Nom de plume, pseudonym, pen name… whatever your choice of synonym, at some point in our writing careers we all contemplate choosing a fictitious name to attach to our writing.

If you’re a new indie author getting ready to publish your manuscript, you may be wondering whether you want to plaster your own name across the title, or take the Mark Twain, S.E. Hinton, or George Orwell route. (Yes, all of those are pen names!)

In this article, we will answer these four questions about pen names:

  1. Why do writers choose pen names?
  2. What makes for a good pen name?
  3. How do you go about choosing your pen name?
  4. What are the potential legal issues you need to know about when it comes to pen names?

Why do some writers choose pen names?

“Whatever may be the success of my stories, I shall be resolute in preserving my incognito, having observed that a nom de plume secures all the advantages without the disagreeables of reputation.” ~ George Eliot

An author’s reason for choosing a pen name will vary, but they tend to fall under four categories:

Using a pen name to maintain anonymity

There’s something to be said for anonymity in writing and the security it can bring.

We live in a world where our lives are brandished across social media for anyone to see. For those authors who still toil away at a day job or are presently job hunting, (potential) employers may frown at your choice of genre or worry that you won’t devote the necessary time and energy to your job. It’s happened!

Or perhaps your significant other works in a conservative industry, and the fact that you spend your days writing about serial killers or intergalactic erotica could have a negative impact on their ability to keep and do their job.

Or you may simply be a very private person and prefer the ability to maintain your privacy through a certain level of anonymity.

Using a pen name as part of a brand strategy

To be a successful author, you need to have a strategy for book marketing⁠ — and a big part of that strategy has to do with your brand. Your brand is everything that represents you as an author⁠ — your writing style, your genre, your book covers, your website, your social media presence, and more.

For some authors, a good pen name is the crux of their book branding strategy.

In the author world, your brand is based on the stories you write, how you want your readers to perceive you, and how readers identify with you and your work.

Keep in mind that your brand comes with expectations for readers: the expectation that when they buy an Insert Name story, they will get what they’re expecting — whether it’s an edge-of-your-seat suspense thriller, a laugh-out-loud satire, or a swoon-worthy romance.

Creating a brand for your pen name will take work. You’ll need to carefully study your audience and other authors in your genre to see what works well for them. Then you’ll need to add your own unique spin on things to stand out⁠ — and the right pen name could help you do just that.

Pen names for different genres

It’s not uncommon for authors to experiment with more than one genre. You might start out writing a horror novel, but later move on to mysteries or sci-fi.

If you’re worried that your genres are so different that you won’t be targeting the same readers, choosing to use a separate pen name for each genre will allow you to differentiate your brands and build a separate audience for each one. This is a strategy used by authors like Stephen King (who writes as Richard Bachman) and Agatha Christie (who wrote romance under the name Mary Westmacott).

Many writers, one pen name

In some cases (more often than you might think) multiple writers working together may choose a shared pen name to publish under. This may be the case for a group of friends or a writers’ group.

Often, this method is used by book publishers or book packagers. What are those?

book packaging company works on books from start (concept development, story outlines, project assignments) to production (writing, editing, cover design) to publication (marketing and distribution) to create stories that readers simply can’t put down. In some cases, book packagers hire freelance writers who are established authors in a specific genre. These freelancers may be looking to expand their writing into other genres without having to create a new brand.

What makes for a good pen name?

Genre fit. Does the pen name resonate with readers of your genre? A name that fits perfectly for a slow-paced cozy mystery may not have the same effect for a hard-boiled thriller. If you’re gender crossing (a male writing in a female-dominated genre, for example), you might choose a female or non-gendered pen name to avoid unintentional bias.

Research. If you’re already a reader in your chosen genre (as you should be!), then you’ll have an advantage here. Think about the names of some of your favorite authors in the genre you’ll be publishing in.

What tone do they have?

What image do they conjure up in your mind?

Can you create a similar tone and image using your chosen pen name?

Think about the persona behind the name — the person you’re presenting to a reader. It’s okay to have a fictitious bio to add some color, but avoid adding in expertise or experiences you can’t back up. While readers are willing to accept pen names, they tend to draw the line at falsified resumes.

Questions writers should ask if they are considering a pen name

If one or more of the above options sounds like a good fit for your writing, it may be time to start coming up with a pen name.

Some authors choose a pen name similar to their own. Maybe they have a common first name (say, Jennifer, but they go by Jenny), so they might choose to make “Jennifer” their first name and a different last name to hide their identity.

Others may choose their initials. For example, S.E. Hinton, author of The Outsiders, is actually named Susan Eloise Hinton.

Choosing an author name similar to your own does have its advantages. For starters, you will find it easier to respond to email inquiries or questions during in-person events if you have a pen name that sounds similar to what you’re used to hearing.

You may instead choose a name that is very different from your own. A pen name is a good chance to go by that name you wish your parents had chosen, or to simply try out a new identity.

No matter what name you land on, it’s vital that you do your research before you make it official. Here are the questions you should ask:

Is the name already taken? Use Google to check out the name you’re considering to be sure it doesn’t already belong to someone famous. Then do the same on Amazon and Goodreads, checking that the name isn’t the same or too similar to others already out there. Not only are duplicate names difficult for readers, but it could end up making it harder for you to make a name for yourself and untangle your work from similarly named authors.

Are there multiple ways to spell the name? It could become annoying if you constantly must spell out the name to others.

Is the name easy to remember and catchy? You want to make it easy for your readers to recall your name when they’re at the book store.

Is the name associated with any cultural issues? You need to be careful to avoid any racial or cultural insensitivity when selecting your pen name. Avoid names associated with a particular ethnic background or culture, unless you yourself are a member of that group.

Are there legal issues associated with pen names?

Using a pen name is a legal and well-established practice in the publishing world, so generally, a nom de plum isn’t going to cause you any legal problems.

However, for tax purposes and when signing contracts, you will need to use your legal name.

There are also steps you will need to take in order to secure your use of your chosen pen name. If you intend to set up business accounts using that pen name (including banking and possibly even a business name), you will probably need to obtain a legal business name. Check with the appropriate local government agency to find out what you need to do.

Keep in mind that whatever pen name you choose, it will become a part of you and the persona you show to the world. So above all, make sure you like it, because you’re going to see it, a lot.

“Perhaps what’s most remarkable about the nom de plume, and rarely talked about, is its power to unlock creativity — and its capacity to withhold it. Even when its initial adoption is utilitarian, a pen name can assume a life of its own. Many writers have been surprised by the intimate and even disorienting relationships they have formed with their alter egos.” ~Carmela Ciuraru

So, go forth and create. Enjoy the anonymity a pen name affords and expand your creativity with the reassurance that your secret is safe.

This article was written with Harry Wallett, Managing Director of Relay Publishing and Liam Carnahan, founder of Invisible Ink Editing. Relay Publishing was founded in April of 2013, and has published a catalogue of over 850 books, with a focus on YA fantasy, science fiction, and romance, among other genres. They also offer book publishing and packaging services, helping turn creative concepts into full-fledged novels.