Will the real Celeste Stewart please stand up? Okay, I admit it. I’m not really Celeste Stewart. Or am I? The woman (am I a woman?) at the keyboard typing these words is Celeste Stewart in everyway but one. In name.
I’m using a pen name for many reasons. One of the main reasons I chose to use a pen name is for flexibility. Because I also write for children and I write a good deal of content for the web, I wanted to keep my real name pure. This frees me up to write about whatever I want by using a pen name and keeping my real name pure. If I want to write about the benefits of Viagra, I can do that and not worry about what the children would think when they Google my real name.
Authors have been using pen names long before the pen was invented. Pen names are also called pseudonyms or the French “nom de plume“. Louisa May Alcott, who wrote Little Women, used numerous pen names including A.M. Barnard, Oranthy Bluggage, Minvera Moody and Aunt Weedy.
Reading Proust is hard enough as it is, can you imagine trying to remember ALL his names: Valentin Louis Georges Eugene Marcel Proust? Or how about reading a silly book to your kids by a Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss? Even the familiar Dear Abby is a pen name taken on by Pauline Phillips and now assumed by her daughter Jeanne Phillips.
K. A. Applegate writes many books – from Disney to Harlequin – under various pen names. And some pen names aren’t even for real authors; publishers use pen names for “work for hire” projects. Who knew Carolyn Keene, author of Nancy Drew, didn’t even exist? OK, so Mildred Wirt Benson was the first Carolyn Keene and the originator of the series however she was the first in a long line of many ghostwriters.
But there are pros and cons to using a pen name. The flexibility to write for different markets is a pro. Missing out on the glory of seeing my real name in print is a con.
Pros of using a pen name:
• Privacy – Using a pen name also gives authors privacy. If the topic is controversial or likely to stir up emotions, an author may feel safer using a pen name. Or if an author has been stalked in the past, taking a new identity is a good idea.
• Marketability – Using a pen name can make an author more appealing. Jim Smith might be too ordinary of a name to stand out from the crowd and Gertrude Higginbotham might sound too old-fashioned for a romance novel.
• Variety – using a pen name frees the writer to explore other genres. Can you imagine a romance novel by Agatha Christie? In fact, Agatha Christie used a pen name, Mary Westmacott, to write romance novels.
• Anonymity – Using a pen name give authors anonymity. If the work is by a high profile person but the author’s name would alter the reader’s perception of the piece negatively, a pen name might be a better choice. For example, Ted Bundy would have a difficult time selling an article about avoiding date rape using his own name but Amanda Johnson might sound more credible.
• Gender Benders – Using a pen name allows female authors to become males and vice versa.
Cons of using a pen name:
• Stereotyping – Using a pen name means that the author becomes a new persona and that persona may be difficult to leave behind should the time come. Just as actors can become typecast into a particular role, authors may find success as their alter ego. It may be hard for an author to outgrow a particular pen name. Will Daniel Handler ever publish anything now that he’s better known as Lemony Snicket?
• Legal issues – Using a pen name with one publisher and a different one with another could be breaking the terms of the contracts. Some publishers don’t want their authors publishing multiple books and competing against themselves in a given time period. While using a pen name in this case may be consider a “pro”, freeing up the prolific author to sell more books elsewhere, be careful that no laws or breaches of contract are being broken when using a pen name.
• Loss of recognition – Using a pen name means that the author may not get to bask in the glory of their new bestseller. “Oh sure, you’re Celeste Stewart? Yeah, right.”
• Backstory – Using a pen name presents me with a dilemma when writing first person articles involving family or friends. Do I give my husband a new name too? Does he become Mr. Stewart? Do my kids become Ralph and Sarah Stewart? How about my dog? Is he the new Bowser on the block? How far does an author take the new identity?
For me, using a pen name is a matter of flexibility and privacy. I’m not sure I want my old high school classmates Googling me and finding out that I prefer the Instead Cup to tampons.