How to Choose a Pen Name

by C.S. Lakin
How to Choose a Pen Name

You’ve finished writing your first book, but you’re struggling with the idea of putting your name on the cover.

Maybe you have a common name, and there are authors already publishing under that name.

Or your name is so hard to pronounce, you worry readers won’t remember it.

Maybe you want an author name that’s unique but also want it to fit the type of book you’re writing.

It may be that you just long for a name that’s more evocative or creative than your real (boring?) name.

Or you need a pen name because you’re worried what might happen if someone discovers you’re the author of this book.

Pen names have been used by authors for hundreds of years, but should you use one?

Why Is Your Author Name Important?

What’s in a name?

A lot.

What do you picture when you hear a name like Tiffany Tumbles or Rocky Slaughter?

The answer is probably different for everyone. But we can agree that we associate words with images, and, while nuanced, names can evoke a feeling. 

No doubt Thomas Mapother had a wise hunch he’d have a much better chance at success as a hip actor by using the name Tom Cruise instead.

Successful writers thoughtfully come up with the names for their characters in their fiction stories for this reason.

How much more important is your author name!

With a pen name, you can create allure or present an authoritative feel in your field.

Your name is going to appear on your website, blog, books, and all marketing and promotional materials. It’s what your brand and platform are built on.

When people hear your name, you want it to perfectly reflect you (or your desired persona) and the type of books you write.

Yet, there are downsides to using a pen name, which we’ll get into shortly.

The big question is: Should you use one?

What Is a Pen Name?

A pen name or pseudonym is an assumed name a writer uses that is different from her real name.

Throughout history authors have used pen names for various reasons.

The 19th century French novelist Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin wrote under the pseudonym of George Sand because, at that time, male writers garnered the kind of respect and acclaim that was denied to female writers, and she depended on her writing income to support herself and her two children.

Her pen name paved the way for her to see success in both literature and in nonfiction (including political essays).

Today, writers may not be facing the same struggles Dupin faced, but there are other, valid reasons to assume a pen name—which is perfectly legal to do.

Why Authors Use Pen Names

1. Ease of Recognition and Recall

Is your real name long, hard to pronounce, or difficult to spell?

There are some best sellers I love but still can’t recall the authors’ name because they’re hard to spell and even harder to remember.

Some writers shorten their names or use an alternate spelling to avoid this problem.

Conversely, having an ordinary, common name—or one the same as or similar to a famous author—poses similar problems.

Or it may be the URL you want for your website is already taken, and that’s a valid concern.

You don’t want a second-rate domain name.

2. When Writing in Multiple Genres

This is probably the most common reason for using a pen name.

Because authors’ names become associated with the genre they write in, when switching to a different genre, it helps avoid confusing devoted fans to write under a different name.

Dean Koontz has ten different pen names for all the various genres he writes under. 

Anne Rice uses the name Anne Rampling for her erotica novels. 

Agatha Christie wrote under the name Mary Westmacott for her romance novels.

I’ve read about romance writers who even use a different pen name for each subgenre they write in to narrowly target each niche audience.

Mark Twain’s real name was Samuel Clemens.

Supposedly, he got his pen name from a riverboat captain—the name meaning a river depth of two fathoms, which was safe depth for the keel of a steamboat.

Perhaps his reasoning was simple amusement, along with these other pen names: Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, Sergeant Fathom, and W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab.

Koontz and King also used pen names, as urged by their publishers back in the ’70s and ’80s, because of the numerous books they published each year, for fear a glut of releases would tamp down sales—not a problem many writers have to contend with.

However, some authors who churn out books don’t want readers to know that’s what they’re doing, so they use multiple pen names even in the same genre.

3. A Name That Fits the Genre

Another consideration is choosing a name that fits the genre.

While this may not be a universal concern, it can help, especially if one’s real name doesn’t have much appeal.

It’s common to see “sweet” names for romance writers, hard-sounding or dark names for suspense or horror, and tantalizing names for erotica.

Take a look at the names of best-selling authors in your targeted genre.

When I began writing my fantasy series, I chose to go with initials (which also seemed appropriate for my mystery/suspense novels) so as to avoid being immediately identified as a woman.

This is the reason Joanne Rowling went with J. K. Rowling, as her publisher figured her target readers—young boys—might not be as likely to buy and read her Harry Potter books if a woman’s name was on the covers. And she uses the name Robert Gilbraith for her crime novels.

Daniel Handler, who writes fantastical, imaginative stories chose a fun name that reflects his style (and allowed him to research “under cover”): Lemony Snicket. 

Stan Martin Lieber wanted to appeal to kids reading his comic books (and hoped one day to use his real name for more serious “literary” books), the name Stan Lee was shorter and memorable.

4. To Avoid Recognition, Confusion, or Legal or Embarrassing Consequences

For many reasons, a writer may not want to be recognized.

A memoirist revealing sensitive or potentially hurtful things may want to avoid negative repercussions, legally or emotionally.

A writer who is well known in a professional field may not want to be identified with the kinds of books he publishes.

Someone who wants to avoid unwelcome attention or doesn’t want anyone knowing she writes has reason to use a pen name.

