Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

What's In a Name: All About Pen Names

Aside from fiddling with fonts, contemplating acknowledgments sections, and/or finding the perfect quote to precede the start of the book, dreaming up pen names is a favored procrastination tool for many aspiring authors out there. As a result, I receive a whole lot of questions about them: should I include my pen name in the query? Do I need a pen name? Can I use "Dan Brown" as a pen name? What about "Stephanie Mayers?" See what I did there?

This post will hopefully answer all these questions.

But before we get to the pros and cons of pen names, whether you do or don't decide to use a pen name is something that can and should be figured out on down the line in consultation with your (future) agent. When I receive your query I don't want it to be from your pseudonym. I want to know who I'm really going to be working with. Even for authors who have established pen names: I want to hear from the real you (though of course mention your writing name).

If you're considering using a pen name or have a pen name: mention it if you feel it's really necessary and just put (w/a Mr. Pen Name) below your real name.

Now. As for whether you should or should not use a pen name, again, this is something that should be contemplated with your agent. Circumstances are inevitably different for every author, so generalizing will not capture all the ins and outs.

But here are some rough pros and cons:

Pro Pen Name:
- In this day and age of Google Searches, if your name is John or Jane Smith or something very common, a pen name can help you with SEO. What is SEO? Search Engine Optimization. If someone Googles "Jane Smith," the author Jane Smith with the book out might be on page 47. Jane Jingleheimerschmidt, on the other hand, will probably be closer to the top. (Up until Google I never appreciated having a weird last name. Hooray for Bransford!)
- You want to avoid the attention of certain foreign governments to avoid complicating future travel. (Honest!)
- Your previous books didn't sell as well as you had hoped and you/your publisher want to have a fresh start.
- Your publisher or agent feels your book might do better if the author's name soundedmore male/female/gender neutral to appeal to either a male/female demographic (let the professionals decide this one, don't overthink it)
- You want to avoid complications at work

Con Pen Name:
- You're defaming people and want cover. Not gonna fly in this day and age: The Internet will figure you out. And defaming people, even in novels, is extremely risky and costly business. Also it's illegal.
- It's not easy. Many authors find it extremely annoying to have a pen name in the Internet age. In the past you just had to learn to answer to your pen name at readings and in interviews and otherwise you could go about your business. In the day and age of the Internet and Twitter and Facebook, constantly being another person gets exhausting, what with switching between e-mail accounts and remembering your alternate persona's likes and dislikes, etc. etc.
- With a fake name it's more difficult to utilize your personal real life network to help sell a book. Regular non-book type people out there find pen names pretty confusing and difficult to remember.
- You just like the other name better.

In general I would recommend against using a pen name unless there's a really good reason for it. In other words: don't use one just to use one.

But if you really really need one:
- First check to see if the Internet domain is available. It will make your life much, much easier to have the FirstnameLastname.com domain.
- Don't try and mimic another successful author. Be yourself.
- Many people find it helpful to stick with your first name at least so you don't have to remember answer to a new name or accidentally call yourself your actual name.
- Make sure it's memorable. If you're going to get a new name, make it a good one!






144 comments:

J.L. Martin said...

Thanks, this is a great post. What about using initials? I'd rather not use a pen name and find my initials help make my slightly generic name a bit more memorable. Well, at least I hope so!

Polenth said...

I'm more concerned the other way... I don't want a publisher trying to force me to use a pen name. I like my real name.

Serenity said...

Suddenly I adore my parents.

MLGoodell said...

I've been thinking about going with a pen name. How does Bic Cross sound to you?

Mira said...

I prefer my real name, although I have at times considered that I may want to use a pen name just because I'm so outspoken on the industry blogs....but that might back-fire, and people might feel tricked, which I wouldn't want...actually that feels sort of sleazy....so it might be better to go self-publishing if I have trouble, rather than with a pen name...but it's 2-3 years away, so I won't worry about it too much yet.

All that said, this is really helpful information. I notice you get this question ALOT, Nathan. So, it's very nice to have it all written out. Thanks.

Can I also just mention how much fun I'm having on the forums? I'm also surprised at how much information is there, and how nice the community feels. I especially love the 'edit' function. :)

I hate change, but the new blog and the forums already feel comfortable to me. Thanks for all that, Nathan. :)

Kiersten White said...

Since my first name is an unusual spelling, we (meaning my wonderful agent and myself) decided to use my maiden name rather than my married name (which is also unusual and prone to mispronunciation). Plus, since Kiersten White is the name I used for nineteen years of my life, it's not hard to remember.

But you're right--there's no point in having a pen name just to have a pen name.

Rick Daley said...

If I ever write a book about Chicago politics I'm definitely using my real name.

Thermocline said...

Can I use a pen title? I've always liked the sound of "His Munificent Highness" or "Dark Lord" depending on my mood that morning.

John Ross Harvey said...

Considering I will be writing multi-genres and I share a name with a prolific Crime author, and my current 5 comedy books don't sell (despite Amazon listings), I'm using 4 psuedonyms or pen names based on the genre, 1 for romance, 1 for crime, 1 for scifi, and the other for what genres are left including bios. It took me a while to find the names, and each is socially active right now on Myspace Facebook and Twitter mostly, and friends with each other of course.
If the namesake crime guy didn't exist, I may never have used these (ok maybe the 1st one), and with luck they sell better than my name does. Romance will be first one out of the gate using pen name #1. Chances are better it gets read from this genre I hope. 2 syllable 1 syllable hook for the name also. Read a pile of blogs on this topic and romance writing to suggest this course of action. It will not sell with my name on it, as my gender is too obvious. Pen name #1 is an indeterminate gender non-specific name, at least I think it is.

Zoe said...

I've often contemplated a pen name, but as it turns out my real name is more obscure than the name I would have liked to have used. So at least for 'SEO' keeping to the real thing seems preferable.

Too Many Laurens said...

Thanks for this post!

The pen name issue makes me nervous -- I'm someone who's begun the process of building up a "writer persona" under a different name, for some of the reasons you've listed in the post (my given name is very much like that of several other authors writing in my genre, and I don't want my writing life to interfere with the name I've made for myself in my other career). I definitely see the wisdom in discussing pen name ramifications with one's agent.

