When it’s Best to Use a Pen Name

When it’s Best to Use a Pen Name

To use a Pen name or not to use one. That is the question often asked by emerging authors.

I think it’s safe to say everyone visiting this website knows what a Pen name is, but quite simply, it’s publishing original work under a fictitious name, rather than your real name.

The first instinct is to use your real name when starting out and this will likely be suitable for the majority of fiction authors, who write in only one genre. Nonfiction authors use their real name because they’re looking to build credibility and a brand.

But fiction authors are creatives at heart and closely connected to their writing. Some authors might decide not to stick to writing in one genre. Some authors might have another genre they’re passionate about. This is normal and keeps the creative juices fresh and alive.

If this is you and you want to publish in different genres, this is when you’d consider a pen name.

Even famous authors have used pen names

Since the time the first writers put quill to paper, pen names have been used by authors. Heard of Clive Hamilton? That is the great C. S. Lewis. How about Richard Bachman? The one and only Stephen King. There are numerous reasons why authors write under pen names.

Stephen King’s alias of Richard Bachman was in essence an experiment to test book sales without his main brand name. Others have simply written books in different genres and markets, outside of their main genre and using a pen name prevents their main fan base from being alienated.

Main reasons to use a pen name

Maintain reader expectations

For author branding to work you want to keep the same name for a particular genre or similar cross-genre. Why? Because readers are familiar with the work and you’ve established a natural “reader expectation” of what they can anticipate in another book of yours. These readers become your raving fans.

You don’t go to McDonald’s when you want a Subway sandwich. You go to McDonald’s because you expect to get your favourite burger just the way you remember it. Just the way you expect it.

So if you write in the hardcore sci-fi genre using one pen name and use the same name to write a light paranormal romance, you’re going to alienate readers. These readers will not pick up your next book because their expectation of your writing has been betrayed.

Their real name doesn’t suit their genre

Some authors feel that their real name doesn’t represent or ‘fit’ with the genre they write in. A name like ‘Lady DeMure’ isn’t a suitable name for a gritty horror novel. Perhaps a male author has written a romance novel and wants a pen name because his primary female readers can relate better to a female author. Don’t underestimate the power of perception.

Their real name is too long

Some names are really long, hyphenated or awkward to pronounce. A pen name will be chosen that is more memorable and easier to say. Alliteration is sometimes used.

The author wants to remain anonymous

This may be the case if the author doesn’t want their friends, family or colleagues to know about their book. Pen names are common for those who have written erotica.

Stick to one name where possible for improved discoverability

When considering using a pen name, it’s important to consider your author brand over the long term. For authors who are driven to make an income from their writing, you may need to have several books available.

Now, the big benefit when writing in one genre or a similar cross genre, is that when readers find one of your books, buy it and like it, they’ll seek more of your other books. They’ll most likely be searching by your author name in Amazon. So the more books you have under one name, the more books they’ll find and eventually buy.

What’s involved in creating a Pen name?

Creating your pen name

It’s easy, simply decide on a suitable name, add it to your cover and book listings and away you go. No special business or legal requirements are necessary to setup and start using your pen name. Keep in mind there are restrictions on what you can and can’t do, particularly when it comes to banking and signing documents. Seek legal advice for specifics on this.

A separate website

I recommend this. Those readers enjoying the books you’ve written under a pen name naturally assume that is your real name. They have no real reason to believe otherwise. When they go visit the website of their new favourite author, they’ll be searching for your author pen name.

You can do this without creating a lot of  extra work for yourself. You can simply have a static website with a home page, about page and books page. Something readers can land on to find out information. It’s not critical for you to keep up a regular blog for each pen name.

Or if you’re open about your pen name, you can set it up so the blog of your pen name, redirects to your main blog. This works well if you’re writing in similar or cross-genres.

Author branding for your pen name

This is advisable just as it is for your main author name, but don’t be discouraged. This doesn’t require a whole lot of extra work. Ideally just have a consistent visual brand across your book covers and website for your pen name, if nothing else. It simply helps tie your books together in the eyes of your readers, maintaining reader expectation.

For ideas you can use this Pen name/pseudonym generator tool to help you brainstorm.

In summary…

Choose a name you’re comfortable with. A name you’re happy to answer to at events. A name you’re proud to read about in the papers or online. Decide what will be memorable for your readers. Don’t fall into the trap of picking something purely based on personal nostalgia.

There are no hard and fast rules, but be objective, consider these points and enjoy looking forward to seeing your name in lights.


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