Managing Multiple Identities Online (Avoid)

Inevitably, at some point during author platform discussions, two questions get asked:

  1. What if I want to write under a pen name, or two (or more) different names? Do I need to maintain multiple identities?
  2. What if I have different areas of interest that have no connection to each other? Should I have separate blogs/sites/presences for each?

There are several different facets to these problems that need to unraveled. Let’s start with the question of using a pen name.

Pen Names or Pseudonyms
The first question here is: Why are you using a pseudonym? For protection/privacy or for marketing purposes?

If you’re using it to prevent market confusion (e.g., you don’t want your crime fiction fans to be confused and buy your newest postmodern fiction masterpieces), that’s understandable and it’s a well-known marketing move to use different names for distinct readerships.

If you’re doing it to hide something from friends or family, or even hide something from a segment of your audience, you’ll expend a lot of energy “protecting” yourself and your readers. You should avoid this whenever possible—it’s time consuming and takes away momentum from both writing and platform building.

Furthermore, in today’s world of diminishing privacy (which so far I refuse to put a value judgment on, but read one informed take here, point 3 about privacy being overrated), it is difficult to keep anything a secret for long.

Plus, any work that you cannot directly and openly affiliate yourself with will be a challenge to market, since there will be certain strategies/tactics you can’t implement without being identified with the work.

So, You Write in Very Different Genres/Categories?

This could be an advantage—since readers in either category could potentially be interested in the other things you write, or know people who are. Bringing all worlds (readers) together isn’t a bad thing if they can easily find what they’re looking for.

When you set up your sites, blogs, or social media accounts, you’ll want to include mentions of all the pen names you write under, and have subsections for each, as needed.

When Should You Develop & Maintain Separate Identities?

There are usually 2 areas where I see a definite need to separate and maintain different sites or social media accounts:

  • When you write for children (you may need a separate experience/voice for them)
  • When you have a professional pursuit that really can’t be mixed with your writerly pursuits

In both of these cases, you aren’t necessarily hiding anything from anyone (I would expect you’re still able to be affiliated with your work no matter where you go), but mixing things up could prove detrimental.

So, overall: Have a holistic presence whenever possible, and avoid identity segmentation. It will be less work in the long run, and you could see benefits from cross-pollination of your interests.

But tell me what your experiences are. If you maintain multiple identities, what are the pros and cons? And if you use a pen name, what has been your experience in marketing?

Looking for more information on this topic? You can do no better than Christina Katz’s Get Known Before the Book Deal, which dedicates a full chapter to choosing your name.

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18 thoughts on “Managing Multiple Identities Online (Avoid)

  1. Sharleen

    I’m always drawn to discussions about pseudonyms because this has perplexed me for years. Okay, decades. It started when I got married and added my husband’s surname onto mine; I stuck with this byline for years but it’s really too long. My own surname alone is–at the risk of insulting a lot of Johnsons–rather dull, I think. The domain of my legal name has been taken anyway. When I started a blog, I bought the domain for the version of my surname used by my grandfather before he Anglicized it.

    Jane asked for the cons in using a pen name, and the obvious one is confusion. Having different twitter accounts and emails is one thing, but there’s also "real" life, too. Like when you’re at a gathering and have to introduce yourself and stumble over, "Hi, I’m…" WHO exactly are you again? Is this your kid’s soccer barbecue (where you go by your double-barreled married name) or is this the networking event for business writers (where you’re using your shortest pen name)?

    I know one writer who decided to use her mother’s maiden name for a pen name and to avoid confusion she changed it legally. But that, she told me, was a LOT of paperwork.

  2. Jane Friedman

    @Michelle – You raise excellent questions.

    Here’s something to think about. Let’s say you decide not to disclose your geek activities when pursuing more general work. What happens if your clients discover it anyway? Would you be in big trouble? Would they stop working with you?

    Maybe it depends on what kind of clients we’re talking about, but my thought is you’d rather have clients who are willing to accept all the work you do, in all communities, rather than holding some portion of your online life against you.

    Plus, when you’re more open and free to expressing all that you do, to all of your audience, more opportunities tend to arise.

