How to Choose the Perfect Pen Name

How to Choose the Perfect Pen Name

Jeff SomersBeginnerCareerBrandingPresence

I don’t know about other authors, but one of the main motivations behind my efforts at publishing my work is the fact that I want people to remember my name. While I’m locally famous in my neighborhood as a gadfly and bon vivant (also for being “the guy who sometimes forgets to wear pants when he answers the door,” which is fair, but hurtful), those legends won’t go far after I’m gone. I want to be a well-known, oft-quoted author like Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, or George Orwell.

Except those are terrible examples in a way because they’re all pen names, or pseudonyms. Mark Twain’s real name was Samuel Clemens, Maya Angelou was really Marguerite Johnson, and Orwell was born Eric Blair (let’s face it, ‘Blairian’ doesn’t have the same cool factor as ‘Orwellian’). In fact, over the course of history, hundreds of authors have published under pen names, either exclusively or for some of their work. A pen name can be a very useful tool as you navigate crafting a brand and persona for yourself as a professional writer, so it’s inevitable that at some point in their career a writer will ask themselves: Should I create a pen name?

The answer will vary from writer to writer and involves a lot of things specific to each individual. If you’re wondering whether a pen name might be useful for you, here’s a deep dive into everything you should consider.

What’s a Pen Name?

First, let’s clarify what a pen name is and isn’t. A pen name is simply a name authors use instead of their own, legal name—similar to an actor’s stage name. Simply adopting a pen name doesn’t create a legal identity, and it doesn’t give you any special rights or abilities (no, a pen name offers you no protection if you use your writing powers to libel someone).

Pen names don’t always have to be complex and secretive—sometimes they’re just variations of the author’s real name—J.K. Rowling is the pen name for Joanne Rowling, for example. Alternatively, they can be a wholly made-up name like Daniel Handler’s pseudonym Lemony Snicket. There have been plenty of secret identities in literature over the years—Stephen King published under the name Richard Bachman when he wanted to put out more books than his publisher could handle, and Nora Roberts invented J.D. Robb when she wanted to publish outside of her wildly successful Romance lane.

Pen names don’t require an elaborate back story, either—and it’s easy to go too far when doing so. The example of J.T. LeRoy remains one of the most fascinating stories in literary history: Author Laura Albert created LeRoy, supposedly a former teenage runaway, drug addict, and prostitute writing autobiographical stories based on their gritty real-life experiences. Albert corresponded with people in the persona of LeRoy, had a relative portray LeRoy in public, and convinced the world that LeRoy was a real, separate person—for a time. Albert was eventually exposed and later sued by a film company that had bought the rights to one of “LeRoy’s” books—she lost and had to pay a large settlement.

The lesson here is that a pen name doesn’t have to be an example of performance art or like a spy’s “legend” where they create a whole new identity. Most pen names are just that—simply a fake name used by an author. Typically these aren’t meant to last forever, and many authors don’t even put much effort into making their use of a pen name a secret. Even when they do, usually someone eventually figures it all out. But not always; the true identity of B. Traven, the author of the classic adventure novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, remains a mystery to this day.

So why would you want to create a pen name?

Reasons to Create a Pen Name

There are actually a wide variety of reasons an author might want to use a pen name:

Separate career track

Sometimes, an author might want to create a separate identity because they want to publish in a new genre, or because they’re worried their established brand isn’t compatible with a new direction. J.K. Rowling created the (second) pen name Robert Gailbraith because she wanted to write adult novels set in a realistic world, and worried that she was so closely associated with the Young Adult Fantasy brand of her Harry Potter novels she wouldn’t be taken seriously.

Gender unreveal

It’s not uncommon for writers to use pseudonyms to shift gender. In the past, many female authors used a male pen name in order to be taken seriously—or be published at all. Mary Ann Evans published under the pen name George Eliot because she didn’t want to be relegated to the kind of literature considered “acceptable” for women in the 19th century. Even in the modern day, female authors often create pen names if they’re writing in traditionally “male” genres like thrillers, and many male authors create female pen names because most books are bought by women, and they believe it helps them appeal to that audience.

In fact, there’s an ongoing trend for writers to publish under gender-neutral pen names to avoid this issue entirely. From J.K. Rowling to E.L James and S.J. Watson, using initials instead of full names means it’s impossible to know from a glance whether the author is male or female. Many writers think this forces readers and critics to focus on their work instead of their gender.

