Monday 8 June 2015

What's in a "Pen" Name?

A fellow aspiring author recently asked whether she should use a pen name or her real name. This got me thinking… Why would you choose to use a pseudonym? What do you need to consider before choosing a pen name? And how do you ‘create’ that perfect name?

There are three main reasons to choose a pseudonym.

1. To rise above name limitations

Maybe you don’t like your name or perhaps you have an oddly spelled name that may get misconstrued by the general public (think Harold “Harry” Balls…can’t think of too many genres that name would fit into and a writer would willingly want to be known as). Or perhaps your name is the same as a well-known character, not in the genre in which you write (e.g. you write adult crime thrillers but your name is Harry Potter).

Romeo & Juliet--William Shakespeare

2. To keep your personal life separate from your professional life

Many writers assume pen names to separate fact from fiction, others to protect family and friends. Let’s face it; there are some ‘crazies’ out there and should you become bigger than Nora, you might well garner a few of these ‘fans’ yourself. Using a pen name may make it harder for personal information (like your home address) to be discovered. A good friend of mine decided to use a pseudonym after her son was bullied at school because his mother wrote romances (say, “romances” with a sneer). 

3. To separate the types of books you write

Branding is something many of us aspire to; but branding can pigeonhole us too. Readers know what they can expect from our books and they come to demand that with every new title, but who amongst us hasn’t wanted to branch out and try something new? Branding can sometimes make that difficult. In order not to disenfranchise our readers, it may be best when writing in a new genre to switch names. Well-known dark paranormal romance author JR Ward changed her historical romance author name from Jessica Byrd in order to reach new readers and broaden her writing horizons. Even Nora Roberts chose a pseudonym when she changed from writing romances to writing mainstream mysteries (actually she’s chosen a few of them!).

At this point you may be thinking that a pseudonym might be right for you, but before you settle on the 'perfect name', consider the following:

-Shelving space…when you’re published will you be forgotten and not seen at the bottom back of the Big W/Target/Barnes & Noble bookrack? Or will you be squeezed up tight against a well-known author who is readily seen and readers reach for?

-Domain names & #hashtags…readers visit websites, especially of authors they’ve only just discovered. If they go looking for a website under your name will they find it or will they find someone else? It’s similar with Twitter. Can you tweet with a recognizable hashtag or will you lose followers because they don’t know who you are? 
I don't believe a rose would be
as nice if it were called a thistle or
a skunk cabbage.
Anne of Green Gables--LM Montgomery

-Spelling…when readers want to order your book from The Book Depository or download your books from Kindle, will they be able to find you, or will the spelling of your name confound them? If you’re writing as Soairse Slitzenbackenfauber, your name might just be remembered as Sosy Schipendalerhausen or some variation.

-Gender…do you want readers to know your gender? Romance authors often overlook romances written by men, think ML Buchman (who uses gender neutral initials instead of Matthew Lieber). The esteemed Bronte sisters chose to write under pen names that were considered masculine (Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell) in order to be taken seriously by publishers and readers alike.

-Genre…what name will attract readers to your specific genre? If reading a romance, which sounds better to you Nora Roberts or JD Robb? How about if reading a historical romance, Jessica Byrd or JR Ward?

-Response…if your pen name is called out in a crowded theatre would you answer to it? If you won’t readily respond to your pen name at writing conferences or book signings then it might be a wise idea to reconsider or you just might find fans thinking you’re a prima donna since you didn’t stop to sign their book…and thus you may lose readers.

-Sound…what does the pen name sound like? Similar to naming your characters, you don’t want something too difficult to pronounce. People will skip over it. If they skip over your author name, they may easily forget it when it comes to making their next purchase.

-Double entendre…maybe you write erotic thrillers and Tawny Lust is the perfect name for you. Maybe you write sweet romances but your real name might make readers think otherwise (e.g. Daphne Tease). Maybe you’ve always wanted to use your grandmother's maiden name Itz but your initials are S. H.  Regardless, you’d do well to consider the many ways your possible pen name might be (mis)construed.

Last but not least, when creating the perfect pen name, consider: 

*choosing a name that sounds similar to your own e.g. Eleanor Robertson chose Nora Roberts

*keeping a portion of your real name e.g. Piers Anthony Dillingham Jacob chose Piers Anthony

*using a translation of your name such as Nicolas Kim Coppola (Nicholas Cage)

*using a family name e.g. Theodore Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss

*referencing a baby name book or online baby name register

*flipping through the phone book for names that catch your attention

*choosing a name based on its meaning or quality such as Hope or Constance

When you think your pen name is ready for the world…
Google it! Or use any search engine and/or social media. See if anyone else has that name. If another author (especially in your genre) has it then perhaps no matter how awesome it sounds and how much you really, really, really want it, it might be best to find another one. You do NOT want to be mistaken for someone else…losing a reader is never fun, especially when it could have been averted!

Finally, critique it! As with your writing, critique partners may pick up something you may have missed about the name that you’ve come to be closely attached to.

When all else fails, do NOT use the name of your street and the name of your dog or some variation, otherwise you might end up with a name like Route Four Bud or Happy Constitution. Instead try an online name generator like or

Given the above, what pen name would you use and why?

I love to love the creativity of choosing a pseudonym!

I love to laugh at the sometimes wacky ways people choose pen names.

I love to learn how famous authors chose their writing names.