    I’d much rather tell you to be bold and proudly proclaim who you are, in all facets, rather than hide it. Of course, you don’t have to rub it in anyone’s face, or demand that people to accept it. But I’d say you only want to work with people who accept it.

    As far is Twitter – that is one area where it can be entirely appropriate to have two different handles, and I don’t think it’s an issue.

  3. Michelle Clough

    Jane, thank you for a very timely and important post on the theme of online identities. I admit that I have been struggling with this very issue, and even after reading this article I’m still not sure what to do.

    My main issue is that since my teens, I’ve been involved in "geek" related activities (e.g. video game forums, anime fanfiction communities, etc) under a nickname. Since it’s all hobby related, I engage(d) in a lot of unprofessional behaviour; nothing malicious or shameful, or course, just fun and nonprofessional things like squealing over favorite series/characters, writing fanfiction, swearing a bit and generally being excitable and casual.

    Now I am working at breaking into freelance writing; I’d love to work in geek journalism, but I’m staying open to more general work as well. I really have not been sure how (if at all) to acknowledge and use my nickname. Do I use it for my geek writing? Do I acknowledge it on my general website if appropriate (e.g. for forum experience)? Does this run the risk of turning off potential clients who might be turned off by my hobbies and behaviour? And how do I tackle things like Twitter (e.g. do I keep my writing Twitter and my gaming Twitter separate so I can be professional in one and squeeing in the other)?

    I guess there’s probably no right answer, but any input from those with more experience would be really appreciated. 🙂

  4. Jane Friedman

    @Kristan – This is a tricky issue, and I’m not sure there’s one right answer for everyone.

    For myself, I think it’s easier — if you’re not yet a known brand/author or have an established identity that people would come across — that you should build a Facebook presence that takes advantage of all your personal connections. Essentially, you have an all-worlds-collide approach, at least up until you reach 5,000 friends, which is the limit for a personal page.

    At the 5,000 mark, it feels like you’ve earned the right to start a "fan" page, where people can more formally declare their interest/dedication in the work you do, apart from the person you are (although I think most of us would admit it is hard to separate the two).

    Of course, you can always start a separate fan page before you hit the 5,000 mark, but for me, it feels more like vanity — and ultimately unnecessary — until you have an established interested in your work.

    Again – as with all things related to online identity – if you have strong reasons for segmenting your "writing life" from your "personal life," then segment. But you might be robbing yourself of your first essential audience: friends, family, schoolmates, close writing partners.

    You can create "groups" of friends on Facebook and allow them different levels of access to your personal information. (E.g., I have a "Personal" group of friends on Facebook who are the only ones with access to my IM accounts and cell phone.) You just need to have the discipline to assign all your frirends to different groups. I promise to write a blog post on this THIS week.

  5. Kristan

    Jane, great post on a very front-of-mind subject for lots of writers. I agree with you on pretty much all counts, but I’m still left with one question for myself/you…

    I have been considering a Facebook fan page vs. my regular Facebook account, for when I get published and have actual fans. Because I don’t necessarily want my fans to know my cell phone number or what I did last weekend, but I do want them to be able to interact with me directly in such a popular medium.

    This thought arose when I realized how cluttered my FB account already is with writing-related connections that I don’t necessarily need to see in my Live Feed or whatever.

    Do you have thoughts on this? Is it worth the trouble to add a Fan Page? Or am I being persnickety and should I just let it go?

  6. Dana

    I think there might be an interesting blog topic about creating different identities for discussion forums, social networks, online role playing games, etc. Creating alts in those mediums give some writers a chance to express things they might feel too shy, ashamed, embarrassed or otherwise maladjusted to express with their real names attached.

    I think there is a correlation between creating alts and creating characters; the grown-up version of make believe we played as children?

  7. H.C. Buck

    I used pseuds in a previous life (a few, actually), and I’m so very glad that I did. Now that I’m writing non-fiction, I am glad that I have that line of separation. But one day I may want to venture into something else, another genre that is as far away from my current writing endeavors as it can get. And when that day comes, I have the perfect pseud for that.

