Do You Need a Pen Name or a Pseudonym?

The pros and cons of pen names with best-selling author Bren MacDibble/Cally Black, plus other expert tips.

I had never given much thought until recently about whether I needed a pen name for the books I’m writing.

You see I have been firmly planted in the one genre for a while, specifically YA fantasy, so I figured it made sense to stick with the one name. Also, as a practising marketer, I considered the time and effort I’d spent developing my ‘brand’ under my real name, so I decided to write and market myself under that name. But then something happened.

First, I got an idea for a middle-grade series that would be a spin-off from my YA trilogy. Since the two series were related to each other, and my YA content wasn’t overly graphic I reasoned they could all be written under the same name. But it did pose some risks and challenges trying to market to two completely different aged audiences.

Then the writing muse turned up and threw an idea for a historical fiction for adults into the mix and I knew I had to seriously consider using a pen name.

Naturally, I wanted expert advice so I turned to best-selling and award-winning author Bren MacDibble who also writes under the name of Cally Black. Here is what Bren/Cally had to say on the topic.

Why did you choose to write under a pen name?

I had been writing under Bren MacDibble for a while and had some magazine fiction and educational fiction under that name, so when I won the Ampersand Prize for my first trade novel (In the Dark Spaces) with Hardie Grant Egmont, and because it was definitely not a novel for the under 12s – it’s a young adult novel – we thought it would [make sense]…to launch a new YA career.

Soon after, Allen & Unwin picked up How to Bee and that was a children’s novel which fitted better with the educational fiction I’d been writing in the past, so it made sense then to have one name for children (Bren MacDibble) and one for YA (Cally Black).

What do you see as the pros and cons of using a pen name?

Separating my readership is good. I don’t mind the young adults reading down but those aspirational children reading How to Bee and The Dog Runner should not be moving onto In the Dark Spaces just yet.

The death scenes are a little graphically described. So the pen name keeps me from accidentally terrifying children. Which is good. It also allows a YA reader to pick up my YA book and know it’s written for their age group.

It can be a little difficult keeping those who would benefit from knowing I’m both Bren and Cally Black who could cross-recommend to older and adult readers, like booksellers, etc.

Also, [there is] the double expense in time running double social media accounts and setting up double websites.

What are the challenges you have faced using a pen name?

The biggest challenge is when festivals etc. book hotel rooms and flights. I have to make sure those are under the correct names, or I look really dodgy at check in.

Also if people pay in cheques, that can be awkward if they don’t use the same name as my bank account. My bank has put a note on my bank account about my pen names!

Also… and this is hardly a problem, but when I picked up the NZ Book Award for children’s books last year as Bren MacDibble, I’d just sat down when they called Cally Black to come up for the award for YA books. I jumped up, looked at the audience and I could tell they were way more confused than I was to be getting two awards! I had to do a hurried explanation.

In what circumstances do you think a writer may want to consider using a pen name?

Genre separation or age group separation is a good reason and I think this is the most common reason.

I think this is why Kate Griffin/Claire North/Catherine Webb changes names so often. You can see her site at www.kategriffin.net for how she handles her tri-pseudonyms on one webpage. I think she is keeping her YA separate from her adult novels and her high fantasy from her more realistic setting novels. I just have two websites: www.macdibble.com and www.callyblack.com

Also if you have a job that might be sensitive to your readership, as in if you worked in social work or as a judge or wrote government policies or articles for a leading newspaper, and people might hold up your books in judgement of your values.

In that case, it might be necessary to be even more secretive with a pen name to protect your day job or your reputation as an author. Or even maybe the job of your partner, parents or children…if they are high profile.

Sometimes if you write with a partner you might combine names to produce one simple name, but we’re used to seeing partnerships on book covers now, so that’s just aesthetics really.

If you want to write a true story and pretend it’s fiction, there’s probably no hiding behind a pen name. Apart from consent issues, I think the readers and the publisher would want to know if it was really true, and find it more appealing, because of the honesty that would bring to the story.

Other Pen Name Considerations

Best-selling Author, Joanna Penn from the Creative Penn also writes thrillers under J.F.Penn. She lists the following reasons you may wish to use a pen name.

  • To differentiate brands and write in different genres – as Bren does.
  • To protect privacy – Joanna gives writing erotica and sometimes romance as a common example.
  • To be non-gender-specific – some authors writing in genres that are heavily dominated by authors of the opposite sex, may choose a non-gender-specific name or use initials.
  • If the author’s name is hard to remember or is unusual.

Penn also suggests checking to see if the name you want to use is already taken by another writer. In this case, she suggests adding a middle initial or a middle name.

Regardless of your reasons, if you’re considering a pen name, then you’re definitely in good company.

To find out more about Bren’s children’s books go to www.macdibble.com. For more on her YA books go to www.callyblack.com

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