Whether you call it a pen name, a pseudonym, an alias, or a split personality — sometimes an author will feel inclined to write under a name not her/his own.
Really, when we write — there somewhere near the very end, when the cover is being designed — we have to decide one very important thing: who is this by?!
Obviously, it is by the person who is asking that question, or I should hope so. If you’ve already shopped it to an agent or publisher, you’ve probably already decided this — though often times this can be worked out afterward and they might even suggest you use something else. They did for Ms Jo Rowling.
How to choose? Do you use your initials, your name? Full, partial? Are you Madonna, Madonna Louise Ciccone, Madonna L. Ciccone, M. L. Ciccone, M. Ciccone … or perhaps you are something altogether else? Maybe you’re Irene Wagner, or Adolf Gunstein.
Why is this a big decision? Just use what you have on your cheques, or credit card — right? Usually, yeah — that’s fine. But some things to consider: is someone else published with that name? Oh nothing stopping you from doing so as well — but do they publish the same genre you do? Hmm, you might want to choose something to indicate you’re not that Madonna Ciccone.
Take myself, for example. There was already a Jason Brink publishing science fiction (no, I’ve no clue if we’re related). It’s not anything I’d care to read, and nothing like what I write. As a courtesy to both of our readers, as well as to each other, when I published Stolen Time I decided that Jason Brink should not be the name on that cover. I decided on J M Brink — my initials. It was short, simple, elegant. I could have been Jason M Brink, or Jason Michael Brink. But no, those lost the simplicity. They just didn’t have a good ring to them. So I became, professionally, J M. Too, J M might not be male, and given that the book has female protagonists, this becomes a beneficial ambiguity (same as Jo Rowling becoming J K Rowling).
Another reason might be to dissociate yourself from yourself. Maybe you write young adult scifi and paranormal horror erotica. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to be Madonna Ciccone for one, and simply Madonna for the other? Or maybe Irene Wagner should write one and Madonna Ciccone the other? Get them far apart. Maybe you write boy’s adventure fiction, and a girly teen romance? At that point, perhaps you should be Adolf Gunstein for the former — a nice Manly Name — and Madonna Ciccone for the latter. Makes some readers more comfortable if the target audience thinks they’re reading something by the same gender. Damned if I know why.
Another good reason to do this would be privacy. Yes, my given name is Jason Brink, J M Brink however you want to arrange it, it matches my birth certificate, driver’s license, et al. I don’t give a flying fuck if people know who I am. I’ve no phone in my own name, and you’ll play merry hell connecting it to any email address except ones I’ve deliberately made public. You could learn my home address and send me cookies or time bombs, anthrax or quiche, death threats or birthday cards — yes — but so what? Some people, that makes them queasy. They’re shy, or maybe they write something that’d really prefer that their friends and family not accidentally stumble on connected to their name. I mean if you write underage gay urophilic BDSM erotica and are the director of your church’s youth choir … maybe you don’t want to be Billy Hopkins at church AND on your book cover — just saying.
Why am I saying this? To what end? Because it’s something a lot of authors ask questions about, ponder, wonder, seek advice on, etc. Don’t know why. But they do. So here’s my take on it. Do it if you feel like it, or not — it’s your damned book.
I recommend it for people who write multiple genres — it avoids confusion; you needn’t keep it a secret — Seanan McGuire makes it no great mystery that she is also Mira Grant, or example — just a different name for your casual fans of your Steampunk Westerns so that they don’t accidentally pick up your Gothic Horror Mysteries. Maybe you do want to keep them secret, a female writing scifi can often find no end of headache from armchair critics who overcompensate their anatomical shortcomings by having an impressively large Star Trek action figures collection, and who have more zits than sense. Yes, I’m stereotyping, and yes I’m making fun of the traditional audience of the genre I write in. Remember — I work in tech support. I know, am friends with, and have co-workers who are SF fans, convention goers, etc. Believe me, I’m not stereotyping very much, nor am I relying very heavily on hyperbole here. For what it’s worth, a male gets no end of hell if he writes anything with female primary protagonists … or major characters to any degree, and then gets hell if he avoids female characters or keeps them only background or minor/unimportant. Hurrah for society.