and Stephen King came out about their second pen names once they had learned whether their stories would sell as well if their established pen names weren’t attached (I believe the answer was “no” for both of them).
Or you may choose a hybrid approach.
I have written under a “secret” pen name. Later, for reasons that I will get to in a moment, I “came out”.
I also write under a pen name that is neither secret, nor “out there”. I don’t advertise the pen name, or cross-promote (the genres are too different). But there is a semi-obscured link between the two names (buried on about pages, mostly) for super-eager readers to find, as neither genre would be off-putting to the other.
Drawback of Using Multiple Pen Names
Time and resources are the biggest impact, especially if you’re keeping the pen name secret.
You need a website and social networking presence for the pen name, plus email marketing facilities.
There are ways to use the same resources (like email service providers) for two different names, but secrecy will limit how much you can do this.
I found keeping a pen name secret was draining.
Not only do you have to set up two of everything, there is a real danger of accidentally responding to readers in the wrong “name”. I did it several times when my pen name was still in the closet, and it was palpitation-inducing.
Everything you do for your first name, you have to repeat for the second name. (Blog posts, emails, social commenting, all marketing).
Which also means costs go up (domain registration, site fees, licensing for software/themes, book services like BookFunnel who charge per author).
If your second name isn’t a secret, then you can reduce this doubling-up considerably.
These are the only drawbacks, but they’re big ones. If the advantages of using a pen name outweigh them, or you can off-set or reduce them, then multiple pen names might be the way to go.