Pen Names and Publishing

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I like my name. It’s part of me and who I am, which means that when I think about publishing, part of the allure is seeing my name out there on a book.

But there are very important factors to consider before you put that name on that novel and publish, and that is that your name is your brand.

Your works will be associated with that name. Those who like your writing will seek out your works by that name. Those who hate your writing will avoid works under that name. If you use your own name and become big, you may lose anonymity. If you use a pen name and become big, you may lose some of your identity.

Historically, pen names (aka pseudonyms or noms de plume) were often used to sound more like the author came from a different gender, class, ethnicity, or race, to get more approval for publishers and readers. And of course, pseudonyms have been used throughout history for anonymity as well. These days, some authors use pen names to write under different genres, or to see if they can succeed because of their writing and not a name that has a lot of fame associated with it.

Whether or not you use a pen name, and why you might use it, is a completely personal choice. But I will give you some tips to help you with the decision, as I have seen many authors regret not thinking this through at the start of their careers.

  • Ask yourself why you are writing right now. If you really want to make this your full-time career and dedicate everything to writing for the next few decades, then your approach to what name(s) you publish under is more important than if you are writing more as a hobby, ‘trying it out,’ or because you have a single book in you that you want to get out.
  • Ask yourself, since the name you publish under is your brand, what thoughts and feelings or even genres do you want associated with that brand? Readers have a lot of choices as to what they read, so they use filters to narrow down the field. This means that if your pen name is associated with a certain genre or quality, that can make or break your novel’s chances of being the answer to the question, “what do I want to read next?”
  • A benefit to using the same name everywhere is that if you have fans of your writing style, they will often follow you from genre to genre, which can generate sales. Everyone is going to have some haters, but if your writing is in general good, this will be a benefit.
  • A benefit to using pen names is being able to keep your primary name untainted if you decide to dabble in a genre you don’t feel completely comfortable with yet, or which could face some prejudices from your usual fans. It is also a way to avoid some of the hype or expectations if you’ve gained some fame with your primary pen name.
  • If you want or need anonymity, you’ll obviously want a pen name. This can apply not just to writing damning biographies or exposés, but also to those who have day jobs where being recognized can be a problem, such as some careers in the medical field.
  • Some legal considerations to think of when it comes to pseudonyms include: purchasing the rights to your pen name and getting a copyright, to help with possible intellectual property or financial issues. Being gifted a check sounds great until you realize it was made out to your pen name and you have no way to cash it!
  • Logistical considerations include things like book signings, websites, marketing, etc., particularly if you work under the different names around the same time periods.

If you have already published a few things under your personal name that you feel are deeply tainting your author brand, I would consider removing those works from wherever you have them published. Why? Because if a book is really badly written or unprofessionally published, readers who read even part of it will generally learn to avoid all works published under the same pen name, no matter how much better more recent works may be. (Please note: I’m not saying those books are worthless! A book does not have to be published or read widely to be worthwhile. Practice books are vital, too!)

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