Welcome back to the weekly Q&A column. This week, I have two questions for you. One’s about pen names, and the other is an in-depth look whether you should pursue traditional publishing or self publishing. (Hint, I’m not going to answer the question for you.)

Several peeps on Twitter suggested these questions, and I owe them a shout-out here. Many thanks to @SoundofWings333, who asked about advice for publishing under a pen name. And a big thank you to @TheHappyLion12, @LorenAuthor, and @RodriguezWrigh1 for their questions about traditional publishing or self publishing.

So, let’s dive into some questions and answers! That’s what we’re here for, after all!

A pile of sharpies and "Hello, my name is..." cards relating to the discussion of pen names
Hello, my name is Laura Schmidt. Actually, it’s Ann Smith. No, I’m really Laura Schmidt. Believe me!

What’s some advice for using a pen name, AKA a pseudonym, when writing and publishing?

First of all, I’m going to discuss why people use pen names, because this is an essential part: deciding whether you should use a pen name or not.

There are several reasons why published authors use pen names. One has to do with genre. Say you’re writing super steamy BDSM m/m erotica, and you come from a really strait-laced family where no one ever talks about sex. (I’ve gone with an extreme example for the sake of making the reasoning clear.) You probably don’t want your super strait-laced mother to find out you’ve been writing erotica in your spare time. And, luckily, using a pen name will solve your problem. This is one reason to use a pen name. Even when it comes to writing lighter romance, I would say that most authors use pen names to separate their writing life from their personal life, since some of these authors hold day jobs as teachers and other professionals.

More reasons to use a pen name

To continue with genre, there are other genres besides romance in which using a pen name is so commonplace that it’s almost become a component of the genre. For example, if I go on Amazon and look up paranormal fantasy, I get a list of books by people like BR Kingsolver, Kimberly Loth, and Shayne Silvers, along with books by people like Sarah J. Maas, Humphrey Quinn, and Sarah Piper. Now, I can’t tell you 100% which of those names are pen names and which are not, but I can say with a pretty good degree of certainty that at least half the names among those six are pen names. Which means that at least 50% of people writing the greatest paranormal fantasy of this day write under a pen name. This is another reason to choose a pen name. Because… why not?

There are other reasons, too. If your name is Stephen King (which is not an uncommon name), you probably don’t want to publish under the name Stephen King. Maybe you’ll want to use your initials, like S.J. King for Stephen James King. Or maybe you want to scrap the King altogether. How about Stephen Lord?

Unfortunate reasons to use a pen name: Gender and race

There are a host of reasons to use a pen name associated with gender and race. that I wish didn’t exist. For instance, some readers of sci-fi don’t believe that women can write good hard sci-fi. (See the comments section in my post “On Facebook, People Think I’m a Guy” for a personal testimony about this.) So women are apt to use monikers like L.J. Trent instead of Liana J. Trent. This is why J.K. Rowling published under her initials: she thought that little boys wouldn’t read a fantasy novel by a woman. Never mind the fact that her target audience clearly came to include little girls as well, but at the time she wrote the Harry Potter series, fantasy was a genre written mainly by men for kids and probably mostly for boys.

Similarly, some writers with names that reveal them to belong to a particular ethnic group or race choose to write under a pen name because they don’t want racism to affect their sales. The wonderful thing about pen names is that they allow writers like this to take complete control — to masquerade. But this is horrible, at the same time, because I’m sure these writers have to face up the reality: that in order to achieve commercial success, they’re having to omit part of who they are. I very much hope that someday, the industry and the world will change enough that no one has to masquerade as a white man. We are making progress. These days, female fantasy authors rarely feel the need to use male or ambiguous pen names, although some still choose to.

One bad reason to use a pen name

A couple times in my life, I’ve found myself drawn to publishing some work under a pen name. And most of the time, it’s because the work isn’t ready to be published and because I’d be ashamed of publishing it under my real name, because then people would know I wrote it. This is a VERY BAD reason to use a pen name. Work on your writing until it’s ready, until you’re confident about it, until you’re sure you wouldn’t mind if someone you knew picked it up off a shelf and read it and knew who had written it. (This goes, of course, as long as none of the reasons above apply to you.)

Pen names in action

So, tips for using pen names? If you’re writing to self-publish, you can publish on Amazon under a pen name. If you intend to use multiple pen names for multiple genres — another reason to use pen names, since multi-genre writers essentially need to build up a fanbase for each genre — you might consider forming an LLC, essentially your own private publishing company, and linking the LLC up to Amazon. This will allow you to create more author profiles and therefore have more pen names. If you’re interested in learning more about the process of forming an LLC, let me know in the comments. I have in fact gone through the process before and so can give a better guide if anyone is interested.

