Are Pen Names CREEPY?
I spoke with a guy yesterday who has acted as an unofficial mentor to me regarding the whole “becoming a professional author” thing.
It turns out he got himself in hot water over the past couple of months. Not once, but twice.
The first time, he published a ghostwritten book on one of his pen names. A competitor decided to use this against him; posting to Facebook groups that the author (luckily, this person only knew the pen name,) was a plagiarist, a scammer and more. They got their fans to write fake one-star reviews, post to all sorts of forums and generally spread the word that the author was a scammer. Then they told their fans to brigade the author by reporting all of their books to Amazon.
… Woah. Who knew that self-publishing could be so messy? We’ll come back to this.
The second time he got in bother was when he posted to a group of authors that he had the gall to be CREEPY and POSSIBLY A RAPIST in the form of admitting that he has a female pen name. Now, if you’re sensible, you’re thinking, “But Jamie… having a female pen name doesn’t make you CREEPY or a RAPIST. What are you talking about?”
Let’s find out.
As An Author… You Must Be Smart
Now, let me put one thing plainly: I don’t care about internet drama or gossip. Both of the above scenarios are stupid to me and I don’t really care what people think.
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Yet there’s a learning lesson here for writing, business and life. You have to be careful, because even if you’re reasonable and try to stay out of trouble, there will be idiots and crazies who want to chop off your head.
In both instances, my friend did absolutely nothing wrong.
Let’s look at legality and morality here:
- In Scenario 1, he hired a ghostwriter. He paid the ghostwriter to create a book for him. This is not illegal and is common practice. Many professional writers have been on both sides of this coin. There’s also nothing unethical about this: An author is largely irrelevant and is a brand name. More on this soon.
- In Scenario 2, he said that he was a male writer who wrote under a female pseudonym. There is nothing illegal about this. Again, there is also nothing unethical about this. It’s common practice, in fact.
Let’s go into more detail over some of the concerns here, for those who might be confused.
Is Ghostwriting WRONG?
I have done ghostwriting. I have also hired a writer as a ghostwriter.
There is nothing illegal about this. It’s a simple transaction.
I want to buy some pre-written words, and so I approach a writer who will create them for me. They get paid for the work they produce and I own the copyright over the material. This is nothing to do with anyone else, and is determined by a contract between the two parties.
Or, I might want to pay my rent this month. So I approach a publisher and say, “Hey… want to buy my stuff?”
They pay me and I deliver the work to them, and they own it.
Again, that’s nobody else’s business.
If you are a reader, understand that it’s none of your business where the work you’re reading comes from. You pay to read a book and you pay the publisher because they own the rights to the work. This has nothing to do with plagiarism nor false identities or anything like that.
When it does, (i.e. you buy a book and it’s plagiarised from somewhere else) this is still nothing to do with you. It’s a dispute between the copyright owner and the plagiarist. Although you can probably get a refund presuming you’ve been misled.
(Not legal advice, people.)
As far as an author is concerned, they are a brand name. You follow an author because you like their work. It appeals to you. It doesn’t matter who actually wrote the words.
This brings me to my next point.
Is Using A Pen Name WRONG?
Using a pen name is a well-defined practice and a long-standing tradition.
There are a million reasons you might use a pen name. One of them being that using a pen name will help sales because it allows you to better personify the sort of person your readers are expecting.
Readers have certain expectations. Andy McNab wouldn’t be considered a top military thriller writer if his name was Patricia Mowingly-Smythe and Nora Roberts probably wouldn’t be a best-selling romance writer if she’d tried to buck the trend and write as a man called Butch McManlyman.
Guys who read military thrillers want to believe they’re getting their info from a grizzled veteran super soldier and women who read romance want to feel like they’re hearing it from a person like them… not some forty-year old guy.
“But Jamie… changing your name is different to changing your gender!”
No it isn’t.
Any pen name you write under is fictional. It’s also a branding exercise. It’s also a choice you make in order to help people get what they’re looking for.
If I had a romance pen name, then I wouldn’t write that under the same name I’d write survivalist thrillers.
This isn’t because I’d want to hide my identity. It’s because people who follow my romance pen name aren’t looking for gun obsessions and really muddy people. And so if that’s what they found when they looked the author name up, they’d be confused.
The goal with writing books is to give people what they want. If writing as a woman means that more people read the romance they’re looking for, then that’s a net positive for the world. It’s just a choice an author makes in order to best facilitate people getting what they want.
It’s also not even remotely illegal.
So What Did This Guy Do Wrong?
The only thing my mentor friend did wrong in this whole thing is that he revealed too much information about his practices.
In the second scenario, his sharing of information – that he used a female pen name – was enough to have people literally trying to get him shut down and insinuating he was a sexual predator who was probably only releasing books so that he could dupe women into sharing personal information with him for the purposes of sexual gratification.
This was all on a forum for professional writers, who you’d think would be well aware of the common practice.
Like I said above, crazies. It’s unbelievable that I even wrote the above paragraph to me.
Take away; be careful, people.