But in this age of "getting known before the book deal," it seems like you have to make that pen name leap of faith as soon as you start outing yourself as a writer / aspiring author among the writing community. I didn't like putting myself out there on writing forums and blogs using a name I never intended to publish under. I had a pen name in mind and I had, oddly enough, begun thinking of myself by that name every time I sat down to write. It just felt right. So now, even though I've yet to send out a single query letter, I'm registered with my maybe-someday pen name on Twitter, Tumblr, and Wordpress, and even went ahead and reserved the firstnamelastname.com, too.

Am I shrewdly forward-thinking? Or just stupidly optimistic? I don't know.

Bittersweet Fountain said...

Nathan,

I notice you mention the pro of using a pen name to make your name more complicated if its to plain (as in the example of Jane Smith), but isn't it also a pro to use a pen name if your real name is overly complicated? Someone once described my last name as "the alphabet throwing up". People can't google you if they can't spell your name.

Of course, I would love to use my real last name. I love my name. And wouldn't it be awesome if everyone could spell "Pietruszewski"?

Helen said...

I'd actually prefer to use my real name, but when I Googled it I found there is already an author using it.

It's not a well-known author (I don't think) but would a pen name be better in my case?

Nathan Bransford said...

bittersweet fountain-

If Chuck Palahniuk is any indication, people figure it out.

Nathan Bransford said...

Also, good rule of thumb: if you have to ask if you need a pen name the answer is probably no.

Todd said...

I've always wanted to use "Joan Grisham" for my legal fiction, but now you've talked me out of it!

Kurtis said...

You've forgotten the most important consideration, which is the knowledge/hope that your exes will inevitably see that sign of your success on the shelf in the bookstore and die a little. Much harder to imagine with a pen name.

Anonymous said...

Middle of the road option? A nickname John "Jack" Public as John Q. Public publishing under Jack Public.

That's what I'm left with as my name is already used by others, writers too, and has a large presence on the Net. My unique digital citizenship is in the form of a nickname and has no others' identities.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

Yeah, middle initials can help too.

Keith Popely said...

I've been using Jacob Wonderbar. Is that cool?

John Ross Harvey said...

Have not gone the ".com" route yet
if I did they'd have to relate to each other. (Hoping Twitter does the same effect) Basically I had 3 reasons, my name is already in use in one specific genre (Crime), and my middle name added wasn't helping me, and my next project was romance, so 3 strikes to my own name even being looked at.

Dara said...

I'm pretty certain I've got a fairly unique actual name without coming up with a pen name :P When I Google search myself, I'm pretty much the only one with my name for a few pages. :)

Thanks to my parents for giving me a different first name--something I use to hate when I was younger--and my husband, whose last name is not exactly the most common out there.

Anita Saxena said...

For the longest time I thought I was the only Anita Saxena. But upon googling I discovered the first hit is a professor in India. Hit number 2 is my blog. I can't complain.

Heather Lane said...

I know authors who write under several names in different genres--You wouldn't want a child mistakenly picking up an adult book written by their favorite author...

But--question--I use a variation of my real name on-line. Because there are weirdos here. How do you protect yourself from weirdos when using your real name?

Amanda Morgan said...

Isn't there some story about an author with a pen name who had a famous musician read his work and then said musician asked the author to hang at a concert? Of course, the backstage passes were under the author's pen name and he didn't get to go back after all....

Between backstage passes and a cooler name, I choose backstage passes every time.

Suzanne said...

Was always hooked on Dr. Seuss (he's still my muse) but also loved the books he penned as Theo LeSieg too. I was wondering about benefits of having a pen name if you are able to publish both picture books and chapter/YA books? Would it be better for an author to be able to distinguish between these 2 completely different genres by authorship? Especially if the author ends up with 2 different publishing houses? Just curious about what others think...

ORION said...

My real name is hyphenated and my agent and editor thought it might be difficult to remember so I just use the last part: Patricia Wood
I thought it might be common but interestingly enough it's not...for those who want their name to come up - you might consider using
YOURNAMEauthor.com
Mine is patriciawoodauthor.com
Makes it easy and usually is a domain you can get without too much trouble

Marilyn Peake said...

LOL. Yes, I caught what you did in the first paragraph. "Stephanie Mayers" instead of "Stephenie Meyer". Chuckle. :)

susiej said...

Its scary how many people on twitter and Facebook have my same name. My same middle inital- everything! Scary.

Jenni said...

I've thought about using a pen name because of a stalker situation. But if I did that then the stalker would win and I don't want to give him the satisfaction. I'd rather have "New York Times Bestselling Author" right before my own name, rather than some made up nonsense. I might have to get another restraining order but I'll also get all the glory that makes it worthwhile.

Emily White said...

Before I was married, I contemplated using a pen name to avoid the "sound just like a previously published author" trick. Yeah, my name was Emily Dickinson. I was reeaally considering a pen name. But, it's not an issue anymore and I like my married name. If an agent were to suggest a pen name for some reason, I wouldn't be against it. I guess, at this point in my life, I no longer feel very strongly one way or the other.

Marilyn Peake said...

Emily White -

Your name was Emily Dickinson? That's awesome! You were destined to become a writer. :)

Stephanie Black said...

I never wanted to use a pen name. After I worked that hard to write the book, I want people to know it's mine!

Andre Vienne said...

The only reason I ever considered a pen name is because my internet handle has morphed into one all its own (seen here), but I generally put my real name everywhere anyway.

Oddly enough, people I know in real life call me 'Andre' just as much as 'Richard'.

Thankfully, I have a sufficiently distinctive surname, so I won't have to worry too much about that later anyway.

Emily White said...

Marilyn,

It definitely got me an "in" with all of my English teachers. ;)

And I do believe that my name had something to do with my desire to be a writer. It was the first profession I had ever learned about because everyone would inevitably ask if I was going to be a writer when they heard my name. It eventually just became a natural assumption. :)

Annalee said...

Would you consider "my real name makes computer systems cry" a good reason to use a pen name?

I've got two surnames and they're not hyphenated. Because some computer systems can handle spaces and others can't, my driver's license, passport, and social security card don't match. I'm willing to go through all that because I like my name, but I imagine it would make it hard to find me on bookstore shelves or in databases.