If you’re going the traditional route, just make it clear to your agent that you want to publish under a pen name. Some people suggest that you should use your pen name during the query process, but in my opinion I would avoid doing this unless you have a really good reason. You and your potential future agent are creating a partnership, and I think you would want your agent to know who you really are — because don’t you want to know who they really are? And if you’ve hidden your identity throughout the query and publishing process, you will absolutely need to form an LLC so that you’ll be able to receive payment under your pen name.

You also run the risk of upsetting potential agents if you “hoodwink” them by, say, using a male name in the query process when you’re actually a woman. Read the comments section of Janet Reid’s post on this matter for a testimony about that!

If you query under your real name, your agent will work it out with your publisher, and they’ll take care of most things for you. You will have to figure out where to draw the line, though — are you still going to include an author photo of yourself? What about an author bio?

That answer turned out longer than I expected, but hopefully it’s a fairly comprehensive look at both the reasons why you’d use a pen name (about 75% of the importance) and how you use a pen name (the remaining 25%).

Just a reminder that I am not a published author (quite yet). I will be a self-published author, as soon as my short story and poetry collection Metamorphosis comes out.

But I’ve done a lot of research on these matters, and they’re mostly industry matters, not published author matters. A lot of them are pretty common sense matters, although they have many sides. Let’s dig into a somewhat larger question about the differences and reasoning behind traditional publishing and self publishing.

an open book to represent the openness in the discussion of traditional publishing or self publishing
Traditional publishing or self publishing. The question is as open as this book.

Traditional publishing or self publishing?

First of all, I’m going to talk about my background so that you can get a sense for what I’m qualified to say and what I’m not.

  • I am currently not traditionally published, nor am I self-published.
  • I will be self-published in about a month when I publish my short story and poetry collection Metamorphosis, as I said above.
  • At that point, I will assess whether I want to go through the query process for my novel Blue and White, which will likely be self-published for a variety of reasons (you can read more about that in this post about my writing life, if you’re interested).
  • I have gone through the query process once before.
  • During that process, I queried about 20 agents and had 1 full request, 1 partial request (which was from #PitMad). Both the full request and the partial request ended in rejection.
  • The full request ended in a form rejection, and the partial request ended in a personalized rejection. I stopped querying at that point because the personalized rejection confirmed my own suspicions about the project’s weaknesses. The agent who gave me the personalized rejection did invite me to resubmit if I conducted revision.
A couple notes…

I got a taste of what traditional publishing was like through the query process, but I don’t know the whole deal. Similarly, I don’t yet know the whole deal of self-publishing. I know a bit about the whole deal of both from reading about them, but I don’t know them personally. You can take everything I say with a grain of salt. But I’m not here to really give advice or pass judgment on what form of publishing is best. That’s a decision you have to make for yourself. I will give you pros and cons of each and their differences, to help you make your decision.

Another thing I will say: Many authors query at least 30 agents before they get their agent. It’s possible that had I continued querying, I may have ended up with an editorial agent who wouldn’t have minded working with me and my manuscript to get it in shape, or I may have ended up with an agent who, for whatever reason, would have been willing to sign a weaker book. I’m glad I didn’t do either of these things.

The next time I query, if I ever query again, I want to query with the strongest book possible. That means that if I know the book has a fault, I’ll keep writing until that fault is gone. In this case, the fault that existed in the book made the query letter hard to write, which led to a lower request rate in the beginning. I was also querying in a very saturated genre, which I’m sure factored in.

With all that being said, let’s talk about traditional publishing.

Traditional publishing: the process and the reasoning

Regardless of whether you’re pursuing traditional publishing or self publishing, the process begins with a very good book. Or at least it should begin with a very good book. Look at writing the very good book as 75% of the battle. There are a lot of people out there who write a not very good book and then self-publish or attempt to query. If you write a very good book or even a good book, you’ve already put yourself ahead of these people. Yay, you!

So, you want to publish traditionally. This means, in almost all cases, that you’ll need an agent. There are a few — and I mean a handful — of large, legitimate publishing companies that will take unsolicited submissions. And your goal, when you decide to publish traditionally, should be to get published by one of the Big 5. Sorry, but that’s how I see it. That’s the goal. You get anything less and your odds of “success,” however you define it, are considerably smaller.

Getting an agent

So, you need an agent. How do you get an agent? You send a query letter. Not just one. You send your query letter to many agents at once. I recommend batches of 3-5 in the beginning so you can assess the strength of your letter. But don’t start sending that letter until you’re sure it’s perfect, anyway! If you’re interested in learning more about where you can get query letter advice, check out this Q&A session.

