Pen name. Pseudonym. Nom de plume.
There are many reasons why you, as a writer, may consider using a pen name, but it’s a big decision to make.
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Creating an alternate identity can require a lot of work. It’s recommended to have social media profiles easily linked to your author identity in order to establish a brand, using the same name and image across all platforms.
Creating those social media platforms under your pseudonym is one thing, but maintaining them is another. If you’re just starting out as a brand new author, you definitely need to have an active presence on all your platforms. If you’re already an established author and want to create another “secret” pen name, you should still consider being as active on as many social media platforms as you can.
However, if you’re creating a pen name for a different audience, but don’t mind people knowing your original author name, then sharing social media platforms is a possibility.
If you want to find out if it may be in your best interests to use a pen name, then read on!
You’re active in your professional community. Many of us writers are not full-time writers (yet). We have day jobs. If you’re in a political-heavy profession, where you might travel the world to meet and sell to other professionals, you might not want them to know about your writing. This isn’t to say you should hide the fact that you’re a writer, but some would like to have that option if they so choose. If you’re a researcher and your name appears in publications, you might want to consider writing under a pen name. Hell, if you’re a writer of literary magazines, you may want to consider writing your fiction under a pen name.
Your writing is a little risqué. Or gory. Or anything else you might not want your grandma accidentally finding and reading. If you’re an elementary school teacher writing historical fiction that may involve long scenes in brothels, you might want to consider writing under a pen name. If your passion lies in firing up other people’s passions, you might want to use a pen name. Just think: is this something I wouldn’t mind my grandma reading? Family members are usually really excited to get their hands on your novel as soon as it comes out, so keep this in mind!
Your name is confusing. Or really really long. I have a friend who has two last names--her first name, first last name, and second last name are all long. I would recommend her shortening her name for reader simplicity. If you have a foreign name, feel free to rock it. If your name is difficult to pronounce, I’m sure you’ve gotten used to it by now. But if it’s something you would rather avoid, you might want to consider writing under a pen name.
You have the same name as a well-known author/person. Is your name Brad Pitt? Legally, there’s nothing wrong with using your real name (as long as you also don’t put Brad’s face on the back of your cover), but you might not want to be associated with that person. It’s better to have a blank slate than have to worry about people not picking up your book because they didn’t like Brad in 7 Years in Tibet. You’ve put a lot of time and effort into your novel (or you will). If you want your novel to become famous under your unique identity, then you might want to consider using a pen name.
You value your privacy. This is a big one for some people. You may not want Joe Schmoe knowing your real first and last name, because you can’t trust people! While it's rare that something bad like this happens anymore, if it's something you're uncomfortable with then don't feel like you have to let people know your real name. Seeing your name on a book cover is nice, but to many people it might not be worth losing their privacy. If you’re suspicious of everyone’s true nature, you might want to consider using a pen name.
Make it personal. This isn’t required, but it’s fun. Are you half Portuguese? See if you can find a Portuguese last name. Really like your great-grandmother’s maiden name? Use it! When you were a little kid did you loathe your last name because no one could pronounce it? Now’s your chance to reinvent your childhood with zero guilt! If your goal is not so much to hide your true identity as it is for genre/audience changes, you might be able to tweak your existing name. For example, Rachel Aaron is also Rachel Bach
Domain name. If your name is John West, your domain name is already taken. Now’s your chance to create a unique author website based only on your first and last name. This isn’t a requirement, but firstnamelastname.com is a lot easier than firstnamelastnamebooks.com or authorfirstnamelastname.com. There’s nothing wrong with the latter, but the previous is preferred if available. Choose a name unique enough that it’s available as a domain name. For example, JohnWestwood.com is available and is similar enough to the original name. Similarly, try to find a name that has the same handle available across all your social media platforms, so it’s easier for your readers to remember when looking you up.
Have fun. There’s not usually a deadline when it comes to creating a pen name, so feel free to think it over for a few days or a week. Ask others around you that you don’t mind knowing. Use random name generators (Scrivener has one you could use!). Watch the credits scrolling in a movie and see if a name jumps out at you. Make an anagram of your real name! Use the first name of the creator of your favorite video game growing up. Don’t stress about finding the right name and just enjoy the process. You’re recreating yourself! Don’t recreate yourself as a stressed out writer.
Don’t make it similar to a famous name...unless your genre involves some kind of parody work (think Pride & Prejudice & Zombies). Ben Nofflek is going to remind people too much of Ben Afflek, making it difficult for you to establish your own identity as a writer. Most writers want their pen name to be famous one day, so steer clear of Marie Antoini if you can help it.
Fit it to your genre. If you’re writing thrillers, you might want to use a pen name with your first and middle initials. Joanna Penn did this to separate her non-fiction works from her thriller novels, written under the name J.F. Penn. Are there any other similarities between the novels that are selling well? If you’re writing in the romance genre, do the writers name’s tend to be sultry or exotic? Browse through your genre and see if there’s a trend you might consider following.
My last note to you all: your pseudonym will not be completely private. Your publisher will know, Amazon will know, or your accountant might find out. If a legal document requires you use your real name, and no aliases, then you must use your real name.
In most cases, there won’t be anyone that cares enough to hunt you down and tell the world what your real name is. Sure, if you become the next Robert Galbraith, there might be those interested in being the first to spread the news that you’re really J.K. Rowling. The point here: most places will specify if they don’t want an alias--follow the law!
I want to hear from you!
Do you use a pen name? Have you ever considered using one before? What tips do you have for our fellow writers out there who might be considering a pen name for themselves?