The Importance of Author Pen Names

I was called dishonest today because I use pen names. Okay. You’re entitled to your opinion, of course. But you took the time to write to me and, while you weren’t exactly kind in making your feelings known, I read every last word. I think that gives me the right to take this opportunity to reply and share with you my reasons for writing under assumed names. It is not a “new and disturbing” practice, as you seem to think. It is, in fact, a practice as old as the art of publishing itself. It has nothing to do with dishonesty and I’m not trying to fool anybody. Neither is any other author who writes under a false name. So please allow me to set the record straight.

There are a variety of reasons for why authors write under names other than their own. After the huge success that was Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling published ‘The Cockoo’s Calling’ under the pen name Robert Galbraith because she wanted to “publish without hype or expectation.” In other words, she wanted to see if people would still enjoy her storytelling without the fandom of Harry Potter to drive it. I don’t see how an author who uses a pen name for this reason is cheating his or her reader.

In the early days of his career, Stephen King wrote under the pen name of Richard Bachman because, back then publishers believed it hurt an author’s sales if they published more than one book per year. Stephen King created Bachman in order to sidestep his publisher’s restrictions. Again, I don’t see how using a pen name for this reason cheats a reader.

You don’t seem to realize that having a pen name isn’t always an author’s choice. Sometimes publishers force them to take one. The romance genre is a prime example. Most readers won’t touch either a romance or an erotic novel if it’s been authored by a man. Publishers have dealt with this for decades. Is that unfair? You bet, but that’s life, and in particular, that’s life when it comes to publishing. But it’s not only men who are discriminated against in this way. Historically, no one took female authors seriously in genres such as Science Fiction, Action/Adventure, and Spy novels. These days it’s a little easier, but even as much as ten years ago, it didn’t matter how good a novel was, a woman was required to adopt a male pen name before a publisher (and readers) would accept them in certain genres.

I have four pen names, as I’ve already said. I’ve made no secret that I write under Darla Phelps (Age Play), Denise Hall (Consensual Non-Consent/Dubious Consent), Penny Alley (mainstream Paranormal/Fantasy Romance) and Maren Smith (Domestic Discipline). As you’ve noticed, each name covers a different genre and that’s why I did it. I wanted my readers to know by the name on the cover what kind of book they’re getting. I absolutely did NOT want a reader who enjoys, say, my usual domestic discipline stories to accidentally buy an Age play or worse, a paranormal romance without any spanking in it whatsoever.

Safety is another factor, and it’s the biggest one of all. When I first published, it didn’t occur to me that I shouldn’t use my maiden name. Twenty years later, I’m now paying for that decision. Do you even want to know how many penis pictures I’ve received over the course of my career? Or how many inappropriate comments I field from men (and women!) who say they’re my biggest fan and would love to meet me, or Skype with me, or make me their secret lover, or not so secret lover, because everyone knows I write romance/erotica so…well, my morals must be questionable, right? As you were only too happy to point out, there’s absolutely no difference between what I do and prostitution. Sadly, you’re not alone in thinking that way, because over the years, as careful as I’ve been about never giving out personal information, I’ve had three different fans research where I live. One showed up at my door.

Do you have a family? So do I. So let me say that again: a reader tracked me down, flew halfway across the U.S. and knocked on my door.

No author should ever, ever, EVER use their real name because it’s not safe. Period. I’m sorry if that makes you feel betrayed, somehow. You must not realize how scary it is when someone reads your work and then builds up an alternate reality around it and you in their mind.

Authors who write BDSM erotica/romances should never use their real name because of the stigma that BDSM followers face in a world full of people who just don’t understand this thing we do and who can’t understand the difference between abuse and consent.

Unless they’ve been writing a long time and have a solid reader base, chances are most of your favorite authors have a real job. I’ve known some who were outed at work and fired because of it. I’ve known others who were ostracized by their neighbors and their churches.

Did I mention a lunatic showed up AT MY FRONT DOOR?

I’m sorry if you feel betrayed by my “dishonesty”. It was never intended to be such and yet, at the same time, I really don’t believe I owe you or anybody else an apology. I am not the bad person you want so badly to believe me to be. So please, go in peace. Have a great night, an even better weekend, and if you feel the need to argue this further, please don’t bother. I won’t be reading any more of your letters.

