27 November 2013 by Published in: Uncategorized 19 comments

Pseudonyms. Noms de Plume. Pen names. The recent Robert Galbraith/J.K. Rowling novel The Cuckoo’s Calling reignited the debate among authors about the merits of using one, with some sounding in vociferously for, and others against, the practice.

I’ve made my position clear numerous times. I’m for them.

My opinion is that if you’re going to write in different genres, you should use a pen name for reasons of clarity with your readers – different genre, different name. That avoids confusion, so when they see Bob Jones, they know he’s writing dystopian novels, and BE Jones, that he’s writing romance. You don’t want to have your Bob Jones readers, who want another adventure tale set in a troubling tomorrow, to wind up with “Love’s Tragic Fury.” They won’t buy your books anymore. Any of them.

Another scenario for using a pseudonym might be because you have a career that doesn’t go well with your literary one. Let’s say you’re a nun, and you write erotica. Or a politician who writes books on honesty and integrity. Some things just aren’t believable, so pen name, it is.

In the trad pub world, the practice is common if you’re prolific, because often, your publishing house can’t or won’t release books as fast as you produce them, and the only way to get the work out there is to have multiple names.

Sometimes the choice is driven by literary motives – to see if your work would sell if nobody knew you wrote it, as with J.K. Rowling putting out her novel as Robert Galbraith. Or Stephen King putting his out as Richard Bachman.

Authors have been using pseudonyms for as long as they’ve been writing. A common reason for doing so is a deceptively simple one: because you’re a private person, and you want to keep your literary life separate from your “real” life.

When I started my literary career, I chose a pen name. The reasons were twofold. I figured I’d be writing about some controversial topics, and I wanted the freedom to do so without having to worry about black helicopters hovering over my house in the middle of the night. And because I had a business in Mexico I was involved in, and I didn’t want to mix my writing life with my private life.

As my sales grew, another dynamic came into play, namely that in Mexico, as anyone who can read the news should know, if you’re successful or any sort of a celebrity, you’re a target for predators. Kidnappers being a big one. Robbers, another. My neighbor has two full-time armed bodyguards to drive his wife and kid around. He has a third he goes everywhere with. It’s one of the uglier truths of living here. While most of the citizenry are good, decent people, there are some real shitbags who prey on others, and they do so aggressively. So the last thing you would want is to be known as a celeb of any kind. Might as well just staple a target to your chest and say, “come and get me.” Hence, adopting the Russell Blake name for all things literary and keeping it separate from my “legal” name seemed prudent, and continues to be the right call.

It’s worked out well. I have a nice existence. Everyone leaves me the hell alone, and I can make an ass out of myself without worrying about sullying my literary reputation, such as it is.

I’ve toyed in the past with making the fact known, but figured, who would care? I mean, does anyone even remember what George Orwell or Stan Lee or Joseph Conrad’s real names were? Is my reading of 1984 somehow improved or diminished by the moniker on the cover? Believe me, if I thought I’d see more book sales out of it, I would tout the fact in a heartbeat, but it’s a yawn, so no point – although if I could get anyone to believe I use one because of my background as a CIA assassin, maybe it would be worth playing it up. And, hey, it’s always possible that I wrote Harry Potter, so you might want to go buy and my entire backlist, just in case you’re missing some rare gems…

But back to the central question – should you use a pen name, or not? I’d say it doesn’t matter much, as long as you’re consistent with the offerings under that name. Because that’s your brand, and you don’t want to surprise the reader with something out of left field. Again, you always want them to know what they’re getting. Always. The second they’re confused, they aren’t clicking the “buy” button.

As to how to select a name, the easiest is to pick something close to your own so you can remember it. Maybe your middle name as your last (that’s very common), or using just your initials and then a last name (every third book on Amazon is by JR Smith or something similar). But whatever you choose, try to make it memorable, and if possible, distinctive and appropriate to your genre. It can only help if you’re writing, say, thrillers, to be Samuel Stone rather than Florida Stafford, if you’re hoping to get a male audience looking for something that reeks of testosterone.

I’m on record for having multiple names for multiple genres. As an example, I’ll be doing a collaboration with a NY Times and USA Today Bestselling author next year in the contemporary romance genre, and I’ll be using RE Blake as my name for that work, because I don’t want my Russell Blake readership to get confused about what they’re getting. Nor do I want my RE Blake fans to be disappointed when they go to find more of my work and get a book chronicling the adventures of an ex-Mossad operative fighting for survival, rather than another girl-meets-boy-and-finds-love tale.