I've often thought that if I ever get published, it might be best to do so under my fiance's last name (who will by then be my spouse). Do you think that would be a good reason to use a pen name?

Marilyn Peake said...

Emily,

That's really fascinating. You grew up with a very lucky name!

ed miracle said...

My name is so common, I'm considering Julius Seizure. More my style.

John Ross Harvey said...

There are authors with more than one pen name I suspect, or at least one with thier "real" name.

Steven King aka Richard Bachman
Nora Roberts aka J.D. Robb

I'm sure other's exist, especially in romance genre, if they are men.

Anonymous said...

This was a great post, especially the part about how pen names can be exhausting. They are.

But I do use them, and the only reason is genre crossing. There are different fans in different genres. If you establish a fan base in one genre, and then attempt cross into another genre without a pen name, readers don't like it.

Nathan Bransford said...

Yes, genre crossing is a reason I should have included.

Diana said...

Even if you think you have a unique name, it's best to google it and find out. I thought my real name was unique, then I found it that I share it with a handful of others including a female minister. Eep!

catwoods said...

I love my real name as much as anyone, and would love to honor my DH with the use of his last name when I get published.

However, a google of my real name brings up a very famous rodeo star and a porn girl.

My first name is actually a boy's name and spelled differently than all other first names like mine.

So, pen name it is. It's one I've been using on line for my writing blogs/communities since I first started the technology gig, so I'm getting established that way.

Also, when other writers "hear" my pen name they assume it is my real one and always comment how it's the perfect name and they would never go with a pen name if they had a real name like mine.

LOL! Names are funny that way.

Rachel said...

Don't you think we should have a bad pen name contest? It could be lots of fun, and help further our procrastination efforts.

Unfortunately, I'm busy reading (The Spanish Bow), so I don't have time to think of one just now.

Tina Lynn said...

Nathan,
What about to shorten a name? Isn't it true that if your name is too long it won't *pop* on the cover?

Susan Quinn said...

Rick - I live in the Chicagoland area. If I ever write a story about Chicago politics, I'll use your name, too!

:)

Anonymous said...

I'd like to add this, too. If you use a pen name for a particular book or series of books, stick with the pen name. In other words, don't announce that you're using a pen name six months after a book has been released. It irritates people and makes them wonder what the writer was thinking in the first place.

Anonymous said...

I like to remain anonymous, so I'm for pen names.

tlmorganfield said...

JL:

I can tell you a little about my experience using initials for my pen name, and maybe it will help you decide whether or not you really want to go that direction.

If I had everything to do over again, I wouldn't have used my initials. My reasons for deciding to use them long ago was that I wanted to disguise my gender. There's still some debate as to whether or not being female in my genre is a detriment or not, but I chose to hide it because of the notion that it was a strike against me with readers. Ten years later I have no hesitation about declaring my gender and have never felt I was discriminated against for sales because of my gender. A top short fiction editor in my field even recommended I don't do this, but I'd thought my few sales to small markets I had at the time precluded me from being able to change (I somehow thought it would be like starting over when in reality I hadn't really even "started" yet).

Given my concerns ten years ago, who would have thunk that later in my career I'd actually find it annoying to be mistaken for a man! (People often think my first name is Tim). There's also nothing is more tiring then at conventions always introducing myself as "I'm T.L. Morganfield, but you can call me Traci." I don't want to be called TL in conversation; feels impersonal and like I'm hiding. So just be sure you're prepared to go by your initials in conversation or do the whole "...but you can call me such and such" deal every time you meet someone new.

atsiko said...

Well, I've got a hyphenated last name. It's completely unique as far as I am aware, but a lot of computer systems seem to have issues fitting my name, also. And I'm not all that interested in using either half of my last name on their own, either. People mispronounce and mispell both halves all the time.

I also happen to have a screenname that I blog under (the one I'm using to leave this comment, in fact), which also has a Twitter and Facebook, and I have plenty of friends who know me only under that name and another that I use online. 'snot that I have anything against my real name, or that I am particularly enamoured of having a pen name. It'd just be a pain in the butt to remake all those contacts under my real name.



Anyway, interesting post, Nathan. I always enjoy pen name discussions.

Anonymous said...

For me, it's a matter of practicality. My given name is almost identical to an existing model/actress. So I'm using my nickname or initials.

T. Anne said...

My name is complicated, heck I still haven't figured it out. I'll stick to my nom de plume. When I query I'll establish the difference. Thanx!

anaquana said...

When I first started thinking about pen names, I decided that I wanted to use my real first name with a different last name.

I had a great one all picked out - the two names rolled off the tongue so nicely. I started a writing blog with it and thought I was golden.

Then, I Googled the name one day out of curiosity.

Imagine my complete horror when I found that the name was not only in use by another writer, it was one of YOUR clients, Nathan.

Yes, I chose Rebecca Ramsey as my pen name.

Now, I am contemplating using the shortened form of my internet handle, Ana, as my first name. Ana Ramsey still has a wonderful ring to it. Not as great as Rebecca Ramsey, but we take what we can get, no?

John Ross Harvey said...

some pen names suggested to me were already famous people

Johnathan Ross is a BBC announcer

Harvey Ross is a Forbes 500 company Executive

The 4 names I chose, frankly on Google, and social media never existed before now, now they do thanks to me.

Vegas Linda Lou said...

I write and perform under the name “Linda Lou.” I have to since my last name changes with every husband.

Thomas Taylor said...

I'm thinking of getting a pen name. Can anyone guess why?

Amber Tidd Murphy said...

If I published under Amber Tidd Murphy... would people know to look in the "M's" or would they search the "T's?"

Well, it doesn't matter. Amber Murphy by itself is just too plain.

And Amber Leigh Tidd Murphy is too much a mouthful.

Christy Pinheiro, EA ABA said...

I use a pen name. I like it. Here's another pro-- if your real name actually is close to someone's name who's already famous (like if your name really IS Stephen King)it's a good idea to use a pen name and be done with it.

I read about a poor kid who's legal name was Harry Potter (he was named before the books were ever published). I'd change my name ASAP.

S. Melville said...

back when I first started, I wanted a pen name so I could sound elegant (and possibly British).
But these days I use my real name, Sarah E. Melville, and when you google me, 80% of the first page is me.

John Ross Harvey said...

