Are Pseudonyms Outdated?

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Photo: Reuters

The original purpose of pseudonyms was to allow women to write in a man’s world.  In the 1700 and 1800s men were of a mind that women could only produce emotional memoirs successfully and men wrote the serious literary work.  Like Charlotte Bronte writing as Currer Bell, a name that could have been male or female, but allowed her to publish more readily.

I don’t want this piece to come across as author bashing.   I am curious on what your thoughts about pseudonyms today are.  Do you think their use is outdated?  Are the purposes different?  Do they have to do more with confidentiality and protection?

I have a girlfriend who writes erotica under a pseudonym.  I don’t blame her.  People could easily stalk her in our high tech society.  Serial Killers could single her out. (Okay, maybe I watch too much Criminal Minds.)

I wrote Red Clay and Roses using only my initials and last name.  Originally I did that for anonymity.  It was my first work and I didn’t want to embarrass myself if it turned out that it was crap.  When others started reading it and telling me to publish it, I felt better about it, but still felt that going public like that would open a whole new world and I was not sure I, Susan Koone Nicholls, was ready for that and I wondered if my family was ready, being such a revealing factual based story.   I think they are okay with it now, but I have not yet submitted to my hometown paper.  That might change things.

I have a murder mystery in progress.  I am very seriously considering writing under a pseudonym because I believe that genre is better accepted as a male dominated genre.  Then I think about  Faye Kellerman, Sue Grafton, Karin Slaughter, and other female mystery, thriller, crime novelists who have become quite successful in their own right without any use of male pseudonyms, just good writing.  For marketing purposes it might be better to write under an already established platform as S. K. Nicholls.  After all, not all of us can be J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith and unmask when reviews are great but sales are soggy.  I think she did a great thing to write under a pseudonym anonymously in that she is already famous.  Do you think she would have unmasked had her work received the same reviews as “The Casual Vacancy”?

51 thoughts on “Are Pseudonyms Outdated?

  1. I just finished reading The Market Square by Miss Read. Love the pseudonym. Dora Jessie Saint, her real name, writes about English village life in the early 1900s. The settings are nostalgic and the characters engaging. It may not be your cup of tea, but if you want to escape to another world, she’s your ticket. Come to think of it, if my last name were Saint, I’d probably use a pseudonym too–ha!

    • I like reading in a variety of genres, especially historical fiction and history in general. I can see why “Saint” would be a hard name to live up to. My family name of “Koone” was not one that would go over well for a Southern writer either. I could have left that out but I thought my supportive family might have been offended, They are a proud people.

  2. I was looking into pseudonyms when I started because people said Yallowitz would not be memorable. I take solace in the fact that people remember Schwarzenegger, which is in the spellchecker. Anyway, in a world of social media where most people have some type of cyberspace footprint, it’s more difficult to retain a pseudonym. One slip on a blog or twitter and you’re found out. Many people don’t think it’s worth it any more because you might have more work retaining that name than publishing the book. That being said, I do know of several authors that work with pseudonyms that they keep separate from themselves. It’s all about effort and cunning.

  3. I like the ideas of pseudonyms mainly because I think my name is rather bland—and it seems like fantasy writers (which is what I write most) always have “cool” names. I also think it’s interesting that authors have different pen-names for different genres. That makes sense to me—you wouldn’t buy romance novels from Danielle Fernandes Dominique Schuelein-Steel….but you would from Danielle Steele.

      • I think it’s a good idea—I’m not sure if I agree with what Rowling did but I need to read some more about it. It sounds like her book had lukewarm sales so, instead of waiting for word from critics (I believe it had good critical reception) to spread and for readers to slowly flock to it, she turned it into a publicity stunt.

        I, personally, would love to be a little nobody writing under a pseudonym and have my book succeed and then come out of the proverbial shadows.

        • That would be way cool! If it happened that way for Rowling, I think it was her publisher more than herself. I think she rather enjoyed writing without the pressure and expectations and probably produced a better product because of it.

          • You know, you’re probably right. I wonder if it was because of Casual Vacancy? I’m sure it must be hard to prove you can do other things after spending so many years and having such success with Harry Potter.

            Slightly unrelated note—but I remember people saying “She has made so much money she’ll never have to write another day.” That struck me as sad—and as misunderstanding writers who write for the love of it. So, I hope JK has hit a new stride and won’t be stuck under the weight of Harry Potter.

