There are many reasons to use a pseudonym, most of them are about protection.
Religious figures and social activists often dawn pseudonyms to protect themselves from targeting. Graffiti artists use “handles” to avoid arrest (I see you Robin Gunningham!). Dancers and pornstars have stage names for obvious reasons. Donald J. Trump fabricated “John Barron” and “John Miller” to protect the perception of his power.
Authors are a special breed when it comes to pen names, especially considering the long and sordid history with women writers. But today, pseudonyms are still quite popular. J.K Rowling wrote under the name “Robert Galbraith” to separate herself from the Harry Potter realm. Stephen King stepped behind the name “Richard Bachmann.” The list goes on, and those are just the ones we know about. All of these authors were attempting to shed their previous publicity and reputation to give the reader a new, unadulterated reading experience. They were taking a creative risk, outside the cannon to which they’d risen to popularity. But there is also no denying that, perhaps more importantly, employing a pen name was a smart business decision.
If the new work did not have legs to stand on, the failure would not hurt the brand they’ve spent a lifetime cultivating. They can walk away, no harm, no foul. Like I mentioned, the work was good enough to stand on it’s own, which meant it was then a better business decision for them to take the mask off and reveal themselves. One audience feeds the other audience. Brand value skyrockets.
Nora Roberts, meet “J.D. Robb.” Joyce Carol Oates is “Rosamond Smith.” And Dean Koontz gets to make up a 13th pen name for the same kind of book.
Artists, when thinking about pseudonyms, ask yourselves three questions:
- “If I were to never receive credit for my art, would I continue to make it?”
- “Am I taking enough risks in my art?”
- “If I was to use a sweet pseudonym, what would it be?”
[BONUS! Did you know that Benjamin Franklin wrote under the names Alice Addertongue, Anthony After, Benevolus, Busy Body, Caelia Shortface, Martha Careful, Polly Baker, Richard Saunders, and Silence Dogood? Silence… motherfucking… dogood?