3 Reasons You Need a Pen Name

Image: Alan O'Rourke CC2.0
Image: Alan O’Rourke CC2.0

For some reason my parents gave us gender ambiguous first names. My middle sister has a name that is almost exclusively in the male domain.  Where as my eldest sister and I have names that lean toward the feminine side, as does my poor brother’s name. Although, he legally changed his name the moment he turned eighteen. All my siblings received gender correct middle names, presumable to minimize confusion. Whereas I got another name of no clear sexual ordination. I never gave much thought to my naming until I had my own kids. During that process finding the perfect baby names consumed me. I struggled so badly with my second child that the hospital staff called me everyday for a week. They urged me to pick anything, even if I planned to change it later,  just so they had something to put on a birth certificate.

Likewise, I never gave much thought to the process of author names until last summer when the publishing industry weathered a little firestorm over the realization that a small first time mystery novelist wasn’t so small, or so first time after all. There’s no need to go into that old history, let’s just say it was a personal and professional catalyst, and it started me wondering about pen names. I’ve been meaning to write about them ever since. I’ve even made sort of a study of them in the last year, marveling at the cleaver tongue-in-cheek ones, and scratching my head over the gosh darn awful ones, the ones where I can’t help wondering what in the world that writer was thinking (or perhaps drinking) when they adopted such a foolish handle.

Using pen names is by no means an uncommon practice, it’s been going on for as long as there have been writers wanting to mask their identities. However, anonymity is just one of many reasons modern authors choose to work under a different name. In this electronic, self-publishing age, selecting a great pen name could be one of the smartest and most career advantageous decisions you’ll ever make. This is by no means an easy decision, even my own blog mates disagree on this heated issue, but I wanted to share some of what I’ve learned, so you can make your own choice.

If you’re wondering what drives people to change names, or if you’re considering changing your own name, read on for 3 Reasons to Adopt a Pen Name.

#1 Marketing:
I think this is the best reason to take a pen name. Writing is a business; you must market and sell a product to consumers, and to accomplish that feat customers must to be able to find you in a crowded marketplace. And they need to find not just your books on a shelf, but your page on Goodreads, Facebook and Twitter. How do people organize and search for books? They search by title and by author name. Short catchy titles and names with phonetic spellings are your best friends in the digital marketing war. If your name is too long, too complicated, too challenging to remember and spell, you’re going to baffle someone trying to locate you with a search engine query. Do you really want to risk that potential reader finding another fascinating author while searching unsuccessfully for you? Sure, technology and name recognition software helps, but realistically it takes the first half of the name to trigger a reliable result, auto correcting prompts can only do so much. New authors can’t count on building a following if no one can find them. Of course people can battle the long complicated name game and still win, but it’s a gamble. You need to make sure keeping your name is worth the risk? Some things to consider are: is your name frequently mispronounced? Do you receive mail with your name incorrectly spelled on it? Do auto correct functions kick your name out and deliver another suggestion? Don’t feel badly if your name isn’t measuring up in ease-of-use category, you’re in good company. When Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski started publishing he changed his name too. You’ll know him as Joseph Conrad.

#2 Branding:
Any name has the potential to become a brand. Still, when looking to establish your own career brand, there’s not much room for sentimentality. Names must be brand neutral at the very least, and in the best cases brand affirming and reinforcing. Think about your name objectively. Is your name dated and old fashioned sounding? If so it might work perfectly for you as a historical writer, but what if you write techno thrillers? Is a quaint little name going to help you win over young hip YA readers? Or will it sound clunky and awkward and make it difficult for younger readers identify with you? Is your name quirky or funny sounding? That’s great for helping you brand a quirky and funny book, but what about your literary masterpiece? And don’t even get me started on gender neutral names, a situation I know all too well from the standpoint of the perks and the drawbacks. Branding is not something to be taken lightly, even well-established writers protect their brands, and with good reason. When you hear the last name of many iconic writers you know what to expect in terms of genre and quality. So when many of those big names drift afield of their normal type of book, they often do so under a pen name. Remember you can try to brand your own name, and if you got lucky in the name lottery I say go for it. But if mom and dad stuck you with a clunker, don’t hesitate to jettison that baggage and pick up something that fits your needs. Likewise if you want to step into a new genre and test your wings, you might want to consider doing it without risking your current readership. Like when mystery icon Agatha Christie penned some romance novels, she did it under the name Mary Westmacott.

#3 Anonymity, or the lack there of:
Craving privacy is not a crime, and many writers simply want to create a separate personal and professional reputations. Perhaps they want to safeguarded a booming career in a totally separate and seriously competitive field. Or to protect their family from intrusive attention or comments.  Anonymity is a perfectly good reason for adopting a pen name, as is too much anonymity. This is the flip side of the too-complicated name. With a common name there are bound to be several people with your same name. There are tons of people with my name. I know first hand the agonies of not being able to secure anything with my name on it, not a domain name, not an email address or even a Twitter handle. It’s a devastating fact of life for many writers.  And you better hope your namesake is a social marketing savvy CPA because going head to head with another writer is a recipe for identity confusion. If they’re a bad writer, you should count on inheriting some of their negative press, and if the person is a huge, popular writer, that’s even worse. You just became the creepy grasping new writer who’s trying to steal the other writer’s good name. Having a too-common name is not the end of the world, but it’s another hurdle to leap over in a business that’s already full of hurdles.

Regardless of what you decide, do your homework first. Make sure you research and understand any legal issues. Search databases; look at who’s already popular in your chosen genre so you know if you’re treading too closely. Do test marketing of your real name and your pen name. Make sure you know what mental image your name creates. Talk to people in the same demographic as your target readership, but also get options from lots of sources.  Remember to think about your chosen initials, and the first three letters of your last name. Make sure they don’t spell out something offensive. Once you narrow down the list of prospects, take the time and make sure you can find a domain name and an email that’s as close to your new name as possible. If your new name is locked up tight, you might want to start the hunt over.

In the end, whether you plan to keep your own name, or chose a new one, make sure you’re doing it with a clear head and for the right reasons.

Just for fun here’s a huge list of some famous pen names.


Author: Robin Rivera

Robin trained as a professional historian and worked as a museum curator, educator, and historical consultant. She writes mystery fiction, with diverse characters and a touch of snark. She's currently working on two new manuscripts that started off as NaNoWriMo projects. You can follow her on Facebook(https://www.facebook.com/robin.rivera.90813). However, Pinterest (https://www.pinterest.com/RRWrites/) is where her inner magpie is happiest of all.

3 thoughts on “3 Reasons You Need a Pen Name”

  1. I didn’t realize there was so much connected with a pen name. I’m only on my first pen name, but will need another one fairly soon. Thanks for sharing this timely information.

  2. Great topic today! I actually use a pen name for my blog 🙂 Reason is I had a pretty popular blog a few years back (I was even featured on national tv and a magazine, go me lol), and I used my real name. That led to getting packages in the mail, weird emails, fb messages etc etc. I ended up closing that blog down and stepping away from all of it because it was getting a bit too creepy! I’m working on the first draft of a non-fiction book on my weight loss journey right now, and I’ve already decided to keep using my blog’s pen name for my book as well.

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