Monday, March 09, 2009

What's in a pen name?

By Raymond Chandler (Just joking) Patricia Smiley here…

Some time ago, I met an author who gave me a postcard announcing the release of her first novel. Printed boldly on the card was, “by Jane Doe Writing as Mary Smith.” What was the point, I wondered, of a first-time author using a pen name while divulging her real name, as well?

I have always wondered what motivates people to change their names whether for marriage, fun, work, or as a form of rebellion. Actors frequently adopt alternate names for a variety of reasons, mostly relating to marketing. In general, Tony Curtis sounds sexier than Bernard Schwartz does. Here are other examples:

Carlos Irwin Estévez: Charlie Sheen
Natalie Hershlag: Natalie Portman
Caryn Elaine Johnson: Whoopi Goldberg
Allen Stewart Konigsberg: Woody Allen
Ilyena Vasilievna Mironov: Helen Mirren
Joyce Penelope Wilhelmina Frankenberg: Jane Seymour
Reginald Kenneth Dwight: Elton John

Before I became part of the writing community, I was vaguely aware that some authors who wrote several series or in different genres used pen names so they wouldn’t confuse readers who might pick up a book expecting a cozy mystery about crime-solving cats only to find themselves knee deep in erotica. One of the most famous users of literary doubles, aside from our own James O. Born (police procedurals) who also writes as James O’Neal (science fiction), is Salvatore Alberto Lombino who wrote as Ed McBain, Curt Cannon, Hunt Collins, Ezra Hannon, Evan Hunter, and Richard Marsten.

This site unveils the pen names of various authors, including:
  • Elizabeth MacKintosh: best known as Josephine Tey, Gordon Daviot
  • Barbara Mertz : Elizabeth Peters (Egyptology series) Barbara Michaels (romantic suspense, gothic)
  • Michael Crichton: Michael Douglas, Jeffrey Hudson, John Lange
  • Dean Koontz: David Axton, Leonard Chris, Brian Coffey, Deanna Dwyer, K.R. Dwyer, Leigh Nichols, Arthur North, Richard Page, Owen West
  • Stephen King: Richard Bachman (most well-known), John Swithen
  • David John Moore Cornwell: John Le Carre
  • Nora Roberts: J. D. Robb (mysteries)
There are other reasons why authors use pen names:
  1. An author writes multiple books per year and fears the public will begin to think they are typed by computer savvy chimpanzees.
  2. An author’s sales are disappointing. A name change may “trick” bookstore computers into ordering the new book.
  3. An author has a name like Harry Butz or Spafford Fiddlefart. Another name might read better for marketing reasons.
  4. An author pens unflattering things about people he knows. A friend of mine once told me that his next book, a thinly veiled fiction about his dysfunction family, would surely cost him his inheritance.
  5. An author writes about events that could jeopardize his job, i.e., a conservative minister spins a lurid tale about a sex and drug-filled weekend with a hooker in Belize.
  6. If your real name is James Patterson, your publisher might encourage you to consider an alternative.
  7. The name Peaches LaRue might not be taken seriously as the author of a thriller about a secret society of international assassins. Richard Slasher may work better.
Maybe a nom de plume should reflect the novel’s content. In a nod to our very own Paul Levine who is something of an anagram savant, I offer the following scrambled literary doubles for Patricia Smiley and the accompanying story lines:
  • Calamity I. Piers (a woman brings misfortune to her classmates)
  • Maria Elicit Spy (The von Trapp matriarch comes in from the cold)
  • Tiara Pic Smiley (a beauty queen learns to laugh again)
  • Caries Pay Limit (the story of a dentist’s clash with a cold-hearted insurance company)
  • Cilia Raspy Emit (the loss of her voice ends an opera singer's career)
  • Alicia Pyre-Mist (an arsonist is foiled by a monsoon)
  • Eric Y. Salami-Pit (a young man dreams of writing the Great American Novel while working in his family’s deli)
  • Ace Amir Tipsily (a Top Gun faces his addictions)
  • Malice Tarsi Yip (There is something very Jane Austen-y about this name. I love the sound of it rolling off my tongue.)
What do you think about pen names?

