Why I Launched a Secret Pen Name

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

So, umm…surprise. I have a pen name.

She published two novels and one novella in 2016 with the third in her series already complete and ready to go in a few weeks. In 2017, if all goes according to plan, she’ll put out books 4-6 in the same series as well.

Up until now, few people have known about her existence, and even fewer know her name. I’m not going to share her name in this post. I’m not sure yet if I’m ever going to openly “own it,” even though I’m proud of everything she’s written.

But I decided I wanted to explain my reasons for creating her and some of the lessons I learned from publishing her books in the hope that it can help others. Even if you’re 100% opposed to writing under a pen name (whether that be a pen name in addition to your real name or whether you write solely under a single pen name), I still think some of these items are things every writer should consider. Some of my reasons were business-related. Some of them had to do with fear and broken confidence.

As you might have guessed, this is going to be a multi-part series. As I add each part, I’ll link them here for newcomers. Here’s the roadmap:

Reason #1 – Part of a writer’s brand is their name.
Reason #2 – I wanted to run an experiment on how to gain visibility and sell books.
Reason #3 – I wanted my crayons back.

Today I’m going to look at Reason #1.

After this mini-series finishes, I’ll be diving in to some of the craft topics that you voted for in my recent survey. (If you haven’t voted yet, there’s still time. If you want to choose more than one option, you can select the “Other” option and write in your answer too.)


As Marcy Kennedy, I’m the author of non-fiction books for writers, and my long-term goal has always been to publish science fiction and fantasy.

That’s already a divided platform and public image because many of you won’t be interested in my fiction. You read my blog for writing advice and you buy my non-fiction books about the writing craft, but you’re not speculative fiction fans. When fiction readers come to my website after reading one of my future novels, they’re not likely to be interested in my writing craft posts.

So I’m already trying to find the tenuous balance between my two audiences. Half the time, I don’t know what to share on social media because I keep thinking about the part of my audience I’m either alienating or failing to build. I hate that.

The genre I wanted to write in with my pen name isn’t science fiction or fantasy. In fact, it’s so far from those two genres that the odds of many people crossing over were slim. So if I hadn’t used a pen name, I would have been creating yet another distinct segment to my audience.

Some writers choose to put all their genres together under the same name anyway with the idea that readers will simply ignore what they aren’t interested in. That might be true. I know some writers make it work.

But I had qualms about this for me.

(1) I’ve been studying other successful creatives—writers, artists, and musicians. What many of them have in common is a clearly defined brand.

They’re specialists. They don’t try to appeal to everyone. They don’t need to in order to make a good living from their work. What they need to do is connect with their people—the ones who “get” what they’re doing and love it.

This specialization makes them memorable and instantly recognizable. You know a piece of their art when you see it. You know what you’re getting when you download their new album. Their name is almost synonymous with their genre. Everything about them online and in person fits this brand.

It makes them a go-to for their audience and easy to recommend to people with similar interests.

Which leads in to my next point…

(2) I want to become an auto-buy for readers.

They see that I’ve put something out and they purchase it because they trust and enjoy my writing. I want them to know they’re safe investing their time and money in me. The promises I’ve made to them with my past work will be kept in the newest work. I don’t want them to have to pause and figure out whether this particular new release is in a genre they enjoy or will be a type of story they’ll enjoy. (I’ve written more about this at Janice Hardy’s blog if you’re interested.)

I also don’t want them to get into the habit of sometimes ignoring me. I want them to expect that everything I produce—whether it be a Facebook post, a blog, or a book—will interest them.

(3) I’d already made the mistake once of publishing something where the tone was different from my other work.

In a recent Creative Penn podcast, Kristine Kathryn Rusch mentioned that one important criteria for whether or not you need a pen name is tone, not genre. Readers will often read across genre if the tone is the same. They’ll be upset if they pick up one of your books and the tone is very different from what they’ve come to expect from you.

When I released my book of short stories (Frozen) a few years back, I made the mistake of not considering content and tone. Those short stories are suspense, and they’re darker and more disturbing than my fantasy or science fiction, and the feedback I got after releasing them was that people (some positively, some negatively) now expected that same feeling from my fantasy. And my fantasy isn’t like that.

It hurt my brand. There are people who won’t read my fantasy when it releases because they think it’ll be grim dark. If my short stories hadn’t given them a false impression, they would have been more likely to read my fantasy and would have seen that it’s much more noble bright, full of hope and people who want to be good and honorable making hard choices in difficult situations.

Likewise, the difference between what I have planned for release under my real name and what I was thinking of writing under my pen name goes deeper than genre. I instinctively knew there’d be differences in tone as well. My pen name writing has more humor in it. It’s quirky. It’s more light-hearted. It’s the girl-who-wears-funny-socks-and-dances-around-her-kitchen side. It reflects a side of me that didn’t fit with the fantasy stories I wanted to write.

If I released this pen name series under my real name, I knew I’d be making the same mistake as I had before, but on a much bigger scale. I’d be muddying up people’s expectations—losing potential future readers of my fantasy and, later, disappointing current readers when my fantasy wasn’t the same as my books in the other genre.

(4) Amazon’s Also-Boughts and Algorithms can help make you or they can bury you in obscurity.

Right under the description of a book on Amazon, you’ll see a section called “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought.” It’s a selling tool. The theory behind it is that people’s buying habits are predictive. If a lot of people who buy a certain book also buy your book, then other people who like that first book should also like your book.

The best-case scenario is that your book will appear in the Also Boughts of other popular books in its genre and that your book’s Also Boughts will be filled with other books by you in the same series or genre.

But if you write in multiple genres, then the Also Boughts stop serving their purpose as a sales tool. I didn’t want that kind of Also Bought pollution happening to my fantasy books or to my other genre books.

When you write in multiple genres, Amazon’s algorithms also have a more difficult time figuring out who to show your books to. And if they show your books to people who don’t buy them, eventually they stop showing them to anyone at all.

So there you have it. I’d love to hear what you think. Are you in favor of pen names or against them? Do you find it frustrating when one of your favorite authors starts writing in a new genre (one you’re not interested in)? Have I missed anything that you think writers should consider when it comes to pen names?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out my Busy Writer’s Guides such as Description, Deep Point of View, or Showing and Telling in Fiction.

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