Should You Use a Pen Name?

One of the first decisions to make in your author career is whether to use your real name or a pen name. You’ll need to know this to set up your website and start sharing your work. This decision is hard for many writers because each choice has advantages and disadvantages. It ultimately comes down a combination of marketing considerations and personal preference.

When I started thinking about publishing, I knew I had to decide whether or not to use a pen name. I felt torn between the authenticity of using my real name and the bit of privacy I’d get by using a pen name.

As I researched the issue, I realized there were other important considerations. There are  a lot of people with my real name, including several other writers. This would make it harder for me to get found online, and my books could be confused with those of other writers. Moreover, my last name is one letter different from a more common spelling of the name, and it gets misspelled often.  It could easily be confused with the more common version. These facts convinced me it would be better to use a pen name.

Pen Name Pros and Cons

There are advantages and disadvantages to using a pen name.  You can find plenty of contradictory advice advice on the issue. Some people, like Kristen Lamb, say to never use a pen name. They say pen names are a huge bother because each pen name needs a website and social media accounts. Pen names are also confusing when your fans interact with you in person. Should they call you by your real name, or by your pen name?

Other people say that using a pen name is a useful way to stand out from other people with your  name. It can also help you maintain some privacy. If you write in different genres, you can use a different name for each genre to help readers tell which genre each book is in.

Why Should You Use a Pen Name?

Fiction writers choose to use pen names for a variety of reasons. Here are some reasons to consider using one.

Another Well-Known Person with the Same Name

Having the same name as famous or infamous person can pose several problems for a writer. If there’s a well-known person with your name, search engines will  return results for this other person before you. Moreover, if there’s a celebrity with your name, it will be just about impossible to get on the top page of search engine results for your name.

If there’s another writer with your name, or with a very similar name, readers might confuse you with this other writer. Your books could also get mixed up on certain websites. This is especially problematic if you both write in the same genre, or if the other writer with your name writes things offensive to your readers.

Moreover,  you might want to use a pen name if someone else with your name is notorious for something you do not want yourself and your writing associated with. Such a person could be an entertainer whose work is offensive to you and your audience. It could also be a criminal. If there’s a serial killer with your name hitting the news, you might want to consider a pen name.

What if Someone Else with Your Name Becomes Infamous Afterward?

Most likely, once you are a well-known writer, other professionals in the arts and entertainment will not want to use your name. If they’re smart, they’ll go for a unique name that still has the dot.com domain name available. As for criminals, you can hope that once you are an established writer, people will figure out that you aren’t the criminal with the same name.

If Someone with Your Name is Moderately Famous

Let’s say someone else with your name is moderately famous. Famous enough to show up in search engine results, but not enough to dominate them. It’s probably not a problem except in these two cases.

  1. The person is a writer. His or her books might get confused with yours
  2. The person is known for something offensive to you or your audience.

Many Other People with Your Name

You might also want a pen name if there are many other people with your name, even if none of these people is using the name as a public figure.  In this case, you probably can get to the top of search engines once you’ve posted enough content online using that name. Until then, however, it might be hard for readers to find you.

Choosing a Pen Name with Good Digital Real Estate

One reason to use an uncommon name is that it will likely have good digital real estate available. Digital real estate for a name is the online space available for that name. It includes domain names, especially dot.com ones, and names used on social media. If you have a common name, it’s likely that the best digitial real estate for your name, such as the Twitter handle and the dot.com domain name are already taken. If there’s a celebrity with your name, the good real estate is certain to be gone. There are ways to work around this, such as “marysmithwriter.com” or “marysmithbooks.com.” However, you may want to consider a unique name or a unique form of your own name so you can get better digital real estate.

Your Real Name is Hard to Say or Spell

This actually isn’t that important, unless misspellings of your name could get you confused with another writer or with another well-known person. If you have an ususual name, it will likely be easier for search engines to find. However, if it drives you nuts when people can’t say or spell your name, you might want to consider an easier pen name.

Note on Non-English Names

It used to be common for writers with names that obviously weren’t English to use anglicized forms of their names, or to take anglophone pen names. For example, Józef Tieodor Konrad Korzeniowski wrote as Joseph Conrad. Today, it’s much more common for such authors to use their real names, even if many English speakers won’t know how to say them right away. Using a name from another culture can be a great way to stand out, since it’s likely to be an unusual name to an English-speaking audience.

Don’t feel like you need to use an English-sounding name so people will be able to say and spell it. It’s fine to rock your heritage if you want to.