Happy Monday!


  1. Calamity I. Piers is priceless.

    No joke: I long ago asked my editor if I should be known as "Max del Rio." She said, no.

    Another one was "Jake Durango."

    And then there's "Tony Laredo."

    No, I wasn't writing westerns at the time. As for anagrams, Paul Levine turns very nicely into the name attached to this comment, among many others.

  2. Plenty to think about there, Our Patty. People have often asked me if Jacqueline Winspear is my real name (and who would make up a name like that) as if everyone goes by a pen name. I didn't even consider a pen name, one of the reasons being that it would have hurt my parents.

    I've also seen pen names used in a way that smacks of literary snobbery (a thing that I particularly detest). There are the authors of so-called "literary fiction" who want to write a mystery or romance, and so bring on a pen-name lest their noses-held-high readership know that they write "genre fiction." Of those there are the ones who want to bring their good name to the genre fiction, so will use their pen name and then in smaller letters their literary name. Frankly, I just don't see the point - why not pick one name and stick to it?

    I know many writers who are as comfortable with the literary short story as they are with the mystery, or with poetry, or essays - what's wrong with putting one name to it, whether a pen name or one's given name? On the other hand, I can see why Our Jim chose another name, but I don't think it would have hurt him at all to have both his mysteries and his science fiction under one name (then they would have called him, "the multi-talented, prolific, James Born." Which he certainly is, in my book).

    I would love to write a biography (just waiting for the right subject to come along) and pull together a collection of short stories - and I'm making a commitment to write more poetry - so what's wrong with allowing those efforts to stand or fall under the same name? Mind you, if it's all rubbish, my folks will wish I chose another name!

  3. Dear Alvin,

    Thank you for your input. Can anyone think of a story line for Alvin's next book?

    Your friend,

  4. Our J, people often ask me if I'm writing under my real name, too. It used to surprise me. Now I expect it.

    BTW, I would buy anything by J. Winspear, including poetry, biography, novels, or short stories. I've always wanted to write true crime myself. Some day...

  5. Sal Lombino? Who knew.


  6. Pen names can have unexpected consequences, too. Laurie R. King wrote a speculative fiction novel under "Leigh Richards" and it didn't do as well as it should have because no one knew it was her. It might have done much better had anyone known it was her, y'know?

    I have to admit I was surprised at some of the names I've taken for granted only to discover that they ARE pseudonyms. But it's a privacy thing, isn't it? Keeping your possibly rabid fan base away from your home?

    Aside from having a sexier and more marketable name.

    But honestly, I think "Alicia Pyre-Mist" should write romantic techno-fantasy!

    In any case, I love

  7. I switched names for two reasons. One I was told to by a publisher and I didn't want to confuse crime fiction fans. Although the science fiction under James O'Neal is still a crime story it is a departure from my normal books.

    Someone told me Ed McBain's real name just a few weeks ago.

    Good post, Patty.


  8. Yes, Fran, I agree about Alicia's name. I'm writing a book proposal even as I type.

    I never heard of Leigh Richards, which supports your point.

  9. James O, I did not know that crime fiction fans confuse so easily.

  10. So, if I write a thinly veiled expose of Our NA team's um....peccadilloes (aptly entitled Dark and Stormy), does that mean that I should use a pseudonym so that none of you hunts me down--or so that everyone doesn't KNOW that it's really you?

    The heck with Jim or Paul--Patty, Jackie and Cornelia SCARE me--and thank God Ridley is in China!


    Elfred A. Knewman

  11. Jeff,

    Yes, yes, yes! Write that book.

  12. "spafford fiddlefart" !!!!!
    out of this world, patty!

  13. Sybille, poor ole Spafford probably wishes he was out of this world with a name like that.

  14. i'm sure he does, patty.
    btw, i'm glad ms. winspear hasn't changed her name. otherwise i would have never found her after all these years and i would have never known about all you lovely naked people!