Thought it's about time to post something new, and this is a topic that's been around on the blogosphere and various fora for a while now. So I thought I'd share my views on pen names.
First up, do you need a pen name? My thought would be that for most of us the answer is no.
As a general principle I think we should all be brave enough to stand up and take credit for what we write, whether good or bad. Pen names are a way of avoiding this and in my view they should be limited to only a few situations. The main one would be when what you write would be likely to cause you undue hardship in your daily life should it be linked back to you. And by this I don't mean embarrassment. Okay, so you're a top flight neuro-surgeon and you like writing romances on the side. So what? Why can't you do both and be proud of them? A little embarrassment isn't going to really affect your life, professional or personal, in any way.
On the other hand if your work entails supporting a particular political or ethical position and your writing goes against it, then yes a pen name might be valuable or even necessary to you. For example a priest might find it awkward writing romance novels. A Republican Party strategist could find it difficult to explain his writing novels about an idealised communist world.
So yes there are reasons why a pen name might be the way to go as a writer. The acid test for when exactly this might be would be to ask yourself the question - if it becomes known that I write this work, will it cause me a red face or genuine hardship in my life?
Another question that often arises with the use of pen names is should writers use more than one? My answer would be no. If you use a pen name you should only use that one pen name and no others. (Not even your own name.)
This is a position based purely on the logic of selling your books. Now a number of people have said that they write in different genre and they think a different pen name for each genre would be a smart idea. My thought would be the exact opposite. If you're trying to make a living as a writer you want to sell as many books as you can. And one way to maximise sales is by writing multiple books and hoping that your readers will like one of your books and so try another. This is a synergistic effect so that the sale of one book hopefully adds to the selling of another. But how will your readers ever know to try another book of yours if you wrote it under a different name? The synergistic effect may be smaller when the books are in different genres, but it would still be foolish in my view to simply discard it.
The other thing to consider when marketing your work is that as an author you aren't just marketing what you write - you're marketing yourself. To give an example, I think everyone would know who Dame Barabara Cartland is. And they would know that she writes romance novels. Now for me as a reader of sci fi and fantasy, I know her name but I've never read any of her books. They simply aren't my cup of tea. However If she suddenly produced an epic fantasy novel or a hard sci fi novel and I came across it, her name alone would catch my attention. It would make me look at the book. If on the other hand she wrote the book as Joe Blogs, it probably wouldn't.
And as a final thought on using multiple pen names I would point out that it's hard enough trying to make a name for yourself as a writer. Trying to make two or three different names for yourself as a writer has to be two or three times as much work.