What About Authors Using Pen Names?

Over the years I’ve been asked my opinion about authors using 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 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: doesn’t a reader have the right to be wary of a book’s quality if the normally non-fiction author is now writing fiction or if the writer is producing books at a rapid rate? Even if they’re wrong, why should the writer be able to take away others’ freedom to make a value judgment? As those purchasing the book, they have a right to do as they wish, based on accurate information. If a criminal, let’s say a convicted child molester, writes a book and I, as a reader, wouldn’t want to support this person, don’t I have the right to know who the person really is, and then to make my choice accordingly? When a pen name is being used, am I being deceived into buying a book, which, if I knew the author’s real name, I wouldn’t purchase?

Now, if the author’s real name is Dudley Swineburp and he wants to write historical romances, I can understand him using the pen name Anthony Romano. Even though the name change is geared to make it more likely someone will buy his books, why not use a name that won’t lose an audience you deserve to have a fair shot at, since Swineburp isn’t any more likely to write a bad book than Romano?

That’s exactly what female authors once did, when women weren’t respected in certain fields. Since they were overcoming an unfair bias against them, using men’s names was likely fine—although I suppose it could be argued that people have the right to act on the basis of their biases. Also, if good women writers don’t use their names, won’t that just perpetrate the myths and biases? That’s 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 may 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-using 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. 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. This 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 or courtroom novels under the name John Gresham, but even if he could get away with it legally, that wouldn’t make it 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, as well as 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 reader 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 Romano’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 think, 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 these questions:

  • Is your conscience clear before God?
  • Are you doing it without the intent of misleading or deceiving readers?
  • If readers knew your real name, would they feel cheated?
  • Are you doing it to protect a loved one or friend?

These questions may be relevant. In some cases, the intent may not be to deceive, but an inadvertent effect may be deception nonetheless. So are pen names a good move? To me, in some cases, yes; in other cases no, depending on motives and results.

Photo by MILKOVÍ on Unsplash

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