When You Should and Shouldn’t Use a Pen Name

Posted by on Apr 8, 2013 in Marketing and Branding, Writing | 36 comments

When You Should and Shouldn’t Use a Pen Name

There’s one question we get a lot during the #AskaMuse tweets:


Should I use a pen name?


In all honesty, it’s a very personal decision with no right or wrong answers. It’s all to how you want to run your writing career. We can give you tips to make your decision easier.


When might you want to use a pen name?

Are you writing in different genres? Even if you make your pen name known, it can be easier for readers to relate one name to a particular brand of books. Nora Roberts uses this technique using the softer name for her romance and the harder J.D. Robb for action/thrillers.

Do you work in a career that might not warm up to your writing style? If you’re a teacher, pay particular attention here. Or just google “teacher fired for writing book”. You might see more results than you’d expect. If your students (or their family) might google your name, you may want to make sure nothing too racy for an under eighteen crowd is linked to it.

Note: Even if you do use a pen name, make sure you register your website privately unlike this teacher. Depending on your domain name registrar, this may be an extra charge. It’s worth it.

Would you feel safer if your name wasn’t out there? Many authors use their first and middle names (or their maiden name for women) as a way to protect themselves further.

Are you a woman writing in a male centric genre? Or vice versa? As awful as it sounds, studies prove that female authors writing specific genres are judged harder. If you’re eying the genres of thriller, (adult) horror, or even young adult literature with a male main character, a soft and flowing name might make it more difficult for you. (We’re looking at you, J. K. Rowling!) The same studies prove that women are more likely to buy romance novels written by a woman – with a prettier name being better than plain.

Can you complete several books in one year? If you’re traditionally published, you may not be allowed to release books except on a specific time frame. It takes time to travel the traditional publishing process – editing, cover art, etc – and often they prefer to only market one book a year. Building hype sometimes works for traditional publishing. (It doesn’t work nearly as well for self published authors until they are very well sustained.)


When might you not want to use a pen name?

Will you feel unaccomplished as an author if some of your books don’t bear your name? If you won’t feel like an author without your name on the spine (and you won’t lose your job), do what makes you happiest. There’s no right or wrong answer here.

Is your name already well known in your field? If you have a popular writing blog under one name, or a Twitter account with lots of sociable followers, capitalize on what you already have. Why start completely over when you already have a successful platform?


 Would you Muses ever use a pen name?

Speaking only for myself, yes, definitely yes – for specific genres, not all of my writing though. If I ever decide to write horror, I think it would be much easier to market under a gender neutral name. Do I feel safety is an issue? Not really. But KJ, didn’t you just say many authors use a pen name for safety reasons? Well, yes, I did. However for most self-published authors using a pen name that’s similar to their own name, it’s usually really easy to figure out their “real” name. Often a quick glance of their Facebook page could answer that one for you.


What are your thoughts on pen names? Do you have any more questions you’d like us to answer about having a pen name?

Kristen Jett, Kristen Jett author, KristenJett, @KristenJett


  1. This was really helpful! I know I need to use a pen name because my last name is Bland. That is not a good name for an author. I am so not a bland person either! Thank you for sharing. :)

    • The connotation could sway people’s opinions for sure. Would your sister use a pen name too? I think the twin aspect could be a really powerful marketing technique for the two of you!

      • We both are going to use pen names. Not sure what though. But we are very excited to collaborate together on our stories. Twin power! :)

        • It could be neat to think of something that has significance for the two of you. Or perhaps the last name of a famous twin? (Gemini would work too, but might be a bit cliche.)

      • i want to use pen name but im scare that my family members or my old bullies at school will sell me out. like lets say my name is james. they will say “no its not.” even on twitter someone can tell another person where i live. i’m in big trouble. the world is not safe. there are horrible people out there for no reason at all. please help me. give me something.

        • Hi James! The nice thing about pen names, is that no one has to know it’s you. If you don’t tell anyone, how will they know it’s you? I have a super secret pen name. I haven’t shared it with anyone, therefor no one knows it is me.

          Also, I must say, that bullying (especially online bullying) is a huge issue, and I’m so sorry to see that it’s something you’ve had to deal with. I have too, buddy. You’re not alone.

          In fact, the thing I’ve learned about bullies over the years, is that most bully because they are miserable. And insecure. And they want to make others feel just as bad as they feel. The only way to beat them, is to be happy. And be what you want to be. And be comfortable with who you are (flaws and all). So make a pen name if you want. Publish whatever you want. Write what you feel. Because it will all be okay. You are wonderful just as you are. Never let anyone make you feel otherwise.

          In case you want to talk to someone, there’s a great organization out there (that I love) called To Write Love on Her Arms. They have an awesome list of resources for people who are dealing with bullying, neglect, suicide. Check out their resource page if you’re looking for any help: http://twloha.com/find-help.

          And of course, you know where to find me (here and on Twitter: @jolenehaley.

          Stay strong buddy. I’ll see you around the interwebz. :)

  2. I’ve been giving this some thought recently too – I think I’ll stick with my real name… I don’t think my ego would be able to cope with not being able to see itself on the cover or spine!

  3. I think if you were reviewing other media (tv, movies etc.), or even books for a website or blog you might consider a pen name.

    • Oh good point! If you’re involved in an industry, you might not want to have your name affected by the reviews you leave.

  4. Do pen names have to follow a certain criteria? Like names that sound real or can they be similar to dj names? I was thinking of using my dj name Fallen Apostate for my thriller / horror book, maybe even cook up an aztec pen name.

    • There aren’t real criteria. My only suggestion is to ask yourself what would make the most sense to readers. Will readers associate that name with the proper genre?

