Monday, March 5, 2012

Why a Pseudonym?

Pseudonyms have been used over the years for a variety of reasons:

Georges Sand
1. To hide one’s gender: Ex. The Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, wrote under the names of Currer, Ellis, and Acton, respectively. Mary Ann Evans wrote as George Eliot. And Baronne Dudevant was George Sand. Those were the days when there was a stigma attached to women writers and the chances of getting published were much greater if you were a man.

2. Your real name is too long, too hard to pronounce or spell: Ex. Joseph Conrad whose real name was Josef Theodora Conrad Nalco Korzeniowski; Oscar Wilde who was Fingal O’Flahertie Wills; Woody Allen, born Allen Stuart Konigsberg; Adolf Hitler, alias Adolf Schickelgruber.

Betty Joan Peske
3. Your name evokes laughter: Ex. Archie Leach alias Cary Grant; Betty Joan Peske alias Lauren Bacall; Malcolm Little alias Malcolm X.

4. You wish to make fun of or insult people in print: This was a favorite sport in the 18th Century. A common pastime was to write letters to the local newspaper ridiculing your rivals or enemies. Benjamin Franklin had a dozen different pen names that he wrote under, i.e., Poor Richard, Busy Body, Silence Dogood and Anthony Afterwit, to name just a few.

5. You are a writer and want to change genres, say from Mystery to Science Fiction: It’s confusing to the reader if you write differently under the same name. It is a good idea to adopt a new name when you launch a new genre.

You don't want people
to know you wrote this
6. A pen name can be liberating: If you think no one will recognize your name, you can really let yourself go and write truer or sexier stuff, or even porn. Your family, friends, or old Sunday school teachers will never know. (Warning: I hear that in many cases the truth will out!)

7. Your previous book sales have been poor and you want to try again: This is tricky because there is a database available to editors and publishers that records the sales of every writer. Attempting to hide your past behind a new name can be difficult, but not impossible. Recently a woman writer with an average sales record was successful in acquiring a two-book contract using the nom de plume--Kate Alcott. Alcott’s new books are doing very well.

So, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!

Robin Hathaway


  1. Robin, is is worth all current novelists googling the name Kate Alcott - this is a story we see being repeated many times in today's publishing climate, where numbers are the deciding factor by both agents and editors. I could tell some horror tales, but my lips are sealed!
    Thelma J. Straw

  2. Robin, I have another reason: if your name is so common that you will constantly be confused with other people. I wrote my nonfiction as the real me--Patricia King. There are three other nonfiction (sort of) writers by that name. The one I have been most often mistaken for is a new-age televangelist! When my first novel sold after a decade of rejection, I didn't want my work to be confused with anyone else's. (I have recently learned that, according the US census, there are more than 161,000 females named Patricia King in the United States.) As far as I know, there is only one other Annamaria Alfieri. She is a hairdresser in Udine in Italy.

  3. I thought I'd be more commercially successful as Irene Fleming, as well as branding my historical works differently, but it may have been a mistake. The only prize I ever won was as Irene Fleming (a pen name cobbled together from the names of two grandmothers.) Kate Gallison is a name very nearly unique, whereas almost daily I get Google notifications for the death notices of beloved old Irishwomen named Irene Fleming. They're dropping like flies. It's like this constant drumbeat... you're dead... you're dead...

  4. I sort of did the opposite of the above--chose my maiden name because it's unusual, easy-to-mispronounce, and...I wanted to make up for a childhood of feeling ashamed when kids teased me about the name in one way or another. It's my not-pseudonym, my realest of names, taken back and proudly worn. Thanks, mom & dad :)

  5. I must register a strong protest to including Malcolm X under a heading "Your name evokes laughter." Malcolm X adopted the X as a political statement. In his own words: "For me, my 'X' replaced the white slavemaster name of 'Little' which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears."