A good friend recently gave me a copy of Chelsea Clinton's new book, She Persisted Around The World. It is a juvenile nonfiction book about thirteen women who changed the course of history. Our conversation turned to the story about J.K. Rowling's attempts to get the first Harry Potter book published. After many tries, she found a publisher who wanted her to use initials, instead of Joanne, because they feared boys wouldn't want to read a story about a boy wizard written by a woman. This led us to a discussion of why authors frequently use pseudonyms instead of their actual given names.
1. One pretty obvious reason to change your name is when you have a name that just isn't marketable. Two examples of this are Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski who used the pseudonym Joseph Conrad and Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum who was published as Ayn Rand. Grigory Shalvovich Chkhartishvili, Russian author of many historical mysteries, chose the nom de plume Boris Akunin. Marguerite Johnson changed her name to Maya Angelou, simply because it sounded better.
2. Another reason to use a pen name, historically, is that in earlier times women were expected to write "light" literature and romances and men "heavy" literature and adventure books. Mary Ann Evans was published as George Eliot during the Victorian era to gain respect as a serious author of such classics as Silas Marner and Middlemarch. George Sand fits in this category and the "bad" name section since her real name is Amatine-Lucile-Aurore Dudevant. More recently, prolific true crime writer, Ann Rule could only get published using the pen name Andy Stack at the beginning of her career. You might be surprised to find out that some of your favorite romance authors (Leigh Greenwood, Jennifer Wilde and Madeline Brent) are actually men.
3. Some authors become famous writing in a specific genre and change names when they change genres. When J.K. Rowling decided to write a mystery series she chose the name Robert Galbraith. Often this is done to avoid alienating their fan base. Hugely successful author Nora Roberts choose the pseudonym J.D. Robb for her genre changing series of futuristic mysteries. Agatha Christie wrote romances under the name Mary Westmacott.
4. Very prolific writers often choose pen names so the market for their books won't become over saturated. When Dean Koontz first started writing, he wrote several books a year under eleven different pseudonyms. Stephen King managed to write so quickly that his publisher insisted he take a pen name, so he wouldn't dilute the Stephen King brand. Sometimes a publisher has legal rights to an author's name and the writer is forced to use another name when writing for a different publisher.
5. There are many other reasons a writer may choose to publish under another name. Joseph Hillstrom King chose Joe Hill as his pen name so he could succeed on his own merit and not ride on his father's (Stephen King) coattails. William Sydney Porter used the name O. Henry while serving a prison tern for embezzlement. Michael Crichton wrote thrillers under a couple of pen names because he wanted to be taken seriously while attending Harvard.