The Professional Ethics of Pen Names
by Kiersten Hallie Krum
Pen names are nothing new to the writing world. They have many uses. Some writers use them to protect their true identity from unjust reprisals, not out of doing any wrong, but because of the judgmental nature of the world in which we live. Like the high-school teacher who was fired for being an erotic romance writer because parents objected to someone who wrote sexy scenes on the side teaching and potentially influencing their precious juveniles. Some writers use them out of respect for their spouses, children, and family or to protect themselves from the crazy access already engendered by necessary exposure on social media. Other writers use pen names to break into a different genre, like the anecdote about Nora Roberts’ use of J.D. Robb for her futuristic mystery romances because she was told men would not buy a mystery with a woman’s name on the cover. Or the years Professor Mary Bly kept her romance writer identity as Eloisa James under wraps so as not to negatively impact her tenure track. Many of us wear several professional hats, sometimes within the romance publishing industry, sometimes without, and a pen name can help to separate those responsibilities and occasionally distinguish between which name is writing what for whom.
There’s also a business strategy in publishing of creating a pen name for an author whose work has failed to break out in order to re-position her/him as a “new” writer without the baggage of previous poor sales on the P&L statements. In my early career working for Avon/HarperCollins and Bantam/Dell, I was involved in several marketing campaigns with such goals. But overall, the use of a pen name has traditionally been to protect the author’s personal and/or professional identity.
I’ve chosen not to use a pen name. I have too many personalities to deal with as it is. If I start giving them all names, they’ll get delusions of grandeur and then we’re all sunk. But I respect those who do have their reasons for doing so. Our own Liz Everly talks about her pen name in Slipping Into a Sexy New Name and checks off some of the same motivations I listed above.
But a hot and ongoing contretemps in Romancelandia last week regarding a reviewer’s use of a pen name to become a (very successful) published author in the field in which she was reviewing books got me thinking: outside of our personal reasons for using a pen name, what responsibility do we have to readers and to professional colleagues regarding identity? What, if any, are the professional ethics of using a pen name?
Social media has changed the face of everything. Whether personal or business, criminal or philanthropic, nothing achieves notoriety without social media, and, let’s face it, often because of social media. It is not uncommon for individuals to create dummy accounts with which to harass or bully others or to use to comment on websites or blogs where their true identity might undermine their position in the conversation. Many also use such accounts, like pen names, to protect their identities from in real life exposure and ridicule. A brief glance at the poisonous history of GamerGate shows exactly why this is a bloody good policy. Still, when true identities have been revealed, feelings of betrayal and offense often generate from the realization that, all this while, the person with whom one was conversing was not who they purported to be.
It’s about trust and the violation of that trust.
The long tradition of authors using pen names has only now has only recently had to contend with those alter egos engaging with readers and colleagues online, be it on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr, or in Yahoo or Facebook Groups. In this engagement, are we honor bound to reveal our true selves if only to offset the smallest whiff of impropriety? Or is the burden of responsibility on others to be wary of what they say that they may not want to be revealed to particular individuals or groups? In an online group with thousands of members, can we assume the privilege of privacy or should we venture forth knowing we cannot know all of whom may see our musings, and often, our legitimate complaints not meant for public disclosure, even within those groups to which permission must be granted? Or have the ethical and, in the case of last week’s disclosures and revelations, potentially legal ramifications become too great? Can any of us truly “hide” behind a pen name anymore or do the new pitfalls of disclosure and the false intimacy of social media effectively eradicate that privilege?
Truly, I don’t have any answers. Not because I don’t use a pen name, but more because I don’t think this coil unravels with an easy answer if indeed there is one at all. But I am interested in the conversation because I believe we’ve hit a watershed after which choosing to write and/or engage publicly under a pen name will require much deeper consideration of potential ramifications than the mere choice of that name.
Follow Lady Smut. We deliver under all our names.
Addendum: If you happen to be wondering to what contretremps I refer, last week, Jane Litte made this revelation regarding a pen name under which she’s been writing for some time while continuing to run the Dear Author site. Since her admittance, there has been a flurry of angry, confused, and some deeply hurt reactions (and a substantial amount of supportive responses) with a ripple effect that continues to widen as new implications and conclusions are reached. Sarah Wendell weighed in with her careful response on her Smart Bitches site. An anonymous author posted this perspective on The Passive Voice site and there are many more I’m sure have popped up in the interim. The comment threads on all these posts are thought-provoking discussions with a dollop of crazy train mudslinging and accusations. Read at your own risk.