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Pen Names: Pros and Cons | From Rubbish to Publish

PEN NAMES: Pros and Cons

Pseudonyms, pen names, have historically been used by many authors for a long time, and continue to be used in today’s markets. But why would an author choose to write under a name other than their real one? There are a number of reasons an author might make such a choice, and a number of reasons for deciding against that choice as well.

Common reasons for using a pen name:

Gender Issues: You may be writing in a genre where works written by a certain gender-sounding name sell better. Such genres where this may be of more importance include romance and science fiction. On this same vein, some female authors choose gender-neutral pen names to keep from having sexism impact sales in any genre.

Concealing Personal Traits: There are sometimes instances when a name sounds too “young” or too “old” for gaining the air of authority for writing in a specific genre.

Difficult Name: Sometimes an author’s real name is hard to remember, or difficult to spell. A formula that seems to work well for coming up with a replacement name in this instance is using a two-syllable first name and a single-syllable last name. An example of this is Stephen King.

Awkward Name: Sometimes an author’s real name sounds silly, stupid, or obscene.

Famous Figure: Sometimes an author’s real name is the same as, or similar to, another author or a famous figure.

Reclusive/Fear Fame: An author may want to keep as much privacy as possible and not have his/her real name recognized with ease. Along this line, an author may have a day job with an established reputation and not want to compromise that reputation by being associated with authoring certain types of writing.

Change Genres: An author successful in one genre may not want to risk his/her reputation by attempting to write in another genre. Or sometimes an author wants to keep a separate identity for different genres for other reasons.

Co-Writing: An author writes as part of a team, and, accordingly, they choose one pen name to represent them both.


Possible problems with using a pen name:

Poorly Chosen Pen Name: While it may be possible that a good pseudonym can give your name stronger selling power, a poorly chosen one could hurt your chances of acceptance by both readers and publishers. A blatantly obvious pen name might be viewed as an author capable of being only a one or two hit wonder.

Future Identity Problems: While a well-chosen pen name might add an air of mystery or romance to the author, it might also create an identity difficult to get away from. An established reputation for sales under a pseudonym might make works published under a real name difficult to gain acceptance.

Contract Problems: Sometimes a publishing contract only allows an author to write a certain number of projects under a certain name. An author may choose to establish another pen name to circumvent that issue. However, the author cannot legally deceive their publisher without facing possible stiff penalties. It is best to work out this problem with the publisher and not face breeching a contract or facing civil court action.


Tips for choosing a pen name:

Availability: Search book stores, the Internet, white pages, and the Copyright Office to keep from choosing the name of a real person, particularly another author.

Uniqueness: Consider name choices that would be unique to the genre in which you will write, but do not choose a name that is too cutesy or unbelievable.

Alphabet: Consider a name that would fall into the first half of the alphabet for a better chance at having your book higher on book displays or shelves. You might also consider choosing a name that would fall near the books of a bestselling author.


Copyright and legal matters:

The Copyright Office allows you to register copyrights under a pen name, with or without disclosing your real name. Copyrights under a real name last for the author’s life plus 70 years. Copyrights for works published under a pen name is the shorter of 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation.

Where once it was possible to keep an author’s real name a secret from his publisher that is not true today. Publishers are required to issue Form 1099s to the IRS for any payments made to writers, which means they must have your social security number and your real name.

If you are considering using a pseudonym to protect you from any possible legal action as a result from something you have published, that is a poor consideration. Legally, a pen name has no real existence. Whatever name you publish under, you are ultimately responsible for your work.

There are many reasons for deciding to use a pen name, but there are equally as many for choosing to not use one. Take the time to carefully consider the matter, and especially take the time to choose a good pseudonym.


Zaharoff, Howard. “A Writer By Any Other Name.” WritersDigest.com

Hall, Jamie. “How to Choose a Pen Name.” www.jh-author.com/penname.htm.

Pollick, Michael. “Should a writer adopt a pen name?” http://mdmd.essortment.com/penname_ravc.htm.

Allen, Moira. “Should You Use a Pseudonym?” Writing-World.com.


Famous Pen Names

Pen Name                    Real Name

Isaac Asimov               Paul French

Lewis Carroll               Charles Lutwidge Dodgson

George Eliot                 Mary Ann Evans

O. Henry                      William Sydney Porter

Dean Koontz               K. R. Dwyer

Robert Ludlam             Jonathan Ryder

Charlotte MacLeod      Matilda Hughes

Barbara Michaels         Barbara Martz

George Orwell             Eric Arthur Blair

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This website is the work of Starla Criser, an author who has published more than 50 stories, both traditionally and through self-publishing routes.
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