A pen name, or pseudonym, can act as a powerful weapon to launch an author’s career at the same time it conceals their true identity.
The desire to be anonymous has attracted some of the best writers in the business throughout history to use a pen name. These are a few famous authors who wrote under a pseudonym:
- Francois-Marie Arouet wrote as Voltaire
- Samuel Clemens wrote as Mark Twain
- Stephen King wrote as Richard Bachman
- Eric Arthur Blair wrote as George Orwell
- Joanne Rowling wrote as J.K. Rowling
These authors didn’t choose a pen name for the heck of it. They made a calculated decision to change the name behind their books based on a specific reason.
And this fake name did more for them than using their real name.
So should you use a pen name? If you benefit from one of the reasons on the following list, then you’ll have a good motive to make the switch.
Reasons To Use A Pen Name
1. Freedom of expression
Creating a pen name can feel like creating an alter ego for writers. Where they were shy and afraid to take risks before, the pen name gives writers bravado and confidence to write their book in a powerful way.
This liberation from the chains of other people’s thoughts about you allows you to write about controversy, countercultural beliefs, or conspiracy theories if that’s what you wanted to all along. A pen name can be just what you needed to freely express yourself like never before.
For authors who go with a pen name, they gain all the reward of creative writing without having to face the setback of having their real name on it.
2. Write in a different genre
Say you’re a business and money author who wants to dive into the fiction world with your first novel. Your previous audience will no doubt be confused why you’re suddenly writing about dragons and magic.
To avoid this, you can come up with a pen name to separate your two book categories and keep separate audiences. After all, your audience is your livelihood so it’s best to keep them happy.
If you do this, remember that you’re inviting double the work. You’ll have to manage two blogs, two Facebook accounts, two Twitter accounts, etc.
Many people want to separate their professional life from their personal life. When the two overlap, it can be frustrating and uncomfortable. Fortunately for authors, a pen name will give them the privacy they want.
So, whether you’re a middle school teacher who writes racy, young adult thrillers or a nurse who writes crime novels, some stories are better told when you’re anonymous. Using a pen name protects against any real-word repercussions at your job, community, or neighborhood.
Given the situation, privacy is well worth it for some authors.
4. Hide gender
In an ideal world, book buyers wouldn’t judge the book based on the author’s gender. But our world is far from ideal, and stereotypes exist in the consumer world.
For example, Joanne Rowling’s publishers told her to find a pen name (eventually deciding on J.K. Rowling) because they didn’t think boys would be as interested in Harry Potter if they knew a woman wrote it.
Meaning if you’re a female writing about war and artificial intelligence or a male writing a cook book, consider changing your name to conceal your gender. Not saying you have to, but it doesn’t hurt to think about your target audience and their opinions.
5. Collaboration of multiple authors
Instead of filling the book cover with three names, a group of authors may decide on one pen name to simplify publishing and the audience’s understanding.
Readers also usually prefer to read a book from one author, at least I do. I know when I’m browsing and see three author names I immediately think of an academic journal or textbook. But two names aren’t a turnoff for me.
6. Avoid obscurity
Check Amazon to see if you share the same name with any well-known author. If you do, this is a good reason to change your name because audiences could confuse you two. And since the bigger author built their reputation first, you would get the raw end of that deal.
The same problem arises if your name is a celebrity who isn’t an author, like Taylor Swift or Michael Jackson. You’ll never surpass their celebrity and show up higher in the online searches. So the best business move is to find a pen name. If you’re mad about it, blame your parents.
7. Unfortunate name
If your parents made a poor first name choice or you’re stuck with an unfortunate last name, that could come back to bite you when potential book buyers see your author name.
Put yourself in the buyer’s shoes. Say you’re looking for an authority guide on weight loss. Would you buy a book from Chester Fingers? Probably not. You’d move on and buy it from Dr. Oz instead.
When your name is easily associated with a swear word, sexual reference, or displeasurable idea, it’s reasonable to find a pen name that helps you.
Another idea is to become super successful and your name will ring success. But that’s easier said than done. The author name change is quick and painless.
8. Restart a career
I’d be remiss not to mention that sometimes an author with multiple books out, which haven’t done well, could restart their career under another name. All the negative energy from your book’s poor performances can be washed away to start fresh.
Obviously this situation isn’t ideal and starting from scratch isn’t winning. But it does show the versatility of a pen name. So if your career is tanking, a name change might help.
Reasons Not To Use A Pen Name
Some motives for a pen name will give you more trouble than benefits.
For example, if you write a book that slanders other people in your life but don’t want to attach your name to it, that’s a bad idea. If they figure out who wrote it, through a civil lawsuit or other means, you’ll be discovered and have to pay for your crime. Freedom of speech and a pen name doesn’t give you the ability to make up lies that tarnish people’s reputation.
Or if you think you have a genius idea to write a self-help book under the name Oprah Winfrey (or some other famous public figure or author), again that’s foolish. You also risk getting sued and Amazon may even take your book down for trying to exploit someone’s identity.
And lastly, creating a pen name to establish an over the top background and false identity won’t lead to success. You’ll struggle to stick to a consistent story and you won’t be authentic with your audience. Telling grand tales that are all lies will come back to haunt you sooner or later.
I personally choose to write under my real name Brian Robben. Because it helps my personal brand, gives credibility to my websites, and I write non-fiction, this works for me.
However, if I dive into the fiction world (never say never) or I go through some crazy story that I’m not comfortable writing about under my name, you better believe I’ll be thinking of a pen name.
Maybe your breakthrough as an author starts with creating a pen name and exploiting this new creative expression. As long as you have a legitimate reason to use it, go for it!
Are you considering a pen name? Why or why not? What pen name would you choose?