32 thoughts on “The Importance of Author Pen Names

  1. Shame on you, Maren! How dare you not share you real name?
    Signed, Dinah McLeod–P.S. this is a pseudonym. And P.S.S.–no reader really wants that much realism. If they say they do, they are in denial or a liar. Why do I believe this to be true? For the same reasons you said yourself: they have an alternate reality in their mind, and who really wants you to break that? No one. In the end, they’d much rather cling to their FANTASIES. If this was not true, then the genre we write in wouldn’t sell as well as it does. Case closed.

  2. Wow….really? I never thought that was your real name. In this genre, to use your real name is suicide! If I decided to start writing, I would not use my real name. I’m having enough trouble with friends knowing the books I read because I use my real name on Facebook! So, please continue writing and, who cares what that idiot thinks?

  3. Who ever wrote to you sounds like they don’t have a job where if it came out they were reading the books you write let alone writing them would lose that job.
    I love the books you write, especially under maren Smith. I agree w Dinah we like the fantasy. We live in a crazy world, keep your identity private.

  4. I’m “out” as a writer and don’t entirely agree that it’s a horrible thing. I do think it’s a matter of personal preference. I’ve been out for several years, and so far haven’t had any trouble, even though almost everyone knows by now that I’m the person behind Ava Sinclair (historical age play) Elsa Black (contemporary age play) and Fiona Wilde (everything else). For me, the decision was a practical one. The Internet can be cruel. Just as there are crazy people who would stalk you, there are crazy people who might try to out you. It’s happened to a number of erotica authors and the way I saw it, no one could out me if I’d already outed myself. So that’s what I did.

    But you are right, Maren. It’s not without it’s risks, and I was in a unique situation in that I was self-supporting and didn’t have to worry about an employer or the PTA finding out. But I absolutely understand that the circumstances may be different for others and the need to use a pen name is practical for those people. It’s really up to the individual.

    I’ve not worried too much about people stalking me. So far, it’s not happened (knock on wood). I’ve had more issues with crazy people trying to hurt me on the Internet than off of it. I do get my share of stupid messages, and professions of love, the occasional unimpressive dick shot. I just ignore or block the senders, who are usually overseas, anyway. Even with my identity public, I feel more likely to be followed home by a guy from the gym than by a fan.

    What’s happened to you here is unnerving. Why would a reader would even care, or think a writer’s pen name is their business? Exactly what makes this person think they can violate your privacy? “Honesty” is something you owe to someone you’re in a personal relationship with. We all appreciate our readers; I’d say we even love them. But that doesn’t obligate them to know our real name if we don’t want to share it. If you don’t mind my saying so, the person who sent you this letter sounds crazy.

    Anyone who demands a writer reveal their real name is crossing a line. I lay part of the blame on the Internet culture. Back in the day, a fan had to write their favorite author’s publisher, wait for the letter to be relayed, and then hope for a reply. Today fans can go on Facebook and talk directly to their favorite authors. Anne Rice regularly interacts with her fans, although she has so many that it can be hard for her to speak with them all. For those of us with fewer fans, we can find ourselves interacting with some of them on a daily basis. That can build a certain familiarity that may make some fans feel entitled to more. But a considerate reader will not cross the line, and I believe the person who leveled this outrageous criticism of you is in the minority, or perhaps has an ulterior motive for their actions.

    Either way, I’m sorry that it happened to you and understand why you’re upset. I’d be upset, too. πŸ™

    • Thank you so much for weighing in, Victoria! I’m not upset. I’m really not. I was a little dumbfounded, surprised and kind of got a chuckle out of the prostitute bit. I probably should have junked the letter and never replied. In the back of my head I’m thinking, this is what internet “trolls” do. This is someone just looking for a reaction. But then I thought…what if it’s not. So, I made a post. Probably not the smartest thing I could have done, but here it is. πŸ™‚

