Pen Names: The Why, Who, and How
By Emilie Serna
A pen name, also known as a pseudonym or nom de plume, is a tool commonly used by authors to replace their real name when publishing a work. Pen names are totally legal to use during the publishing process, even when signing contracts. It may be helpful to share your real name with your literary agent, but it’s not a requirement. Pseudonyms are very common, and authors choose pen names for a variety of reasons.
Why use a pen name?
Marketability is very important when publishing a book. There are many things to take into consideration. The book’s content, cover, length, title, and even the name on the front cover are all factors that will help your book sell. Your name as an author is one of the first things that a potential reader will see when they look at your book.
So why might you choose a pseudonym? It all comes back to marketability. Look at your book and decide who its main audience will be.
Let’s go through a few scenarios:
1. You have written a romance novel, and your name is Allison Blood. Your surname does not match the book’s content and may put off readers who are browsing for a fun beach-read. In this case, there’s no need to pick an entirely new name. There are multiple ways to create a pen name, including only changing one of your names.
2. You’re about to publish your self-help book about the wonders of meditation, and your name is James Patterson. This could confuse readers who are looking for the already-established James Patterson’s new book. Find out if you share a name with anyone even remotely famous, author or otherwise, and if so, you might want to consider a pen name. You won’t want your byline on a middle-grade adventure to be conflated with the stage name of a frequently Googled porn star (as was the case for one of our clients).
3. Your name is Emily Smith, and you’re trying to publish your YA dystopian novel. Common names are less likely to catch someone’s eye, and their internet search results will always be flooded. Think of the most popular YA writers: Cassandra Clare, Leigh Bardugo, or Maggie Stievfater. Pen names or not, they have a unique ring to them. The John Smiths, Mary Browns, and Robert Joneses may want to consider their options as well.
This is not to say you must change your name if you fit any of these examples. It is important to be aware of what will help your book sell, but if your book is as amazing as I’m sure it is, your name won’t make a reader put it down.
Who uses pen names?
If you’re hesitant about pen names, you should know that many of your favorite authors use them.
S.E. Hinton, author of The Outsiders, chose to publish under her initials rather than her full name. Agatha Christie chose to publish a few romance novels until the pseudonym Mary Westmacott because she was so well known for her mysteries. Many women in the past chose male-presenting names to publish their books because of the misogyny in publishing and public literary circles. Famous names like Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters were unknown until years after their books were first published. Another famous female author named Mary Ann Evans is still more widely known by her pen name, George Eliot, over a hundred years after her death.
Though sexism may take subtler forms these days, there is still something to be said about marketability when it comes to gender.
How to choose a pen name
There are about a hundred different name generators on the internet that can suggest a pen name for you. However, it’s important that you love the name you choose so you don’t need to change it again later, so think long and hard about what image you’re trying to sell.
Whether for privacy, to conceal gender, or even if you just don’t like your first name, initials are a kind of pseudonym. You can be an author like S.E. Hinton or E.L. James. You can change your first and last name, or just one of them. Instead of initials, you can keep your first name and give yourself a new last name. If you’re married, you can go by your family’s name instead of your partner’s. You can also pick a name of someone you admire, as long as you don’t end up with a name like Britney Spears. But there are no hard and fast rules here.
You can choose your middle name, and you can even go by a single name, although that’s less popular. You can also search popular baby names from the year that you’re trying to market to. Whether your real name is Agnes or Ava, it’s certainly worth considering your novel’s age group.
Most importantly, have fun with it!
Is a pen name right for you?
If you’ve read this article and still want to know if you need a pen name, here are two closing tips.
First, Google yourself. If anyone even semi-famous is already dominating the search results, you may want to consider a pen name—especially if you’re trying to sell erotica and you share a name with a famous politician.
Second, pin down exactly who your target audience is. Genre is important here. Is your book literary? Academic? For children? All of these factors will warrant a different approach and perhaps a different name.
Emilie is a second-year English literature major receiving her bachelor’s degree at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. She is a Mexican American, queer writer who enjoys writing and reading own-voices works. Emilie grew up in Muscat, Oman, but is currently based in Winona, Minnesota. She is working on her first novel and honing her editing skills. As an editor, she seeks to build close relationships with her clients while paying special attention to themes, character development, and pacing.