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Why Use a Pen Name?

Updated on March 24, 2012

There are a number of reasons why an author might use a pen name (pseudonym, nom du plume). Considering using one yourself? Not sure if you need one? Read on to learn all about why an author might choose to use a pen name and if it’s the right choice for you.

Anonymity

The most obvious reason for choosing to use a pen name is plain old anonymity. Maybe you don’t want readers to be able to track you down or you simply have a desire to keep work and your personal life separate. Feeling the need for privacy is a perfectly legitimate reason to use a pen name.

Safety/Security

For some people the choice is made out of necessity. It is the sad truth that some authors attract stalkers, both online and in the real world. Using a pen name can feel like a shield against the potential dangers of having a public persona. However, strangers aren’t the only danger. For some people family members or former friends, lovers or spouses can pose a significant threat. It would be much easier for someone from your past to find you if a quick pass through a search engine would turn up plenty of information about your writing, book deals, tours or signings, all associated with the name they know you by.

Protecting the innocent

Writers need to get their inspiration from somewhere and more often than not we get it from our own life and the people who surround us. Sometimes the protrayals are flattering, but more often than not they're honest and honesty tends not to be particularly flattering. Choosing a pen name is a good option if you have a habit of writing about friends, family, clients or colleagues and you would rather they didn't find out about it.

Multiple genres

I don’t know about you, but when I pick up a book by Michael Crichton I expect a sci-fi. When I pick up Nora Roberts I’m expecting a romance. If I picked up a Crichton book and started reading about a woman’s ruined love affair minus robots or plagues or technology gone haywire I would be pretty disappointed. For this reason many authors who write in multiple genres (including Roberts who actually writes Sci-fi as J.D. Robb) use a different pen name for each one so as not to confuse old readers, or put off new ones. That being said there is a big camp of writers who feel strongly that you should maintain one name for everything you write but I’m inclined to agree with Roberts, Rice and the many other authors who have successfully evaded confusing me for years.

Establishing a brand

No matter what form your writing takes, novels, plays, blogs, articles etc it's a good idea to establish and maintain a brand that your readers will associate with you and the work you do. Using different pen names for different styles and mediums can allow you to create different personalities that your readers will be able to relate to. For example: Maybe you'll pick a friendly name like Millie Rae and create a bubbly persona for your craft blog, but you also write hard-hitting articles about poltics or health care, maybe you'll pick a name that sounds grave and proffesional like JS Himes. Of course you are a complex enough person that these two traits can coexist in you perfectly but your readers might get a little confused, and you don't want that.

Strange/Boring real name

I have a weird name. It’s uncommon, strangely spelt and pronounced and generally pretty confusing. I don’t want to confuse anybody, especially not my lovely readers. So, I simplified. You may have the opposite problem. If your name is James Smith or Jennifer Brown you may want to spice it up a bit so that readers are more likely to remember you or pull your book of the shelf at a glance.

Publisher’s request

In some cases it’s required that you change your pen name. I have spoken to authors who have switched publishers and have their new publisher require a name change. Sometimes this is to distance the new publisher from poor sales or reviews. Sometimes it’s because the two publishers have very different brands and it’s important for them to maintain that. Whatever the reason, you may have to submit to a name change in order to sign a book a deal. Is it worth it to start over fresh? In some cases it certainly is, but in others (the brand separation in my opinion) you may want to move one. In either won’t want to take the decision lightly.

Gender neutral names

Unless you’re writing fiction marketed specifically to women and girls such as chick lit, romance, erotica or certain young adult genres it’s a sad fact that readers are more likely to give a book a chance if the author has a male or gender neutral first name. This can affect you at every level. With a very feminine name you may have a hard time landing an agent and a book deal simply because professionals know your book is not likely to sell as well if your name is Emily or Sarah than if it’s Jordan or Taylor.