      • Oh, I’m really glad you addressed it, because it’s an important issue. I don’t think we talk very much about limits when it comes to reader interaction. We are careful not to alienate them, which is understandable. But there has to be a balance between being friends with readers and keeping our private lives private, if that’s what we want.
        I agree that they were looking for a reaction, or maybe trying to stir trouble for trouble’s sake. But whatever their motivation I think you did exactly the right thing by speaking out.
        I’ve read some really interesting discussion among other writers who had issues with readers coming after them. Veronica Roth was attacked online by fans who didn’t like how her last book ended, and it prompted a very interesting debate about how vested readers can be in a series, and whether they should be somehow required to give the readers the resolution they want. My favorite author, Neil Gaiman, came to the defense of George R. R. Martin when fans criticized him for not putting out a new book in the “Game of Thrones” series as quickly as they wanted. Gaiman’s piece was called, “George R.R. Martin is Not Your Bitch,” and, again, it touched on how much readers should expect from writers.
        I think this is a problem many writers experience across genres. At some point, we have a right to say, “no,” even if it’s to the people who are supporting us. Our fans are important, but if we have families and jobs to consider, so are our families.
        I really appreciate your posting what you did here today. It’s good food for thought. πŸ™‚

  5. You rock, Maren! Every author I know has a pen name. You did an excellent job of proving exactly why that is! I’ll read your awesome books no matter what name you use. πŸ™‚

  6. I use a pen name, partly so MY HUSBAND doesn’t get fired. Bosses don’t always take kindly to “wives with interesting lives”.

    He does realize that Mark Twain was a pen name, right? And that Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, and Lewis Carroll all used pen names during their careers? The Bronte sisters had to publish as men at first, or no one would buy their books.

    Thank you for sharing this.

  7. Well said. Great post.

    Laurel Lasky aka Laurel Jane
    I actually outed myself after pushing my book on FB with my real name. It may come back and bite me on my butt but at my age that might be fun, lol

  8. Extremely well written, and I completely agree. Not all of us would have the support of friends / family / day-job if we were outed. There’s a lot more at stake than what some seem to believe, and personally I’m not willing to put those things at risk. Pseudonyms are as old as writing itself, and you did an excellent job of responding to whomever decided to be judge and jury on the subject.

  9. I’ve never even though that using my real name would ever be ok. Being in the scene, it’s the same way. In fact, its often taboo to even ask what a person does for a living. Kudos to you for standing your ground. We all have rights to our own private life. There’s no need for my co-workers to ever find out that I write kinky things on the side, or that my husband spanks me, or that sometimes I want to kiss a girl, or even that I’m taking pole dancing classes as a way to feel crazy confident. Hugs Maren! You are clearly awesome. πŸ™‚

  10. HUGS ok mad fan moment over, but seriously HUGE HUG! You are far too kind & wonderful a person to have to put up with people being nasty & hurtful toward you! If they write again send me their letter & i’ll tell them not so politely what they can do with their opinions! – Oh but wait i bet they didn’t supply a name or address! How dishonest!

  11. Hi Maren (or whoever you are ,lol), Some people are simply not very bright. Who cannot work out that it is a good idea to write under a different name when society would make a big deal about the subject matter. I am not a writer, I have a little blog with a teeny following and still I don’t use my real name. I have adult sons and would they really want to know their dad spanks their mum and read about the stuff we talk about on the blogs. They have never ever touched my kindle, I say naughty stories…. they soon give it a wide berth. Your complainer should grow up and actually leave you in peace to write the books we all want to read. Personally you can call yourself what the hell you like. I will admit to curiosity , I think readers do want to know about their favourite author’s real lives, even though it is not our business, that’s just us being nosy.
    I don’t do facebook because I have no idea how to separate real life from this one and if I am looking at say your page will the real life people see what I am doing? I have no idea so I am keeping my identity off there. You just carry on, write what you want as who you want, we will all read it…
    much love Jan,xx

    • Good points! My mother pretty well destroyed any chance that my sisters or myself had of anonymity amongst the extended family. She happily told everyone what we write, so I don’t have to sweat what the family thinks about my FB page. I don’t think your family can see what pages you visit on FB unless you comment or like something there.

  12. Wow, crappy you had to read a letter like that. I love writing and connecting with my readers, but I also know we don’t owe any more than our story. Our private lives are our private lives. I’m glad most respect that and also glad you are letting the letter roll off your back.

