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.

hello my name is

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.


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  • Post authorMadeline Iva

    The only issue I have with all of this presto-name-chango stuff is that it can give a false impression to new readers/new writers.

    Clearly if someone had been watching Jen Friedman’s career arc and seen her go from self-pubbing a book to rise and rise again — they might have thought “Hey! She came out of nowhere and look what a smashing success she is in last than x years!” But there’s obviously — now that we know more — a whole iceberg of connections and knowledge of the industry underneath that one tiny pen name. Which is all by way of saying “Life’s not fair-even when sometimes it seems like it is. Deal with it, kittens.”

    The upside is that this story shows how yet again the romance world is about as transparent as publishing ever gets and in Romance-landia one can fairly quickly gather the knowledge needed to make it a more level playing field than it otherwise would have been.

    Reply to Madeline Iva
  • Post authorLiz Everly

    As a writer who uses two names, I think we really don’t owe the reader any transparency on our own lives. Readers read. Writers write. We owe readers a good read. How much we choose to expose our lives to these wonderful strangers who choose to read our books is up to us. I think with social media and so on it’s very easy to assume we know our readers and that they know us. But seriously? Even under my other name (which is my real name and is much more popular), people are only getting glimpses of the real me. Everybody’s situation is different. It really is a time-consuming game of smoke and mirrors. But, I do feel that professionally and ethically there are things that have made me very uncomfortable using two names. I don’t like it and in someways I wish I never did it.

    Reply to Liz Everly
  • Post authorElizabeth Shore

    It’s unfortunate that the judgment of others has resulted all too often in authors feeling they have to use a pen name for fear of public reprisal if they get “found out.” The truth is, though, that pen names for erotic romance authors in particular are for many of us a reality of the writing life. People DO judge and form opinions on what they think they know about us. Does that make it somehow unethical to use a pen name for self preservation? Absolutely not. It’s not as if we’re pretending to be someone we’re not simply because our work is published under a name different from the one our parents gave us. I don’t buy the argument that it violates any trust. Call yourself whatever you want. The work is still our work. It’s not as if the pen name represents a different person.

    Reply to Elizabeth Shore
    • Post authorAlexa Day

      I agree totally. It’s strange — I have to use a pen name, not because I’m pretending to be someone I’m not but because many people *think* I’m someone I’m not. My pen name is a must, not because I’m ashamed of what I do but because other people think I should be. I’m disappointed that I might face real repercussions if I wrote under the name on my driver’s license, but that’s the reality I live in. At least for now. Reality is changing a little bit every day.

      Reply to Alexa Day
  • Post authorC. Margery Kempe

    I use pen names to label the content of my books by genre. They’re all identified as me in various ways if you bother looking for the information. Most people don’t care. The things that obsess writers are different than those that obsess readers. But I have never had much time for DA.

    Reply to C. Margery Kempe
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