What’s the takeaway? If you think it’s a good idea to use a nom de plume, then do so without hesitation, but stay consistent. If you’re trying to differentiate genres, use multiple, and try to come up with names that represent to the reader what they’re going to get, if you can.

On to another subject that’s near and dear to my heart: Me. I will have some huge news, er, really soon. It was going to be by the end of November, but circumstances out of my control (code for hangovers) have interfered, and it will now be middle of December before I can break it. Believe me, it’s worth the wait. Or maybe not. But given that you have no choice in the matter, you’ll have to wait.

One thing I want to mention. Lawrence Block, an incredible talent and a legend in the business, is releasing his latest novel on Christmas day, and I was lucky enough to get an advance copy. Let me just say this. The man can write. It’s an enormously articulate, viciously funny, poignant, whimsical, and erudite mystery entitled, “The Burglar Who Counted The Spoons,” and you could do far worse than picking up a copy. It’s also his first self-pubbed offering (yes, he’s come over to the dark side), and as such, deserving of our support. This marks another big name who has elected to self-publish rather than go the trad pub route, and is worthy of noting. Buy it and read it. For an author looking at how to write mystery, it’s like going to school.

That’s about all I have for now. BLACK Is The New Black is at the editor’s and should release, oh, I don’t know, mid-December, and I’m sending JET VI off to the editor tomorrow, so it should release around Xmas time, give or take a bit. In the meanwhile, BLACK and BLACK Is Back are selling well, and the rest of the catalog is moving nicely, so can’t complain. Although I do. Early and often. But that’s neither here nor there.

Now go buy my crap. I keep producing more of it, so you really have no excuse. It’s the holidays. Give a little.







  1. Jerome
    Wed 27th Nov 2013 at 1:38 pm

    I’d bet a lot of authors use pen names, especially in self publishing.

    I’m afraid the reveal about Russell being a pen name is indeed a yawn, or at least a stretch and a shrug. Count me in the ranks who dont care as long as your books are good, which they are.

    Although I’m thinking I’ll change my name to Russell Blake too. It seems to have done ok.

    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 27th Nov 2013 at 6:25 pm

      Maybe we can all become Russell Blake. Have an annual convention. Wear masks like that V for Vendetta flick. Although it would get confusing.

      “Yes, Russell?”
      “Did you hear about Russell? She left Russell for Russell.”
      “Oh my God! What about little Russell, Russell and Russell?”
      “Grandma Russell is watching them until Russell can get a place.”

      And so on.

  2. Wed 27th Nov 2013 at 6:11 pm

    Pen names. I think they can work. But if you’ve built a brand I do recommend letting people know your other pen names so they can choose to try the books by your other persona.

    I have a few of your books to finish reading and reviewing before I buy more… Per your instructions LOL

    I’m looking forward to your romance. I’m not as big a romance reader as I used to be but I still read 20-50 a year.

    I’m a pen name myself. I was concerned about the potential controversy around my books and my religious life. The books aren’t written (I’m way slower than you). The cat is out of the bag on my intentions and my pen name & so far I’ve gotten support. If I ever finish the thing we’ll see if the support stays. I was hoping to be controversial enough to see my book banned in certain communities but it’s not looking good. I may not be evil minded enough.

    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 27th Nov 2013 at 6:21 pm

      The point with a pen name is that readers couldn’t care less about your legal name. The only ones who would are stalkers, or your friends/business associates. So if you have good reasons to not want your literary life co-mingled with your public, I advocate, and always have, pen names.

      One of my favorite authors of all time was Trevanian. Nobody knew who he was. And yet he wrote a string of bestsellers in the 80s. I heard he was a college professor years later, but it did nothing for me to learn that. Why would it? I already knew him through his work. Whether he was a plumber, and ex-spy, or an MIT physics teacher in real life, changed nothing about his work. It was what it was.

      Absolutely let your fans know you are also working under a different name for different genres. They should be able to follow you over if they want. The point is to avoid confusing them and having them cross over accidentally.

      The romance will be an interesting turn of direction for me, but one I’ve been meaning to try my hand at for at least a year. Should be eye-opening, at the very least. We’ll all find out next year…

      • Tasha Turner  –  Wed 27th Nov 2013 at 6:54 pm

        I agree about the pen name as long as you can play at multiple personas. I now have 3 names (birth/married, pen name, Hebrew/Jewish name) and it does get confusing. I leave messages for the different personas which has freaked out a friend or two.

