Agency Lessons: Pen Names (part one)

Agency Lessons is a weekly post that gives authors and readers an inside look into the mind of a literary agent and a peek behind the curtain of how books are made.

When it comes to pen names, I get a lot of questions. A lot of them. So we're going to talk about pen names this week and next week. Because it's my blog and I make the rules. Today, let's tackle why you may want to consider using a pen name.

1. Your profession/genre combo
If you work in an insurance office, it's probably safe to say that no cares if you write bondage erotica on your weekends. The same can't be said for a kindergarten teacher. Some people just have a profession, background, or family that doesn't lend itself to certain kinds of books. In those cases, it is probably easier to use a pen name than juggle keeping part of your life hidden with the same name. 

2. Name confusion
If your name is Steven King, you want to use a pen name. Sure, it's spelled a little different than the world famous author, but I'm guessing half the world misspells it anyway. Now, some will say that they shouldn't have to change their name. And you don't have to. It's your legal name and you can use it. But do you want to do that? You're basically ensuring that the beginning of your career will be spent explaining to everyone that "No, I'm not that Stefanie." Probably not the best use of your time.

Let me pause here to address another issue. There have actually been instances of writers assuming pen names that are close to famous authors...on purpose. I shouldn't have to tell you that this is a horrible idea. Any tactic that is based on tricking readers into reading your books is destined for failure. Also, it's a douche move, so don't do it.

3. You are writing in multiple genres
This is the one that confuses a lot of authors. This has become more of a question now that so many authors are writing across genres. Here's the deal, if you write both science fiction and fantasy, you don't need two names. Why? Because these readers are similar to each other. Now, if you write fantasy and erotica, you probably want a pen name? Why: Because these are two different readers. Sure, you're likely to have at least some crossover, but realistically, you will have two completely different sets of readers.

This is also important if you are writing for two age groups. YA and MG are probably safe to keep the same name, but if you write MG and NA, you should use two names. The last thing you want is for one of your MG readers to pick up your NA novel based on name recognition.

4. Name/genre mismatch
This one isn't a huge deal, but maybe something to thing about. For example, if your name is Sunshine Blossom, you might want to think about a pen name if you are going to write crime thrillers.  I don't think a name mismatch is going to kill your writing career, but it might give some readers a moment of hesitation.

5. You just want one
Even if you don't fit into any of these reasons, there is nothing wrong with taking a pen name simply because you want to use one. Maybe you've always wanted another name or just like the idea of creating a new persona. Go ahead and knock your socks off. But be aware, that means working a little harder on building your platform since your friends and family won't have instant name recognition.

Next week we'll talk about how to handle a pen name once you've decided to use one.