A person takes on an alternate name for reasons both legal and illegal. I’m talking about the alias or for writer’s pen name, also known by its French nom de plume. Criminals adopt aliases, of course, to elude capture. Spies acquire covers or legends that include one or more alternate identities. They are hiding their true identity and nationality to protect themselves and their mission. Celebrities adopt an alias or change their names outright because their given name is too plain or is already in use by another celebrity. Norma Jean Baker became Marilyn Monroe. Celebrities change their names to stand out from the crowd.
A writer adopted a pen name in the past to hide true identity. Women writers took male names in order to achieve publication of their work. Upper class writers or royalty took on pen names to hide their class. Sometimes a writer whose day job was totally different from the arts, say a nuclear physicist, would write fiction under a pen name to hide from his employer and co-workers what he was doing on his own time. While all those reasons may still exist, the most common reason in the 21st century involves marketing and sales.
A writer I know published a successful mystery series under his real name. His family name began with “Z” and his books were then shelved in stores at the back of the fiction or mystery section. He learned that book shoppers tend to begin their browsing at the beginning of the alphabet; therefore, when he decided to launch a series of historical novels, he listened to his publisher’s marketing staff and he adopted a pen name whose family name began with “A.” They believed he’d sell more books if shelved at the front of the fiction section. I have not heard from him if it made a difference in the sales figures for his novels, but I know he’s doing all right.
Let’s be clear: a pen name is not a legal name change. It is an alias. The writer I know does book signings as his alias, which usually cracks me up. I’ve known him for years and know that outside of books, he still exists and does business under his legal name beginning with “Z.” But when he’s signing books written under his pen name, he signs his pen name.
Years ago, I decided that I would write fiction under my legal name, and write nonfiction under a pen name. The pen name I chose back then was unusual and I felt uncomfortable with it. I phased it out of use — fortunately, I hadn’t been using it long. For several years I wrote everything under my legal name. Then, in the last 2-3 years, I’ve decided to write nonfiction as well as fiction books. I want to keep them separate, both for readers and for my record-keeping. How to choose this pen name?
As I did with the first one, I decided to simply translate my family name. Yager is an Americanized spelling of Jaeger, the German noun for hunter. Obviously, my German ancestors were hunters. So, the last name of my pen name is Hunter. The first name was more of a challenge. I actually went to the Social Security Administration’s website section about names to do my research. There, I could type in the year and up came a list of the most popular baby names for that year. I chose 3-4 different years and picked names from each that I narrowed down to three. These three names I put to a vote on Facebook. The winning name became the first name of my pen name: Gina. Under Gina Hunter, I started a commentary blog that now also covers subjects relevant to patients in support of the nonfiction book I’m working on under the pen name.
I like this pen name. It suits me and the writing I’ll be doing under it. For whatever reason you decide to use a pen name, I suggest choosing that name with care, and for long term use. Your alias may turn out to be just as successful as you!