Why Do Authors Use Pen Names?

From Dr. Seuss to Maya Angelou, authors choose to use a pen name for various reasons.

Pen names are a classic way for authors to publish without disclosing their identities. There can be many reasons someone might choose a pen name, including wanting a fresh start rather than a predictable career path, having a book that is too controversial to use their real identity, fear of rebellion from the community, or the writer has been subject to discrimination because of their religion or gender identity.

For others, the reason might not be as complex as the last one. Others use pseudo names so they don’t get confused with other authors with similar or the same last names.

But there are various other motivations for using a pen name, depending on the personality and needs of each different author.

We know that there are a lot of authors who use pen names and the reasons why they choose to use pen names are plenty—they are too numerous to mention.

So, in this article, I’ll explain 3 of the most frequent reasons an author would choose a pen name, explain how you can go about choosing and using a pen name, among other things.

Let’s get started!

authors use pen names

5 Reasons for Using a Pen Name

These are some of the reasons why authors use pen names:

1. Protecting their identity

The reasoning behind choosing a pen name is different for everyone. One of the most common rationales is that the author wants to keep the public separate from their private life, creating an air of mystique. This type of author wants to protect their identity, something that’s very popular among high-profile writers who want to keep their private life private from their readers. Others just have things in their past that they would prefer not to be an item of discussion for tabloids and news shows.

an anonymous person was represented by a woman holding a piece of paper with a question mark on it.
An anonymous person was represented by a woman holding a piece of paper with a question mark on it.

2. Breaking glass ceilings

Some other authors may feel strongly about using a particular gender identifier when publishing, especially if they feel like the field or genre is dominated by the opposite gender. For example, in a genre dominated by men, a female author might choose to use a pen name that sounds masculine and then reveal themselves as a female later when they have achieved success.

3. To freely express themselves

Writers use pen names, also known as nom de plume, to provide anonymous authorship to attain an editorial transformation and liberate their artistic expression. They might be limited by the sociopolitical environment in their country or region. By using a pen name, they can disregard that environment and still publish views that they can’t publish in their real names.

4. Some Authors are afraid of fame

a successful writer enjoys his alone time away from the spotlight.
A successful writer enjoys his alone time away from the spotlight.

Some authors are simply afraid of the fame that comes with a book’s success, so they use a pen to avoid being overwhelmed by the fame that typically follows publication. For them, the pen name offers protection from whatever success their books bring, and they want to enjoy the success without making it harder for themselves to live as normal as before.

5. Genre

Some authors use pen names simply because they do not want people to know that they write in that specific genre. They might prefer not to be recognized within that genre because they’re embarrassed or might not want their work to be associated with other works published in the other genres. Genres like erotica or politics are the usually sensitive ones and have lots of writers publishing using pen names.

How to Choose a Pen Name

Below are some things you should consider when choosing a pen name:

Tip #1: Identify the Audience of Your Genre

Once you identify your genre and audience, customize the pen name to your writing genre and make sure it fits your audience.

For those writers who write in the crime genre, a pen name for legal reasons might be best. Similarly, those who write books on health might be advised to make sure the pen name sounds more authentic and give potential clients the sense that you’re someone they can trust and turn to for help.

A writer of children’s books might consider something more whimsical, while John Grisham could just be John Smith for all I care.

Tip #2: Make Sure Your Pen Name Is Not Already Trademarked

As you are driving around town, you might notice catchy slogans on t-shirts or billboards. Then, you decide to adopt one of those slogans as your pen name.

Please don’t!

But if you do, make sure the name is available.

It is important to search online. Going deeper with your research, you may want to search trademarks databases, business directories, and international trademark databases.

Yes, you need to spend those hours trying to come up with a winning title because if you use one that is already trademarked, you might be inviting truckloads of lawsuits.

a fountain pen about to fill in the name section on a piece of paper
A fountain pen about to fill in the name section on a piece of paper.

Tip #3: Choose a Name That Points the Other Way!

