This post, by Dean Wesley Smith, originally appeared on his site on 1/29/12.
I get the “pen name” question more than any other question. Period. And that’s because I am very open about writing under different names and I have varied reasons for doing so. And weirdly enough, I have written under pen names since I started writing.
So after a few more varied questions this last week about pen names in indie publishing, I figured it’s about time I give a full and complete opinion on the topic. But let me be clear here once again. Ready?
Or as a sign in our workshops say, “You are responsible for your own career.”
Take my opinion on this topic as opinion. Nothing more. Then do what you damn well please because… well, because you can. And should.
Pen names have been with fiction writing since the beginning. And the reasons for writers to take pen names is as varied as the writers doing the writing. I’m sure some of you English majors out there could even tell me a bunch of pen names of major literary writers through the centuries. But honestly, please don’t. (grin)
The pulp era of popular fiction brought in thousands and thousands of pen names. There are entire books that have been done trying to track the pen names of the pulp writers, from Max Brand to Kenneth Robison to all the hundreds of pen names of Edward Stratemeyer and his “Syndicate” of writers. (You remember Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and so on.)
Many of today’s major writers wrote under pen names, sometimes many, many pen names over their careers. And almost always for different reasons. I don’t think Robert Silverberg can even count all his pen names. Lawrence Block wrote under many, many names as well, sometimes in the erotic markets of their day. I was at Harlan Ellison’s house one day and asked him off-handedly that if next trip I brought down a copy of Adam Magazine that he had a story in, would he sign it. He laughed and said sure, and he would sign two of the articles in the same issue as well, since he had written those under pen names. I was impressed he remembered.
In fact, in the high peak of science fiction magazines, there were often only one or two writers per issue, even though the magazine showed six or seven authors.
So pen names are nothing new. And the reasons for using a pen name or not using one are varied depending on the author, the time, the publication location, and so much more.
Major Reasons to Use Pen Names
Again, there are thousands of reasons to use pen names, each depending on the author’s situation at the moment. But let me give you a few of the main ones that have lasted over history.
Top Reason: Writer is too “fast” for traditional publishing.
In other words, the writer has a work ethic and has trained himself to sit at a typewriter or computer for more hours per day. And by doing that, the writer will just produce more work than someone who spends two years writing a novel. Just nature of the beast.
In the pulp era, it was fine to write fast and hard and long under one name. The writers had other reasons to switch names back then that I will get to in a moment.
But with the advent of the influence of the university system and editors coming out of that university myth-filled system, the belief started to sink into the traditional publishing offices that writing more than one or two books per year was a bad thing (except in a few genres like romance). And besides, the big machines of modern traditional publishing just couldn’t keep up with a fast writer. In fact, fast writers just scare hell out of them.
So those of us who have a work ethic and can sit at a computer for a regular work day, we flat had to have more outlets. So instead of putting novels into drawers, we came up with pen names and started many writing careers, often with numbers of them going at once.
At one point, Kris and I were joking around at a conference and actually counted the career income streams coming into our home at that moment in time. We had nine writers’ incomes coming into the house. That was more than we had cats at that point.
Today we have about that many, maybe a few more, but some are not making much, at least not enough to live on. Luckily the pen-name writers don’t eat much.
The key is the same with all aspects of the publishing industry: Diversity and a lot of product. If you have three or four writer’s incomes hitting your house, it’s a ton better and safer than only one. And nine or ten incomes just makes things much easier.
The idea of multiple income streams from different names is not something most writers think of until they happen into it by overwhelming their own publisher and deciding to not slow down (meaning spend less time at the computer or playing Angry Birds) as their agent wants them to do.
However, now with indie publishing, fast writers have far, far more outlets and the idea of being a “fast” writer, meaning spending more hours writing, is once again becoming a good thing. At least outside of traditional publishing. Inside of traditional publishing being fast still scares hell out of people and they will do everything in their power to get you to spend less time being a writer and more time being an author.
Second Major Reason: Help Your Readers While Writing What You Want To Write