            • I downheartedly agree. Potter was successful because she loved to write and wrote with passion. She has matured since then and I can understand her wanting to write in another genre and it is NOT always about the money. She does not have to continue writing, but she obviously enjoys it.

  4. I think that some authors use pen names the way that large manufacturers use brand names. Donald Westlake, for example, wrote comic crime novels (the Dortmuder series, for example) under his own name, and more grittier crime thrillers (the Parker novels, from which we get the new Jason Statham film) under the name Richard Stark. He also wrote science fiction under a couple of names and, rumor has it, started his career by writing erotica under a pen name.

    In his case it wasn’t so much that he was trying to conceal his identity (it wasn’t hard to find out that Westlake and Stark were the same guy) as to let his readers know what to expect from a particular book.

    It’s like General Motors–Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, and Cadillac are all built by the same company (more or less–I know that many components are manufactured by other companies entirely) but the vehicles are made for different markets and have different features.

    Personally, I think that’s what Rowling was trying to do, establish a different brand identity.

    • That makes good sense. If I wanted to continue writing more human interest fiction/faction I could use my current name, but to write in totally different genre, I would almost owe it to the reader to do so under a pen name, to keep both brands. It would also probably be a smart move to build another platform to promote that brand and that sort of writing. Especially since murder mystery and human interest are on opposite ends of the spectrum in many ways, even though the human interest story included a couple of murders.

    • I have another question for you. I understand about the branding thing. She did very well to establish another brand. Do you think she unmasked because reviews were great but sells were soggy and her publisher wanted her name to sell more books? After all, Robert Galbraith wasn’t on the best seller list until today.

      • Possibly, but Richard Bachman was unmasked as Stephen King because a fan researched the paper trail of Bachman’s novels. It could be that someone figured it out and the publisher thought it would be better to be preemptive. Or it could be that the publisher decided that three months was long enough for the experiment to run and they needed to boost sales. Unless someone comes forward and gives a reason, we might not ever know exactly why–and even then people will have their own theories.

        • From what I have read, someone figured it out because J.K Rowling and Robert Galbraith had the same publisher and editor. J.K. Rowling herself is rather upset about it because she didn’t want it to happen so very soon. She knew it was inevitable, but was enjoying writing anonymously.

        • People are suspicious about that because her next book is due for release soon. I say, what difference does it make that she unmasked. She is using her talent. If I were her, and had accomplished what she has, I would be unmasking at some point I am sure. Anyone who says they would not is lying.

    • I totally agree with the branding thing, I’ve only dabbled in writing and am in the middle of writing a crochet book but I’ve not used my real name. not because of privace but really I think its boring and crochet Em is a bit more descriptive. You can’t be so literal in novels but I think the same principle applies. Unless your name is well known in the area that you are writing for, I think you should use a pseudonym. Otherwise readers will have a preconception of what the book will be like and it will always be a disapointment.

      I totally agree with Rowling creating a new brand identity and really, we should just let her!

      • Thanks for your comment. I don’t know why wordpress captured this in spam, but that is why i am so late in replay. I think you are right. Branding is best why she started out under a pseudonym. Who knows how or why she was unmaksed now. I don’t think branding is easy for fiction writers but workd best for non-fiction authors.

  5. found your post interesting because I toyed with the idea when I was younger, I went so far as to recite my poetry under the name John Henry Prince when I tried my hand at the Spoken Word Circuit in Toronto and even was advertised as a headliner twice under that name in entertainment publications… My reason was two fold, my poetry was still very experimental at that time and also I had friends I didn’t want to be in the audience. I was looking for honest feedback…not long after I put down the pen for a long time and when I picked it back up I did so as T J Therien. I use my initials to avoid the Tim-Jim comments…Timothy James… While my name doesn’t have the ring of my pen name it is mine and I have come to like the sound and feel of T J Therien as the name associated with my writing…

    • I like the sound of T.J. Therien. it has a distinguished sound of it’s own and there is nothing common, like Tim-Jim, about it. John Henry Prince sounds, 1) old, the John Henry part because my dad is a Henry, and 2) used, because I think of Prince the recording artist. I am very peculiar about speaking in front of large crowds. I can write and let everyone in the world read it, but to get up and speak to a crowd more than about twenty-thirty, I just freeze. I actually get paralyzed. i have an enormous admiration for people who can do that without fear. I can’t even begin to relax. I had no problems teaching small classes, but beyond thirty people, I would faint.