Career reboot

Sad to say, not all writing careers go smoothly. Many authors discover that selling their first novel isn’t always a ticket to a literary career—and bad sales numbers start to follow you everywhere. Publishers are often reluctant to buy a book by a veteran who has never sold well, for fairly obvious reasons—even if their new book is absolutely brilliant. Strangely enough, the solution here is sometimes using a pen name, because it allows you to start with a blank slate, and it allows the publisher to market your book as if you’re a debut author.

Privacy and anonymity

Sometimes pen names are used to literally hide an author’s identity, as is the case with Elena Ferrante, the author of My Brilliant Friend. Although there have been investigations and endless speculation about Ferrante’s true identity, to this day no one knows for sure who they really are. It’s entirely possible that Ferrante is a wildly famous author in some other genre or just someone who loves their privacy. When journalist Joe Klein published Primary Colors, based on his experiences with Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, he used the aggressively provocative pen name Anonymous because the books so blatantly used real people as inspiration. He actually denied being Anonymous for years until the evidence became irrefutable.

Branding

Sometimes writers will opt to use a pen name because their real name doesn’t match up with their genre or brand. It might seem silly, but people definitely make snap decisions about a book based on the author’s name—if you’re looking for a gritty thriller, you want to see a “tough” name that implies the author knows of which they write. A great example is author Ali Knight, whose real name is Alison Potter. She’s been up-front about how the pen name was all about image, as she worried that “Potter,” with its connection to Beatrix Potter’s children’s stories, would be too soft for thrillers.

Writing partners

Sometimes an author is more than one person. While it’s not unheard of for a writing team to list both authors on the cover (Andrew Lincoln and Douglas Preston do just that on their bestselling Pendergrast series), some authors and marketers worry that’s confusing for readers—and the last thing you want to do is put even the slimmest barrier between a potential reader and your book. That’s one reason “authors” like S.K. Dunstall (Sherylyn and Karen Dunstall) and James S.A. Corey (Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) publish under one name. A pen name for writing teams also avoids issues of who gets listed first and avoids distracting readers who might otherwise scan their books trying to figure out who wrote what.

Considerations

So you’ve had long think, consulted many wise counselors, spent a good amount of time staring off into the middle distance contemplating your identity, and you’ve decided that you want a pen name. That’s great, but there are a few things to consider first.

Clearing the name

Rumor has it David Robert Jones changed his name to David Bowie because there was another David Jones working in the music business—that would be Davy Jones, the guy in the Monkees who seemed to only play maracas and tambourines. If you’re going to pick a pen name, spend some time researching the name you choose to ensure it’s not already in use. And don’t even think about using the name of an established author in the hope of drafting on their notoriety: Using someone’s real name is an easy way to get sued, and pen names can (and often are) trademarked (more on that below). Besides the legal issues, it’s hard to imagine the person who is excited to read the new Angie Thomas book will be thrilled to find out that it’s an entirely different Angie Thomas who is both an author and something of an identity thief.

Once you’re sure the name you’ve selected is yours to use, grab the URLs. Don’t wait until after your book has published to check if the appropriate and desirable websites are available. If they’re not, dig a little deeper because someone is clearly using your chosen name.

You don’t have to jump through any special hoops to copyright work published under a pseudonym—in the U.S. and most other countries your work is automatically copyrighted when you create it, and that goes for stuff written and published under a pen name. In fact, if you choose to register your copyright, you’ll have an opportunity to specify a pen name on the forms.

Weirdly, you generally can’t trademark your own name—but you can trademark a pen name. Generally speaking, you have to demonstrate that the pen name is a brand and not just an alternate name you go by in your life. For example, J.K. Rowling is a trademark owned by Joanne Rowling, and it makes sense because J.K. Rowling is absolutely a brand—which is one reason why Rowling created a second pen name when she wanted to publish work outside of that brand identity.

Generally speaking, creating a pen name is as simple as putting that name on your manuscript. Publishers certainly don’t care, and there’s surprisingly little (i.e., zero) legal sorcery to be performed. All you do is write BY SHAZAAM THROCKLEBERRY on your manuscript and boom! you’ve got a pen name.

Things get more complex if you need to be paid under that name. If you need to cash checks made out to our friend Mr. Throckleberry, you might have to file to Do Business As (DBA), which is sometimes referred to as filing a Fictitious Business Name (FBN) form. The laws regarding these steps will vary from state to state, so you’ll have to do your research to find out what the precise requirements are. It generally involves filling out some forms and paying a filing fee.

