On Pen Names, Privacy, and Rape Culture

via Unsplash
via Unsplash

I go away for a weekend and I miss all the fun.

By “fun,” I mean another riveting episode of The Book Internet Blows Up.

Not everyone will agree with me, but I strongly believe that the number one rule of being an author is do no harm. This means choosing your words carefully and not allowing your emotions to get the best of you. “Freedom of speech” is not a Get Out of Jail Free card for bad behavior.

For one, it’s not okay to accuse authors writing under pseudonyms of scamming readers.

It’s also not okay to shame people for protecting their privacy.

And it’s really not okay to compare a mostly harmless thing—or anything, really—to rape.

There are many authors writing under pen names. Most authors use some kind of pseudonym these days, whether indie or trad published.

Very rarely do you hear of authors screwing over readers, and certainly not hordes of writers. For sure we would’ve all heard about these people, because readers are not stupid. Readers are incredibly adept at sniffing out scams and unmasking the culprits. Just ask James Frey. The truth almost always comes out, and the lightning-fast reader grapevine can make or break a career.

While it’s true that there’s a lot of illicit gaming going on—take a stroll through Kboards and you’ll see many complaints about the KU system being scammed—readers and retailers alike catch on quickly. Amazon, for example, is constantly tweaking things to even out the playing field.

Insinuating that all authors writing under pen names and using inanimate objects as avatars are ripping off readers is a blanket statement and not at all fair or true. With how passionate the reader community is, word about these supposed scammers would spread like wildfire. In all of the years I’ve been a part of the indie community (as both a reader and an author), I’ve heard of less than a handful of scammers.

More than likely, an author using a stock photo instead of her or his actual face is probably just trying to protect their privacy. For example, many authors who write taboo subjects such as erotica have day jobs or families that would not approve of what they write, and there could be serious ramifications. That’s not deceiving readers. Deceiving readers would be uploading an ebook full of gibberish to Amazon and charging $20 for it, or writing a completely fake memoir and telling captive audiences about the horrible, untrue things that you’ve endured and overcome.

There are also authors who write memoirs or novels based on traumatic or very personal events such as transgender transition who need the protection of a pen name because our society treats these people like dog shit. Coming out could have serious emotional consequences for these authors. That’s not scamming or hurting anyone.

Then there are authors who simply need to separate business from personal life. Some authors feel that having a pen name helps them focus better, while others find that it helps keep them and their families safe. Having had experiences with stalkers both online and in the real world, I can completely understand the need to keep some details under wraps. Occasionally I even wish that I’d written under a secret pen name and kept my face a mystery, because then I might be able to stop beating myself up about my books.

More often than not, a pseudonym is in place to protect the author, for whatever reason. That’s hardly lying. The relationship between author and reader is storytelling; authors promise their readers that the book they’re holding is going to take them on some kind of adventure and offer them an escape from everyday life. A pen name doesn’t interfere with that. Before I ever started writing books, I never wondered about the authors behind the story. I never questioned whether the name on the cover was her or his real name, or whether she or he actually lives where their bio states. Mostly I just wanted to know when I could read more of their work if it was a book I loved, or what else I should try instead if it wasn’t my cup of tea.

The definition of catfishing, according to Google, is to “lure (someone) into a relationship by means of a fictional online persona.” Since most authors are too busy untangling plots and naming characters to bother with dating their readers, accusing writers with pen names as catfishing is hyperbolic at best. Sure, it might catch your attention if you find out J. Doe is a Jane instead of a John, but no lies were told. Jane still wrote that book.

Now, if you want to talk about deceiving readers, let’s talk about James Patterson employing ghostwriters and wanting to charge astronomical amounts for serial ebooks (all while taking all the credit for inventing them, even though romance and other authors have been writing serials for decades).

I think the original blog post wouldn’t have been so outrageous if the writer hadn’t compared using a pen name to raping readers.

Rape is a horrific, violent crime that traumatizes the victim—often for life. Last I checked, using a pen name is not a crime. An author scamming readers, however, is certainly committing a crime, but it’s not the same thing as rape. Not even a little. Comparing the two is completely unnecessary, not to mention offensive to actual survivors and victims of sexual assault.

Throwing around the word “rape” casually or even for emphasis is a direct contribution to rape culture. Misusing words so loosely makes me seriously question an author’s supposed concern for readers. Statistics show that 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men have been sexually assaulted. That stands to reason that a percentage of any author’s readers may have been sexually assaulted at some point in their lives, or know someone who has.

As authors, we have a responsibility to do no harm to our readers. We’re also responsible for our behavior toward other authors.

Perhaps a better method of bolstering the community against scammers is sharing actual anecdotes of known scammers, rather than attacking both authors and readers within the community. 💜

Published by

Elizabeth Barone

Elizabeth Barone is an American novelist who writes contemporary romance and suspense starring strong belles who chose a different path. Her debut novel Sade on the Wall was a quarterfinalist in the 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest. She is the author of the South of Forever series and several other books.

When not writing, Elizabeth is very busy getting her latest fix of Yankee Candle, spicy Doritos chips, or whatever TV show she’s currently binging.

Elizabeth lives in northwestern Connecticut with her husband, a feisty little cat, and too many books.

2 thoughts on “On Pen Names, Privacy, and Rape Culture”

  1. Well said!! I agree completely. I couldn’t believe he actually used rape as a comparison, as if it’s along the same lines. It’s really not, and it’s completely insensitive. I also wasn’t impressed with the mansplaining that occurred when my friend called him out on it in the comments of his post. -.-

    1. Yeah, I was appalled to hear about that! Too bad he went ahead and deleted everything. He’s accusing the people who disagree with him of exactly what he’s doing. Confused much? When multiple people tell you something, chances are it’s you, not them. And attacking everyone who disagrees with you? And attacking people who felt triggered by his ghastly rape comparison? Just wow. I totally would’ve backed him up if the original post—before he edited it again and again, I must add—had been respectful and about KU scammers, for example. That’s a real issue that is plaguing the community. But the original was petulant and disrespectful. Even more so because he just doesn’t see why comparing anything to rape is disgusting. *sigh*

      I just hope new authors and authors using pen names don’t feel put off by him. He’s done a fantastic job of alienating his fan base, and he claims to write romance.

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