        Yes not confusing fans is important. Knowing what to expect from Nora Roberts versus J.D. Robb is important if you are looking for a romance and not a mystery.

        I’ve loved the Jet series so I’m confident you can pull off romance. And that other news… Has me on the edge of my seat waiting.

        • Russell Blake  –  Wed 27th Nov 2013 at 7:05 pm

          It’s kind of a mindblower. You’ll see.

          I didn’t even realize Nora and JD were one and the same. Nobody tells me anything. Phooey.

          • Kim Cano  –  Thu 28th Nov 2013 at 1:24 pm

            Tasha, I had no idea about Nora and J.D. either. Nora Roberts is one of my mom’s favorite authors. But my mom doesn’t just read romance. She reads Russell’s books as well, and if she had known JD Robb was Nora Roberts, I guarantee she would’ve been buying those books. That’s where this whole pen name thing throws me, because that was a lost sale. Or maybe not, because I will tell her today.

  3. Shar
    Wed 27th Nov 2013 at 6:38 pm

    I’m of the camp that says a pen name IS a “real name.” It’s the name you write books with. Your books are real. Whether “Russell Blake” is printed on a passport somewhere makes not a whit of difference to me. What makes a name real (on Facebook, on google+, anywhere) is consistent behavior over time. I’ve been following this blog at least a year, quite probably longer. I have a grasp of who Russell Blake is. If you want to call yourself Courtni Di Andro and write romances, go for it, but it would be confusing to me to have that linked to Russell Blake.

    I still think of Ruth Rendell and Barbara Vine as different people, although the author has never kept either one a secret. I hope it’s not some huge copyright violation to paste this in, and sorry about the length, but it’s a nice insight into the pen names thing (the typo on ‘surprising’ is a ‘sic’ thing, that’s not me!):

    Dear Reader:

    There is nothing unusual in having two Christian names, but perhaps it is less common to be called by each of them equally. This is what happened to me. Ruth was my father’s choice of name for me, Barbara my mother’s. Because Ruth was difficult for my mother’s Scandinavian parents to pronounce, her side of the family called me Barbara, and since this sort of duality was impossible in one household, my father finally started calling me Barbara too.

    I tend to divide friends and relatives into the “Ruth people” and the “Barbara people.” Both names are equally familiar to me, equally “my” names. If either were called out in the street I would turn around. And I don’t mind which I am called so long as people don’t try to change in, so to speak, midstream. There is for me something grotesque in a Barbara person trying to become a Ruth person, or vice-versa. Only my husband knows as well as I do into which category each friend falls. He can write the Christmas cards and always get them right. But he never calls me by either of my Christian names.

    It has always interested me—I don’t think my parents realized this—that both my names mean or imply “a stranger in a strange land.” Ruth who was exiled into an alien country, Barbara that signifies “a foreigner.”

    Growing up with two names doesn’t make you into two people. It does give you two aspects of personality, and Ruth and Barbara are two aspects of me. Ruth is tougher, colder, more analytical, possibly more aggressive. Ruth has written all the novels, created Chief Inspector Wexford. Ruth is the professional writer. Barbara is more feminine. It is Barbara who sews. If Barbara writes it is letters that she writes.

    For a long time I have wanted Barbara to have a voice as well as Ruth. It would be a softer voice speaking at a slower pace, more sensitive perhaps, and more intuitive. In A Dark-Adapted Eye and A Fatal Inversion she has found that voice, taking a surname from the other side of the family, the paternal side, for Vine was my great-grandmother’s maiden name. There would be nothing suprising to a psychologist in Barbara’s choosing, as she asserts herself, to address readers in the first person.

    I hope you will enjoy reading this books, as much as Barbara Vine enjoyed reading them.

    Sincerely, RR

    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 27th Nov 2013 at 6:43 pm

      Damn. There goes my hopes for an easy scandal and resultant riches in book sales. Back to the drawing board.

    • Tasha Turner  –  Wed 27th Nov 2013 at 6:58 pm

      What an interesting letter. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Wed 27th Nov 2013 at 8:59 pm

    Excellent blog post/article. I have an author friend, not hugely successful, but he does a lot of work in Mexico. And uses his real name. Kind of scary when you think about it.

    I’ve toyed with using a pen name 🙂 Hmm, how about: Russ Black? Or hmm, Ross Blake? Yeah, I like that one.

