Should I Use a Pen Name?

By Sean Platt

Woman behind a mask

Today’s question is one that we have a lot of experience with, even within our own company and something that we’ve kind of wrestled around with a lot: Should I use a pen name?

(If you prefer audio, you can listen to this episode on the Smarter Artist Podcast)

As you’ll often hear us say on the podcast, this is one of those questions where you really have to know your why if you want to know the right answer.

There isn’t a flat out yes or no.

There are best practices and that‘s what we’ll talk about today, along with what we do and why we do it.

The traditional response is yes, if you’re going to write in a lot of different genres.

Let’s say you’re writing sci-fi and you want to turn around and write fantasy, even those two audiences can overlap, they are also different distinct audiences.

To most effectively serve them well, then you want to divide yourself. Let’s say you’re Jane Doe as a sci-fi writer and you change your name to John Doe to write fantasy, and that way you can serve both of those audiences.

That is the traditional best answer and it is what will probably give you the biggest most immediate return on your time because you can fully service each audience.

But as you probably know, we don’t do that at Sterling and Stone. I’ll take Realm and Sands as the example because it’s the strongest one I have to offer.

For us we want to be know as storytellers and so that means we’re rather genre agnostic.

Even at Realm and Sands we have big giant fantasy sagas, we have comedy sci-fi, introspective sci-fi, kind of hard sci-fi with The Beam. We have a literary mindbender with Axis of Aaron.  Cursed  is horror. Namaste  is a little philosophical, but it‘s pretty heavy action. The Dream Engine is steam punk fantasy.

We’re all over the place.

That’s important to the legacy that we’re trying to build.

We want to be known as storytellers and we want to constantly improve our craft and get better by the book, and that means hopping around in a lot of genres and deciding what stories we want to tell, an then telling them.

If we were to pick a lot of different pen names to accomplish that, it would be very difficult to maintain all of those and it would be dividing our efforts too much.

For us at Realm and Sands, it isn’t a question of either/or. It’s a question of and. We are going to do A and B and C and D.

We want to put them all under our name.

Even within the same genre, you’ve seen people split themselves up. For example, Stephen King back in the late 70s, early 80s he had a pen name, Richard Bachman, which he again used in the 90s. That was just a different name for Stephen King. They were like his B books. And the reason for that was because back then publishers could only publish so much content.

People didn’t want three Stephen King books a year, or if they did, the publisher didn’t believe there was a market for it. Or perhaps they believed that it would diminish the quality of his work because how could anything be good if it was being cranked out so fast.

That does make a big difference, and those days are kind of dead.

Indie publishers have a lot more flexibility. They have a deeper relationship with their audience. It’s more one on one and you can really serve that audience.

Indie publishers have a lot more flexibility. They have a deeper relationship with their audience... and you can really serve that audience. Click To Tweet

Older Male reading with books flying into the computer screenYou don’t have to stick to the same genre. You don’t have to stick to a traditional publishing schedule, and I think it does change the pen name argument quite a lot. Having said that, I think you just have to know what is best for your business. And only you can answer that.

Just look at it from a bird’s eye view and think what am I trying to accomplish? Do I want to be known as a storyteller? Do I want to make as much money as possible?

There’s no doubt, if our goal was to make as much money as humanly possible in the shortest amount of time, we would probably want a name for every one of our sub-genres.

But that’s not what we want at all.

We want something long-term and we tend to make our decisions five to ten years out. What’s best for our business a decade from now.

We strongly feel that sticking to our names, regardless of genre, is the best thing for long-term goals, even if it’s not for short-term revenue.

So, ask yourself that question because chances are your aims are different than ours and if you copy what we’re doing, it’s going to give you deluded results from what you deserve.

Just think what do I want to accomplish?

For most people, getting pen names is different.

Let me give you a couple of caveats that are important.

Children’s books and erotica/romance, those are really heavily defined niches. Which is why Guy Incognito is our children’s brand and we would never put our names on the Guy Incognito books because we don’t want somebody reading Tales From the Terrible Scary and then reading The Beam.

We don’t want that same reader.

I’d love it if Guy Incognito kids at 13 years old read those books and then grew up and as adults they read our Realm and Sands stuff or our Inkwell stuff. That would make me really happy. But I don’t think we should draw a definite line between those. It’s just not appropriate.

Same with erotica, same with romance, those are very specific niches. An erotica reader is not necessarily going to want to read high fantasy. It’s different, and that should be segmented.

Non-fiction versus fiction; Again, don’t look at what we’re doing because it just sort of happened the way it did. It was impossible to do before it was suddenly working.

I can’t think of any examples where this has worked beyond our experience, but if you write a lot of non-fiction, you definitely want a pen name for your fiction, or vice versa because those are distinctly different audiences.

We do have a lot of people who read Write, Publish, Repeat and then go on to try out Unicorn Western, but I think that’s weird and aberration and I think that if you try to do that, you might be frustrated with your results.

That’s it. Use a pen name if it’s best for you. There is no right answer.



Sean Platt is the founder of Sterling & Stone and loves that he not only gets paid to make up stories and come up with crazy ideas, but that he gets to do so with his best friends. Together, they've also co-authored the bestselling non-fiction titles Write. Publish. Repeat., Fiction Unboxed, and Iterate & Optimize to help Smarter Artists get smarter, faster.

Sean lives in Austin, Texas with his wife Cindy and their two children, Ethan and Haley.

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