      • most of my performances were in Coffee Houses, but I did recite at the 360 at the Poets Inebriate contest which as it suggests consuming large amounts of liquid courage and writing a poem in the time provided and then judged the top poems performing their piece. I also recited at the Elmo Combo (same stage the Rolling Stones Played on twenty years earlier) I had a twenty minute slot and read 5 poems. If John Henry Prince sounds old I stole it from my deceased great uncle.

        • I have been told by many that I need to do an audio version of my book. My husband thinks so. He listens to those on the way to work and home. People say I should do it in my own (southern) voice but my research says that can be very grueling and hard on your throat to talk that long. Most people rent a studio for four hour segments and I couldn’t see reading out loud for four hours at a time. You were good to do twenty minutes. I would want a black man to do the voices of Moses Grier and Nathan. It would be more authentic that way. I could do the female voices. An online friend has these clips he does with his blog where he talks in all of the character voices (complete with sound effects and music) onto youtube and does skits every Friday. It is pretty creative. Nostalgically reminds me of old radio shows.

          • well if an audio book interests you it’s something you should look into and do… don’t limit yourself to just a studio… some bars have recording equipment as do some churches and of course some musicians basements…you may be able to get them cheaper, and tailor it to shorter readings… Studios are often four hour blocks to cover a minimum four hours pay for the sound guy coming in, but in a bar or elsewhere you might be able to swing a deal, they are more flexible…

            • Thereis some thought! thansk. I may see what I can do. Now I just need a black man who reads very well and can coordinate his schedule with mine. Maybe I can find one of those at the bar or the Church also 🙂 Maybe I can get Sahm at arkside to work with me on this, that would be cool.

          • Don’t short sell yourself on reading all the parts. A slight difference in voice is sometimes all that is needed to convey another character. I listen to a lot of audiobooks and my favorite ones have one narrator. If the narrator is good, then it’s less jarring for me to hear just the one voice. Have you thought about podcasting at all? For a long time I followed a young British man named Mike Bennett through his podcast. (His website is here: http://www.mikebennettpodcast.com/). Basically, each podcast was one chapter from his series or one short story. I loved his Underwood and Flinch series and always was excited when a new chapter was available. Podcasting might be a way to get your feet wet, without incurring too much expense. I’ve listened to a lot of low-tech podcasts and audiobooks because I like being read to. Have you heard about LibriVox (http://librivox.org/)? I’ve thought about volunteering for them since I also like to read out loud, but I digress. One of the best audios I’ve listened to (and mind you, it was free) was The Secret Garden read by a LibriVox volunteer. I don’t remember her name, but she was a mum who just liked to read out aloud and her rendition of The Secret Garden was delightful. She didn’t use any fancy music or theatrics; she just read out loud like a regular person, but I still enjoyed it very much. Of course, LibriVox is free, but so were Bennett’s podcasts. His podcasts were essentially advertisements for his writing. He built a huge following based on those.

            Sorry for the long comment. I actually have the morning off from work so my “mouth” runneth over 🙂

            • That’s great! I love engaging blogs in comments. I have thought about audiobooks, but I wonder if I have the time for it. i stay so busy with other stuff. I think the podcasts would be way cool, but again that would be time consuming. My husband thinks I should read all the parts. I’ll have to think about it.

              • I imagine it is pretty time-consuming. I know Bennett has talked about how long it takes to do one podcast, even shared his “outtakes” 🙂 You could start with just recording yourself, not sharing it yet, to get a feel for how hard and time-consuming it would be. Then again, if you’re like me, do you really need yet another project? 🙂

                • After I get this paperback version accomplished I might take on a new project, but writing my murder mystery is consuming all of my free toime right now. My husband is pushing me also because that is his preferred reading genre and he is “helping” me.

                  • I wished I had that kind of support. My husband does support my writing, but he doesn’t read fiction at all. If I could dress my fiction up as nonfiction, then maybe 😉

                    • Did you read The Psuchopath Test? I did a book review on it. I honestly did not know I was reading non-fiction when i read it until another book club member was talking about googling the characters.

                    • Thanks. By the way, a bit of trivia: I listened to an interview with Joyce Carol Oates in which she said her first husband never read any of her fiction. Never. In part because she never asked. What stuck with me was that she didn’t mind at all. She felt he already had a heavy workload and didn’t want to add to his burden. What sticks with me is that she was fine with that. So I tell myself, if Joyce Carol Oates didn’t mind that her husband never read her fiction (never mind the reason), then I shouldn’t mind if my husband doesn’t read mine 🙂

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