"Hello- I was wondering about using a pen name if my name is similar to someone who has a quasi-known name. There is a Harvard law professor named James L. Heskett who has published non-fiction books on economics. I would like to use my own name (Jim Heskett), is that too close? Should I go by Initials + Last name? Does it even matter if I would theoretically be writing fiction books? I've already started to try to build a brand around my name. If I was to switch to a pen name, would prefer to do so as soon as possible (reserving domain names, twitter accounts, etc.) Any advice you can give would be helpful"
An unusual situation, and in your particular case I would say that it does not matter that his name is similar. It is not identical to yours. And the fact that you are writing fiction, and he is known for nonfiction, gives you even more distance. I can't imagine readers confusing the two of you, or it potentially hurting your sales.
That said, the issue of whether or not to use a pseudonym in general, is one that deserves more attention. You are correct to give this careful thought: readers make decisions to buy your books based on a number of factors, including jacket, title, and synopsis--and I would not say that it's too far-fetched to assume that a reader might even be influenced by your pen name. Whether or not a reader is influenced at purchase time, it certainly will hold a greater influence down the road, when it comes to whether or not they remember your name. Branding is crucial. A name that's easier to remember might, in the long run, garner a larger readership. So you are correct to think carefully about this.
Whether or not to use a pseudonym has become a much bigger issue these days, with the advent of e-books. Many others are choosing to use pseudonyms because they want to feel free to write in different genres, and not be stereotyped. Some authors might already be famous in a particular genre, and they don't want to risk hurting their current readership by venturing off to a new genre, so they protect themselves with a pseudonym. There is nothing wrong with this, and in fact I believe this is a wise decision. People tend to remember one name for one genre, and there is a risk of confusing readers.
For many authors, it is important to them to use their real name. There is certainly nothing wrong with that either. I wouldn't necessarily assume that would hurt sales, either – I am sure you could come up with a ton of examples of best-selling authors with odd names.
However, if you decide to use a pseudonym, then I would say choose one very carefully. Do your research. You don't want to choose a name that is already famous, especially for another author. Ideally you want something shorter, easier to remember. You don't want something that obviously sounds fake. And you have to decide if you want a name that will resonate with men or women, depending on the genre in which you are writing. You might also do a preliminary search of domain name availability, and find out if the .com is available, which might impact your thinking. And you might even examine the names of other best sellers in your genre, and ask yourself if the name you chose might subconsciously ring to readers as sounding like one of these.
Of course, at the end of the day, a pseudonym, no matter how good, will not substitute for great writing or for a great book. But it is just one more factor to consider.