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Should I use a Pen Name? Why or why not?

 

One dilemma many authors face is the decision over what name to use as their author name. Do they use their own name, a variation of their name, or should they use a pen name?

Pen Names - www.christianediting.co.nzMost authors use some version of their own name. This could be:

  • First name-last name
  • First name-maiden name
  • First name-middle name-last name (or similar)
  • First name-initial-last name
  • First name-maiden name-last name
  • Initials-last name

First name-last name is probably the best option. Married women have the option of using their maiden name or their married name. Although if your married name is Jones or Smith … you’re probably better going with your maiden name. Or vice versa. (If you’re Grandma Megan, who was born a Smith and married a Jones … you may have a problem.)

Many authors with common-ish names use a middle initial or middle name to distinguish themselves e.g. Jerry B Jenkins, Kristi Ann Hunter. Other use a middle name which might be their maiden name or other family name, e.g. Lisa Karon Richardson.

But some authors don’t want to use their own name for one of many possible reasons:

You Write in Multiple Genres

Many authors choose pen names for writing in multiple genres. Well-known general market examples of this are:

  • Victoria Holt (gothic romance) also wrote historical romance as Jean Plaidy and the epic Daughters of England series as Philippa Carr.
  • Nora Roberts (romance and women’s fiction) who also writes thrillers as JD Robb.
  • Jayne Ann Krentz (contemporary paranormal romance) who writes historical paranormal romance as Amanda Quick, and science fiction/romance as Jayne Castle.
  • Joanna Penn writes books on writing and publishing, and publishes her thrillers as JF Penn.
  • JK Rowling writes thrillers as Robert Galbraith.
  • Stephen King published a few early novels as Richard Bachman.

Someone Else Has Your Name

You might want use a pen name if your name is John Grisham or Karen Kingsbury or Nora Roberts or Stephen King—because those names already have strong brands associated with them. You might make a bunch of sales by writing as Karen Kingsbury, but you’ll also pick up a bunch of stinking reviews from readers who feel duped.

You Want to Disguise Your Gender

Authors sometimes use their initials to disguise the fact they’re writing in a genre dominated by readers who expect their authors to be female (e.g. romance) or male (e.g. thriller). Examples include JK Rowling, JD Robb, JF Penn, and EB James. Or there’s LM Montgomery, who may have used initials to avoid the prejudice against female authors (as did the Bronte sisters, who were originally published as Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell).

You Want to Keep Your Privacy

Some authors pick pen names because they want a degree of privacy or anonymity. This could be to preserve the privacy of others (e.g. if they’re writing about real people), or to preserve their own privacy (EL James is a pen name). I’ve heard of authors using pen names because they write children’s fiction and erotica—two genres you wouldn’t want to mix. Or they could use a pen name because their writing reflects opinions their employer (or government) might not approve of.

But be wary of picking a pen name as a way of ensuring online anonymity: if JK Rowling couldn’t keep her pen name a secret, it’s unlikely you can. You’ll need professional legal advice and NSA-level IT skills to keep your pen name separate from your true identity long term.

You Want Your Writing Name to Reflect Your Genre

Other authors pick a pen name to reflect their genre and author brand. I suspect these are pen names:

  • Regina Darcy (Regency romance)
  • Lorna Faith (Christian Western romance)

Or you may need a pen name because your real name doesn’t reflect your genre (e.g. a thriller author with the surname of Love or Hart).

Picking a pen name which reflects your brand could be good marketing—as long as you ensure all your social media reflects that brand.

Picking Your Author Name

Here are some other tips for picking an author name, whether a pen name or a version of your real name:

  • Try and make it unique, but easy to remember.
  • Try and make it easy to spell. Yes, I failed on that. Blame my father.
  • Is the website available?
  • Are the social media account names available e.g. Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest?
  • Be consistent.

If the .com site is taken:

  • Can you get .net, or the site in your country (e.g. .co.uk or .co.nz or .com.au)?
  • Could you add -writer or -author to your name (e.g. www.goins-writer.com)?
  • Could you add a middle initial (e.g. johnpsmith.com)?
  • Could you add a hyphen between your first and last names (e.g. www.john-smith.com)?

I’ve seen some people add a number to the end of their user name to make it unique. I’ve also heard it said not to do so—it apparently looks unprofessional. Or perhaps because too many people use their birth year, leaving them open to identity theft.

You can use www.namecheckr.com to check whether social media account names are available. (A unique name isn’t as important on Facebook, as it allows multiple users with the same name.)

Again, if your chosen name isn’t available, you can try adding -writer, -author, adding a middle initial, or putting a hyphen (-) or dash (_) between your first and last names. This wouldn’t be my preferred option, because it might be hard for fans to remember, but it’s better than nothing.

I’d also suggest being consistent—if www.johnsmith.com is available but you can’t get @JohnSmith on Twitter or Instagram, you might need to reconsider. (Okay, that’s easy for me to say. For some unknown reason, Iola Goulton was available on every platform I checked.)

Final Points

Belinda Pollard has an excellent blog post on choosing a pen name, if that’s your decision. And Helen Sedwick has blogged on the legal implications of using a pen name. Her examples are based on US law, but similar principles will apply everywhere.

Overall, I think it’s easiest if you keep to some variation of your own name, but I understand why some authors decide they need a pen name.

If you do decide to use a pen name, I recommend seeking professional legal advice from an intellectual property attorney on how to set up your new name and keep it secret. It defeats the purpose of having a pen name if anyone with an ounce of Google-fu can uncover your real identity in a few clicks of a mouse.