    (yes, kidding hehe)

    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 27th Nov 2013 at 9:45 pm

      Why you would want to sully your good work with anything close to my name is beyond me, but hey, I’m all about opportunity…

  5. Wed 27th Nov 2013 at 10:25 pm

    Interesting. I said recently that there is a story I want to tell… more along the lines of my version/your version/truth?? Memoir as a novel. The people involved would not be pleased nor would their work allow any kind of written acknowledgement. A pen name is the answer…

    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 27th Nov 2013 at 10:55 pm

      Why the hell not? I mean, pen names have been used forever, sometimes for exactly that reason. Dealing with a sensitive, or even risky, subject. You really don’t want to be hunted over the globe because you pissed someone off, like Salman Rushdie. And if you’re writing is controversial, there will always be someone you piss off…

  6. Thu 28th Nov 2013 at 12:37 pm

    I totally see your reason for using a pen name, and have thought it makes sense for different genres, as long as you let readers know in case they want to buy the new offerings. I for one would buy whatever you wrote. But, I have also seen Melissa Foster write books in different genres with her own name and they are doing well. So that’s where the advice confuses me.

  7. Sat 30th Nov 2013 at 10:16 am

    Gonna start following your blog posts, Russell. I mean RE Blake. Or Coutni Di Angelo.
    Fab info peppered with actual stats and info not just conjecture. Mostly. Altho’ the conjecture bit’s good too. Thank you.
    Ps I will look out for “The Burglar Who Counted The Spoons” on Xmas day (fab title).
    And “Love’s Tragic Fury” 😉
    Meanwhile I’m off to buy some of your crap….

  8. Ed
    Mon 09th Dec 2013 at 8:36 pm

    i slightly disagree. Not on the privacy part, however very few self published folks are going to be famous. Hell even Lee Child sat next to a guy on a plane reading his book and they guy didn’t know it was him ( his pic was on the back of the cover ). That’s Lee Child. Self published authors are like hasbits. wannabees in the gutter ( im one so dont worry im not pointing the finger. If i was, it would be pointing back at me.)

    To me using a pen name for each genre you go into, is the old model. A bit like traditional publishing. Or let’s say its a silly model for those with no brain.

    I see writing a bit like being an actor. Just because I was Chatum Tanning was in a romance ( dear john, the vow ) it doesn’t mean people are going to get confused when they see the movies 22 jump street, white house down which are not love stories.

    It all comes down to THE COVERS. If you make your cover generic, your description generic or you attract idiots. Yes you are going to have someone who buys a book thinking its one thing and gets another.

    However if you are smart. You will not make your thriller book look like a damn love story and you will make certain the description is doesn’t mention love.

    Again if someone buys a book thinking its one thing and gets another. Either they were an idiot or the author was an idiot to make their cover look like something else. Good chance, it’s both.

    Anyway that’s my take on it. Take it, leave. I don’t care. Hoo Rah!

    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 09th Dec 2013 at 9:18 pm

      Well, perhaps. But then again, Lee lives in NY, not Mexico, so the hazards are considerably different.

      As to using a different pseudonym for each genre, sure, you can hope that all your readers are bright and paying attention. But those that aren’t, and buy your next one that’s a departure, are going to be annoyed, meaning they won’t trust your brand anymore. You also are projecting a mixed image for your brand at that point – you’re author guy, instead of Suspense author guy. I maintain that the clearer you can communicate who you are and what your specialty is, the easier it is for the consumer to decide whether they want what you serve. While being author guy may seem neat, it means nothing to the reader. And if they look at your backlist and see a bunch of different types of books, they don’t get any clearer picture of what it is you do, other than write books. You just lost the chance to clearly communicate what genre you write books in.

      I believe that results in a lost sale most of the time. Because again – time’s at a premium, there are hundreds of thousands of authors out there to choose from, and millions of books. If they can’t quickly and easily see what the hell it is you’re all about in terms of genre, they move on to someone else.

      My NA and romance books will use the RE Blake moniker. My suspense/adventure novels use the Russell Blake name. I don’t want my RE Blake readers hesitating to buy the next romance because they aren’t sure what it is RE Blake does, nor do I want a Russell Blake customer to get a passionate potboiler instead of what they came to the window for.

      You’re free to try any approach you like. We have to disagree on this one.

      • Lynda Filler  –  Mon 09th Dec 2013 at 11:30 pm

        I agree with you. I expect Jet and the Assassin from you. That’s what turns me on. And although I would definitely buy a steamy romance, I would be confused about your brand. Your writing is great so I trust anything you write. But if I’m in the mood for 50 Shades, I would be unhappy with a smart ass over the hill detective.
        I get what you’re saying. I’m surprised others don’t.


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