Just because

Maybe none of the above is true for you but you still want to use a pen name. There’s nothing wrong with that. Maybe you have a name in mind that you have always loved and if you can’t have it you want your alter-ego to. You don’t need a reason to choose a pen name, it may just feel right to you.

I chose to use a pen name for a few of the reason’s above. Firstly, my real name is strange and frequently mispronounced. I didn’t want people to have to say, “Hey, did you read that book by…uh…well, I don’t know how you say the name but let me show you.” That’s never good. Secondly, I write in three different genres and use three very different names. Thirdly, two of my names are very gender neutral so that people wouldn’t be discouraged from picking my book up, which, as I said above, is a very real possibility.

You may relate to one or many of the reasons on the list above. You may have a reason that I’ve left out (in which case feel free to let me know so I can complete the list). Choosing whether or not to use a pen name is a very personal decision for a writer. You need to take a look at your life situation and decide what is the best option for YOU. Don’t make the decision because someone else is doing one thing, or your writer friend thinks pen names are dishonest. This is your career and your decision.

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    • ar.colton profile imageAUTHOR

      Mikal Smith 

      6 years ago from Vancouver, B.C.

      Thanks girishpuri, glad I could help :)

    • girishpuri profile image

      Girish puri 

      6 years ago from NCR , INDIA

      I have never thought of using a pen name, prior to your article, it was a mystery for me, why writers are not using their real names, useful hub, voted up.

    • ar.colton profile imageAUTHOR

      Mikal Smith 

      6 years ago from Vancouver, B.C.

      Yes, very mysterious :)

    • profile image

      Chris Hugh 

      6 years ago

      Great hub. Now I'm so curious what your real name is!

    • ar.colton profile imageAUTHOR

      Mikal Smith 

      6 years ago from Vancouver, B.C.

      Well, in any case I applaud you. Especially if you're facing pressure from your peers. I hope your book is well received. Send me an email when it's coming out. I would love to read it!

    • Bernard Preston profile image

      Bernard Preston 

      6 years ago from South Africa and the Netherlands

      You might not think so, AR, but my fundamentalist buddies are miffed, and several gay women I know think it's absurd.

      I once saw an interview of Sebastian Faulks and was hugely encouraged. He likes to write books about a subject that intrigues him but about which he is clueless. Does his homework, voila, a best seller.

      Bernie

    • ar.colton profile imageAUTHOR

      Mikal Smith 

      6 years ago from Vancouver, B.C.

      I agree Bernard. I also don't think this is a world where "straight, heterosexual, relatively fundamental Christian" and "wrote a book about two women in love" are incongruous phrases. I'm glad to hear there are more and more people out there breaking out of these ridiculous molds!

    • Bernard Preston profile image

      Bernard Preston 

      6 years ago from South Africa and the Netherlands

      Absolutely AR, no right or wrong answers, just what's right for me.

      I faced this agonising question when starting my fourth book about two gay women. Now why would a straight, heterosexual, relatively fundamental Christian male want to write about women in love?! Should I choose another nom du plume, and hide in the bushes?

      Nope! Shocked though some of my friends have been, the book raises serious issues, even if it's light and fun reading. And that's best brought out in broad daylight.

    • RC Cooper profile image

      RC Cooper 

      6 years ago from Michigan

      This is why I am R.c. Cooper

    • ar.colton profile imageAUTHOR

      Mikal Smith 

      6 years ago from Vancouver, B.C.

      Welcome back Bernie,

      I don't think there is one right answer. With enough serious consideration everyone can make the decision on their own if using a pen name is right for their career and work.

    • Bernard Preston profile image

      Bernard Preston 

      6 years ago from South Africa and the Netherlands

      Writing about a painful past can of course be cathartic, healing. I wonder if you write under nom du plume if would have the same effect. Perhaps it's better to come out, take in on the chin, and get over it.

