What's in a (Pen) Name?

There comes a point in nearly every writer’s career when they consider using a pen name.

For some authors, it’s a simple answer to an even simpler question. Their own name is perfectly suitable for publishing books, short stories, blogs, and articles. For other people, it’s not such a straightforward matter.

After all, when your byline become your brand, an author whose name is Suzy Sweetwater might wonder how readers will respond to that moniker appearing on gritty crime thrillers. Because in much the same way that books are, in fact, judged by their covers, authors can also be judged by their names. So what’s a writer to do?

The Power of a Name

Writers choose to use different names all the time—and you may not even realize that they are. Consider, for instance, that you may have bought a book about vampire confessions written by author Howard Allen Frances O’Brien, known to most as Anne Rice. Lemony Snicket is actually Daniel Handler, E. L. James was “outed” as Erika Leonard, and even Mark Twain’s real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens. The reasons for choosing a pen name are various. Perhaps an aspiring author happens to be named Steven King or Leigh Child, or they fear divulging their actual identity might play into reader preconceptions.

“Often, there are gender considerations—a male author of heterosexual romance can find it harder to market his work, as might be the case with a female writer of military sagas,” writes author Lana Fox in Psychology Today’s “My Pen Name, My New Personality.” “In marketing terms, it could be difficult for a writer of academic science papers to publish pulp under the same identity. What’s more, some writers find they can express themselves more freely when their families, communities, or bosses aren’t watching.”

Using a pen name, argues Fox, is in some cases a necessity, especially when it comes to writing erotica or potentially sensitive autobiographical information. But for writers, creating that alternative name and identity can be more powerful than it originally appears. Changing your name can free a writer to fully explore a new writing persona in a way that can expand the scope of their creativity. “I use [Lana Fox] as a boundary—a personal brand, if you will—and a way to ensure my readers can focus on what they wish to read. That said, I would never have guessed that my pen name would develop a new identity for me—a fierier, more courageous and playful me, who writes differently under my erotic persona.”

And Fox isn’t alone. Researchers and psychologists have been studying nominative determinism over the last century. New Scientist journalist John Hoyland came up with the term as a means of describing how many people feel inexorably pulled to pursue professions that match their names. In short, sometimes your name can influence your personality … and your fate.

Real Name, Real Connection?

But not all authors agree, suggesting that in the digital age—where transparency is an important part of the relationship between authors and readers—it’s difficult to hide your digital footprint and keep more curious fans and enemies from not only guessing but ferreting out your real identity.

“In my opinion? Pen names are more hassle than they are worth and they’re a fast way to land in Crazyville,” writes Kristin Lamb in “Pen Names—Necessary Evil or Ticket to Crazyville?” “Pen names used to offer benefits, but most of those benefits have evaporated because the world is digital and connected. In fact, pen names can actually hurt book sales and stall a platform and brand.” Authors who hide for privacy and refuse to engage with readers, she adds, are one of her “bugaboos.” “This is a personal choice. I can’t require anyone to be sociable, but in a world where readers are being deluged with a gazillion choices, they are going to gravitate to who they know and who they like.”

Lamb isn’t the only one who feels this way. In a world where complete privacy is nearly impossible for anyone who is working and engaging in the everyday world, trying to keep your readers at arm’s length seems like a missed opportunity. Indeed, for many readers, this can be a deal-breaker.

“Choosing a different name creates a layer of deception between writer and reader in an era in which social media strives to ram that gap closed,” writes journalist Sarah Hall in “Writing Yourself a Pen Name.” Though she adds that the extra layer of privacy does offer authors some protection from “intrusive questions and increasingly personal Goodreads and Amazon reviews.”

“If you try to keep your identity secret, you can’t go to events or festivals, be pictured in newspapers, or be open about your possible success. And, if you become hugely successful, you’ll have to come out eventually—as Madeleine Wickham, the author of the Sophie Kinsella books, did. After a certain level of success it’s somehow more respectful to be honest with your readers.”

So where do authors draw the line? How do they decide how to choose between their own name or a nom de plume? At the end of the day, it comes down to two things: protecting yourself (if you are writing something that might compromise your job, your safety, or your relationships with family) and protecting your sales, as in the case of authors whose real names can severely damage their ability to sell books either due to the nature of their real names, or by their names being alarmingly (or hilariously) incongruous with the genre of book they are writing. Notions of hiding your gender due to perceived stereotypes are quickly fading. And authors like Kristen Keiffer are anxious to see women embrace their names.

“I’d like to encourage my fellow women writers to feel confident in publishing under traditionally feminine names,” Keiffer writes in “How to Choose the Perfect Pen Name.” “I understand the patriarchal undertones that still flow through present society; the pressure to use your initials or choose a more androgynous pen name can be tempting—and it’s certainly okay to do so if you’d like. But if you’re only considering these options because you worry certain readers won’t take your work seriously otherwise, they likely aren’t the readers you want picking up your books anyway. The same applies if you’re a writer with a non-Eurocentric name. The world is changing for the better, and I’d love for us to be a part of that change in this small way.”

When Picking Your Pen Name …

  • Consider just adjusting your existing name, such as using initials, your middle name, shortening your name, or even using a nickname.
  • Explore names and surnames of other family members (such as a well-known formula of using your middle name with your mother’s maiden name).
  • Avoid other well-known and potentially famous names, especially if they are authors. George Clooney may want to write his own books one day.
  • Ensure your name is easy to spell and pronounce.
  • Practice saying it aloud to ensure there aren’t issues with too many similar sounds (alliteration is not always the way to go), and ask the opinions of family members and friends.
  • Ask yourself if your pen name is not only suitable for the genre of books you’re writing but also age appropriate for your reader demographic.
  • Do a Google check. Enter your “new” name into a search engine to make sure you aren’t duplicating an existing author’s name or potentially borrowing from someone historically famous—or infamous.

But, as Kristin Kieffer so wisely wrote, “At the end of the day, a name is a name. It’s how you choose to employ that name that matters. If you feel most comfortable publishing under your real name, go for it. If a variation on your name would help you stand out from other creators, give it a chance. Or, if for any reason, you’d like to use a completely fictional pen name, go forth and rock your choice, writer.”

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