When querying, always remember this. AGENTS ARE PAID BY COMMISSION, ONCE YOUR BOOK IS PUBLISHED, IF AND ONLY IF YOUR BOOK IS PUBLISHED. DO NOT PAY AN AGENT TO READ YOUR WORK OR REPRESENT YOU. Some agencies ask for a small reading fee associated with a digital submission platform like Submittable. This is okay. But anything beyond $5 and you might be looking at a scam.

To vet possible agents, pick up a copy of the Guide to Literary Agents. I’ve linked the 2020 version. It’s a bit pricey, but a necessary resource if you’re going to vet agents successfully. It’s also helpful. Look at it as the only $30 you’ll spend in your quest to publish your book.

If an agent decides they like your query letter and whatever else you send them (they usually as for between 5-10 pages and perhaps for a synopsis), they can request more of your manuscript. Woo-hoo! This is great news. They might ask for 50 pages, or they might ask for the whole thing. Rarely, if an agent is really enthused, they might ask for the whole thing AND for your word that you’ll send it only to them. This is generally frowned upon these days, but if it’s your dream agent, you might consider giving them an exclusive read. If you can wait, that is.

In general, expect to do a lot of waiting when it comes to traditional publishing. You’ll have to wait for agents to respond. Sometimes, they don’t respond at all, which is even more disheartening than a rejection. Out of the 20-odd agents I queried my first time around, I would say about 5 never responded at all. A few responded WAY AFTER I’d shelved the novel.

If an agent decides they love your book and want to represent you, you’ll have a call with them. This is your time to vet each other. The agent will make sure you’re not a lunatic. And you should make sure the agent is not a lunatic. But more than that, make sure the agent is a good fit for your vision of your book and your writing career. Make sure they will give you the representation you deserve. At this stage, you have the power. You have the choice. You know that your book is desirable; it’s gotten this far. Odds are that another agent might be willing to represent it. You might even have multiple offers. So choose wisely.

After you have an agent

You’ll conduct revision according to the agent’s requests. Then they’ll send the book on submission to editors at publishing houses. You’ll wait, again. This time, you’ll have someone waiting with you. If your agent is good, they’ll keep you updated as to what’s going on with your manuscript. They’ll give you a list of the editors they’ve submitted it to. There are some good agents who are bad at keeping in touch, but most good agents will make an effort to keep you in the loop.

If you’re lucky, an editor or two will love your book and want to pick it up. But do know that getting an agent is not synonymous with getting published. Many, many writers get an agent, but their book doesn’t get picked up by a publisher. Even good agents have “unpublished” writers on their lists. But remember that your agent loves your work, so most agents will continue to represent you and your future projects regardless of whether your first project gets picked up. This also goes for if your first project doesn’t sell once it is picked up.

Okay, publishers want your book. If more than one publisher wants it, they go into auction. Your agent will fight for the best deal. This is where having a good agent is really important. They’ll secure you a good advance — money the publisher pays you up front or in installments prior to the publication of the book — and good royalty terms.

Once your book is picked up

You’ll undergo more revision according to the requests of the editor who picked up your book. Watch out here. Don’t be afraid to say no to a few requests. You can’t say no to all of them, but if there’s something you feel will adversely affect your book, have a debate. Don’t expect your book to be the same after this process, though. This is about making it more marketable. Publishing companies need to sell, so they need marketable work.

Eventually, you’ll get a green light. The publisher will set a release date and create schemes for marketing and distribution. Depending on how high-profile your release is, they’ll set up events for you. Book signings, book readings, a book launch, and the like. You’ll have a website and social media platforms now, even if you didn’t have them in the beginning.

Your book will launch, probably to little fanfare. But maybe to a lot! Your goal now is to buy back your advance: to sell enough copies of your book that you overtake the amount of money your publisher gave you up front. Only then can you begin to earn royalties. Royalties equal a percentage cut of the profits from each book sold. You’ll probably receive about 8% for a paperback, 10% for a hardcover, for the first 5,000 copies sold (after you buy back your advance). So, if you’re selling a hardcover for $15, you’ll make $1.50 off each hardcover sold, for the first 5,000 hardcovers sold. Then the royalties go up.

Except… your agent takes from your cut. And from your advance. Agents typically take 15%. So if your advance is $10,000, you’ll get $8,500. And you’re only going to make $1.28 off those $15 hardcovers.

Reasons to traditionally publish

Listen, you’re probably thinking someone would have to be crazy to publish traditionally.

