Essays

Why Do Authors Use Pen Names?

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Arvyn Cerézo

Senior Contributor

Arvyn Cerézo is an arts and culture writer/reporter with bylines in Book Riot, Publishers Weekly, South China Morning Post, PhilSTAR Life, the Asian Review of Books, and other publications. You can find them on arvyncerezo.com and @ArvynCerezo on Twitter.

If you write a book, your name should be on the cover, shouldn’t it? Give credit where credit is due, as they say. But it’s a different case for many authors who put a a pen name on their covers. Indeed, in the literary and the wider publishing landscape, there have been plenty of authors who wore different personas. So why do authors use pen names?

What is a Pen Name?

Before we explore the main motivations for using one, let’s first define what a pen name is. When a writer uses a different name or a byline other than their legal name or birth name, it’s called their pen name. There have been a lot of well-known authors in history who wrote under different names, traversing genres and exercising creative expression. From George Orwell and Lewis Carroll to Stephen King and Agatha Christie, they all hid their real names with made-up ones.

Many modern pen names have cropped up in the publishing world as well, including E.L. James and Sophie Kinsella. In other spaces in publishing, many writers for blogs, publications, and magazines also dabbled into the practice, proving that this phenomenon is not going away anytime soon.

Why Do Authors Use Pen Names?

So why do authors use pen names? I spoke to authors and writers from different industries to find out their motivations in keeping their names under wraps.

Privacy

One of the major reasons that authors use pen names is that sometimes, authors or writers just want to have some privacy. This is crucial when they are writing something that would jeopardize their lives, like in journalism: “I decided to use a pen name when I started writing novels because I’m from a small town and I was a journalist/editor at the local newspaper…From a security standpoint, I’m so glad that everyone knows me by my pen name,” says writer Jessica James.

For others, the reason could be something related to their work, such as they don’t want their employer (or future employers) to know what they have been writing as it might impact their job prospects: “It was the standard advice of any upcoming writer who wants to publish their work both offline and online. The common reason I found is so that your future employer won’t accidentally search you up online and see what you’ve been writing about,” says Jed Silverlake, founder and CEO of the lifestyle website HomeforBeginners.com.

Protection

Related to privacy concerns, many authors want the protection of a made-up name, such as when they are writing erotic fiction or something controversial. If that piece of writing doesn’t work out or comes under fire, they can protect their reputation and start anew with a new pseudonym.

“I changed my name…both to help protect the privacy of the women [I write about] but also to make the writing easier. As I discovered early on, writing about oneself is pretty hard. The sharing of one’s deepest emotions, confessions, and faults is difficult. Add in embarrassing experiences and extremely intimate subject matter, and well…it was darn near impossible,” says author Turner Grant.

For writer Sunica, it was to protect them from possible backlash over an exposé on corruption in a local government agency. “Although the story was based on facts and well-researched, it caused quite a commotion. The agency wasn’t thrilled about the negative attention and began to harass me, even threatening legal action. It was a trying time for me, and I constantly felt like my safety and future were on the line,” they reveal. That’s the turning point for them to use a pen name. “That not only protected me from potential harm but also allowed me to continue writing about sensitive and controversial topics…”

“[A pen name] not only protected me from potential harm but also allowed me to continue writing about sensitive and controversial topics…”

Meanwhile, it’s generally known that erotica might not be embraced by everyone, so some authors want to protect their identity and their day job through an alter ego. “I invented an author and use the pen name Peter Schutes for my erotic fiction. I have a regular identity as a novelist and nonfiction author, and I work at Fortune 500 companies doing data analysis, so I need to keep the erotic fiction separate,” says writer Peter Schutes.

For other writers, especially new ones, they want protection from public scrutiny since they’re just starting out. One writer has an imposter syndrome that they don’t like using their real name for fear of being criticized. Using a pen name allows them to make mistakes, and if their writing is deemed horrible, they say that at least it would be free from harsh criticisms. “I like using a pen name because initially when I started blogging, I was skeptical if I would succeed or if anyone would even read my posts. This translated to a massive imposter syndrome and a fear of failure,” shares blogger Shrey. “A lack of confidence made me use a pen name, and somehow I felt safer hiding behind this new identity…”

This is also the case with G. Z. Schmidt, author of No Ordinary Thing. “I use a pen name to create a semblance of privacy. It separates the author self and the personal self. This way, when there is criticism on the writing, it feels less personal and more objective,” she shares.

