A nom de plume is a pseudonym which an author uses to avoid being directly connected with the work he or she produces. There are a wide range of reasons to use a pen name, ranging from the desire to target a certain market to an attempt at self-protection. In many cases, the true identity behind a nom de plume is later revealed, and in some cases the pseudonyms of certain authors are actually widely known, as is the case with Nora Roberts, who also writes under the names J.D. Robb, Sarah Hardesty, and Jill March.
The term nom de plume is French in origin, although it is not in fact used in French as a general rule. It literally means “name of pen,” and is typically translated as “pen name.” The term appears to have arisen in Britain, where people wanted to lend a more literary air to the practice of using a pen name, so they chose to use a French phrase. In France itself, pseudonyme is more often used to describe a pen name.
Historically, one of the most common reasons to use a pen name was to separate an author from his or her works. Authors who wrote exposes, for example, often wrote under a nom de plume to avoid jepordizing their jobs, public standing, or lives. This practice is still common today, especially with books which are meant to criticize political administrations or social trends. Some very famous authors including C.S. Lewis and Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, wrote under pen names to protect their careers.
Authors may also use a pen name to avoid overexposure, especially if they are prolific. This practice is common among many mystery and science fiction authors, who often produce a large volume of work. Many magazines in these genres also use pen names so that they can publish multiple works by the same author without alerting the reading public.
A nom de plume may also be used when an author departs from his or her usual genre. For example, an author who usually writes thrillers may publish erotica under a pen name. This is done to avoid distracting or confusing readers, as a general rule, and typically minimal research is required to uncover the author behind the pen name.
One of the most famous historical uses of the pen name has been as a tool to conceal the gender of the author. “Franklin Dixon,” for example, was a pen name developed to conceal the primary female authors of The Hardy Boys, out of concerns that boys would not want to read books written by women. J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, also uses a pen name; her real name was Joanne Rowling at the time of the publication of her first novel, but her publisher requested that she use a gender-neutral set of initials so that boys would feel comfortable reading her books. Since she has no middle name, she chose a “K” for “Kathleen,” after paternal grandmother. Since her marriage, her legal name is actually Joanne Murray.