When authors publish work under a name other than their own, they use a pen name. Pen names are more common than you might think. World-famous household names such as Stephen King, Mark Twain, and George Orwell are all pen names the authors chose instead of publishing their work under their birth names.
Twain was a man named Simon Clemens, Orwell Eric Blair, and King Richard Bachman. But why do authors use pen names instead of revealing their true identities to the reader? This article will explain why many authors, classic to modern, choose to publish under a name other than their own.
Pen names definition
A pen name is a false name under which an author publishes their work. A single author may choose to publish under their name for one book and use a pen name for a different book. There is no limit to how many pen names you can use. One author may have several published books, all under different pen names.
Another word for pen name
Another word for a pen name is ‘pseudonym.’ It is used by authors who wish to conceal their identity. The word ‘pseudo‘ is derived from the Greek word ‘pseudēs,’ meaning to lie or deceive.
Famous pen names
1. Currer, Acton, and Ellis Bell (The Bronte Sisters)
Charlotte Bronte once published under the name Currer Bell, while her sisters Anne and Emily published under Acton and Ellis Bell, respectively. Bronte once explained: “We did not like to declare ourselves women, because—without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called ‘feminine’—we had a vague impression that authors are liable to be looked on with prejudice.”
2. Robert Galbraith (J.K Rowling)
J.K Rowling chose the male pseudonym Robert Galbraith to publish her novel crime series The Cuckoo’s Calling. On the reason behind her decision to publish under Galbraith, Rowling explains: “I really wanted to go back to the beginning of a writing career in this new genre, to work without hype or expectation and to receive totally unvarnished feedback.“
3. Edith van Dyne (L. Frank Baum)
Some men also use a female pseudonym. L Frank Baum was already a well-known name before he wrote Aunt Jane’s Nieces under the pseudonym Edith van Dyne.
4. Carolyn Keene (Charles Leslie MacFarlane)
Charles Leslie MacFarlane used multiple pen names. He wrote the Dana Girls series as Carolyn Keene, before which he wrote the early Hardy Boys as Franklin W. Dixon.
5. Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson)
Lewis Carrol, a famous author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, is the pen name of English author Charles Lutwidge Dodgson.
Why do authors use pen names and reasons for writing under a pseudonym
The most common and understandable reason many writers use a pen name is for privacy and anonymity. Pseudonyms allow the author to keep their personal life out of the public eye. Some authors write under pen names and reveal them to the public later.
Many people wish and wonder about fame, imagining how amazing their life would be if everybody knew their name. However, it is a common understanding among the rich and famous that such wide public recognition is not all it has cracked up to be.
The glamor, adoring fans, and other privileges that come with fame also come at a cost. Those who go public by publishing their real name suffer a loss of privacy and anonymity that can be hard to take back.
While book authors may not get as much immediate recognition as film stars or famous pop singers, their privacy is still compromised when they use their real names. For example, booking a table at a restaurant may attract some undesired attention from well-meaning but overbearing fans.
Even when an author does not achieve the fame of J.K Rowling, Mark Twain, or Stephen King, they may still wish to keep their creative writing work separate from other aspects of their lives. For example, a school teacher may wish to keep their collection of erotica stories unknown to the parents of the children they teach.
Beyond the social pressure of fame, one might choose to keep their privacy intact for their safety and well-being. If your work is heavily political or otherwise controversial, publishing your ideas may pose a risk to your safety. It is still hard to maintain complete anonymity even when you publish under a pen name, and your face may be public depending on how you market the book, but a pseudonym does cushion the impact.
One might also choose to stay safe with a pseudonym if the book’s content tells the stories of real people. For example, a crime journalist who writes a book about a criminal investigation they worked on might choose to keep their name hidden to protect any backlash from the real people involved.
Women of the 19th and even 20th centuries had a hard time getting published. Some would choose a male pseudonym to increase their chances of getting their books on shelves, as publishing as a woman seemed to be a big risk for publishing houses. Author gender preference was prevalent and tolerated.
