The Pros & Cons of Pen Names
This article looks at the arguments for and against publishing under a pen name.
Chances are you might have read works by Charles Dodgson, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Madeleine Wickham, Theodor Seuss Geisel or Jim Grant, and not even known it. But you are most likely very familiar with authors Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, Sophie Kinsella, Dr. Seuss and Lee Child. The same people penned these novels, however, the writers have employed a time-honored tradition: a pen name.
"Pen names are masks that allow us to unmask ourselves." Terri Guillemets.
The concept of a pen name, or nom de plume, has been around for centuries. In the 1780s Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay wrote the Federalist Papers under the pseudonym “Publius”. Hamilton embraced the name as a derivative of the Roman “Publicola” meaning “friend of the people” to reflect the political stance he wanted to convey. Theodor Geisel, banned from writing for his university magazine, started signing his submissions Dr. Seuss to keep contributing literary articles. Erika Mitchell possibly selected E. L. James because she didn’t want her sons learning she wrote Fifty Shades of Grey.
Pen names are still a popular and useful option for writers. There are many reasons you, as an author, may prefer to adopt a pen name to write under and a few facts to take into consideration.
"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." William Shakespeare.
What is a Pen Name?
A pen name is a fictitious name a writer or author uses in place of their real identity. It may surprise you to learn how many pen names are out there. The fact is, it’s certainly hard to gauge because authors don’t have to inform even their publishers of their true identity, never mind readers.
There are an abundance of other words for the concept, including:
Nom de plume
Nom de guerre
Anyone can use a pen name, regardless of if you’re seeking a traditional publishing contract, or self-publishing. It doesn't matter if it’s your first book, or you’re a bestselling author. Even famous authors have written under different pen names, which will be discussed further below.
These alternative names are a common and legal tool you can utilize to publish with ease. Pen names are printed on your book cover, can be used to establish publishing profiles on sites like Amazon etc. They’re employed when you register your book copyright, just like your legal name. In addition, you can set up and maintain social media accounts with a pseudonym. It is completely legal to sign a contract with a publisher using a pen name.
“Words have meaning and names have power.” Author Unknown.
Some motives to consider adopting a pen name:
Hidden Identity: Your goal might be to keep your writing life separate from your personal life. Perhaps you have a day job that might not appreciate droves of fans seeking you out at work. Or maybe you are simply interested in protecting your privacy in this social media crazed world. The British Government forbade David Cornwell, a real MI6 agent, from publishing under his real name. Thus, John Le Carré was born.
There can also be a liberation factor to writing under a pen name. It frees you from judgment, which is why many erotica writers use pen names. With an alias, you can write about how to murder your spouse without being accused of actually wanting to murder your spouse. (Side note: Do not murder your spouse.)
Hidden Gender: This was a common reason for pen names in the 19th century and earlier, when books written by women were considered unsellable. Think Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë) and George Elliot (Mary Ann Evans). At the beginning of their writing careers, there was not a wide audience willing to read books written by women. Therefore, these authors had to adopt male versions of their names to be even considered by publishers of their day.
While today there may be less and less reason to switch genders as grounds to create a pen name, there may be advantages to negating gender. One way to accomplish this is to use initials like J. K Rowling and J. D. Robb.
Avoid Confusion: If your name is too common or similar to a famous person, a pen name may be an excellent solution. The last thing you want is someone trying to find your book, typing it into a search engine, and a flood of results that are not you. They may decide to buy that other author’s book instead.
Unique names stand out. Joseph King wanted to step out from the shadow of his famous father, Stephen King, and chose Joe Hill as his nom de plume. Stephen King himself wanted a break from his own fame, and wrote some books under the name Richard Bachman.
Branding: Perhaps people already have difficulty spelling or saying your name. Using a simpler or shorter author name can help with marketing your book. It’s easier to search for people looking for you on social media or to buy your book. Stan Lee is easier to scan pages and shelves for than Stanley Lieber.
Collective Names: If you write with a co-author, publishing under one name can help avoid confusion and branding nightmares. Lewis Padgett was the joint pseudonym of the science fiction authors and spouses Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, who used their mother’s maiden names. James S.A. Corey is the pen name of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, who wrote the Expanse series.
Genre-specific: In the time Alice Mary Norton started writing Science Fiction, it was a male-dominated genre. Her publisher suggested using the more male-sounding name Andre Norton to increase her marketability. 130 novels later, it seems it worked. Conversely, Dean Koontz writes his romantic suspense novels under the pen name Leigh Nichols.
While these biases are diminishing, it still remains a reality and you might want to research your genre and consider this fact when deciding between using a pen name or your own name. What sounds good for romance novels may not work as well for military sci-fi.
