Real Name vs. Pen Name

Many aspiring authors get to a point in their writer’s journey where submissions and potential publication are on the agenda. One question that needs answering is “Under what name will you publish?”

What name? Really? Isn’t that a given? My name, of course. I was born Mark Taylor, and everyone who knows me knows me by that name. (Okay, not everyone knows my middle name, but I’ll talk about that in a bit.)

Shouldn’t I use the written version of my identity, my honorific, my calling card, and the name printed on my birth certificate?

Possibly.

Are there reasons not to use a real name when assigning author credit to a work of fiction? What are the benefits and obstacles of using a pseudonym? Do readers even care about the name on the book?

Let’s discuss.

For many writers and authors, it is not even a question. They use their given name on their books and stories. This serves to expand their identity to include an author identity from which they can relate professionally to peers in the industry, publishers, agents, lawyers, and of course readers. The author brand created and maintained is an extension of the identity their maintain in their personal lives.

There is also a certain thrill, a professional satisfaction, of seeing your own name in print beneath the title of a story or book. My lone experience with this is my published story, “Time Soldier”. It was my first and only publication to date and seeing my name both in the table of contents and under the story title in that little literary magazine from Colorado was amazing and a bit surreal. I aspire to recreate that experience with my new works of fantasy.

A big part of me wants to see my name, the name I use all the time, for my written works. I want to see my name on my books on Amazon.com and at the local Barnes and Noble store.

After all, I’m writing the stories. Shouldn’t I give myself credit? Shouldn’t I be proud of my work and stand behind it by putting my own name on each story?

Why wouldn’t I do this? Why would any writer use another fictitious name?

Wikipedia defines a pen name as:

“A pen name, nom de plume, or literary double, is a pseudonym adopted by an author. A pen name may be used to make the author’s name more distinctive, to disguise his or her gender, to distance an author from some or all of his or her works, to protect the author from retribution for his or her writings, or for any of a number of reasons related to the marketing or aesthetic presentation of the work. The author’s name may be known only to the publisher, or may come to be common knowledge.”

The excerpt above relates nicely several of the reasons for an author to use a pseudonym.

If an author’s real name is either too common or too similar to that of a published author, he might use a pen name.

If an author is prominent in another field or industry and wants to keep professional identities separate, she might use a pen name.

If an author’s real name is not marketable enough because it is too unique, difficult to spell, or difficult to remember, he might use a pen name.

Who is to judge if any of these criteria apply?

Some authors use initials or a middle name to distinguish from other published authors or even prominent celebrities.

Popular suspense writer Dean Koontz went by Dean R. Koontz for many years. World famous Harry Potter author Joanne Rowling goes by J. K. Rowling. Fantasy and sci-fi author Orson Scott Card obviously uses his full given name.

What does this mean? Is there a right or wrong way to name yourself?

Ultimately, it boils down to author preference. No one, not even a publisher, will tell you what name to use. (Although if you are an established genre writer and wish to change genres, your agent and/or editor may suggest a pseudonym. )

After all, even Stephen King used the pseudonym Richard Bachman for his non-horror works

As for me, I am undecided. My given name was indeed given to me, and with a pseudonym I could choose any name I want.  But do I want an alternate identity as an author?

That is the question every author must answer.

Are you using a pseudonym?  Do you plan to use a pen name?  Why or why not?

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2 responses to “Real Name vs. Pen Name

  • Stephen A. Watkins

    Well… this is something I’ve struggled with a great deal, in large part because “Stephen Watkins” is such a terribly common name. For a time I was excited about a possible pseudonym that was a jumble of my actual name, which would have been “J. R. Sawyer”. But then I disovered that there was a prominent Sci-Fi author named Robert J. Sawyer… so that went out the window. Then I started asking around what friends and peers thought… and ultimately most agreed that “Stephen A. Watkins” was a distinctive enough name to serve the job. So that’s what I’m going with for now.

    As for Richard Bachman… I understood the story differently – not that it was for his non-horror work (as far as I know most Bachman books are, in fact, horror), but that it served two purposes: to allow King to publish more books per year (becuase he was so prolific) despite the publishing belief that any given author could only publish 1 book per year without oversaturating their market. Second… it was kind of an experiment to see if his continued success had more to do with his being Stephen King or if it was because of his talent.

  • Mark J. Taylor

    Yes, there is more to the Richard Bachman story, I was being rather simplistic with the example. I’ve read all the Bachman books, and while they have suspense elements, I wouldn’t call them horror. But, that’s just me.

    As for names. I’m equally tempted between my full name “Mark Jon Taylor” and my recently designed pseudonym “Max Graves”. If you search Amazon, there are plenty of Mark Taylor’s writing academic and even children’s books. So, how to distinguish such a common name? Use the full middle name. I think you have the right idea, as well.

    I may save “Max Graves” for any horror I may write. It just sounds like a horror or suspense author name.

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