Your Name Doesn’t Fit Your Genre

Let’s say your name is Annalise Fairfax and you write terrifying thrillers or gritty murder mysteries. You might want a good pen name that fits your genre better. Something that sounds stronger and darker, and not so soft and flowery.

However, it’s possible to overdo fitting your name to your genre. I’ve seen articles on pen names suggesting names like Max Blood for a horror writer, or Lily Love for a romance writer. Names like this can sound too gimmicky to take seriously.

You Want to Save Your Real Name for Your Professional Work

You have a professional career apart from writing, and you want to save your real name for that. Perhaps you want people searching for you online to find your work as a health professional or a lawyer, not your novels. In this case, a pen name can help separate these aspects of your life.

However, it’s hard to keep a pen name a complete secret these days. If you write something that will damage your professional reputation if it becomes known that you wrote it, a pen name might not protect you.

Keeping Different Genres Separate

You want to use a different pen name for each genre you write in. If you’re traditionally published in multiple genres, your publishers will likely insist that you use different pen names. Indie authors differ as to whether this is a good idea. Some say it helps readers find only your books that are in the genre they love. Others think the benefits are not worth the complications of multiple websites and social media accounts for each pen name.

A Little Extra Privacy

Truth is, it’s hard to keep people from discovering your real name these days. However, a pen name can make it a bit harder for weirdos and overzealous fans to find you. It also puts some distance between yourself and criticism of your work. It might be easier to take criticism if it’s directed at your pen name. (on the other hand, applause for your work will be directed at your pen name, too.)

Just for Fun

You’d like an alter ego for fun. It can be fun to take on a new persona. It might help you reveal some aspects of your personality that have been suppressed. Just be sure it’s worth the disadvantages.

You Don’t Like Your Real Name

This can be your chance to use a name you like better. You can now use a different name without the bother of changing your name legally. However, if this is your only reason for a pen name, be sure the disadvantages are worth it to you.

A Fresh Start

You want a fresh start in life or in your writing career. If you’ve previously written and published things you aren’t proud of now, you might want to start afresh with a new pen name. Sometimes, a new name can make you feel more confident and free to be yourself. It can be a way to lose some of the inhibitions that might hold you back.

Why Not to Use a Pen Name

While pen names can have many advantages, they can also have some very real disadvantages. Here are some problems with using a pen name.

Marketing

While a pen name can have many advantages in marketing, it can also have some real disadvantages. People who know you in real life who see your work under your pen name won’t automatically associate it with you.

Career Complications

Using a pen name makes your author career a little more complicated. You’ll likely need to register it as a Fictitious Business Name, which involves a fee.

You may have trouble explaining to people that you write under a pen name, or that your pen name is not your real name. If you go to a writer’s conference or meet with your fans, people may not know which name to call you. People who know you by your real name in real life may not recognize your books as yours, or they may not know what to call you if they attend your author events.

Using multiple pen names makes things even more complicated. You might need a website and social media accounts for each name you use. Multiple pen names can also bring the costs of registering the domain names and fictitious business names. Even if you don’t want to set up a seperate website for each pen name, you should still register the dot.com domain name for eash name if possible. Otherwise, someone else might buy the domain name and offer to sell it to you for a high price. Worse, they may use your pen name’s domain name to set up an offensive site.

Personal Complications

It can be awkward to discuss your work with your family and friends if you publish under a different name than the one they know you by. On the other hand, if you try to keep your pen name a secret and they find out, they may also be unhappy with you.

Inauthenticity

Using a pen name can make your writing appear less authentic to readers. Some of them may feel cheated if they discover that the name they knew you by isn’t your real name. They may suspect you’re trying to hide something.

Some writers who write inappropriate and offensive material use pen names to keep their writinng hidden from their families, fellow church members, employers, or fans of their clean works. Such people are likely to feel offended and decieved when the truth comes out.

So, Should You Use a Nom de Plume?

For most writers, there are advantages and disadvantages to a pen name. It can be hard to decide whether the difficulties outweigh the benefits. If you’re struggling to decide, these questions can help.

Pen Name Questions to Ask Yourself

  • Is there any problem with my real name? (a very common name, another writer or a celebrity with the same name, name doesn’t fit genre)
  • Am I already known for something else by my real name? In this case, you might have a build-in audience. On the other hand, using your real name for fiction unrelated to your other work might cause confusion.
  • Would using my real name for fiction affect my professional career?
  • Do I want fans to know me by my real name? Do I want the general public to know about me by my real name?

Choosing whether to write under a pen name is a major decision. For many writers, there’s no clear answer. Often, a writer must make a decision about the advantages and disadvantages of a pen name.

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