  13. YOU have a pen name??? FOUR OF THEM? So, what? I guess I mean, I just don’t understand why someone has decided to make it his or her business. As you said writer’s have assumed pen names for ages. I love your stories no matter what name is written on the cover. πŸ˜‰

  14. Dancers, actors & other entertainers use stage names. Many business women use their maiden names professionally and their married names socially. People use nicknames, which aren’t their real names.

    As you’ve pointed out, many authors use pen names for many reasons, but for erotic fiction writers, security is at the top of the list.

  15. Like so many other writers of erotica, I use a pen name, and as far as I am concerned, it is none of anyone’s business that I do so. My readers are only buying my books, the outpourings of my imagination, they are not buying me, so I will write in whatever name I feel like. I outed myself to several of my close women friends, but I have an elderly father and other family members who I (at present) don’t wish to know about my secret hobby. Whether I choose to tell them or not is no one else’s concern. There are so many prurient people in this world who think they have the moral superiority over everyone else. To them I would just say f***k off, and just concentrate on your own life and leave mine alone.

    You have, at last, cleared up one puzzle in my mind – just who is Denise Hall! I have often wondered. In fact it was after reading your books that I sent one of my earlier books to the publisher (no names, but you know who) and it was rejected for non-consensual bdsm. I quoted your books as an example of this, but they seemed very reluctant, so I binned it, and began writing the more romantic erotica that I do now. I love all your writing, no matter what you call yourself.

  16. This was a great post Maren. I believe this person was trying to manipulate you. Crazy but anyone who would make the statements they did regarding your pen names may be a tad unbalanced. Pen names = prostitution????!!!!!! Like I said…. Slightly manipulative and unbalanced!

  17. Oh, that’s terrible & scary to have someone show up at your door. I’m so sorry.

    I agree 100% that people have not only the right, but sometimes the obligation (depending on their career and family situation) to protect themselves with a pen name. Every author has the right to privacy about their personal life, regardless of what they write about.

    I use a pen name, but nearly everyone in my “real life” knows what it is — like Victoria, I decided early on to out myself, and that way I’d never have to worry about having someone else do it. I’m also somewhat of a “this is me, deal with it” personality, and I didn’t want to have to hide any part of myself. Of course, my family, job and general living situation are such that I can do this and not worry about any repercussions. If I lived in a place or had a job that wasn’t so open, I might have to amend my personality to “this is me, deal with it, all except for the smutty books part.”

    Most of my friends and family are liberal enough that they took it in stride. However, I lost some Facebook friends, was relegated to “acquaintance status” by some real life people who thought that my writing was inappropriate, and know that some people looked at me differently when they found out. I’ve had some friends surprise me with their disapproval of what I write.

    I’ve had people frown and tell me they don’t think my writing fits with my feminist, democratic beliefs. I’ve had others attempt to pry information about my own sex life, and then offer their own judgements on the kinds of things that happen in my books. But I’ve had others tell me they love my books and they’re glad I’m writing them.

    The most important thing I discovered is that: Most people don’t really care. They just don’t. At first, they’re curious, titillated, disapproving, excited, etc. They ask questions, make statements for/against, share their opinions about D/s and BDSM, act judgmental, etc. But over time, as the shock wears off, it just becomes another thing about me. “Oh, that’s Alexis. Yeah, she writes erotica. Yup.” And sometimes people even forget! It’s like anything else in life: Once it’s out there, it ceases to be a big deal, and people just get used to it. Which is great.

    I didn’t think I’d have issues with stalkers or predators, and so far, I have not. My blog doesn’t have enough personal sexual details to bring in the kinds of men who (I assume) are the types to fixate and stalk. But that was done, in part, because of the decision to go live with my name. If I had a blog where I included significant personal detail about my sex life, I probably would need and prefer to use a completely anonymous name.

    It’s ironic, in a way, don’t you think? The more intimate details a blogger/writer shares, the more necessary it often becomes to have full privacy to avoid being tracked down by creepy, curious internet trolls.

    In any case, I support all of my fellow authors’ decisions on names, whether they publicly state their name or need full anonymity. Keep writing! πŸ™‚

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