I happen to like my name a lot too, its just not effective for my ability to sell any books. Five under this name, have yet to produce sales worth mentioning. One was an award nominee last year, the 5th is up for three awards. The "Ross" only distinguishes me from the Crime guy John Harvey by about 16-17 pages on Amazon. Yes I'm self-published, but my first pen-named book has had the benefit of editors during the process as I changed publishing outfits.

MzMannerz said...

Great post. I used pseudonyms when I did radio and acted. Funny thing is, my married name is one of the names I made up way back when. It sounds kind of fake.

There are already published authors out there with the same name. I'd love to have the problem of thinking I need to differentiate myself from them - no danger of that as of this writing. :)

Lorelei Armstrong said...

I think I shall thank my mother for not going with "Kimberly."

Daniel Steeves said...

I found it harder to come up with a pen name than naming characters for my writing. I guess that much is to be expected, but I had to resist putting "Darth" or "Captain" in front of my end result.
As far as creating a pen name with initials, I wish I had considered it- just need to avoid "R.R."

Bruce Pollock said...

I've heard that publishers and book buyers check your sales through the use of your real name so they know what to offer you and how many copies of your book to buy. If I change my name just slightly, would that be enough to fool them? I'm thinking Bruce Pollack, which is how most people spell it anyway. If that's not deceptive enough, I could try Polly Bruce. But then no one in my high school class would know it was me.

Douglas L. Perry said...

You just convinced me to use Douglas Bransford.... Ok, not really. I'll stick with my real name, for now anyway.

Haste yee back ;-) said...

Haste yee back ;-) is lookin' at, Bumpy Toad, Threepenny Tickett and Gummy Rings!

You tell me?

Haste yee back ;-)

L. T. Host said...

I initialized my name, and fully intend to remain as such should I be published.

Why? Because my real first name is the name of a main character in another series of books-- a made-up name, and a character my mother named me after. While I admire the author and the books are some of my favorites, I don't want to be associated with and/ or legally intruding on the author by using my real name.

Lorelei Armstrong said...

Legolas!

~Ellie Kings~ said...

I've used my pen name for years that I can't remember my real name anymore. :) But I love it! I hope when the time comes to get published, my readers will love it too.

L. T. Host said...

Lorelei-- if that guess was for me, nope. :)

Lorelei Armstrong said...

Dang.

Moira Young said...

Amanda — it was Michael Slade, invited to a show by Alice Cooper. He did get into the show, though, he just had a hard time at first.


Nathan, I understand your points. Moira Young is a pen name. Here are my reasons for making that choice:

First and foremost — I was a teenager when the World Wide Web was born. I've been using my plain Jane name everywhere and although I was never intentionally a troll anywhere (well, I hope I wasn't), between that and my handle, I'm sure I've said a lot of stupid things that can never be retracted no matter how much of it I track down and delete. But I was a teenager, cursed by the blatant obliviousness of youth, growing up when the Internet as we know it was young. Back then, most of us, myself included, didn't quite appreciate the fact that nothing you post ever dies on the Internet. I want a "fresh start" from the persona I've built up as myself.

Second, my given name is fairly plain, and although I can get the .ca domain, I'd much rather have the .com. Moira Young is much more unique and I already own the domain.

Third, recently I attended a video game convention (Penny Arcade Expo, or PAX for those of you who know it). Jerry Holkins, known on the Internet as Tycho, was asked at a Q&A if it ever bothered him that he was famous as Tycho and not as Jerry. He said that it was perfect, because it meant that he didn't have to be Tycho all the time. Any time he wanted to be normal, he could just step down and out of his persona. This resonated with me, because that is exactly how I feel. I'd much rather have a pen name to identify with when doing anything writing-related. I can be horribly antisocial at times. I need to be able to put my author persona aside and just be myself.

This decision wasn't made lightly. I did think about it for a long time and I consulted with some of my published friends. This feels right. If there ever comes a day that I get so famous that something I said when I was fourteen comes back to bite me in the butt ... well, I should hope I get that famous. And then my first response would be, "Hello, I was fourteen!"

Dave Guilford said...

I'm in pen name hell, as my alter ego gets more work than I do now. I even got a request to speak at a prestigious business school as my alter ego and had to turn it down because it would have "outed" me.

I have a good reason for writing under a pen name in my given field, but it can be a real drag sometimes.

Patrice said...

Hi Nathan,

What if your last name is VERY difficult to say and spell (and your first one's not so terrific either)? Pro or con?

The new digs are pretty swanky.

Anonymous said...

I have a very common and unmemorable name; ergo, I use a pen name for my work. It's never an issue; I submit under my real name, "writing as pen name"; the headers of the manuscripts have my real name. I do use pen name at conferences and conventions, because it's the pen name I want known. Yeah, sometimes it happens that I might be on a panel with a friend who will call me by my real name and confuse everyone, but that's a small price to pay.

Terry said...

Great post and so timely for me!

Yes, I'm using a pen name. First, because of the gender thing. My novel is a guy novel and although my own name is androgynous, I wanted something a bit more masculine.

Also a teensy bit of privacy. Yes, I realize the Internet thing. But according to Google, my real name belongs to a risk-management specialist in the UK. And possibly also, to a Grade B actor.

Unlike Jenni, Id' rather have NYTimes best-selling author, fake name. I worked as a reporter, I know what bilines can lead to.

And then, if you become really successful, as in make actual money, there are all those long lost relatives to deal with...

Laura Martone said...

I'm perfectly happy with my "new" name (as opposed to my maiden name). OTOH, when I google "Laura Raitman," I'm one of only a couple out there. But there seem to be several "Laura Martones."

After much work, though, I have most of the first ten links. So, I'm keeping it! I dare a publisher to try and change it! Muhahaha!

Anonymous said...

My one thing is that choosing a 'Neutral' name usually means choosing a Eurocentric name and kind of feeds into the whole Eurocentric = default. I'd love to be able to keep my name even if it doesn't sound like a Smith or McDonald. I just hope there any writers who have done that and still remained successful....looks like I'm going to have to do some research! This was definitely a thought-provoking post!

D. G. Hudson said...

Privacy is a very good reason for pen names. You never know who is watching or following you. I've had a few incidents with a stalker which have been reported, but have caused me much anxiety and anger. Ghouls from your past are like the zombies that never die. Google seems to keep the old info forever as well.