To be clear, you don’t have to do this—you can publish and get paid using a pen name, as long as the checks are made out to your legal name. But if you want to get the most out of the branding opportunities a pen name can offer, it might be worth it. Keep in mind you can do this later in your career, too. There’s no time limit.

Maintenance

It’s one thing to publish all of your work under a single pen name, but quite another if you work in different genres and you’re thinking of using different pen names for different types of books. If your reason for a pen name is the separate career track, keep in mind you may wind up having to maintain separate social media, email, and promotional efforts. If you have three pen names, that’s three times the blog posts, scheduled tweets, and correspondence you’ll have to manage. Of course, if you’re in a position to hire someone to manage your brands, that may not be a concern, but if you’re a hustling DIY author this could quickly become an incredible amount of work.

Nonfiction

If you’re writing a nonfiction book, think twice about using a pen name. While you might have the same reasons to consider a pseudonym as a fiction writer, nonfiction as a genre is selling accuracy and information above all else. Part of what sells a nonfiction book is the author’s credentials—their background, experience, education, and ideas. Discovering that a nonfiction book’s author is a created persona introduces a certain level of distrust that doesn’t apply when you’re just telling a good story. It makes it more challenging for a potential reader to vet you as an expert or believe your true story. Of course, you may decide you have very good reasons to use a pen name anyway, but be aware of what you might be losing in the process.

How to Choose a Great Pen Name

You’ve got your reasons, and you’ve contemplated some of the issues surrounding a pen name. Now all that’s left is to choose one. No pressure—it’s only the name that will define your literary persona and career for years to come. Choosing a great pen name isn’t just a matter of picking out a cool name that seems like it would look good on a business card, or a name that privately amuses you. There’s actually a long list of considerations.

Match your genre

If you’re planning to work in a specific genre—thrillers, or science fiction, say—like Alison Potter above you might want to consider choosing a name that “fits.” This is extremely subjective, of course, but conducting a survey of successful authors in that genre would be helpful. Are they mostly one gender or the other? Is there a pattern, as with the many, many mystery writers who use initials in their name? This isn’t scientific, but choosing a pseudonym that superficially resembles successful brands can suggest to new readers a certain legitimacy.

If you’re working on a nonfiction book and you’ve decided a pen name is necessary, consider choosing one that is close to your real name in order to minimize confusion and distrust—take a move from mystery writers, for example, and publish under your initials.

Consider your persona

Hopefully, you’ve put some thought into your author brand or persona, which is a big part of creating a bond with your readers. Choosing a pen name for yourself is a little like choosing a character name—you want it to convey a bit of personality. Keep in mind that your persona can be mysterious—you don’t have to be too obvious or explicit in terms of tone and mood. Just ask yourself: If you saw your pen name on the bookshelf, what assumptions would you make about the author?

Make it stand out

Choosing your pen name is a great marketing opportunity, so think about how it’s going to differentiate you from other authors. If a lot of authors in your genre have similarly structured names (like the aforementioned thriller writers and their initials), maybe buck the trend and use a first and middle name. If your genre is dominated by female authors, you could pick a traditionally male name to be different—unless your research suggests the benefits of a feminine-sounding name in that genre are too good to pass up. Any way you can think of to make your pen name memorable is worth considering.

Pen name generators

We’re living in the future, so why not let artificial intelligence do some of the work for you? There are actually a lot of pen name generators on the Internet, like the Reedsy Pen Name Generator, which takes some minimal input and lets you click through as many fake names as you like. If you know the persona, genre, and other factors you’re trying to match, letting a generator offer you a bunch of possibilities might be an effective way to close the deal.

A/B testing

If you’ve managed to narrow your choices down to a short list of possibilities but can’t decide which one is best, consider doing some A/B testing. One approach could be publishing two short stories in the same genre under different names to see which one sells better; if there’s a clear difference, it might be reasonable to assume one pen name is more effective. If that’s not going to work for you, consider a simple poll—ask your audience, peers, and friends to take an anonymous survey choosing the best name out of three or four. You’re not bound to follow their choice, but crowdsourced information can be valuable when trying to figure out what works in terms of marketing (and your pen name is definitely a component of your marketing plan).

Pen names have been part of the literary tradition for centuries, and while not necessary there remain some very good reasons to use one. But you have to be thoughtful about the name you choose, and conscious of the implications of publishing under a pseudonym. Because a pen name’s like a drunken tattoo—it might seem like a good idea at the time, but if you regret it in the morning it’s a real pain to get rid of.

Further Reading


How to Choose the Perfect Pen Name
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