If you’re a doctor, choosing a pen name with the title ‘Dr.’ is definitely too suggestive.”

Sometimes, you might not be too worried about your private information becoming public. In that case, you can choose a name close to your industry, whether you’re a doctor, lawyer, or scientist.

But if you want to write and you want to be completely covert, then you must use a name that doesn’t easily lead back to you or your profession.

When the purpose of choosing a pen name is to obscure your identity, that it can’t share similarities with anything like professions or well-known hobbies.

There are some special cases where this tip would be ignored. For example, if you plan to write something professional, say medical stuff, and you’re a medical doctor, using a pen name with the title Dr. wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Tip #4: Keep it Simple

Make sure that the pen name you choose should be easy to spell and also memorable. Nowadays, there’s a lot of information and mounds of writers’ names that people have to remember.

It’d be if they can’t remember what name to input on Google or Amazon to find your books. It’s equally disastrous if they can remember the pronunciation but can’t spell it.

Tips #5: Use a Name Generator

Cyberspace has almost everything! Some tools help you come up with pen names. You can specify culture or gender and the name generator will come up with an appropriate name.

One of such tools is the Pen Name Generator, a site designed to use your provided fact file to come up with a pseudonym.

pen name generator at reedsy
Pen name generator at Reedsy.

What You Should Do After Coming Up With a Pen Name

1. Claim the Name: First, you have to conduct some research to find out if the name doesn’t belong to a famous person, public figure, or is trademarked.  The U.S. Trademark Office site can help you find out if your pen name has no issues with an existing trademark and secure a domain name. Most of us expect to get something out of our writing, and if you want to get paid using your pen name you have to file a Fictitious Business Name Statement.

2. Inform your publisher: if you’re self-publishing, it might be okay not to inform anyone, but if you plan or you already publish using traditional publishers, you have to inform the publishers of the pen name (and hope they’re good at keeping secrets).

3. Use the name: you can now put your pen name on the book covers and copyright notices of the works you write using that name.

Famous Authors Who’ve Used a Pen Name

Authors have been using pen names for centuries—from Charles Dickens, who wrote some works under several pseudonyms because he wanted to hide his name thought to be queer by a critic, to recent authors like George RR Martin and Nora Roberts, who did so to distinguish their children’s or romance novels from their other writing.

You’ve probably read books by some of these authors without being aware they weren’t using their real names, but are a few pen names by famous authors:

  1. Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel).
  2. Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens).
  3. Boz (Charles Dickens).
  4. Silence Dogood (Benjamin Franklin).
  5. Richard Bachman (Stephen King).
  6. George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans).
  7. Maya Angelou (Marguerite Annie Johnson).
  8. George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans).
  9. Bell Hooks (Gloria Jean Watkins).
  10. Ayn Rand (Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum).
What’s in a Pen Name?

Final Words on Why Authors Use Pen Names

In some instances, using your real name is the safest way, but in other scenarios, it may limit the number of books you can publish.

Someone new to publishing might think that using a slight variation is the perfect move (if the writer’s real name might limit their readership or bring problems). However, using a slight variation of their current name can be risky because someone could connect their true identity with the pseudonym and expose them.

Usually, choosing a pen name isn’t as simple as using your middle name! It’s more like borrowing an alias from fiction.

Most famous writers opt for a made-up name. Online, you will want to make sure to use your pen name when setting up profiles, landing pages, blogs, and social profiles for your book and yourself as an author. This shouldn’t cost you anything if you’re utilizing services like Facebook and LinkedIn, but you might want to consult authority to use pen names on some platforms.

You also have to consider copyrights and trademarks and make sure that you legally own the pen name.

If you’ve got all these sorted, you’re good to go! Become successful under a pseudonymous name.

About Jessica Majewski

Jessica started off as an avid book reader. After reading one too many romance novels (really... is it ever really enough?), she decided to jump to the other side and started writing her own stories.

She now shares what she has learned (the good and the not so good) here at When You Write, hoping she can inspire more up and coming wordsmiths to take the leap and share their own stories with the world.