Pen Names: How And Why To Use Them

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pen names

When my first book was being published, I toyed with the idea of using a pen name for about three seconds. Looking back, I may have missed an opportunity.

“If you were starting over, is there anything you would have done differently?” Someone recently asked me this at a party, referring to my writing career. I blurted out that I probably would have used a pen name. They seemed as taken aback by my answer as I was, for I hadn’t really given this notion any thought. When my first Mr. Pants book was being published, I had toyed with the idea of using an alias for about three seconds. But vanity got in the way. Looking back, I may have missed an opportunity.

Other writers have covered pen names before on this blog (e.g. this infographic of a historical tour of pen names), but I think there’s more to say on the subject, especially on how to go about doing so. Here are a few of the many reasons authors use pen names.

Gender identity

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, many female writers used pen names because they feared their work would not be taken as seriously as male authors by the industry. So, Mary Ann Evans became George Eliot and Karen Blixen became Isak Dinesen.

While industry bias may be less of a factor today, some writers (and publishers) still feel that audiences are less likely to accept works by women or men in certain genres. J.K. Rowling, for example, decided against using her first name (Joanne) because she thought boys might be less inclined to read a fantasy book by a woman. Many male romance novel authors have taken female pen names for the same reason, like Harold Lowry (Leigh Greenwood) and Bill Spence (Jessica Blair).

Some authors go one step further and opt out of the whole gender identity thing altogether, either because they are non-binary or because they don’t want audiences coming to the book with preconceived notions. Hilda Doolittle publishing poems as H.D. is an early example of this.

Privacy concerns

Many authors choose a pen name for privacy reasons. Perhaps they are writing something controversial and fear backlash or even retaliation. Perhaps there’s a professional or community reputation they want to keep separate from their creative endeavors. Perhaps they simply don’t want to be bothered by fans or haters. Everyone seems to be spoiling for a fight these days, especially on social media, so no wonder some people just want to avoid any of that leaking in to their private lives.

Given name concerns

In the past, authors with “ethnic” names looking to be better received by British or American readers often changed their given names. Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum became Ayn Rand and Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski became Joseph Conrad.

This is becoming less common today, though some writers still feel their given name is too hard for English readers to pronounce, spell, or remember, so they choose something they perceive will be easier.

The opposite is also true: If you have a common name or you share a name with someone else who is already famous, this is a reason to consider a pen name. This is one of the reasons I would have chosen a pen name if I were to do it again.

I never thought Scott McCormick was such a common name, but I have discovered plenty of other Scott McCormicks out there. (There’s even an author by the name of Scott J McCormick, and his book has gotten lumped in with mine on my bibliography, which doesn’t help either of us.) I was unable to get “my name”.com because a voice-over artist already had it. Nor could I get any of the social media handles, so I’ve had to settle for things like www.scottmccormickonline.com and @ScottsYABooks, none of which are especially great.

And then there’s the length of your name. In the past, having a long name wasn’t necessarily a hindrance, but it is today if you want to use your name for URLs or social media handles. My name, for example, is 14 characters long, and any variation on that just seems endless or useless (Twitter handles, for example, can only be 15 characters long).

Branding

Some authors who have created a strong brand name in one genre may want to branch out into another without diluting their brand or confusing their fans. Daniel Handler, for example, publishes adult novels and plays under his given name and children’s books under the name Lemony Snicket.

There’s a lot to be said for creating a pen name that’s unique and memorable, like Lemony Snicket, Dr. Seuss, Trevanian, Mark Twain, or Woody Allen.

In my post, “Amazon Optimization: My Self-publishing Experience,” I mention that authors should think of their books as a product. Taking that analogy further, if you think of your author name as a brand, you will go a long way towards boosting sales and name recognition.

How to choose a pen name

You want something short, unique, catchy, and easy to spell. Easier said than done, you say? Perhaps, but there are some literary techniques and online tools that can help you.

Literary techniques

Alliteration — words that begin with the same sound: People love alliterative names, which is why they show up so often in comic books (Lois Lane, Peter Parker, Clark Kent) and why so many actors choose them (Marilyn Monroe, Robert Redford). Some authors were lucky enough to be born with alliterative names (Walt Whitman, Vernor Vinge, Hugh Howey, Margaret Mitchell, Don DeLillo, Rick Riordan, Ken Kesey), but there are lots of examples of alliterative pen/stage names (Daniel DeFoe, Louis L’Amour, Miss Manners, Tom Tomorrow, etc.). I would even consider Cormac McCarthy as an alliteration. Sidney Sheldon is a near alliteration.

Assonance and Rhyme — words that have the same vowel sounds: George Orwell, Robin Hobb, Jack Kerouac, etc.

Rhythm plays an important role in why we remember names, titles, and phrases. Many memorable names often follow one of three patterns.