In my opinion, pen names are handy devices. Thanks for an excellent post, Nathan.

Dawn Maria said...

Thank you for this one Nathan. I'm pleased to see that I've followed all your tips. It is sometimes cumbersome to have the pen name, but I'm glad I use one.

Laura Martone said...

Hey, L.T.! Please tell me it's not "Lassie" - 'cause that would've been just plain mean. I feel weird enough that my mom named me after an old song about a dying race car driver.

L. T. Host said...

Laura-- nope, not Lassie :) It's a slightly more obscure fantasy series.

Elaine 'still writing' Smith said...

I love the surname Smith but it has disadvantages... including the author who got my genre and got to use the name. :)

Thomas Burchfield said...

Good points. I recently created an "alter ego" for when I'm in a particularly zany mood (I won't tell you who exactly, but if you look around my Red Room page, you'll be able to track him down).

For a very short while, I used my real name for stuff like this, but suddenly realized my readers were becoming confused and decided this material needed compartmentalizing.

Sophie said...

This is a great post Nathan. I use a pen name for several reasons. Mostly because I do write in different genres but also because my real name is just awful, and when I Googled it, I found that it is way too common.

Anonymous said...

On the day I was born, my father named me, then went to celebrate while mom changed it to her name.

So, I had my mother's name.

Long ago my grandfather changed our family name, so my last name was made up.

Got married making my last name his name.

Got divorced, kept his name because it was also my children's name.

Got my first computer and was scared to go out "naked" so I made up a name I felt was me.

Now, almost as many people know me by that name as my legal name.

So....I use my computer name for writing novels and the name my father gave me at birth for writing illustrated children's books.

Googled my married name and....I died in 1996 and was from England.

This is a topic I often wondered about, but after reading all these responses, I feel comfortable with my pen name as much as my legal one.

Kerry said...

Another reason for using a pen name is if you want to simplify a multiple-author situation. I co-authored a novel with 2 others (still trying to sell it), and rather than shove all 3 of our names on the cover, marketing materials, etc., we decided to combine into a pen name, PGK Hanson. Plus, we all also write in other genres, so it made sense for that reason. And anyone who goes to the website can find our real names, so we really aren't hiding anything.

Malanie Wolfe said...

Great post, Nathan! Thanks!

I am going with a pen just so I can have my real name pronounced correctly for once. Mom named me Melanie but prounced it
Muh-Lanie. Yes, introductions are always fun. Thanks Mom!

A Paperback Writer said...

How about this scenario:
I have a brother who is relatively well known the business world and has his name popping up all over google searches. Since his wife shares my first name and changed her surname when she married my bro., she and I have the same name (down to the middle initial).
I like my name, but I'm not sure I'd use it if I got my books out there. My sis-in-law might not want to have the association, should the occasion arise.

Orange Slushie said...

my name is unusual, but only one letter different from a famous author's, so that if you google my name the search always asks if in fact you made a mistake and meant to search for the famous author. this makes me wonder whether a pen name would be useful. when you are an emerging writer and hoping people will remember your name, it doesn't seem ideal for you to be so easily mixed up with an established author.

Icy @ Individual Chic said...

For me it's an issue of privacy. There is only person pf my name in Australia, and that would make it pretty easy for someone to rock up to my front door (if I am ever published).

So, if I ever get that far I'll be using a pen name.

Sissy said...

I was just wondering about this the other day, and here you are addressing it! Thanks a lot!

Natasha Fondren said...

Did you notice that "Don Brown" was a Kindle bestseller for quite awhile? He might still be. I found that really irritating.

I hate having a pseudonym, but it's a necessity. I'm a social person, so I've abandoned all marketing for pseudonym, which is fine: it sells the same either way, LOL.

But being two people always sucks.

Natasha Fondren said...

Oh dear, forgive me. Someone just emailed me, and Don Brown is actually a real person, who is not trying to trick people into thinking he's Dan Brown.

So actually, he's quite fortunate in his name. :-)

I'm sorry for my assumptions!

Kristi said...

Nothing to add about pen names - except that my hubby would have way too much fun coming up with suggestions for me :)

I really wrote to say how much I love, love, and then love some more the forums on this new site. I'm taking breaks while revising my ms to peek at them - so fun!

Other Lisa said...

Heh!

Lydia Sharp said...

Someone stole my thought. Genre-crossing.

And I'm probably going to upset a few people by saying this because I use this name almost everywhere ... Lydia Sharp is not my real name. I have already been published under that name (by my choice alone) so I am not going to change it. However, I do not make up a fake person/ personality to go with my fake name. What you see in my comments is the real thing. Except for the name, of course. Haha.

sruble said...

Funny timing to your post. I never thought I'd use a pen name. However, yesterday the perfect pen name popped into my head. In case I ever need a pen name, I now have one! I'm thinking it might not be a bad idea to separate my picture books and YA books with different names (if I am lucky enough to get published in both areas in the futures).

MEWriter said...

Genre crossing is one reason for me to use a pen name. My name comes up in google after years of writing for business press and I will want separation from that nuts and bolts stuff when my fiction starts to appear. I am also assisting someone to write a memoir and I will use my journalistic name too but not on on my own urban women's fiction. And even that is greatly different from and adds genre-crossing questions about the epistolary novel I have written. I think the initials suggestion could be good. Good post. Great site revamp.

Laura Martone said...

Glad to hear it, L.T. That would've been a little strange...

Linguista said...

I just goggled (and yahooed) my name. I'd never thought my name uncommon but only 2 results on the first page weren't me. So I guess, I should definitely use my name.

What do you think of pen names and genres? Like if you write all these cutesy bunny rabbit stories AND erotica... Should you attach your name to both genre?

atsiko said...

@Linguista

I wouldn't suggest using the same name for those. 'Specially since th former sound like kids books, and the latter are most certainly not. :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks Nathan.

I have an agent and we've been discussing back and forth if I should use my maiden name or married name. I already have my maidenname domain, and began networking under my maiden name. However, I am getting married in a few months and we hope to have finalized a sale on my debut novel by then. I'm really struggling to decide what name would be best for me to use. I am the #1 search for my name, and my other married name is a little more common -- But has some pros. For example, I write YA fantasy, and my married last name will be Meyer. So, the positioning in the bookstore would be good. The only bad thing is that the .com for that new name is already taken.

