20 Dec

Pen names – Yes or No?

Piles of moneyDeciding whether to go with a pen name or not will depend on two factors:

  1. Are you willing to promote two names?
  2. Are you able to write enough books to keep two names alive over time?

Both of these assume that your ultimate goal is to make money and/or a career as a writer. If you don’t have that goal, but only want to be visible, or share your thoughts with the world, then it’s a completely different ball park, and you’ll need different considerations.

But let’s assume that you’re partial to money.

So lets start with the big one first: content and back list.

For indie authors, their back list is the big draw in both money and marketing. One book almost certainly will lose money. A series with 2-4 books might break even. Several series, or one long series that sells well, is a meal ticket.

Of course, there are exceptions, but for most writers, a single book doesn’t make a splash.
This isn’t always the case in non-fiction, where you can write a specialized book and hand-sell it through the right channels (like selling a book about skydiving through skydiving school, or selling a books about guns at gun shows) and make a decent career out of it.

Doubly true if you combine it with a career as a public speaker in the area (most commonly business, motivational speaking, or various forms of self-help.)

But back to our inventory question. Can you write enough books?

If so, you’re good to go for both names. If not, you’d do better to stick with one.

Why?

Because while you won’t have much cross-pollination, most likely, with orphaned books you’ll have zero.

There is a way around that. With a sufficiently large inventory, you could cycle your books. Give them new covers ever 3-5 years and relaunch them. This works on the assumption that your fan base will shift over time, that is, that new readers come into your genre, and they won’t have seen your books before. Chris Fox has some great talks about this. On the other hand, if you rely on a small but highly loyal base of true fans, this tactic won’t work.

So, onward to the first question. Are you willing to promote two different names?

In order to promote, you’ll need, at the very least:

  • two different websites, one for each name (or one website with two different sections).
  • two different mailing lists that will need new content on a regular basis.
  • two different marketing strategies.
  • two different marketing budgets (unless you’re fine having a money-maker support an under-performing name).

All of these take time and money. While the cost of a website and mailing list isn’t that great, the time commitment is.

So, which is better? Should you use one name, or do pen names?

It depends on what you’re trying to sell, and how far apart your genres are. If you’re writing Christian Science and hard-core BDSM erotica, then not having pen names is a death sentence (might even be literal). If you’re writing military SF and gun encyclopedias, then having a single name is a very good option.

In between is where the grey lands are.

You simply have to decide, based on the time, money, energy, and long-term plans you have. There is no clear must or can’t, everything is flexible, and I’ve seen successful authors using both strategies.

And as always in an author’s career: writing is key, everything else is optional!

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