      I was once fired "op staande voet" as we say in Holland. Instant dismissal. For an alleged sexual offence. Ultimately the judge found in my favour and I was exonerated, but it was a very painful time, and it could have ruined a career for ever. Writing about in "Stones in my Clog" was very healing, using my nom du plume Bernard Preston, but everyone in my world now knows that Bernie and Barrie are one and the same person.

      Bernie

    • ar.colton profile imageAUTHOR

      Mikal Smith 

      6 years ago from Vancouver, B.C.

      Thanks Jack, for me it was definitely the way to go. It feels good to be apart from my writing personas. Although, all of my pen names are really closely linked to my real names (I have 5 so there's a lot to choose from). I like it that way, keeps me feeling connected. You've intrigued me. I'm off to your profile!

      Beatsme, I agree completely!

    • BeatsMe profile image

      BeatsMe 

      6 years ago

      Great hub about pen names. I choose a pen name for anonymity. It just feels better that way. I feel more secured and unthreatened. :)

    • Jack Hansen profile image

      John A Hansen 

      6 years ago from Fort Myers, Florida

      Great article. I can definitely use this and probably should have been using a pen name already for some controversial content in the few HubPages I've written. Thank you, ar. cotton, or whoever you are.

    • ar.colton profile imageAUTHOR

      Mikal Smith 

      6 years ago from Vancouver, B.C.

      Thanks so much for the share Angel! I'm glad you enjoyed the hub!

    • Angelo52 profile image

      Angelo52 

      6 years ago from Central Florida

      Great article. My pen names are based on my real name and have more to do with the article sites I write for than any particular need to hide. Still you have presented a lot of good info. Voted up and shared on facebook.

    • ar.colton profile imageAUTHOR

      Mikal Smith 

      6 years ago from Vancouver, B.C.

      Aidrana and Rasta 1-

      Establishing seperate brands is a great reason for using multiple pen names. I'm definitely going to add that one in. Thanks so much for stopping by!

      Dee and Bernie-

      You two seem to have a similar reasons for using pen names and they are definitely ones I need to add.

      Thanks so much everyone for stopping by and helping me improve my list. This is one of the many reasons why I love HP. Constructive advice from a community of talented writers: what's not to love?

    • Aidrana profile image

      Aidrana 

      6 years ago

      I can definitely relate to this. As someone who maintains multiple websites for vastly different topics, I often end up penning new names for myself as a blogger on these sites. This is so I am seen as a different writer, perhaps even with a different personality for every site I own. I think this also makes things interesting on top of the reasons you've outlined in your article.

      You could also even give your different pen names some personality and decide on the type of writing styles you'll be using under each name. Some people say it can be confusing, but I disagree. As long as you state clearly who you are, perhaps in an aside on all of your articles and include information about your pen names, it shouldn't be confusing. If you are consistent with your pen names and have a decent amount of content for each pen name, it's easy for people to remember you. I've never had a problem or gotten any complaints about it.

      Great article, I replied because this also applies to blogs =)

    • Dee aka Nonna profile image

      Dee aka Nonna 

      6 years ago

      These are all really good reasons and I thank you for sharing them. Some, of course, I knew a couple I had not considered. I had a really horrible work experience once and would love to write about it to (1) get it off my chest and (2) it just might help someone else. I would use a pen name for a lot of obvious reasons...LOL

    • rasta1 profile image

      Marvin Parke 

      6 years ago from Jamaica

      Picking a pen name is like picking a stage name, then establishing your pen name as a brand.

    • Bernard Preston profile image

      Bernard Preston 

      6 years ago from South Africa and the Netherlands

      Hello Ar, a very interesting and useful blog. Another reason to throw into the pot: I'm a chiropractor and of course, despite the disclaimer that none of the characters in my books are real people, every single one of them is real! I change the situations, ages, sexes... but still some events are so unique you can't possible hide a person. Like the woman who had her new nipple tattoed dark after a mastectomy, so it would match the other boob, how do hide that!?

      I use a nom du plume to protect my patients' identities.

      Thanks for your blog, you have another follower!

      Bernie

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