Pen Names: What You Should Know


If you’ve ever wondered about pen names, what they are, whether you should use them or how to do so, you’re not alone.

You’re definitely in the right place.

And if you read to the end of this post, you’ll be in a better position to decide for yourself if pen names are the way to go for you.

So, what are pen names?

Pen names also known as pseudonyms or nom de plumes, are names some authors use, instead of their real or legal names, when releasing a book.

Why would anyone use pen names?

If you are wondering why any author would want to release a book under a pen name, that’s understandable.

Over time, authors have used pen names for different reasons including but not limited to

a) Preservation of self or family

Sometimes, a person may write something that political, religious or military powers that be, would be unhappy with.

So, to protect themselves and their families from reprisal attacks, they hide their identity by using a pen name when releasing a book.

The content of their book might be a source of embarrassment to their family, who would be known if the book is released in the real name of the author.

Pen names are also used as a means of self-preservation if the author does or did a sensitive job. Or if they use the book to reveal things they (and others) did in the course of a sensitive job.

So, people who are (or used to be) spies might use a pen name if releasing a book.

b) To be taken more seriously

Some female authors who write in genres that are seen as traditionally male, use pen names that are or come across as male.

Sometimes, it’s the society they live in or the time (period), but they usually have reason to believe that readers won’t buy if they know it’s been written by a woman.

An example is J.K. Rowling, the writer of the Harry Potter series, whose publisher felt her name (Joanne) might turn off young boys who were part of the series’ target market.

No matter how good your content is, your ideal reader will never know if they’re turned off by the cover. A book cover will typically show the author’s name, so your publisher might think it makes more sense to come up with a pen name that conceals your gender.

c) For branding purposes

Sometimes, readers associate your name with a particular genre you’ve already written in. And you might want to write in a different genre. So, in order not to confuse them, you could use a pen name as a branding tool.

For instance, Nora Roberts writes romance but in order to write a romantic suspense thriller/futuristic police procedural series, she agreed to use J.D. Robb as a pen name.

d) To publish without pressure or hype

If you’re already known for something and you already have a loyal following who will buy anything with your name on it, you might wonder if you can replicate your success.

If your regular readers who love you don’t know you’re releasing a book, will it sell?

That’s what J.K. Rowling wanted to know when she wrote a crime series so she used Robert Galbraith as her pen name.

As she was at the height of her Harry Potter fame, she wanted to release something without the pressure that everyone who’s already had success in one thing faces, when they try another thing.

So, using a pen name made sense to her and her publisher.

e) Your real name is the same as that of a public figure

If my real name was Chimamanda, I would use a pen name to release my books.

As I would if there was someone who was already famous for being a criminal, before I released so much as a pamphlet.

Not all fame is good fame. And even when a name is popular for a good reason, people who are searching for the work of an author they love, they’re not looking to be redirected to a newer author who happens to have the same name as their fave.

If someone has already bought your domain name (URL) or has one that is very similar to your real name, and you’re about to release a book, a pen name might be the way.

Releasing a book that people will want to buy isn’t the easiest thing in the world, so you don’t want to make your branding and marketing efforts any harder than they have to be.

f) To keep your personal life separate

Sometimes, what you write about might be so different from what you deal with in your everyday life, that you might want to keep them separate.

Unlike say a Physics professor who writes a book on Quantum Physics in his/her real name and that helps his/her career, parents of the primary school pupils you teach might not be pleased if they know you’re the author of erotic thrillers.

g) Your name doesn’t fit your book genre

There are some author names that don’t sound quite right alongside the genre they write in.

Some names sound too harsh to work with a children’s book, or stand out for the wrong reasons with certain genres.

Imagine saying you write clean romance if your name is Felicia Slaughter.

If your name doesn’t really work with the genre you’re writing in, a pen name might be the way to go for you.

So, should I use a pen name?

That’s really up to you and your publisher. But you need to be sure why you’re trying to use a pen name, and what impact using a pen name will have on your marketability.

I wanted to use a pen name when releasing my first book, but my publisher wasn’t keen on it, as I had no real answer to “Why don’t you want people to know you wrote this?”

Releasing a book is a collaborative effort and whether pen names are for you or not, you don’t want to find out the hard way that you can’t sell your book after it’s released.

You do need to bear in mind, that whatever your reason(s) for going with a pen name – if you do – you may not be anonymous forever.

Despite her best efforts, J.K. Rowling was outed as Robert Galbraith by a journalist who analysed the language she used. Every writer has a distinctive style that cannot be hidden and any observant person will notice.

Also, pen names do not shield authors from liability – whether in criminal or civil matters – pending against them in their real name.

So, if you’re running away from the police or other law enforcement due to a crime you committed, or a debt you acquired in your real name, pen names will not set you free.

How do I pick a pen name?

Even when it makes sense for you to have a pen name, nobody should force one on you.

The easiest way to pick pen names is to remember why you need a pen name in the first place.

  • Is a pen name necessary for you?
  • What’s the age group of the target audience of your book?
  • What genre are you writing in?

A grown man might not want to read a book by a Melody Flowers, even if it’s well-written action-adventure fiction.

It’s also rather unlikely that lovers of multi-cultural women’s fiction would buy a book if the author is Mark White.

The pen name you choose shouldn’t be the same as or identical to the real name or pen name of another author or public figure.

Otherwise, there’s really no point; you’ll have problems with branding (domain names and social media handles will probably be taken already). There might be copyright issues.

There could also be backlash from the loyal fans of the public figure (people will think) you’re imitating.

You could use a variation or initial of your own name.

For instance, J.K. Rowling is from Joanne (her real name), Katherine (her grandmother) and Rowling (her surname).

J.D. Robb is named for Jason and Dan, sons of Nora Roberts. And Robb is a play on or variation of Roberts.

You also want to pick a name that’s easy for you AND your readers to spell, pronounce and remember.

You might think of pen names that sound cool or deep to you, but what’s the point if your potential buyers are unable to identify with it, cos it’s not clear to them?

Now that you’ve come to the end of our post on pen names, did you learn something new or do you have any questions? Let us know in the comments below.

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