An author’s public gender may influence the purchasing decision of a potential reader browsing the shelves of a bookshop or the catalog of an online book store, even if they are already interested in the book’s topic. You could publish under a male pseudonym in a field or genre and bypass a stereotype as a woman. Gender discrimination in today’s publishing world is less publicly tolerated than before and during the 20th century, but one would be mistaken to think that it no longer exists at all.
4. Fresh start
Pseudonyms can give an author a fresh start. If several pieces of one’s work share a genre and get widely recognized, that author is likely to be boxed into that genre. Of course, they do not have to keep writing in that genre, but the fact is that fans and readers, in general, develop expectations around that author and their work.
For example, everyone knows J.K. Rowling as the ‘Harry Potter author.’ If Rowling were to branch out into a different genre or style, she would risk letting her fans down. Fans may expect elements of magic and witchcraft in all of her work. They may feel, and more significantly, express disappointment, which can hurt the success of her future work.
Agatha Christie, a renowned writer of mystery novels, knew the risk of letting fans down by switching genres. Christie adapted the pseudonym Mary Westmacott and published several romance novels to keep the Agatha Christie brand consistent and free herself from any expectations and unnecessary pressure.
In essence, a pseudonym prevents a piece of work from being judged based purely on the author’s name. It removes those expectations so that readers can enjoy the book for what it is instead of approaching it with the author’s previous work in mind.
5. Stand out
What is in a name? Some authors choose a pen name to help them stand out among the crowd. A simple name may not last in a reader’s mind, but an unusual one can create an impact on a person’s memory, making their names memorable. For example, Dr. Seuss is a pseudonym and stands out as unique and interesting—perfect for a children’s book writer. Lemony Snicket is another interesting author name for its demographic.
Sometimes an author’s name is incredibly common, and they lose impact. How many John Smiths are there? Mr. Smith might have made the wise choice to publish under the name J. Wise or Peter Prince, something a little more catchy and less forgettable.
How to choose a pen name
If you are an author and you would like to choose a pseudonym for the work you will publish, consider the following:
Tips for choosing the name
1. Seek inspiration from other authors
To choose an effective pen name, check out other famous authors in your genre. What types of names stand out? How do these authors most often abbreviate their names? Do they primarily use a first name and surname? Do they use a middle name? Do they use initials, like J.K Rowling or J.R.R Tolkien? Are these authors primarily male or female? You might decide that you want to break stereotypes, but you can also choose to follow the theme of genre-specific author names if your main concern is reaching an audience.
2. Know your audience
Understanding your audience will help you better understand the pen name you should adopt. For example, if you write children’s books, choosing a whimsical and fun name is wise, while an author on health would best avoid a whimsy pseudonym.
3. Keep it simple
Keep your pen name simple and easy to read. Potential readers may scan over your name and your book if it is too complicated for them. If your name is long or difficult to spell, consider using an abbreviation or a different name. Some authors may wish to keep their original name as a statement of cultural representation, but it is entirely up to you.
4. Use a pen name generator
Try a pen name generator if you are unsure what name to use. A generator combines popular names to make a random new name. You can change the settings so that a name has a specific letter, gender, and even language of origin. If you have a market in a particular language, it may help to write it that way. You can even play with your original name using your initials.
5. Legal considerations
Choose an original name. You must not choose a name that already has global recognition. It needs to be original and not an infringement of an existing trademark. You can check the U.S. Trademark Office site to see if your name is available for use without trademark infringement.
Approach your pseudonym as though it is your legal name. Your copyright notice, book covers, and the royalties you earn from the book should also be linked to your pseudonym. File a fictitious business statement to use your pseudonym legally. You are still liable for your pseudonym and must be contactable through it.
When an author chooses to write under a pen name, they choose their work over the recognition for writing it. It stands for itself, and the general public need not know the author’s name for its message to be received.
There are some legal considerations to remember; you do not want to infringe on trademarks, and you need ownership and copyright of your name. These are not difficult to achieve and will give you financial ground. If you want to get your work out there and keep your name to yourself, then a pseudonym is a wise choice.