I would use a nickname that I have been called a lot -- but that nickname is my future sister-in-law's legal name. AND she is an aspiring writer, too.

I feel like in this day and age it's hard to have two separate personas, and I don't know that I want to keep two up. The separate lives thing is that #1 reason my agent suggests that I use my married name (one name for my day to day life, the one I'll share with my husband and kids, and then another for my writer persona).

I feel like since I put an effort in networking I really need to make the decision soon. :( It's not an easy one!! I feel for all you others who are struggling with the decision.


For anyone that DID chose a pen name -- Did anyone decide on it once they were fairly far into the publishing process? Any others who network extensively on facebook or twitter, has it affected the influence you have on the 'real people' in your life?

menopausaloldbag (MOB) said...

There are so many great sites on the net that publish tips and hints and great advice and yet again, it is a pleasure to pop in, have a coffee and read your very practical advice. Hope that doesn’t sound sycophantic, I can’t bear sycophants. I hadn’t even considered a pen name because I can see my name on the front of the holiday read on a bookshelf at the airport! It is the only thing that remains constant in my vision as I rewrite, edit, delete, doubt my work. I couldn’t win a raffle prize let alone the Booker prize but somehow that vision of a book with my unusual name on the front of it remains the hook to hang my aspirations on.

Anassa said...

I'm another one of those people considering a pen name for spelling/pronunciation purposes only. Some days, I also think my given name doesn't have quite the right 'sound' for my genre, but some days I think the uniqueness would be an asset.

Still debating the issue, and will probably be doing so until I'm agented, at least.

Ellen B said...

Thanks for this post, Nathan, really interesting!

I have an unusual last name, and I always assumed I'd publish under my own name. Because it's unusual, even people who've only met me once or twice tend to remember it (and thus might buy the book *grin*). Then there is the whole annoying-people-who-didn't-like-me-in-school issue. And I'm six of the results on the first page of a Google search, and all of the others are shipping lists for Irish people emigrating to America two centuries ago. So no confusion there :)

There is also a sentimental edge to this. My name is a family name. I'm named after my late father's late mother (and a couple of others slightly further back), and I'd like to use my own name in their honour and in memory of my father.

Although I do love genre hopping, so I have a YA-friendly pseudonym all lined up, should an agent ever insist on it :) Never let it be said I am unprepared.

Teri said...

I'm afraid to be recognized for prior bad acts. So, I would certainly use a pen name.

Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy said...

I just use my own name, maiden and married. My maiden name is uncommon and I use both names in everyday life as well as for my writing.

GhostFolk.com said...

Other things to consider ~

Copyright is in author's name. If you create C-corp or something, a pseudonym will work. Otherwise, you likely don't want a legal copyright in a fake name.

I know writers who copyright to a "trust" and that works since the trust spells out who controls the money (in the future especially).

Consider inheritance of copyright.

Exclusive or non-competitive works clauses may keep a productive author from publishing under the same name.

Collaborations.

Ducking your agent when she/he won't represent something you've written.

K.L. Brady said...

I'm using a pen-name, which is my first two initials and my maiden name because I didn't want to put my S.O.B. ex-husband's name on my books. (I'm not bitter.)

Although I write women's fiction, I plan to write a few spy novels, a series featuring an African-American woman. So for those, I'll be using a pen-name because of my former occupation. (I could tell you but I'd have to kill you.)

Fawn Neun said...

I've had too many people tell me I have a great name to use a pen name, even though I've considered it. Even some young musician who's YouTube video I posted had to message me and tell me my name was "sick". My 16 year old assures me that that's a good thing.
I do have a pen name for cross-genre, but I don't spend enough time in it to worry about it.

Lisa R said...

I do agree with all you said about not using a pen name unless necessary and you make excellent points. However, I read this story on Alex Kava's website
http://www.alexkava.com/news/newsView.asp?ID=49
She got 116 rejections, then changed her name from Sharon Kava to Alex and got a lot more responses from agents. I often wonder if I changed my name to a male name if I would get a better response from agents. Not that I have any desire for a pen name. I just find it interesting. Might be something to try.

Allison said...

Nathan --

I'd like to second the question from earlier in this comment thread: what about the crazies? What if you do happen to achieve some level of notoriety (for good or bad) with your book. Wouldn't a pen name be some measure of protection against someone with frightening intentions googling your real address, etc?

John Ross Harvey said...

one problem I have with my 1st pen-name is the social networks need to ask gender, I am a man, so I say I'm a man, but in the genre I'm writing under this name, I should appear as not a man. It needs to be plausibly deniable, and the social media signups make that moot. Hopefully the books get bought before they find my social presence under this name. Sales are unlikely if I'm discovered as a man socially before I'm read. My others are very definatively male.

Jen P said...

How much, if any, value is added by being at the start of the alphabet - i.e. Benjamin Black as used by John Banville?

@Kurtis 11:59 - this made me LOL. Especially if ex was anti-writing or dismissive of your dream.

Saedhlinn said...

Thanks, Nathan-- I'd been wondering those things myself (and think I did it a bit wrong recently).
I have three major reasons for using a pen name:
1. I have another career as a biologist, so I don't want searches for my scientific work to overlap with any fiction I might have published.
2. Although I like my unusual first name, non-Gaelic speakers find it difficult to spell and pronounce, and I'd rather use my initials.
3. My legal last name (made up by my grandfather when he immigrated) is fairly generic, and turns up lots of random people in a search.

John Ross Harvey said...

Another blog tip if you're using a pen name, is to locate it near an author in that genre. So for Horror KING and KOONTZ are common so a K-name would work wonders.

For Scifi I'm locating next to H.G. Wells

Ash D. said...

Oh, no.

Now I can't stop singing - "John Jacob Jingleheimer-Schmidt, his name is my name tooooo."

It's going to be stuck in my head for the rest of the day now.

Word verifications: flums.

That makes me giggle for some reason.

--Ash

JFBookman said...

GhostFolk, I'm not sure that copyright is an issue here. Many books show the copyright in the publisher's name, where the publisher is holding copyright for the author, so neither the real name nor the pen name necessarily has to appear with the actual copyright statement.

