Why do authors use pen names?


26 November 2018
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Have you ever considered writing under a pseudonym? There are many reasons why a writer decides to change their name

Have you ever considered writing under a pseudonym? There are many reasons why a writer decides to change their name

Some of the most famous writers in the world have used pen names.

The Brontës were famously Ellis, Currer and Acton Bell, choosing deliberately gender-neutral pen names when they first published their books because they didn’t believe anyone would take them seriously if they knew they were women. Mary Anne Evans became one of the most celebrated Victorian novelists using the pen name George Eliot. Mark Twain’s real name was Samuel Longhorn Clemens. George Orwell was born Eric Blair. Ruth Rendell was also Barbara Vine and both these illustrious crime writers were also Baroness Rendell of Babergh. Rom-com author Sophie Kinsella is really Madeleine Wickham. Erika Leonard had her identity as a smut-pedlar veiled under her adopted moniker EL James for her Shades of Grey books.

Writing under a pen name, or pseudonym, is something that authors consider for a variety of reasons.

But why might you use one? Here are some of the reasons why you as an author might want to assume a new identity.

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Reasons why writers adopt a pen name

Different style or genre

You are well-known for writing horror novels under your real name but you’ve just written a love story with a happy ending. Your horror fans are going to be literally horrified by the change in direction – but why not publish it under a different name? By using a pen name you could have an alternative author identity and attract a whole new readership.

Famous authors who have used pen names to change style

• JK Rowling – Robert Galbraith
• Stephen King– Richard Bachman
• Iain Banks – Iain M. Banks
• Julian Barnes – Dan Kavanagh
• John Banville – Benjamin Black
• Agatha Christie – Mary Westmacott
• Patricia Highsmith – Claire Morgan

Establishing a strong identity

Your author name is part of your brand, and particularly if you’re a genre writer, it needs to have a strong image. Imagine, for instance, that you’ve written a book about inner city girl gangs and their rival make-up wars. Are you going to appeal more to a readership of style-conscious YA teens with the name Mollie Starr than your given one of Lorraine Marshall? Time to adopt Mollie Starr as a pen name. But if you’ve also written a detective novel set in a country village, Lorraine might have more appeal to cosy crime readers than Mollie. You, and your publisher, will want to make sure that your author name is appropriate for your target readership.

Revitalising a career

You’ve been writing novels under your own name but sales are dwindling and your publisher feels readers will associate the downturn with your name and be reluctant to buy more books by you. You’re worried about being dropped. It’s not the end of the world – try a fresh approach and a new name and you might find a new readership and yourself back at the top of the bestseller lists.

Avoid gender stereotyping

Sad but true – there are still people who expect certain kinds of fiction to have been written by particular genders. The fact is that men still tend not to buy books by women writers, and some readers expect their writer to share their gender. Of course it’s all rubbish – David Nicholls writes fabulous romcoms and Jessie Keane is a terrific gangland writer. But nonetheless, the issue persists. You write romantic sagas but you worry readers won’t take you seriously because you’re a man. Or you don’t want the readers of your action-packed heist thriller to realise that your real name is Norma and you’re a retired primary school teacher in case they think you haven’t got the right credentials to have penned that book. If you use a pen name, you can be any gender you like, and if you use a neutral pen name (ie, E.M. Woodhouse instead of Eric or Erica Woodhouse) you can keep readers guessing.

Work reasons

Pen names can be very useful if you rely on your day job for elements that end up in your fiction. If you write workplace thrillers in your lunch break from your day job without concealing your identity, don’t be too surprised if your contract doesn’t get renewed because they think you might be using confidential information for your own purposes. If you work in education or government, your writing could affect your career prospects. And whatever your job, bear in mind that prospective employers are very likely to look at your social media presence and what it conveys about your writing career and come to their own conclusions about what you write and whether it makes you the employee they are looking for.

Family matters

Pen names are very handy when you don’t want your family to find out that you write steamy erotica, or that you’ve based the creepy relative in your bestselling horror novel on your Uncle Gerald, or that entire Sunday dinner conversations have been transposed word for word into your play script. Using a pseudonym means you can still have conversations with family members – and write them all up for future use without fear of being found out.

Class and social identity

You can’t write gritty gangland thrillers that will be perceived as credible if your real name is Tarquin and your daddy owns half of Bedfordshire. So why not change it to a pen name? Something along the lines of Stan Blinder or Ray Grimes will convince readers that you’ve walked the same mean streets as your characters. Likewise, your new age self-help guide will probably chime more with its readers if you use the pseudonym Saffron Smiles rather than your given name of Sarah Grout.

You want to stay under the radar

Perhaps you write erotica and you don’t want your lit-fic readers to find out. Or perhaps you write about politics, or have controversial views in print that you don’t want to be targetted for in your everyday life. If you have a pen name you can keep that part of your writing life compartmentalised. Just be aware that if you are high profile and your real name gets found out, the media will have a whale of a time exposing your concealed identity.

You want to be easy to find

You might need a pen name if you’ve got the same name as another writer, especially if they’re much more famous than you are. If your real name is Stephen King, it might be worth thinking of a pseudonym. Just shortening it to Steve King would ensure you had a different author name from one of the most famous writers on the planet. When readers are looking for your book on Amazon, you don’t want to be one of three Annie Browns, or Ben Smiths, so it might be worth thinking of a pseudonym.

How to use a pen name

• Choose carefully and find a pen name that’s original. Do your research, including finding out whether your chosen name is available as a domain name if you decide to create an author website.
• Use the name and buy the domain to create your author identity online.
• Most publishing contracts will be in your real name so don’t be secretive with your publisher. Remember it’s quite common for writers to use a pen name.
• Decide whether you want readers to know that you are using a pen name – many authors who use one take great care not to create fake identities around that name. Readers may feel cheated if you create a fake identity round a pen name and are subsequently exposed.
• Your work written under a pen name is still copyrighted to you, but you can add a copyright symbol and a written disclaimer if you want to. In the UK there is no need to register copyright. Legally, in the UK, work belongs to the author as soon as it is fixed in a readable format.  In the US, you can register your copyright with an international copyright protection service or the Copyright Office. You do not have to use your real name to do this.
• If you send a copy of the work (written under your pen name or your real name) to the British Library within a month of publication it will be included in their published works and will establish you as the original author.


If you’re considering using a pen name, and would like to find out what changing author names meant for one well-known writer, read novelist Jane Costello’s explanation of why she chose the pseudonym Catherine Isaac for her tenth book.