  1. I laughed so much at this, Dee! Loved the wacky names you used to illustrate your points. I guess it's harder than you think to come up with a name that can go the distance. But you've given me pause for thought, thanks!

    P.S. I also laughed when you said 'bigger than Nora' and I instantly recognised you were talking about Nora Roberts. As a romance reader should!

    1. Glad to hear you enjoyed the not-so-subtle humour! It is tough to come up with a suitable pen name, but hopefully I've given readers/writers a few options to help point the way.

      Being well read Malvina, can you think of author names that you immediately suspected were pen don't actually have to out them by name but maybe give us a clue as to why you suspected them?

    2. Actually, none come to mind immediately... which goes to show most authors choose a pen name successfully. I think there was a book once which had the surname Pink, and it was written as a romance - I did have my suspicions about that one, LOL.

    3. Mmm, excellent point! They (in the immortal words from Indiana Jones and the Holy Grail) have 'chosen wisely.'

      I think I might suspect 'Pink' as well...or anything that just sounds wistful and romantic. (But I might just be suspicious by nature--LOL.)

  2. Hi Dee, I've never considered using a pseudonym. I've always thought I'd be so proud to see my real name on a cover; why would I hide behind another name? Your post pointed out to me some very valid reasons why authors might choose to do so. Thank you for that.
    One thing I find confusing though, is whether to address an author by their real name or their pen name when talking to them in person.

    1. Good question, Marilyn! In all honesty I don't have a precise answer for you, but in my own experience I use the author's pen name when addressing them unless...I'm friends with him/her. If we are friends then I use the author's real name in private yet his/her pseudonym when addressing him/her in a public arena (like at a conference or when introducing a guest blog).

  3. What a great post Dee. It took me a long time to decide on my pen name. I considered nearly every one of the things on your checklist. I kept my first name so that I would indeed turn around when called. The last name took longer to decide. After having adopted this name for about 12 months now I am very comfortable with it. I don't think it is something you should rush into. If you have a long and successful career (like we all would like to have) then you need to be happy with your choice.

    1. Thank you Cassandra Samuels, author of The Scandalous Wager!! I think your advice about 'not rushing into a pen name' is hugely important. Before announcing my writing self, I sat with my pseudonym for a few months to make sure I was comfortable with it but also to see if any of the problems (listed above) appeared. When I was finally confident I had a workable pseudonym, I changed my writing as name on all my professional documents/associations and have been comfortable since.

      For those who don't know, my name actually starts with a 'D' but I've always signed off my various correspondences with 'D' so most everyone assumed Dee was my name anyway. LOL--I guess my pen name actually found me instead of the other way around!

  4. Lol - Tawny Lust! Great post Dee. :)

    1. Thank you Nicole Hurley-Moore, author of McKellan's Run!
      (LOL--I had a really crude name in there but our blog editor thought it best I change it...and Tawny Lust was the least crude pseudonym I could think of!)

    2. Love it! Hmmm... maybe I should rebrand. ;)

  5. Hi Dee. Thanks for the post. Lots of great information here. It took a long time to appear but I now have a pen name. First name is my own (it's uncommon enough to easily remember) and the surname simply flowed after it so I had to give it a nod. :)
    Even so, a pen name is a serious matter and needs careful consideration as you point out.

    1. Hi, Enisa Haines!!!
      Glad you found the article informative.
      I think you're on to a you mentioned, your first name is unusual but not so much that it's easily forgotten or mis-remembered and your last name works well with it! I'm looking forward to seeing Enisa Haines on the book shelves very soon!!

    2. Thank you! I'm looking forward too.

    3. Thank you! I'm looking forward too.

  6. Great post, I can see the pro's and con's of using real names and pen names. Something to think about...

  7. I chose a pen name long before being published and invested in it (website, other branding) and then when I got published the first question I got was 'how wedded are you to your pen name?'. I'd gone with a family name -- Hannah Wride -- and the publishers specifically wanted something that 'was Google-able'. So 'Wride' and even my own name were hard to find on google and so they asked me to find a name that was spelled like it sounded. I got a bunch of friends together and we picked about a dozen names over a boozy celebratory dinner, then got online and googled them to make sure they weren't a) taken b) porn stars or c) too crowded. My first choice (being Welsh) was Nikki Morgan but in my line there was already a Sarah Morgan so I went with number two (Logan) and the rest is history. Over time you get so used to it.... I've signed the wrong signature and given the wrong name. It just becomes a part of you.

    1. Oooo! That's an excellent item for the list!
      -Make sure publisher likes name too.
      Otherwise, as you mentioned, an author may have to rejig the chosen pen name and any of the work they've done with it such as websites and branding.
      Excellent point Nikki Logan, author of Her Knight in the Outback, and soooooo many more awesome Harlequin titles!!!

  8. Excellent post!! Loads of great info.
    My first stories were published under a pseudonym because they were erotic romance and I was twitchy about using my real name. I'm glad I did because I can now keep that side divorced from my rural romances, which tend to be sweet. But I will say it is a major pain running the two names. Not that I do anything with the pseudonym these days, but the website and other costs are still there, and it was really time consuming working them both when I was still pushing the erotic romances.

    1. Thanks Cathryn Hein, author of The Falls!

      I can imagine that keeping track of two names would be difficult but hadn't stopped to consider the costs. Excellent point! If an author is to have more than one name (& the reasons for that can vary as the post mentions), they need to consider costs...time, money, and energy.

      Thank you for that!!!


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