Nathan, this is a useful post, fully amplified by the many comments. Other people use "pen" names or "commercial identities" in the publishing world, and I just wrote about this within 24 hrs of your post at my self-publishing blog.

Sarah Billington said...

How about for when/if you change genres? That's a good reason to use a pen name, isn't it?
Eg. writing contemporary MG for girls and then after several books branching out into Urban Fantasy as well (which is something I'm thinking about).
Would it be best to use a pen name so as not to confuse readers?

There are cons to that idea as well. Pen names. It's a toughie.

John Ross Harvey said...

Iain Banks is a fiction author

He decided to try scifi
He writes as Iain M. Banks (those I read)

Gordon Jerome said...

My name is a pen name, but I'm not trying to fool anyone. It's a variation of my real name, anyway, and if anyone goes to my website and does a whois search they see my real name.

I just use it to separate my work life from my writing life. And also, I have a book out under my real name, which is a non-fiction self-help book I wrote ten years ago. I have articles out and op eds on all different stuff under my real name. None of that's the direction I want to go in the future (I want to write fiction and publish gothic literary art) So, I'm just trying to sidestep a little baggage.

hannah said...

I had people (NOT in the industry) tell me that I better choose a pen name because my last name is too Jewish to be mainstream.

Yeah, that just made me more determined to slap my clunky Jewish name on my "un-Jewish" book.

Watery Tart said...

I publish scientifically under my full name and feel strongly that it isn't my right to 'taint' my co-authors with fiction. I've handled it by dropping my first name. My maiden name is now my first (a name I have always used) and my married my last.

It's a bonus that the new name is gender neutral. (Hart as a first)

Another blog I'd seen though said 'it's your name now, use it--no point confusing people with a whole bunch of names', so I am feeling wrong footed and like I've been sending my queries wrong--it is still my NAME per se... just missing the first name.

Jackie Brown said...

Damn you, Quentin Tarantino!

dannieunderhill said...

I put a lot of consideration into this, actually, about a year or so ago. Then I settled on a pen name. Thing is, I'm Danish and my name doesn't pronounce well in English. Actually, people could be misled into pronouncing it Hell Underline, which, yeah... So I decided I'd rather not have my name mutilated, and went with a first name - Dannie - that stands for my nationality more than anything else, and a last name - Underhill - that's the direct translations of my actual first last name. It simplifies things, and doesn't earn me quite as many snorts.

Christina said...

Wouldn't it get really confusing? I would. If someone calls me my pen name i would just look around trying to find her until I realized he was talking to me!!

shienny said...

Thanks Nathan, your post came out just at the right time, I'm having difficulties to decide if I should use my real names or use a pen names.

The thing is I have published a comic book using a pen name, but now I write a novel and changed my genre. I wanted to be taken seriously this time so I was thinking to use my real name, but then again my real name is not too commercial for a fantasy, and I have use my real name for some of my non fiction book (it's a how to draw book), is it okay if I just use another pen name?

Thanks in advance

Sherri said...

Googling my married name is likely to land you on sites of ill repute, so I reverted to my maiden name. Now when you google Sherri Cornelius, I'm 1, 2 and 3 on the front page. Bodes well for my brand, if I ever get the chance to need it.

Nice place ya got here.

Anonymous said...

I exist within the grouping "...don't want complications at work" - translated - "I am on a leave this year to pursue writing, and may not go back, but if I do, I don't want to be fired!”
My manuscript is entitled Conversations of a Pornstar and an 8th Grade Teacher (I am the teacher in question (female), and agreed to live in the house of a male adult film star in order to write it). I really don’t think any further explanation is needed!

My choices to keep my own name away from the internet actually began long before this book. For 7 years, I taught at a K-8 school, teaching mostly 7th and 8th Graders. Those kids go home and Google you the moment they meet you! Thus, I never had a Facebook account, Myspace page, anything – and anything I do for the book now is either under my pen name or the performer’s name I wrote with/about.

I chose be a bit ironic (and yes, I am using it incorrectly!) and use my “porn name” as my pen name – you know, when you take your middle name and the street you grew up on to form your ‘performing moniker’? Yes, I know you can also use your first pet’s name, but Poohbear seemed a bit off the mark. I suppose, if I don’t really want to “get caught”, I should not be so cheeky, as the name itself would provide hints to my actual identity, but I fear I may be “screwed” (NO pun intended) either way, as the agent handling the manu seems to think that any publisher would want both the pornstar and I to go out and promote, as the book is written in both our voices (I ghosted his parts), and people are gravitating to the “regular girl’s POV”.

The pen name is not at all memorable – that is the funny part – I guess I sort of decided to go with it BECAUSE it sounded like an ordinary, unassuming name (and, oddly enough, my real last name is pretty rare).

Here’s the thing. I desperately want to continue writing, and be one of the lucky few that has a chance to do this as an actual career. I loved my time in teaching, but would love to leave teaching to write full time even more (but I have to have a back up plan)!
Any other books I write will be under my own name. The ONLY reason I used a pen name for this one was because I work with children, and despite the fact that I did not “live the porn life”, just lived in a pornstar’s house, I sense that the school board, my admin, and the parents of the kids I have taught cannot help but view me in an entirely different light. If I were still riding a desk in a cubicle, waiting tables, anything of that nature, I would say, “…darn right, I wrote this!”, but if I DO go back to teaching (and I did, for a year in the middle of all this, keeping things very quiet), I cannot be “…the teacher who wrote a book with a male pornstar”! Even if I could not be fired, I am sure that I would be made uncomfortable enough to ensure that I left on my own.

So, for me it is necessary, though it does seem as if it may all be useless, if I am asked to go out and promote.

What would you do?

Annarkie said...

LOL I love that my reason for my pen name is the first in the "Pro" list. Smith is a horrible last name for an author, especially for romance.
I go by first and middle because it's not too big of a deviation.

TirzahLaughs said...

I just hate my real life name. Legally, I'd be willing to change my name to my pen name. I kept my last name and merely changed my first name.

But, I also set up all my twitter, online email, facebook under my new first name. So it is more likely to be found than my birth name.

Second, my family is nuts. I have no desire to have my fringe relatives googling me.

Do I think a pen name is a good idea for everyone? Nope.

