What Is Your Opinion on Pen Names?

Question from a reader:

I was hoping you'd give me your opinion on pen names. I've read your thoughts on ghostwriting and totally agree with them. Do you think pen names are okay if you're not hiding who you are or do you think they're dishonest? I wouldn't want to displease God.

Answer from Randy Alcorn:

I think we’re on the same page with pen names. My concern would be in two areas: intent and effect. If the intent is to deceive, to disguise the fact that the writer is producing three books a year (making some people leery of their quality) or to disguise the fact that this is a non-fiction author venturing into fiction, or whatever, then I have problems with it. (Even if that’s not the intent, it could be an effect).

Here’s why I’m concerned. Don’t people have the right to suppose the quality could be less if it’s a non-fiction writer or if the writer is producing so much? Even if they’re wrong, why should the writer be able to take away their freedom to make a value judgment? As those putting up the money for the book, they have a right to do as they wish, based on accurate information. If they’ve had bad experiences with a GE Washer, so GE comes out with a new name to put on washers and they buy it, will they feel cheated? If a criminal writes a book and I the reader wouldn’t want to support this person, don’t I have the right to know who this person really is, and then to make my choices accordingly? So when a pen name is being used, am I being in any way deceived to make me more likely to buy a book which, if I knew the author’s real name I would not?

Now, if the author’s real name is Dudley Swineburp and he wants to write romances, I can understand using the pen name Anthony Studman, and even though the name change is geared to make it more likely someone will buy, the truth is that men named Swineburp aren’t more likely to write a bad book than men named Studman, so why not use a name that won’t lose an audience you deserve to have a fair shot at? That’s exactly what women once did, when women writers weren’t respected in certain fields. They used men’s names. Since they were overcoming an unfair bias against them, that was likely fine. Although I suppose it could be argued, people have the right to act on the basis of their biases, and also, if good women writers don’t use their names, won’t that just perpetrate the myths and biases? (Easy to say if you don’t need to put bread on the table—I can certainly understand why these women did what they did.) Some women in Muslim countries do this today for the same reason. Likewise, a Chinese Christian writing a book will often use a pen name to protect his family and his freedom. That seems perfectly reasonable.

I think the Internet culture has probably made people more immune to pen names. People can have four different names used in various circles on the internet. Still, when you use a name to convey an impression or enhance an image, rather than simply to have fun or protect your privacy, isn’t this deception or manipulation?

Motives are critical. If a female novelist writes a book in the first person involving a husband who’s an adulterous porn addict or child abuser, and fears some readers will think she is writing out of experience with her husband (whether or not that’s true), that seems a good enough reason to use a pen name. Likewise if she shows intimate acquaintance with drug-suing teenagers, she may want to protect her kids (whether or not they’ve had drug problems) from being viewed unfavorably. I have a friend who was raped and got pregnant from it, then gave up the child for adoption. (She and her husband had wanted to have children for years but he couldn’t bring himself to keep the child.) I would have no problem with her telling her story using a pen name—in fact, I would advise her to. Interestingly, in her case the pen name would result in fewer sales, since she’s well known. Which raises a good test for any of us—would we be willing to use a pen name if it would mean fewer books sold?

I’ve seen pen names that are designed to cash in on known authors. I suppose someone could write techno-dramas under the name Tom Clency, and even if he could get away with it legally, it wouldn’t be right.

So to me—and this is only my opinion—it really does come down to the reason, and whether that reason involves deception for the sake of personal gain. Also, whether it takes advantage of the reader/consumer. Now, if a reader discovers that the writer is actually a convicted serial killer, or a popular author who the writer has read before and didn’t like, or an author known to be guilty of plagiarism, they may have cause to feel cheated. But if they find out Studman’s real name is Swineburp, or that a woman used a different name to protect herself or her family, they won’t feel betrayed. They’d likely go "good move" on adopting the pen name. So here’s another test—if you had to explain your reasons for using a pen name to those who bought your book, would they agree your reasons were valid?

So to myself and other authors I would ask, is your conscience clear before God? Are you doing it without the intent of misleading or deceiving readers? And if the readers knew your real name, would they or would they not feel cheated? Or are you doing it to protect a loved one or friend? These questions may be relevant. In some cases, an intent may not be to deceive, but an inadvertent effect may be deception nonetheless.

So are pen names a good move? IMO, in some cases, yes, in some cases no, depending on motives and results.

Randy Alcorn, founder of EPM

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over fifty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries

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