To Pen Name or Not to Pen Name, Does It Make a Difference?

Yes I use pen name.  Rachel Blackbirdsong is not the name I was born with, though it is different from other author pen names since it is also my Native American name.  I was originally given this name by a Native American man who had adopted me as his sister many years ago. I have no idea why he called me Blackbirdsong, but ironically after I’d begun using it for some time I found out that I’d been born during the constellation of the Corvus. Corvus is the genus for magpies, crows and ravens. In other words, black birds.

Cue in Twilight Zone music here.

What is even spookier is that my name giver didn’t know that either.

More Twilight Zone music if you please.

Of course Blackbirdsong isn’t the first pen name I have used. When I first began writing I was writing about a lot of painful stuff in my life and felt freer to express myself using another name than my given one. So I used a couple of variations of my given name and was published using those for a time.  After awhile I wanted to use Blackbirdsong but my family was concerned that it might affect my writing career because Blackbirdsong identifies me as being of Native American descent while my English given name does not. In the end I chose Blackbirdsong and I’ve had no problem being published.

The other reason why I don’t use my given name is I am hired by a publisher to write articles for them for many of their various projects and they would prefer to only see my given name in print when it’s for the work I do for them. Since that job is how I make my living and pay my bills I use my given name for one aspect of my writing life and Blackbirdsong for another.

If you’ve stuck with me through this info dump then here is the basis for it, what are some other reasons why authors use pen names – which are referred to as pseudonyms and nom de plume – and is it even considered a good idea to use one?

I’m sure most of you know that Mark Twain is the pen name of Samuel Clemens, but did you know that Charlotte and Emily Bronte originally published their great works using the names Currer and Ellis Bell? The Bronte sisters they used male names because at the time it was difficult if not impossible for woman writers to be published using their own names. Other cases of female writers that have used male pen names are George Sand for Amandine Lucie Aurore Dupin, George Elliot for Mary Ann Evans and J. K. Rowling; yes the J. K. Rowling who wrote the Harry Potter books. It seems that her publisher was afraid that boys wouldn’t read a fantasy book written by a woman. So they asked her to use a pen name that didn’t identify her as being female. Her given name is Joanne Kathleen Rowling. Of course now that the books are as popular as they are it doesn’t matter. Just the same I suspect she’ll stick with J. K. Rowling for any future writing projects since that is the name she is known by.

So one reason why authors opt to use pen names is that sometimes it’s easier to get published if you use one.

Yet there are also writers who are already established who use pen names, so the next question is why do well known authors like Stephen King who has used Richard Bachman and Anne Rice who has been published as both Anne Rampling and A.N. Roquelaure use pen names? One reason is because they want to publish works that are different from those published using their original names. In Anne Rice’s case she had published her Lestat books under Anne Rice, but also wanted also wanted publish some erotica stories. Her audience knows her as Anne Rice and expects certain things from an Anne Rice book, so she uses either Anne Rampling or A.N. Roquelaure for her other writing.

So another reason why authors use pen names is because they want to publish material that’s different than what they are known for and using pen names make that possible.

I suppose there are about as many reasons why writers use pen names as there are writers. For instance Edward Gorey used dozens of pseudonyms as pen names that were each made from anagrams of his real name. It is said he did this for his own amusement. Of course most writers don’t select pen names just for fun, but there are those who use pen names because they feel their given names don’t fit the genre they’re writing in. That was the cause with Pearl Gray who changed his name to Zane Grey because he felt that his given name wasn’t suitable for a writer of western genre books. Romance novelist Julie Woodcock uses the name Angela Knight because she felt her own name was inappropriate for the types of book she wanted to write.

I know there are some authors who believe that anyone who uses a pen name is automatically an amateur or pretentious, but I believe what I’ve highlighted here shows that point of view to be completely false. Whether or not you as a writer choose to use a pen name is up to you. Most publishers have no problem publishing works by authors who use pen names and even include information about how to get paid when you’re using one. I’ve been told that there are those who take issue with this, but I’ve never come across one and I’ve been published using pen names for many years now.

Here is a list of authors and their pen names:

  • Samuel Clemens                      Mark Twain
  • Emily Bronte                           Ellis Bell
  • Charlotte Bronte                      Currer Bell
  • Charles Lutwidge Dodson        Lewis Carroll
  • Alexey Maximovich Peskov    Maxim Gorky
  • William Sydney Porter                         O. Henry
  • Hector Hugh Munroe               Saki
  • Dame Agatha Christie             Mary Westmacott
  • Cecil Day Lewis                      Nicholas Blake
  • David John Moore Cornwell                John Le Carre
  • Nora Roberts                           J. D. Robb (for her erotic thriller books)

And a list of authors who use multiple pen names:

  • Louisa May Alcott:                  A.M. Barnard, Aunt Weedy, Flora Fairfield
  • Elizabeth MacKintosh:                         (mystery writer) best known as Josephine Tey, Gordon Daviot
  • Eleanor Hibbert:          Victoria Holt (romantic suspense) Phillippa Carr (Daughters of England Series) Jean Plaidy
  • Barbara Mertz:             Elizabeth Peters (Egyptology series) Barbara Michaels (romantic suspense, gothic)
  • Jasmine Cresswell:                   (romance) Jasmine Candlish, Jasmine Craig
  • Michael Crichton:                    Michael Douglas, Jeffrey Hudson, John Lange
  • Dean Koontz: David Axton, Leonard Chris, Brian Coffey, Deanna Dwyer, K.R. Dwyer, Leigh Nichols, Arthur North, Richard Page, Owen West.
  • Stephen King:                          Richard Bachman (most well-known), John Swithen
  • Joyce Carol Oates:                   Lauren Kellly, Rosamund Smith (murder mysteries)

So is it a good idea to use a pen name? As I’ve said I’ve never had a problem using mine and to be honest I’ve never heard of a writer who has. Bottom line if you decide to use a pen name choose one you can live with and be honest with publishers and editors that you’re using one. This is especially important if you’re getting paid for your work since you can’t sign legal documents or checks with a pen name. So take the time to do some research about pen names before deciding what you want to do.

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