But for some people, yes.

And I answer all my email and mail under my pen name with that name.

I actually have more of a problem remembering to use my birth name at work.

Loved the article. Good fodder for the brain.

Tirz

Jessica Capelle said...

I went ahead and started building a platform (leap of faith) with a pen name for practical reasons... my day job is a lawyer and we have to have a public address listed on the state bar pages. I wanted to have some semblance of privacy and not worry that people would just show up at my office! Also, my "real life" persona is writing legal non-fiction and my pen name is writing YA, so I thought it might be good to break it up, as I wouldn't necessarily use my business networking to promote my fiction but would for my non-fiction. The true question will come when I write a legal thriller one day! lol I did keep my first name though. Didn't want to deal with having to respond to different first name. I also kept my last name something that I could easily remember and had a connection to me. If I chose something random, I think I'd have a much harder time.

Thanks for the post Nathan!

Rissawatkins said...

See, I use a pen name for everything on the internet. I am paranoid- but with your real name it is very easy to get way too much information about you.

In AZ it is a matter of doing a quick search and I can pull up a homeowner's address, mortgage amount and signature online.

Been stalked once by a crazy guy- trust me, that is not fun!


My business name is Rissa Watkins. My real name is Marissa uh, something. :)

Anonymous said...

Nathan-

I am considering a pen name, because of the very point(s) I found as reasons people choose pen names on a few other site discussing this topic (pasted below).

"Some use a pen name as a political move to avoid the various –isms still prevalent today. Writers whose ethnic origins differ from the mainstream will sometimes use a name like that of the prevalent culture to get away from that society’s prejudices towards them."

"If your name is hard to spell, remember or pronounce or seems too foreign or ethnic. To hide ethnicity or alter apparent ethnicity."

My last name does fall under these catagories (I was born and raised in America, but my ethnic background is not a popular one, my name is hard to say if you're seeing it for the first time and no one spells it correctly because it has 3 consonants in a row, so it throws people off.)

Thoughts???

Anonymous said...

Nathan-

I am considering a pen name, because of the very point(s) I found as reasons people choose pen names on a few other site discussing this topic (pasted below).

"Some use a pen name as a political move to avoid the various –isms still prevalent today. Writers whose ethnic origins differ from the mainstream will sometimes use a name like that of the prevalent culture to get away from that society’s prejudices towards them."

"If your name is hard to spell, remember or pronounce or seems too foreign or ethnic. To hide ethnicity or alter apparent ethnicity."

My last name does fall under these catagories (I was born and raised in America, but my ethnic background is not a popular one, my name is hard to say if you're seeing it for the first time and no one spells it correctly because it has 3 consonants in a row, so it throws people off.)

Thoughts???

Anonymous said...

Like Jessica, I'm a lawyer and work in juvenile court. My name is weird enough that I think I'm the only one out there and it's really hard to spell. I anticipate needing to keep my day job. I am writing an urban fantasy, have had thoughts about writing fantasy, paranormal romance, and legal thrillers, but would prefer to keep my writing self away from my real world career. I am worried about what if someone wants me to go on tour. But I'm years from there at this point. I also have an occasional stalker who knows where my office is and fortunately lives too far away to be a problem, but publishing something would be like waving a red flag at the stalker.

I have a much easier name picked out but will need to check to see that it isn't taken.

Answering to that name wouldn't be terribly difficult. I already use nicknames in different areas of my personal life and haven't had that problem at all.

Anonymous said...

It's unfortunate that some people I know can't pronounce my Italian last name correctly, and it's only five letters long, with only two consonants. Because of my Italian and Greek background, I'm looking for a pen name with a Hellenistic sound to it. However, foreign names don't seem to run too well, and from what I understand, neologisms are big no-noes. Adding a sequence of vowels is probably not too good either. Not only that, but there can only be so many single syllable words. It seems that the names that will run are single syllable Anglo-Saxon names that are within the first few letters of the alphabet. Unfortunately for me, I prefer Greco-Roman names like Alexander and Valerian. Hard to pronounce, right? So much for unique names. I guess I have to settle for a single syllable first and last name. Popular yet unique. Then there are the issues of homonyms and memes. Could I be wrong, though?

-Anth

Anonymous said...

I use a pen name because we - 3 authors - co-wrote a novel based on a short story by a deceased friend. I'm the 'p' (for Pero) in pgkhanson. A unique situation perhaps, but we figured it was best way to deal with 3 authors - especially in a query

Clara Rose said...

Thanks Nathan for another great blog post that aids me in my procrastination! I can always count on you for good information and a laugh or two followed by hours of entertainment in the comment section.

Clara Rose is part of my very long name and has served as my pen name for more years that I care to admit. When I query you (you know I will at some point) I will remember to give you the full version :)

Remilda Graystone said...

This was an interesting and helpful post. I have built up a platform off of the pen name I hope to use. My real name is too ethnic, and I'd like to avoid that. Not to mention my first name seems to be hard to pronounce for some people, and my last name is really, really common and both of my names together bring up a whole list of famous people. So, yeah. I thought long and hard about using a pen name as well, and I've come to the conclusion that it's better to use one, although I have had some people try and talk me out of it.

This post cleared up some things. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I live in Britain and I'm an "ethnic minority." I'm worried people will see that and not want to buy my book (if, you know, it ever gets published.) I think I have to use a pen name.

Bruce Pea said...

I just wrote about this topic.

There is a long and well established tradition of writers using pen names. As Nathan suggested in his article above, there are a number of good reasons a writer may choose to use a pseudonym or pen name.

Using a pen name seems like a trivial matter to a lot of writers, but there are a few things needing to be considered before casually pulling a name out of the air. For example, using a pen name does affect the length of your copyright and works written under a pen name tend to be orphaned more often than works written under the authors real name.

This information and more can be found in A Writer's Guide To Using Pen Names.

Mario A. Niebles said...

My name is not very usual either, there are only a few man out there who have the same combination of first & last name, however my pseudonym is unique, and there can only be one with it, and that's me!!

I personally chose my pen name out of a extremely hard personal experience, however I have a friend who also has a 'nickname' that came to him accidentally, yet everyone in his business knows him by it and not everyone by his real name!

Thank you,

Mario A. Niebles a.k.a. the Illuminazzo.

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