      If you really associate with your DJ name, and you think it suits the genre, I say go for it!

  5. I debated this question quite a while, then I compromised and used my first initial and my middle name. Hugely secret, right? Anyway that’s what I did and now I’m sticking with it–even when I write in two genres.

    • A lot of authors are starting to stick to the same name for different genres! If there’s a common theme for the writing especially, I don’t see a reason to use a separate name.

      Since my main forte is YA, I’d use a pen name if I wrote anything racy – but probably use the Bob Mayer approach and be open about it being me.

  6. I shall have to use a pen name simply because my own name already belongs to several existing personalities, including an author.

    • Aw man! I hate that! :( But it does make sense to give yourself a pen name in that situation to make sure you’re not confused with another.

  7. Well I always have people unable to pronounce my first name (Hiram). My middle name is better (Joél, Pronounced JO-EL) but I usually turn the first initial , J , into the first name when I write (Jay). But I have made many connections using my real name. I am stuck on what to do.

    • If you feel more comfortable using your first name despite people not knowing the correct pronunciation, use it! A plus I see about this is that it’s possibly more unique and memorable than a more common name.

      Another option would be to keep on your website/social media/wherever you’re making connections “Hiram Vazquez writing as Jay Vazquez”, and be upfront about using the other name. Joanna Penn does this well – her connections were being formed under her name, but she opted to use J.F. Penn for her books. She keeps two websites, but uses her full name for all networking still.

  8. I’ve considered a pen name simply because I feel like my real name (which I’m using here) doesn’t flow off the tongue very well, plus my last name is commonly misspelt.

  9. I’ve thought about using a pen name simply because my last name is long. Pendleton. All the authors I love have short, memorable names. I thought about truncating mine, but that leaves something around Pen or Pend, which feels like a cheesy ploy that I don’t want people to make that jump. Thoughts?

    • I don’t see Pendleton being too long of a name, but it’s a personal preference. Pen makes me think of Joanna Penn (whose name I suspect people do wonder about whether it’s a pen name). I do like the softer ending of Shauna Pen or Shuana Pendleton over Shauna Pend, as I think it’s easier to say.

  10. I want to start a blog and try my hand at freelancing, and eventually get some books published. I was curious once to see who shared my name, and when I looked my name up there is exactly-one name listed in the whitepages online in all of America. I’m just not sure how comfortable I would be with my name out there- especially if no one else has the same name! I feel it would be too easy for some stranger to find me. -_-

    So I think I will definitely try the first and middle name. (Sophie Williams is not my real name, obviously)

    • Good call! If your name is that rare, it definitely can make you easier to find. You can take precautions against that, but a pen name will help – just make sure you use a PO Box and such for any legal addresses!

  11. If you are picking a pen name I would urge you to remember that readers need to be able to remember and SPELL your name when they are searching for books. As a librarian, I run across this all the time. Customers have to be able to at least get close to the name for me to be able to figure out for whom they are looking. There is a certain mystery writer who I never spell his name correctly. Every time I have to search for one of his books, I wish that he had picked a pen name.

    • Great tip Tracey! Making it easier for readers to find your work is an important thing to consider.

  12. I use my maiden name for my pen name; when I first started publishing, I wasn’t married yet, and wanted to carry on my grandfather’s name somehow. My married name is Campbell, and I may use that for something in the future, but I’m sticking with Barone—even if people sometimes misspell it or pronounce it wrong. ;)

  13. I am currently working on an autobiography, which I hope to publish very soon. I am thinking that my best bet would be to change everyone’s names so that no one I mention can sue me, and if that’s the case, I’ll have to use a pen name. I’m considering using one of my grandmothers’ maiden names and changing my first name to something I like that reflects my artistic nature.

    • I think that sounds like a solid plan – it’s still close enough to you to feel a part of you, but allows for a bit more protection and privacy.

  14. Pen names tend to be revealed. I am writing my YA memoir and will be changing some loved ones names. That’s a good point about pronouncing the pen name. So many pros and cons.

  15. Sorry to be so late! I was thinking about using a pen name, since my name is so plain (literally, probably the most common surname and first name for females in the USA, if not the world). What do you think? :)

  16. My name is hard to pronounce, spell, and just confusing in general for anyone who isn’t Chinese/East Asian. I’m thinking about using a more westernized pen name, but I also want to be able to put writing experiences on my college applications/future resumes. Would it reflect badly on me if they can’t find proof that traces my pen name back to my real identity? For example, would they think I’m trying to take someone else’s identity?

  17. I wish to use my fanfic’s writer nicknames as pen name; which is “Enigmaticma.” Is it acceptable?

  18. I still have my ex-husband’s surname because we had children together and it’s our family name, but I would rather not come out as an author bearing his name. The problem is I am writing an autobiography which I don’t think will have credibility without my actual name, or do you think it’s possible to abbreviate it and call myself Lynda G.?

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  21. Kristen, read your blog above and helpful. However, still have doubts on what to do. I am a retired professional and well known in the local communities when in my primary profession. I am pursuing my second love, fine art photography. About 10 years ago, while living in another state, some of my photos were published under my pen name; I still maintain an inactive website with that name as the domain name. However, I am skillful in printing photos, framing photos, and decided to see what I can do also marketing my photo biz not only as my original fine art photos, also rendering printing, framing and multiple picture taking -pets, kids, families as well. I have the ability to produce large format photos which a heck of a lot of people send out to print houses. So would it be adviseable to market my photos under my real name vs pen name, have my photo biz = my photos plus services under the same name. I intend to make my own websites. Should I split using the real and pen names separately between my personal photos and the other services? What’s your take on this? Please answer to my private email address below.

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