    Anne Rice did it. Stephen King did it. Plenty of other writers did it at some point in time. I don’t think there’s a problem if I choose to do it as well. And when I’m famous enough and it won’t matter, then my books can say ‘by H.C. Buck writing as XXX!’ I live for that day!

  8. Jane Friedman

    @ Kate – I’m not sure it’s going to make a huge difference, but I’d probably add your middle name or initial, depending on how well it reads/looks?

    @ D.G. – Certainly if you’re a writer who feels under threat, these issues go to a whole other level. The primary concern still is, however, whether or not you’re willing to be publicly affiliated with that pen name. If you aren’t, you’re going to have a tough time in marketing and establishing your presence.

    I feel terrible for those who feel threatened and have privacy concerns as a result, because make no mistake about it: This *IS* a handicap when you’re trying to establish a widely known author identity.

  9. D. G. Hudson

    You don’t seem to consider that some women may write under a pen name for privacy and protection from harassment by former mates. Look at any newspapers to see the results of not protecting your privacy.

    I have some real life experience with this. What would you suggest for a writer to do when this is the case? (I’m interested because I currently have a book in the revision process, preparing it for submitting.)

  10. Karin

    I was hired to co-write a nonfiction book with a renowned scientist – my job was to make it appeal to the popular market. Because the topic was highly controversial, I asked that the option for a "pseudonym" be included in the contract; this way I had the opportunity to assess whether I ultimately wanted my name to be associated to the project.

  11. Edward

    In some cases using several identities can be quite worth it even to protect your true one. Lets take an example when you are doing something that requires a certain background (you do it good, but if people get to know that you do not have THAT backstory, they will not treat you respectively) using a made-up identity is quite justified.

  12. Kate Thompson

    This post touches on a parallel question I have about my name. I have published two books (one is self-help and one is an adult literacy workbook, written on contract) using my name, Kate Thompson. I’m now working on my third book, a novel that will be of interest to many of the same people who buy my self-help book, plus others.

    In the past year or so, I’ve discovered how very, very many Kate Thompsons there are in the world, and how very many of them are published authors. Is it advisable to add my middle name or change to my first two initials instead of using "Kate?" Or is it better to keep getting published (I’m thinking positively here) using my name in the same form I used in the first two books?

  13. Kyra

    I have struggled with this for the past two years. I fall in the So, You Write in VERY Different Genres/Categories. In the future, I hope to bring all my identities together in harmony! Oh to be like the great Jayne Ann Krentz aka Amanda Quick! She has 7 pen names!

  14. janflora

    I have been contemplating this issue for awhile. I try to keep my online work/writing separate from my personal life, though of course there are overlaps. I have a facebook acct which is really private-just friends irl and family, though there are links to my blog, twitter, etc. Many people know I write, but few of them are interested in that part of my life. Since I have yet to put a book on the shelves, it doesn’t really count to them 😉 I have been trying to figure out which name to use professionally though. Online I use my 1st and middle names, (Janet Flora) just because I always have (and b/c the surname has changed over the years). I am torn between using my maiden name or my married name for book publication. I know a lot of women use both, but I like my middle name. As I progress in my writing life, I want to actually start a real website, possibly this year. So which is better? I hope I get this dilemma figured out before publication! haha

  15. Arvael O'Tierney

    I remember I was thinking of the pros and contras really hard. But my studies (and its circumstances) gave me the answer: to use a penname (and I’m sure it’s still easier for people to pronounce than my real one). So, my decision is because of point #2 (when you have a professional pursuit that really can’t be mixed with your writerly pursuits).
    I don’t know whether it’d be the case forever, but right now, and for a few years, I think so. (After that, I still want to keep my penname, though – that would be the logical step.)
    And thank you for this post; it strengthened my resolve.

  16. Heather Kephart

    Thanks for the wonderful and timely advice, Jane. Since I started writing for children, I’ve been concerned about my web presence, especially since my blog holds my name. I’ve been thinking for some time that it might be prudent to create an additional blog and segregate my kid stuff from my big girl stuff. I don’t want valuable potential contacts and future readers to have to slog through my personal material to discover how I relate to children through words and ideas.

    It’s a relief to read an educated opinion on the matter so that I may proceed with confidence.


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