Branching Out: Although readers may devour a broad range of books, they are creatures of habit and expect authors to stay in their lane or genre. Fans of the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling expect books by her to be full of fantastic creatures and magic. They do not expect realistic, modern day crime thrillers. This is one of the motivations to create her nom de plume, Robert Galbraith. By separating her works into distinct names, she was able to write in different genres, market differently, and attract new audiences. If you’ve built up a brand for well-researched non-fiction books, you might consider a pen name for a series of fairytale retellings.
Fun Fact: Both are pen names. Joanne Rowling added a middle name Kathleen, her grandmother’s name, to create two first initials to appeal to young male readers who might ignore a book written by a woman.
“I’m gonna tell a real story. I’m gonna start with my name,” Kendrick Lamar.
Why a pen name might not be for you
Commitment: It’s not as simple as choosing a name for your books. Most likely you’ll need a social presence, including photos. You’re creating a persona, which may be the same as you, but still your pen name will take on a life of its own.
Keeping your two worlds apart can be time consuming. You might need multiple social accounts and keep careful track of them, making sure you don’t accidentally tweet out your book’s tagline on your personal account. Or there is always the possibility a friend might accidentally out you. Just ask J. K. Rowling. One of her lawyers let it slip that she was Robert Galbraith.
Double Identity: Readers will know you by your pen name. They will expect the signature on your books to be by your nom de plume. At conferences, during book signings and in interviews and more, you will need to be that person, remembering to answer when your pseudonym is called upon.
Readers expect to see you on social media, with profile pictures, etc. While there are ways to hide your identity, showing up on Good Morning America in a wig or mask might not make a great impression. Although, it worked for Daft Punk and Sia.
Legal Complications: While your publishing platform may have no issues with a fake name, others will. Monetary sites and banks require authentic identification to transfer your funds like royalties. Traveling, registering software or other business expenses might necessitate you purchasing them under your real name. You can not file taxes under a pseudonym and if you branch out to other formats with more contracts to sign, like a movie deal, your true name may be required.
While you can register a copyright for your book under a pen name, be careful as with a pseudonym it may be harder to prove the writing is yours. In addition, using a false name does not offer any protection from legal issues or consequences.
"I want to reach the point where people hear my name and immediately think of real country music." George Strait.
Choosing a pen name
Make it unique and easy. Your goal is to stand out from the crowd. Try for a name that is easy to remember, say, and spell. Write it down and have your friends say it out loud. Did they say it the way you wanted it?
Give thought to staying away from odd spellings of names, as readers are most likely to enter the common spelling first. Try to find the fine line between an easily forgettable average name and a distinctive yet not difficult to remember moniker.
Consider your audience. Think about your target market. Choosing a name in the gender of readers that fits your market might make you more relatable. If you have an age range, search for popular baby names of that generation. Knowing other demographics might help you with the surname of your pseudonym.
Research your genre. Moonflower might not be the best last name for a hardcore action/adventure author. Look at other names in the genre you write in and try to find commonalities. Thrillers tend to have short, strong names that evoke the mood of the book like, J. D. Robb, whereas fantasy tales might be more extravagant, like Lemony Snicket.
Research the name. Search the US Trademark Office to make sure you aren’t tripping up against any existing trademarks. You may want to honor your favorite author, but it’s generally not a good idea. Famous author’s novels are more likely to be displayed first in a search and your book may be lost in the bowels of the internet.
Dig deep into domain names, social handles and internet searches to ensure there are no similar names. You want people to easily find your pseudonym and not have to shift through pages of other people’s books to find you.
Hot tip: When you identify your new name, snap up all the options on the big social sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Constancy helps your readers find you faster.
Have fun. There are many roads to come up with a pen name. Make it personal, make it relevant, or even random. If you’re looking for random, there are many online name generators like (https://www.name-generator.org.uk/pen-name/) to get you started. Or try an anagram name maker (https://www.anagrammer.com/anagrammer/) to rearrange the letters in your name to create something new.
“It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to.” W. C. Fields.
Should you decide to publish under a pen name, keep in mind that your pseudonym will be your identity as an author. Choosing to write under a nom de plume can afford you some privacy, but may put up a wall between you and your readers. It can help you target the right audience and create a unique persona, but it may mean double the effort. Remember, the name you attach to your book is lasting and long reaching.
Most were mentioned throughout the article, but I'll leave you with this list of famous authors and pen names they used:
Nora Roberts as J.D. Robb
Mary Ann Evans as George Eliot
Stephen King as Richard Bachman
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson as Lewis Carroll
Agatha Christie as Mary Westmacott
Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin as George Sand
Samuel Clemens as Mark Twain
Daniel Handler as Lemony Snicket
Eric Arthur Blair as George Orwell
Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë as Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell
Erika Mitchell as E. L. James