  1. Two one-syllable names (Mark Twain, Joe Hill, Ayn Rand, Lee Childs)
  2. Two two-syllable names (Joseph Conrad, Woody Allen, Tristan Tzara)
  3. A combination of the two (Vernor Vinge, Hugh Howey, Ken Kesey, George Orwell, etc.)

There are exceptions to all of these rules, of course. Some longer names can have a mellifluous flow when you get a nice mix of stressed and unstressed syllables (Truman Capote, Lemony Snicket, Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, Tennessee Williams).

Unusual is good

Speaking of Tennessee Williams (a pen name), unusual words can be a goldmine: Tuesday Weld, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Lady Gaga, January Jones, Ford Maddox Ford. I predict we’ll start seeing a lot more creativity in pen names in the near future as writers take cues from hip-hop culture.

Initials

Initials are always good, especially when they feature a nice syllabic flow: T.S. Elliott, J.D. Salinger, S.E. Hinton, E.B. White, etc. Using your own initials can be a nice way to have your cake and eat it, too. You can create a nice gender-neutral brand name while not totally covering up your identity. (Maybe I should have done what my Mr. Pants illustrator did (R.H. Lazzell) and gone with S.T. McCormick.)

Tools

If you’re having trouble coming up with ideas, try using a name generator. There are many of them out there (Google it and see), but Behind The Name lets you set a lot of parameters.

The tool that I find the most useful, however, is this wonderful anagram generator. Type in your name (or anything else) and you’ll be hit with dozens of great suggestions that will get you thinking.

Important. Before adapting a name make sure it’s not already taken

  1. Do a search. You may find some people with that name, but if they’re not famous (and not a serial killer), it may still be worth using it.
  2. Search the U.S. Copyright Office to make sure no one has published anything under that name.
  3. Search the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to make sure no company is using that name.
  4. Check to see if the URL is available.

Once you have a name…

Once you’ve settled on a name that fits all the above criteria:

  1. Buy the URL, even if you’re not ready to set up a website.
  2. Set up social media accounts, even if you’re not ready to post anything.

Copyrights

Names cannot be copyrighted. This includes your pen name. But you can copyright your book written under your pen name. If you haven’t finished your book, you can still pre-register it with the Copyright Office. Pre-registration is not the same as registration, but it will give you some protection. Learn more here.

Trademark

You can trademark your pen name, though you don’t really need to, especially if you’ve followed the other steps, like setting up your website and social media accounts. Getting a trademark is an expensive, time consuming, lengthy, and confusing process. But if you really want to, you can learn everything you need to know here.

Identity cloaking

You need to decide how private you want to be. A pen name doesn’t have to be a secret, it can just be used for branding purposes. If that’s the case, you’re fine with the above protections, but if you really want to cloak your identity, you should read about the legal, financial, and tax ramifications. (Writer’s Relief has a post about that.)

One thing you should probably do is set up a checking account under your pen name as a D/B/A (doing business as). That way you can deposit checks made out to your pen name.

That’s it! Have you used a pen name in the past? I’d love to hear about your adventures in the comments below.

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A historical tour of pen names [Infographic]
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Scott McCormick

About Scott McCormick

Scott McCormick has written 32 posts in this blog.

Scott McCormick is the author of the Mr. Pants series of graphic novels for kids. He also runs Storybook Editing, offering developmental editing for authors. His new audiobook, Rivals! Frenemies Who Changed the World, has been described as “drunk history for middle-grade kids” and is available on Audible. Scott can be reached at storybookediting@gmail.com. Photo credit Karen Cooley.

23 COMMENTS

  1. A great article. I write under my initials and surname, V.M.Sang. My first 5 books are fantasy, but then I changed and published a historical novel. I thought I’d use my grandmother’s name, and set up a website, email address etc. Then I found it too much to run all these separate accounts, so I scrapped the pen name and now wrote both genres under V.M.Sang.
    I asked my publisher if he thought it would be OK, and he agreed it would be fine.
    I am a bit disappointed because I liked my pen name, but I couldn’t cope with all the extra work it entailed.

    • Thanks, Vivien,
      I had hoped this article would go into the practical advantages/disadvantages of having a pen name rather than what’s been don in the past. I have a great idea for a pen name, but I’ve already started with my own name so have hesitated. Your comment confirmed my choice not to do it. But I do write in 2 genres, sf/f and historical, and I use J,A. McLachlan for my sf/f books and my full name Jane Ann McLachlan for my historical fiction. Close enough not to need separate accounts, websites, etc, and so people who like both genres can find all my books, but enough of a distinction for those who only like one of the genres I write in. At least, that’s my hope. I would like to know if there is a flaw in that reasoning, and hoped this article would go into that sort of thing. Do you have any suggestions on that, Scott? I was able to get my email in jamclachlan but had to use janeannmclachlan.com for my website, so it’s truly an interconnected platform.