Author Branding

Many authors turn to pseudonyms to maintain consistency in their author branding.

“I have published children’s books under my name, Dr. Evona L. Smith, and I’ve also publish other books under my pen name or pseudonym. The major reason in which I turned to a pen name to publish several of my books is to maintain a clear and concise messaging through my brand as an author,” says Dr. Evona L. Smith, owner of an independent publishing house. “My brand reflects that of diverse children’s books that assist children in coping with physical and mental health challenges. Nevertheless, to avoid disrupting the connection that I’ve made with my target audience, I utilize a pen name when publishing books outside of my normal genre or not related to the brand that I represent.”

Smith says that in order to keep your books in the hands of your target reader, it is crucial to maintain consistency while creating your identity or “brand” as an author.

Marketability in a Genre

Some genres clearly have biases. For instance, there used to be a gender bias against women in crime fiction. Hence, some authors felt the need to use pen names in order to appeal to a certain demographic.

This is what happened to writer Marian Wolbers, who used to write for a men’s publication. “I used the name Arthur Henning when writing articles about men’s health for Rodale Press’ Men’s Confidential newsletter,” she shares. “This was because the supervisor thought men would not read my articles on such topics as prostate health, etc., if I used a female name.” 

Genre Switch or Creative Freedom

A related answer to the question “Why do authors use pen names?” is that plenty of them write in different genres, and to be able to try their hand at something new and unknown, they use pseudonyms. This is also to avoid confusing their readers. For instance, Agatha Christie wrote romance novels under the pen name Mary Westmacott.

“When I began writing in another genre…I adopted a new nom d’ plume for those books. It’s not exactly a secret that Ambrose Weaver, author of The Savior Trilogy, is me. But using a different name separates my funny political books from my horror books or other professional writing that I do,” says writer Wednesday Lee Friday.

Some authors, meanwhile, just want to spark creativity in other fields, such as when exploring different writing styles. “It allows me the freedom to explore different creative avenues without being tied to my previous work or reputation, it helps me build a unique identity as a writer,” says writer Danilo Coviello.

A Hard-To-Pronounce name

Some authors have difficult-to-pronounce names that they chose to adopt a pen name to make them sound better to the readers’ ears. This may help in marketing and publicity and for making sure that readers have an easy name to recall. “I use a pen name as a writer because my real last name is too difficult to pronounce for most people. I’m from the Netherlands and have a very typical Dutch last name, but I write in English. So, I changed my last name to make it more international,” says writer Iris Marsh.

The same also happened to author Nicole Evelina, who admits that no one can remember, spell or pronounce her real last name. “I wanted to pick something relatively short, memorable and easy to spell. I went with Evelina because it is Celtic…My real first name is Nicole, but it’s not spelled the traditional way. All of my life I’ve had to spell my first name for people and so it is nice using the traditional spelling now,” she shares.

S.A. Patrick, author of A Darkening of Dragons, also reveals that his agent once told him that his real name was “so bland” and suggested he use a pen name instead. “Which has to sting, right? He did have a point…”

To Break Publishing’s Rigid Rules

Some authors wanted to release more than a book in a year, one being the industry standard. Publishing more than that, according to various industry experts, would saturate the market and compete with their own works.

Stephen King used the pseudonym Richard Bachman for four of his works. King wanted to publish more as Richard and also to separate Richard’s works from his popular books as himself. However, he was outed when a man who had read many of his novels noticed the uncanny similarity in their writing.

Author Dean Koontz also wanted to publish more books in a year. So he wrote under several pen names, which includes Deanna Dwyer, Owen West, and Aaron Wolfe among others.


Those are some of the major reasons why do authors use pen names, but for each author, it’s a personal decision that may have several underlying reasons.

Here are more authors who currently use pen names.