02/12/2022

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Pen Name: How to Choose One

by Harry Wallett

Are you looking to pen a novel in a completely new genre? Or perhaps you want to write a nonfiction book but don’t feel comfortable using your real name?

If you’re considering either of these options, then chances are you’re thinking about creating a pen name.

A pen name is a pseudonym adopted by an author. It can be used for a variety of reasons, such as to hide your gender, ethnicity, or to create a fictitious persona.

Some authors also choose pen names because they feel that it gives them more creative freedom.

In this blog post, we’ll explore the different ways that you can choose and adopt a pen name and we’ll also look at some famous authors who’ve used pen names at some point in their careers. 

Why Do Authors Choose Pen Names?

There are a number of reasons why an author might choose to use a pen name. Some of the most common reasons include:

To hide their gender: Some authors choose to conceal their gender for marketing purposes. For example, J.K. Rowling chose to forgo her first name of Joanne and use a gender-neutral acronym when penning her Harry Potter series in order to appeal to both boys and girls.

To hide their ethnicity: An author might also choose to use a pen name in order to conceal an ethnic-sounding name that might be hard to remember or pronounce by its target audience.

To develop a specific persona: Some authors choose pen names in order to create a fictitious persona.

For example, Nora Roberts published romance novels under the pen name J.D. Robb. Interestingly, she had thought at the time that all romance writers were supposed to use pseudonyms!

To have more creative freedom: Lastly, some authors choose to use pen names in order to have more freedom when writing in a new genre.

This might be because they feel that their real name is too closely associated with their previous work and don’t want to be pigeonholed into an existing genre.

How Do Pen Names Work Legally?

Legal pen names, publishing company

In most cases, a pen name is simply a pseudonym that an author uses for professional purposes. This means that authors can make up pretty much any name they wish without any legal implications.

However, there are exceptions to this rule. For example, if an author purposely publishes their work using the name of someone who’s easily recognizable in the public domain (contracted ghostwriters are excluded), then they could be sued for impersonation, defamation, and so on.

As a thought experiment, imagine what would legally happen to you if you were to choose the pen name Stephen King for your horror fiction…

Additionally, unless an author legally changes their birth name to match their pen name, pseudonyms cannot be used to sign publishing agreements since these contracts need to be made with a legal entity (i.e. a person’s real legal name, a company, etc.)

If you want to mention your pen name in your publishing contract for clarity, you could instead say something like “Jane Doe (writing as Pen Name).” or “Jane Doe (DBA Pen Name).” Using DBA (Doing Business As) can be useful if you want to cash cheques in your bank under your pen name.

How To Pick A Pen Name?

Choosing a pen name can be tricky, because you have to make sure it’s unique (be prepared to do a lot of online and social media searches.)

At the same time, it’s important to find the right one that suits your work and resonates with your readers.

Here are some tips for choosing the perfect pen name: 

  • Consider your genre: Think about what type of writing you’re doing and choose a pen name that reflects the style of your work. For example, if you’re writing children’s literature, you might want to choose something whimsical. 
  • Choose something unique: Try to avoid common everyday names as these will be hard for people to remember. Instead, try thinking of something more unique and memorable.
  • Avoid too much personal information: If your pen name goal is to protect your privacy, avoid giving away too much personal information. For example, if your real name is Sarah Jones then don’t choose the pen name S.R. Jones as this could easily be traced back to you. 

Using a Pen Name Generator

If you’re struggling to come up with a pen name on your own then there are plenty of online pen name generators you can use (Google “pen name generators” and you’ll see what I mean.)

These tools allow you to enter some basic details such as gender and language of origin and they’ll generate hundreds of potential pen names for you to choose from.

The advantage of using these tools is that they can give you lots of ideas in a short space of time, but the disadvantage is that they can often produce pen names that are too generic or just don’t reflect your style of writing. 

Using AI Writing Tools

AI tools for pen names, mystery novels

Another option for finding pen names is to use artificial intelligence writing tools.

These tools can create an unlimited number of author pseudonyms in seconds and they typically generate more creative and unique pen names than generators.

The advantage of AI is that you can give these tools very specific instructions, as if you were tasking an actual human being with finding the perfect pen name for you.

For example, you can tell the AI: “create a female pen name for a fiction author who specializes in period romance novels.”

How Do I Protect My Pen Name?

Once you’ve chosen a pen name, there are some steps you can take to make sure it’s protected from copycats: 

Register your pen name

If you plan to use your pen name commercially, then it’s a good idea to register it with an official body such as The Authors Guild. This will provide your pen name with some legitimacy, however, it won’t prevent others from using the same pen name. 

Monitor social media

It’s also important to monitor social media for any unauthorized and/or illegal uses of your pen name that could be infringing on your trademark (see below.)

Consider intellectual property:

Lastly, you might consider registering trademarks for your pen name and works associated with them in order to create an added layer of legal protection, but this typically high expense can be hard to justify before your name gains notoriety.

Also, note that trademark protections cannot be enforced if your pen name happens to match someone else’s legal name.

Examples of Famous Pen Names:

Here are some examples of famous authors who chose to publish books using pen names:

Stephen King (author’s name)

Stephen King used the pen name Richard Bachman early on in his career in order to bypass commonly accepted publishing rules at the time on how many books a single author could publish in a year. 

George Orwell (pen name)

Eric Arthur Blair adopted this pen name in order to avoid embroiling his family name with his politically controversial books. 

Lewis Carroll (pen name)

This pen name was adopted by Charles Dodgson as a way of distancing his fantasy books from his academic career as a mathematician. 

Anne Rice (author’s name)

Anne Rice used the pen name Anne Rampling to feel free to write erotica without her father knowing about the books.

Dr Seuss (pen name)

Theodor Geisel wanted to create a pen name that was easier for children to read and remember than his real name. 

Agatha Christie (author’s name)

She created the pen name Mary Westmacott to write more romantically-tinged novels without being pigeonholed by her reputation as a mystery writer. 

In Conclusion

Pen names can be a great way for authors like you to express yourself creatively if you have a valid reason for wanting to conceal your legal name.

While using a pen name won’t necessarily boost your author’s fortunes in and of itself, it will allow you to separate your personal life from your writing life and offer you some level of anonymity.

It’ll also give you the freedom and inspiration to write under whatever author persona you wish to create. 

Now, whether you go by your real name or a pen name, there’s no wrong way to pursue writing. All that matters is that you feel confident and comfortable telling your story in the best way possible.

So go ahead — choose your pen name, write your story, and enjoy your author’s journey!

Harry Wallett is the Managing Director of Cascadia Author Services. He has a decade of experience as the Founder and Managing Director of Relay Publishing, which has sold over 3 million copies of books in all genres for its authors, and looks after a team of 50+ industry professionals working across the world.

Harry is inspired by the process of book creation and is passionate about the stories and characters behind the prose. He loves working with the writers and has shepherded 1000s of titles to publication over the years. He knows first-hand what it takes to not only create an unputdownable book, but also how to get it into the hands of the right readers for success.

Books are still one of the most powerful mediums to communicate ideas and establish indisputable authority in a field, boosting your reach and stature. But publishing isn’t a quick and easy process—nor should it be, or everyone would do it!

A professional grade book takes 250+ individual tasks to complete. Cascadia is an expert in every single one of them. Do you want to harness our expertise to launch your book into the stratosphere? Chat with us!

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