But you get a lot from publishing traditionally, actually. You get marketing done for you. Ditto to distribution. And publishing companies have a much wider net than you as an individual.

You also get street cred. You get to tell people you’re a published author. Not a self-published author, a published author. That means that your writing is really up to snuff or at least really sellable, because you made it through the gauntlet.

You get an agent who’s dedicated to your career. Yeah, that’s right, where’s the next book? If your first book does well, you have a publisher who wants more. You might even have a series deal from the get-go — but if that’s the case, make sure that first book does well, or they might decide to cancel your deal. (That’s sometimes permissible under the terms of your agreement, sometimes not.)

Anyway, there are many reasons to publish traditionally. Most of them have to do with all the stuff that gets done for you. Because let’s be honest, most writers are not also marketing geniuses or insane extroverts who can shamelessly self-promote every five seconds.

Let’s take a look at the other side of things.

Self-publishing: the process and the reasoning

Okay, so you’ve heard self-publishing is the future. How do you go about self-publishing, and why would you do it?

First and foremost, self-publishing ON THE SURFACE looks easier and simpler than traditional publishing. You just have to write a book, upload it to Amazon, and hit publish, right?

Wrong! At least, if you want to self-publish right, this is absolutely NOT the process.

When you decide to self-publish, you’re taking on all the work that your agent and editor and publishing house would have helped you do. You need to self-edit or hire an editor, if you can’t self-edit. You need to ensure that your book is up to snuff and to discern whether your idea is marketable. (This is all, of course, assuming that you want to enjoy some literary or financial success from your self-publishing endeavor. If you don’t care about those things, by all means, go ahead and publish anything. Don’t expect it to sell and do know that if it isn’t quality, it reduces the value of ALL self-published work and perpetuates the notion that self-published work is bad, unedited, and downright unreadable.)

Self-publishing the right way

You’ll need a couple things. First off, you NEED a platform. You need a social media presence and a website and, in this day and age, you might want a YouTube channel. You need multiple avenues to get in touch with readers. A big circle of friends in real life helps, too. Connections with local bookstores and libraries can be really beneficial.

Next, you need a plan. Are you going to do everything yourself, or are you going to hire some parts out? Will you hire an editor? (They’re not cheap. You better hire an editor only if you’re sure you’ll earn back what you pay for the editor.) Will you hire a graphic designer to do your book cover, or will you do it on your own? What about setting the text? Who are your beta readers?

You need to address all of this while you start promoting. Sneak peeks, cover reveals, giveaway contests for your upcoming book… All of these have their place. You need to turn into a marketer and a salesperson. Drum up excitement for your book. Decide where it’s going to be published. There are a number of self-publishing platforms and a number of distributors. Will your book be an E-book only, or will it be available as a paperback or hardcover too? Will you create an LLC to publish under?

The process, continued

You won’t get an advance. You’re doing this all in the hope of future gain. Don’t put shit out there, or people will assume the rest of your stuff will be shit, too.

Release day. Hooray! Drum it up. Hopefully you make a few sales. The work isn’t over. Keep marketing that thing. Send it to people for free in exchange for reviews. Push, push, push. Do book signings if you have physical copies of the book. Do guest posts on blogs about your book. That book isn’t going to sell itself, and no one’s selling it for you. This is really on you.

And be aware that you’ll have to fight against the notion that self-published work is crap. Hang onto the success stories. Did you know that The Martian was originally self-published?

Reasons to self-publish

Self-publish because it’s all on you.

No, seriously. The biggest reason is control. You get control over your work and what it looks like. You’re accountable for its success or failure. And no one’s going to change your work. You publish it, as you like it, you make calculated risks that publishing houses wouldn’t be willing to make.

Don’t self-publish because you’re impatient. Or because you don’t think your writing is good enough to publish traditionally. Or because you’ve heard it’s easy, or because you’ve heard you can get rich by self-publishing.

Self-publish if you want to do it all and be responsible for it all.

And what’s the answer to traditional publishing or self publishing? My friend, it’s completely up to you.

How did I do? If you enjoyed “Q&A: Traditional publishing or self publishing?” then pass it along!

Phew, that was pretty exhaustive. I hope it’s helped you start to think about whether you want to pursue traditional publishing or self publishing. If this Q&A was helpful, please share it with someone who would find it useful!

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You can also check out some of the other Q&A columns: about Internet Archive, about that Tom Cotton op-ed, or about a publishing copyright dispute.

What do you think — traditional publishing or self publishing?

Start a conversation in the comments. We’d love to hear your voice! Traditional publishing or self publishing? Tell me about your perception of any kind of publishing or about your publishing experiences. Talk about anything.

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