Maybe you don’t want your boss to know you are thinking of quitting your job to write full-time.

Eric Blair chose a “good round English name”—George Orwell—because, at the time of his writing books, he lived in poverty and had low social status and didn’t want anyone to know that.

Theodor Seuss Geisel wrote under his pen name Dr. Seuss because he got in a spot of trouble in college and wanted to keep writing for Dartmouth College’s humor magazine though he was banned from doing so.

Stephen King wrote under the pen name Richard Bachman presumably to test if he could sell specific novels without the acclaimed name recognition.

In other cases, a writer will want to use her clout, success, and name recognition to help promote her books, and so those factors need to be weighed against the desire for privacy or potential backlash if writing about controversial topics or issues.

How to Come Up with a Pen Name

I chose a pen name for my historical Western romance series to cater to a wholly different audience than my fantasy and suspense novels.

I searched for a last name that was popular in the 1800s American West, settling on Whitman.

When considering my pseudonym first name, I played around with “feminine-sounding” names, but before settling on one, I did an internet search, which is a must. 

You can also check with the US Copyright Office to see if the name you’ve chosen is already in use in the US.

You don’t want to choose a name already in use by a successful author.

So after numerous choices, I picked Charlene Whitman—a name that nicely fit my genre.

Consider using a random-name generator.

While these are used predominantly for coming up with character names, these online sites can spark creative ideas for your pen name.

You can do an internet search for random-name generators with specific parameters.

Want an British-sounding name? A perfect pen name for a fantasy author? This might work for you.

Keep in mind, though, if you use a common name, it will be hard for that name to rank high in search engines.

Just try Googling a name like John Smith (and then Google my pen name, Charlene Whitman), and you’ll see what I mean.

The key concern when playing around with possible names is “fit.”

Pick a name that fits your genre but one that also fits the author persona you want to represent you and your books to the world.

The Downside to Pen Names

If you’re intending to stay anonymous behind a pen name, it makes it difficult to fully promote yourself.

As Kelly Notaras of KN Literary Arts says: 

“Today’s publishing marketplace has simply become too highly dependent on personality and author-reader rapport-building for you to expect to sell copies of your book without marketing the heck out of it. … Speaking engagements, social media posting, blogging, YouTubing, podcasting, book signings, pitching yourself to local media, launching online courses, hosting workshops and more. All of which require YOU—your face, your voice, your ideas, your stories, and the vulnerable truth of who you are—to be on full display.” 

For this reason, she says “Don’t use a pen name if you can avoid it.”

Keeping your identity a secret can make it hard to promote your book.

And a pen name means you’re choosing to relinquish any public acclaim garnered by your books.

If you’re looking for recognition, you may want to reconsider writing under a pen name.

The most obvious downside to using multiple pen names is the additional time and effort needed to set up and maintain a platform.

This may mean multiple social media pages and accounts, mailing lists and email blasts, and specific marketing strategies.

And what about your author photo?

If you want to remain anonymous, you’ll need to consider what face you want to present to the world.

It won’t do to buy a Shutterstock image and attach your name to it (because there is a real person who has that face). It may call for some creativity.

You also want to avoid lying to readers.

If you are going to craft a biography for your pseudonym, you should be honest, especially about any credentials.

With my Western historical pen name, I cherry-picked true experiences from my background in my bio: I had raised horses for years, lived and gone to school in Colorado (where my series is set), and been married to my husband for more than thirty years and have two daughters.

If you’re concerned that someone who has the same name as your pseudonym might legally claim rights to your books (think what could happen should you make bank from your novels and your pen name is William Jones), you can register your books with the Copyright Office (easy to do online, and this is something I do with my Westerns) so that your legal name is on record as the author using a pseudonym.

You can’t copyright or trademark your pen name, so keep in mind other writers may come along and use that name.

Another downside includes the potential complications that can result when dealing with reprint and subsidiary rights, as well as estate issues upon your death.

Using a Pen Name for the Wrong Reasons

Some writers choose to use a pen name for the wrong reasons. Be aware of the consequences of these:

  • Trying to get fame via association with a famous writer. Don’t use a name like Dean Coons or Steven King in the hopes readers will mistake you for the real deal. Not only is that a cheat, you could possibly find yourself in legal jeopardy for identity theft.
  • Hoping to avoid defamation. If you think you can blast people you don’t like in your books and avoid getting in trouble, think again. Here, too, you possibly could be sued for libel.
  • Sneaking around publishing contracts. Some writers try to avoid meeting contract commitments of giving their publisher “first look” at their next book by using a pen name. Under some contracts, this will not work and will only create bad blood between author and publisher.
  • Trying to avoid paying taxes. You can’t hide your taxable income by using a pen name. You are still earning the income from the books you’ve published under that name, and that can get you in big trouble.

Conclusion

As you can see, there are a myriad of reasons writers choose to assume a pen name.

You may feel, after reading this post, that a pen name is for you.

Just be aware of the downsides to assuming a pen name and use it responsibly.

It may require extra effort to promote and market your books with a pen name, and you may forfeit the recognition you long for.

But if you pick an appropriate name—one that fits your writer persona, genre, and style of writing—it may open the door to publishing freedom and a fulfilling and successful writing career.