ok, maybe this isn't the best place to post this. But it's the most current. From an agent's (or assistant's) point of view, what is your opinion on pen names? When are they appropriate, and when are they a nuisance? I know there's lots of pen name advice out there, but it's all from writers without pen names. What are your and/or your boss's feelings?
I have gotten this question a number of times and I will emerge from my stupor of the school group assignment due tomorrow to do it. For those of you who are familiar with my tone, you might have guessed that the Rejector is not a team player. It's not bad; it's just my personality type. I am pretty sure that the rest of my group thinks I am the laziest, most irritating, most argumentative person on the planet, which is the way I come off when I work in a group. Really I'm not. I just don't like non-hierarchical social groups (especially of women) that have been assigned tasks. It's much for efficient to have a hierarchy.
ANYWAY, on to our topic.
First of all, pseudonyms are a case of “thinking too far ahead” syndrome, along with sending in your cover ideas and your pre-written book jacket (as if you’ll be handling either of those two things and not the publishing company). Pseudonyms don’t come up into discussion until either late with your agent before he/she sends it out, or after the contract with the publishing company is signed.
When you’re a writer, there’s a temptation to use a pseudonym. It seems cool. You can name yourself whatever you want (like “Max Power”) and you’re all secretive, as if you’ll be an angry old J.D. Salinger, chasing reporters off your lawn with a rake unless you used a pseudonym. Well, let me dispel a myth: That’s probably not going to happen.
Pseudonyms are bad for logistical reasons. They complicate book signings, contracts, royalties, a lot of other paperwork, and your fan base when they try to write in. Yes, the publishing company will know your real name (they need it to write those checks), but various departments in the company could easily become confused, especially with a new assistant handling the mail.
Originally, pseudonyms (or just not naming the author) were used by women writers, people with politically-dangerous ideas, and people who wanted to assign their text to the authorship to an older (and more prestigious) author. Many people tried to pass off their plays as written by Shakespeare. The Zohar was not written by 2nd-century Rabbi Simeon Bar Yochai; it was written by the 13th century Jewish Kabbalist who “discovered” it (you can tell because he was Spanish and some Spanish words appear in the text).
Totally, in a free, largely egalitarian society (at least on the writing end), it’s not necessary.
Pseudonyms are usually suggested by the publishing company for one of the following purposes:
(1) You have a name that is awkward, like Dan Hitler, Or Olaf Cisnădioara.
(2) You have the same name as another published author. Even if your genre is totally different, you’ll get into shelving and search engine issues. You may be asked to make a minor change. As interesting example in film, Michael J. Fox does not have a real middle name. When he registered with the Actor’s Guild, they said he could not register his name because there was already a Michael Fox, so he added the “J.” It does not stand for anything.
(3) You are writing erotica and do not want to embarrass yourself or doom your non-erotica career (see Anne Rice, who used a pseudonym for her smut)
(4) You have a legitimate reason to stay anonymous. You were a private assassin, you were a member of the early Bill Clinton Presidential campaign, you were an O.J. Juror (whoops!). Usually this apples to people with something political to say or a sketchy background.
(5) You are an established writer in one genre and you want to move to another one. This is done by recommendation by the company, again for shelving and search engine confusion reasons. Readers who only read mystery novels may be stupid enough to pick up your space opera novel, even with the guy shooting a laser gun on the cover, and not realize it’s not going to be a mystery.
Occasionally the company will suggest that you change your last name so that you are shelved near someone who is more famous and writes similar things to you. There’s a reason that most of the people who write sequels to Jane Austen novels have A and B last names. Those aren’t their real last names, for the most part. They’re looking for that key shelf placement in the “Fiction and Literature” section of Barnes and Noble.
Other cases of “thinking too far ahead” syndrome in queries – suggesting what shows you want to go on (Oprah. It’s always Oprah), how you want to market it, whether it should be hard or soft-back (another decision you don’t make).