A Rose by Any Other: Writing With a Pen Name
So you want to publish a book, but maybe you don’t want everyone knowing you published a book. Or maybe you’ve already published a lot of books but you want to publish one in another genre.
Pen names or pseudonyms are common amongst authors, and many writers use them. In fact, a lot of the most famous authors you know go by a different name on their cover than what is listed on their birth certificate.
There are a variety of reasons and ways to use a pen name, and in this article we’ll go over:
- Why you might use a pen name
- Reasons you might not want to use a pen name
- How to choose a pen name
- How to use a pen name
- How to change your pen name
- Examples of pen names
Why use a Pen Name?
There are a lot of reasons someone might choose to use a pen name for their work.
You might have a job or profession that wouldn’t appreciate you publishing books—especially if they contain adult themes, like murder and/or sex. Perhaps you’re a teacher who doesn’t want students or parents stumbling on your work. You might work in a high-profile position where you don’t want your books tied to your other professional life.
There are those who simply don’t feel comfortable having their name attached to their books. Perhaps they’ve had issues with someone in the past who might try to harm them or cause trouble if they find out you’re publishing novels.
If you become a huge bestseller, then people are going to be interested in you, and you might feel more comfortable with people not knowing your real name.
You might not want your family and friends to know you’re publishing books. Perhaps you’re estranged from them or are worried they might judge you. Some authors use writing to explore identities they might not want their family members to know about. Or maybe you just don’t want people you know reading your books.(Personally, I don’t care if a million strangers read my work, but when someone I know is reading one of my books, I get incredibly self-conscious. And I'm sure I’m not alone in that.)
Perhaps you’ve already established yourself as a prolific and successful writer of cozy mysteries, but you’re dying to give contemporary romance a try. Your audiences don’t have much crossover and you don’t want to confuse people, so you choose a pen name to differentiate between your work.
Some authors write under multiple pen names and multiple genres. Sometimes they publicize these alternate personas, while other times they keep them completely separate.
Sometimes people pick a pen name so they aren’t discriminated against on the basis of gender or race. Women authors have often used to choose masculine-sounding pen names so their work wouldn’t be disregarded.
Author George Eliot was actually a woman and Mary Shelley—who chose to write under her own name—is famously known for being undercut by publishers for the crime of not being a man.
Similarly, non-western sounding names can sometimes be discriminated against, and some authors may choose to adopt one for those reasons.
A Fresh Start
Sometimes books don’t do very well and a name can plague you for years to come due to previous low sales. You might opt for a pen name to clear the slate, so to speak, and try for a fresh start.
Your Name is Already Being Used
Sure, your name might really be Nora Roberts or Stephen King, but opting to use those names for your book might not be the best strategy. Even if you don’t share a name with a mega bestselling author, you might share one who is already published. While it’s not that two authors can’t have the same name, it might be in your best interest to choose a name that is unique to you, particularly if that other author is writing in the same genre.
You Might be More Than One Person
Another reason to choose a pen name is if you’re actually a duo or a group of people writing under one name. If there are two or more of you, it can be tricky to include all those names on a cover and make it hard for people to remember. Romance author Christina Lauren, for example, is actually two people writing under one pen name.
Why Not to Use a Pen Name
Just like there are reasons to use a pen name, there are reasons not to, as well. It’s not mandatory and there are plenty of people out there writing under their real names who are perfectly happy with that choice.
The reasons not to use a pen name might be:
- You just don’t want to. Maybe you don’t want to do all that work only to not really be recognized for it. Or maybe you want everyone to know you published a book. Go you!
- You don’t want the hassle. There is more paperwork and legal things to work out when you use a pen name. Bank accounts, official papers, all that stuff. So if you don’t want to deal with it, a pen name might not be for you.
- Keeping it a secret. Depending on how much you don’t want people to know your real name, there is going to be some effort involved in keeping your pen name separated from your real name. Again, if that doesn’t seem that important to you, then you might want to skip the pen name.
- You already have a readership. Sometimes using a pen name doesn’t make sense if people already know you by a certain name. You’ll have to consider if you’re veering into a new genre if you have enough crossover audience to simply keep publishing under the same name so you aren’t losing any readers.
How to Choose a Pen Name
So you’ve considered your options and yes, you really want to write under a pen name. But now you’re faced with the vast burden of choice. What name will you choose? Here are a few tips to help select the perfect pen name:
- Use a variation of your real name. Some people might simply use their maiden name for a pen name or combine their mother’s maiden name with the first name of their favorite uncle. Maybe there’s a name that’s sentimental to you that you want to adopt as a pen name. Or you might use your middle name instead of your first name. Initials are popular too.
- Use a pen name generator. Of course, when in doubt, head to the internet. Do a quick search for a pen name generator and roll until you find something that feels right. Similarly, baby naming sites aren’t just for your characters. You can use them to generate pen names, too.
- Connect your name to your genre. Maybe you write historical romance set in Britain. Search for some classically British names and adopt one of those. Or find some you like and alter it slightly to sound like a classic historic British name. Some people use their pen name as part of their branding. If you’re a romance author and your first name is Sarah, maybe instead of using your real last name, you choose a pen name of “Sarah Love.”
- Brainstorm. Finally, you can do the old-fashioned thing and simply brainstorm names on a piece of paper.
Once you’ve figured out a few options you like, do some research to make sure you’ve chosen a winner.
- Check that no one else is already using the same name
- Make sure it’s not the name of someone who’s already famous
- Check registered trademarks in your country to ensure the name isn’t trademarked by someone
- Check website domain registrations and social media platforms to see if the name is available
Finally, once you’ve chosen your pen name, here are something you’ll need to do:
- Alert your publisher if you have one, or if you’re self-publishing, register your name on the various publishing sites
- Purchase rights to your pen name and any associated copyrights
Examples of Pen Names
Just for fun, let’s look at some famous pen names. Maybe you can take some inspiration from these as well.
- The Bronte sisters Charlotte, Emily, and Anne originally chose gender-neutral names Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell as their pen names because they were worried they wouldn’t be taken seriously as women authors.
- Lewis Carrol—author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass—was actually Charles Lutwidge Dodgson.
- Author of Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice's real name is Howard Allen Frances O’Brien. She changed her name to “Anne” to avoid bullying and then adopted her husband’s last name. She also wrote under Anne Rampling and AN Roquelaure for her erotic works.
- Samuel Clemens is better known as Mark Twain and less known as Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass… can’t understand why that second one didn’t catch on.
- George Orwell, author of Nineteen Eighty-Four, is actually Eric Authur Blair. He used the name to write his first book about poverty so as not to embarrass his family.
- Iconic mystery novelist Agatha Christie also wrote under the name Mary Westmacott to write works that explored human psychology and love in order not to confuse her existing audience.
- Stephen King published five novels as Richard Bachman in the 1970s and ‘80s because he wanted to publish more than one book per year—at that time some believed an author should never publish more than one book a year. My, how times change.
- Believe it or not, the name Lemony Snicket isn’t the author’s real name. Daniel Handler published a Series of Unfortunate Events, which is a great example of using a pen name to match a genre—in this case, quirky children’s literature.
- Gloria Jean Watkins is better known as bell hooks, a prominent feminist voice of this century. She got the name through her maternal great-grandmother’s name, Bell Blair Hooks, and chooses not to capitalize it to preserve and honor her great-grandmother’s memory and help ensure people focus more on the writing than the name.
Hopefully, by now you’ve made the decision either way about whether you want to use a pen name for your own career. If you’ve opted for a pen name, get researching to find that perfect new moniker to put the stamp on your next book cover.
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