  2. If you write in multiple genres with little overlap (fiction vs. non-fiction, sweet vs. steamy), writing under a pen name is a MARKETING strategy. It clearly identifies what the reader can expect. It also helps to avoid muddying up your Also Boughts on Amazon with the wrong books because of author name overlap.

  3. I took a pen name for a publishing “experiment.” If the books took off, I could connect the pen name to me real name, and if they tanked, I could just dump the pen name without it affecting my other books. I also use variations of my name to distinguish genres.

  4. Thank you. My book is a first person narrative memoir and I too am publishing with a pen name to protect the privacy of the children in my book. It is, however, a lot more difficult for advertising, blogging, tweeting, book signings, etc to remain so anonymous. I would appreciate great tips.
    My pen name is Jocie Leedy. My real name is Jo C. Leightner with my maiden name Constance Jo Leedy. I took the best of two worlds, I think.

  5. When choosing a name to write under, I couldn’t use the name I am known by, since I have an ex-sister-in-law with the same name. I wanted to use my maiden name, Rogers, but my brother’s wife has the same first name as I, and she also writes. I’ve always liked my middle name, Marie, but when I started my blog, another Marie Rogers owned the domain name. It seems there are several Marie Rogers’ out there. Fortunately, none are writers. To stand out, I had to come up with a middle initial that another Marie Rogers didn’t use. I settled on Q. If I’m asked what it stands for, I’ll say whatever comes to mind. Quirky seems to work best.

  6. My trouble was the opposite . The name on my birth certificate and bank account is William Bernard Riley but my mother, believing it short for Bernard, called me Barry, so I had a hard time getting a cheque in the name Barry Riley cashed. I changed it to Will B Riley but my vanity is hurt.

  7. Very good article! I chose my particular pen-name (Arthur D Bardswell) for, partly, privacy reasons, but also for aesthetics. My real name (David Arthur Butler) didn’t sound so author-ish, so I did a word-play on it, as you can see.
    Also, my first publication (“The Poor Preachers: Adventures of the First Lollards) was an historical fiction work, calling for a more picturesque, historical-sounding name.
    Thirdly, I have often fantasised myself as a wandering medieval bard — a teller of tales, a singer of songs, a painter of Pictures (i.e. computer graphics) who gathers the village folk together at the local well to entertain and to teach: hence the Bard’s Well. Any other bards out there?

  8. When I set up my recording studio back in August 2000 I chose the name Chrome Oxide for my business. When I started writing in 2012 I decided to use Chrome Oxide as my pen name because I already had developed a web reasonable presence as a recording engineer. I have been told that since I write humorous science fiction and fantasy, Chrome Oxide is a good pen name.

  9. Great. I had to laugh at certain facts that hit home. I have one of those “un-English” names that also happen to be about as short as the Bible. So I only use my full name – Akinyi Prinzessin von K’Orinda-Yimbo / Akinyi Princess of K’Orinda-Yimbo in my non-fiction social, geopolitical writing. Otherwise I’m A P von K’Ory in the fiction world of romance and psychological thrillers.

  10. I’ve been trying to sus this out for my own application, without success. Question: can one use a pen name and be a public presence? I’m assuming yes, given, say, J.K. Rowling, but I believe those are just her own initials, so would it be different if she’d adopted a totally different name? I write (rather harrowing) memoir, some of which is a matter of legal record via successful criminal proceedings against the person who harmed me, but a great deal of it is “unprovable” and I’m leery of inviting other aggressors down on my head (or worse, my family). And on that line, I want my kids to get to grow up without being readily identified with my backstory, as it’s horrible, and not child-care. Even more complicating the issue, my daughter wants to start a YouTube channel, and I’m concerned about kids watching it finding my work. And I also used to blog publicly (without very much detail, granted) under my real name, about my story, on the same blog where I shared about my “today” life. I stopped several years ago upon realizing all these interconnected concerns, and I’m trying to decide how to begin blogging again, in a way that considers all of this. Oh, and a big concern is that I write about specific horrendous harm to children (myself, friends, siblings), and I want to respect their decision to keep their stories private, and also I don’t want to draw the attention of other child predators to my own children. Any advice is much appreciated! For myself, I would prefer to use my real name. Strongly. But I want more than that to be wise.

  11. One thing to be careful of is whether or not you’ll feel comfortable with editors and others calling you by your pen name. Even if you’re sending your manuscripts to traditional publishers, some editors *will* call you by your pen name. I found this out the hard way, when I was using my real name, but hiding my first name and revealing my middle. I did *NOT(!)* like it when an editor called me by my middle name. I put an end to that nonsense real quick!

    I now use a pen name that is actually a combination of surnames. The first name gives homage to my mother (but it’s not *her* maiden name) and the last name is an homage to my actual last name, but it’s not spelled like it. And! I know that I wouldn’t be bothered by being called by that pen name.

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