5 Tips On How To Pick A Pen Name That’s Memorable To Your Readers

Pen names, also known as pseudonyms, are names under which an author publishes their work when they don’t want to use their birth name. 

Pen names are prevalent, and you may be surprised to find out that your favorite famous author probably uses one!

In this article, we’ll explore pen names, why authors choose them, the purpose they serve, and how to pick a pen name.

What is a pen name?

A pen name is a false name or ‘pseudonym’ (also known as ‘nom de plume’) under which an author publishes their work. The pen name takes the place of their real name on the book cover and title page.

how to pick a pen name

Why do authors use a pen name?

There are several reasons why authors use pen names.

1. To protect their identity

Some authors choose a pen name instead of their own name to protect their identity. 

An author may not want to use their real name because they don’t want people to know that they write in a particular genre or about a specific topic.

For example, a writer of erotic romance novels may face controversy over their work if recognition will jeopardize their career as a primary school teacher. Political non-fiction writers may not want to attach their real names to their work to avoid conflicts of interest or support in their personal life.

Historically, women have had a more challenging time successfully getting published than men. 

As such, a number of female authors circa the 19th century and prior chose to publish under a male pseudonym to increase their chances of success in the publishing world. Later, they use their literary success as a platform to reveal their true identity.

Even without the need to protect one’s security in their day job or to increase chances of publishing success, an author may choose a pen name simply to keep their private life private. 

Fame brings attention, and that attention is often unwarranted. A pen name allows an author to carry on with their private life without so much public interest.

2. To break through discrimination

When a potential reader makes first contact with a book, they judge it by its front cover, despite the old adage of never doing so. One form of judging a book by its cover is looking at the author’s name.

If an author comes from and owns a name relevant to a particular country or culture, the fact is that country or culture may influence how a member of another culture receives the book.

Despite the great leaps forward and away from racism and sexism since the last century, there is still, unfortunately, an ingrained tendency toward discrimination in society today. 

Some authors choose a pseudonym to detach from their culture, publish their work, and later reveal their true name and identity post-publishing success.

Note: Be mindful of adopting a new cultural identity with your name. It may cause backlash.

3. To explore a different genre

In the film industry, some actors frequently get typecast in the same type of role and struggle to break into different roles and genres. Consider Liam Neeson and his revenge arcs or Morgan Freeman in his roles as a wise teacher.

In the same way, authors get ‘typecast’ in their genre. For example, when we hear Agatha Christie, we think of mystery novels. When we think of Stephen King, we think of horror fiction.

As such, an author may choose a pen name to break any associations with a particular genre and give them a chance to try something new. 

Agatha Christie famously adopted the name Mary Westcott to write romance novels and avoid disappointing fans who will come to expect a mystery story. Stephen King used the pseudonym Richard Bachman and continued to write horror fiction to see if his work could achieve success on its own without being bolstered by his famous name.

4. Their real name is already famous

If your name is George Martin, many potential readers may confuse your work or that of famous fantasy author George RR. Martin and feel disappointed to find out that your work is entirely different. 

Unless you plan to garner more success than the man who authored Game of Thrones, it will be wise to choose a different name to publish your work.

Similarly, many authors choose pen names because their name is incredibly common. 

For example, the name John Smith is universally common and more likely to be forgotten than J.R.R Tolkien or F. Scott Fitzgerald.

5. Their name is hard to pronounce

It’s unwise to expect a general reader to make an effort with your name. 

Some readers will try if it’s hard to pronounce, but many others will move on. 

Lewis Carroll is a great pen name that rolls off the tongue. The famous author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’s real name is Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a mouthful.

How to pick a pen name

So, you want to publish your work but don’t want to use your real name, and you feel justified in choosing a pseudonym based on the causes above. Choose a pen name wisely to increase your chances of success.

Below we’ve included some tips for choosing a pen name that works.

1. Use a street name

A simple and sometimes (but not always) effective method of choosing a pen name is to use other names from your life. 

Consider the street name where you live or the one where you grew up as a child. Combine that street name with elements of your own name, such as a shortened or lengthened version of your first name or two initials before the street name. 

For example, if your full name is Luke Jason Pembrook and you live on Stone Grove St., you could try any of the following names:

  • L.J. Stone
  • L.P. Grove
  • Lucas J. Stone
  • Lucas Groves
  • Lucas P. Stone
  • J.P. Grove

2. Use a pen name generator

If you’re stuck over a suitable pen name, many pen name generators are available online with a quick Google search. The generators help you find names that sound legitimate, and some will even suggest names that fit well with a selected genre.

This pen name generator offers genre-based suggestions. 

Fill in some basic details and answer random questions; the generator offers name suggestions for different purposes. It will suggest general pen names and those suitable for crime fiction, fantasy, romance, sci-fi, and more.

3. Check the genre

Consider popular names in a given genre and assess their success. Do the most successful authors use the initials of both their real names and a third false surname? Do authors replace their first name with their middle name? 

These are small details but can help you hack genre preferences.

4. Check your name against existing names

Even if you use creative methods and name generators to find your pseudonym, it’s still possible that it will be too similar to that of an established author of the same name. 

Do a quick Google search to see if your author name isn’t already in use. If it is, it’s wise to alter it.

If you use an existing name, it may seem that you’re attempting to imitate this person. Avoid using registered trademarks altogether, as doing so may lead to a cease-and-desist order.

5. File for a fictitious business name

If you want to receive payment for your work under your pen name, you’ll need to file a fictitious business name statement (FBN Statement). 

An FBN allows you to use a name, not your birth name, as a means of doing business, otherwise known as a DBA or ‘doing business as’ statement. 

Depending on the jurisdiction, you may need to include ‘books’ or ‘publications’ after the name for legal clarity.

Per the U.S Copyright Office, pseudonyms are legally valid, and the work is considered ‘pseudonymous.’

how to pick a pen name

Famous pen names

Some of the most famous pen names include J.K Rowling (Joanne Rowling), Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair), and Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson).

Other famous pseudonyms include:

1. Dean Koontz

Suspense and horror fiction writer Dean Koontz has published under eleven pseudonyms over his career (Deanna Dwyer, K. R. Dwyer, Aaron Wolfe, David Axton, Brian Coffey, John Hill, Leigh Nichols, Owen West, Richard Paige, Anthony North).

2. Dr. Seuss

You may have guessed that Dr. Seuss is a pen name. Even so, it’s incredibly effective to give his target audience. 

Theodor Seuss Geisel published over 60 children’s books in his lifetime. He also used the pseudonym Theo LeSieg on books he wrote but did not illustrate and Rosetta Stone in collaborative works with fellow children’s author and illustrator Philip D. Eastman.

3. Lemony Snicket

Like Dr. Seuss, Lemony Snicket serves its purpose as a pseudonym. It’s an unusual name that has a curious effect on the tongue. 

Author Daniel Handler used a pseudonym that few readers will forget to publish A Series of Unfortunate Events and related stories.

4. Carmen Mola

Spanish university professor and writer Carmen Mola earned fame as a detective crime thriller novelist. 

On receiving a 2021 Premio Planeta de Novela prize for her historical thriller The Beast, the world learned that female author Carmen Mola is not a Spanish university professor but, in fact, three male established scriptwriters who had chosen to collaborate under a single female pen name.

Conclusion

A pen name is the business under which you operate, so it’s wise to choose one out of which you’ll gain value. 

You can publish under several pen names if you wish but if you want to write several books in a series or the same genre, then choose a name with mileage.

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