Pen names (or non de plumes in French) are pseudonyms adopted by writers with a long, interesting, and sometimes funny history.
Similar to a musical artist (whether single/duo/or group) who might employ a pseudonym for purely stylistic purposes – to be catchy, to encapsulate their brand/image, to better represent their alter persona – writers often employ pseudonyms for easy recollection, ease of pronunciation, and, in some cases, for their name to better match the genre in which they are seeking publication (a darker, more mysterious sounding name, for instance, for mystery/thriller-themed books).
But given that authors write in various historical time periods each with their own set of political, social, and economic mores, the reasons a writer might choose to write under a pen name are often very different.
In reading this article, you will learn about some of these reasons.
Additionally, you will learn about the various benefits of using a pen name.
Lastly, you will also better appreciate the virtually limitless creative energy flowing in each and every writer and how pen names, far from being used for a single purpose, can be used to experiment across various genres and potentially unlock hidden writing talent.
Let’s get right into it.
I love the language an article published on the website electricliterature.com used when explaining the various reasons authors have used (or continue to use) pen names. Noting that some have used them for “political reasons, others for personal concerns, and some simply for the joy of mischief… pseudonyms are a powerful tool for writers, allowing their pens to say what perhaps their mouths couldn’t”
Here are just a few writers whose pens were used to do the talking.
Notable Writers Throughout History Who Used Pen Names
- Daniel Defoe, the English writer, journalist, and spy, widely considered to be one of England’s earliest novelists and most controversial writers of his time, having produced more than 400 works ranging from books, pamphlets, songs, essays, and journalistic works spanning many subjects, used 198 different pseudonyms
- Theodor Geisel, the beloved children’s author who wrote under the pen name Dr. Seuss, whose pseudonym resulted from being caught drinking as a Dartmouth undergrad (for which he was forced to resign as Editor-in-Chief of a campus humor magazine) holds the record for the most books written pseudonymously (57).
- Stanley Martin Lieber, widely recognized as Stan Lee, who would eventually achieve worldwide literary acclaim as a comic book writer, producing such classics as The Amazing Spider-Man, planned to save his real name for more “serious” literary work such as novels
- Eric Blair, who wrote worldwide classic novels such as 1984 and Animal Farm and whose literary masterpieces denouncing the evils of totalitarian government has instituted a “language of dystopia” – such words as “Orwellian” and “Big Brother” – wrote under the pen name George Orwell so his family wouldn’t be embarrassed by his time in poverty – an experience he recounts in his classic work, Down and Out in London and Paris.
For more interesting, fascinating, and sometimes hilarious tidbits of literary history regarding pen names, check out this very artful, historical infographic timeline provided by electricliterature.com.
Common Reasons Why Authors Use (Or Have Used) Pen Names
Anonymity / Privacy
Some of the greatest works of literary fiction that would go to achieve much acclaim were, in many instances, scathing indictments on the current political power, economic order, social value system, etc. Writers, then and now, needing protection from the government, enemies of one sort or another, chose to write under a pen name for their personal protection.
In some cases, though, it’s simply a matter of privacy. Social media being all the rage, if you wish to retain some privacy regarding your thoughts on touchy subjects – and believe you have what it takes to publish a book on such things – using a pen name is definitely recommended. Hiring managers no doubt check social media profiles, workplace friends have access to your every thought it seems like, so it’s definitely preferable to make a clear boundary between your public and private life.
George Orwell mentioned previously, was motivated by both concerns: he feared what his family might think as he lived destitute in many of Europe’s leading cities and he certainly knew that his writings were taking on the elites of his time.
Conceal Gender, Marketing, and Reckless Abandon
From England’s Victorian Age up to the present postmodern world of liberal publication, women have penned works under male names for a variety of reasons. In more historic times, given the male-dominated nature of authorship and publication, aspiring female authors, to be taken seriously and have their works published at all, wrote under a male name.
Combine this social and political climate with literary works criticizing these very norms and it makes sense why Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (‘Currer Bell’), Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (‘Ellis Bell’), and Middlemarch by Mary Anne Evans (‘George Elliot’) – three of the most celebrated English literary classics – were written under male names.
More recently, Joanne Rowling, popular author of the Harry Potter Series, one of the best-selling book series of all time, penned her works under the more gender-ambiguous ‘J.K. Rowling.’ In 2013, when she published The Cuckoo’s Calling, she adopted the even more straightforward male name of ‘Robert Galbraith.’
In the case of Rowling, because the intended audience of her Harry Potter series were young boys who presumably would not want to read fantasy books written by a woman, publishers decided that she use the more gender-neutral J.K.
Sometimes a flat out rejection of traditional standards of decency and modesty explains female to male name changes. Speaking about Amantine Lucile Dupin, the famous French novelist and memoirist, Carmela Ciuraru, author of Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms writes:
“bored by her aristocratic milieu, a cigar-smoking, cross-dressing baroness rejected the rules of propriety by having sexual liaisons with men and women alike, publishing novels and plays under the name George Sand.”
The rationale behind the name change for a more gender-neutral or male-sounding name sounds antiquated but it nonetheless remains true in some parts of the literary publishing world. Ciuraru, for instance, during a CNN interview, speaking about Rowling’s decision to write under a male name, stated that “Sadly, in certain genres, it still helps to be a man – particularly in crime or science fiction.”
In the late ’60s, as one example, James Tiptree Jr, a very popular science fiction writer who seemed to have come from nowhere, was actually Alice Sheldon, a former CIA officer, and experimental psychologist.
CHANGE GENRES / FAN EXPECTATIONS
Say your favorite writer of legal suspense decides to write a coming-of-age novel, just how motivated would you be to read it? Would you be suspicious, maybe even questioning the quality of the book?
Aside from answering to their critics, many notable authors have big fanbases who, like it or not, have to be catered to. While book titans James Patterson and John Grisham have been able to “get away” with writing outside of “their genre” the same may not apply to a lesser-known and beginning writer.
Here’s what even established authors likely consider:
- Feeling disingenuous they may wonder, “how can I write a book of poetry if I only am known for romance novels?”
- Fearing backlash they may think about fans or even first-time readers coming down hard on them and judging their work extra hard.
- As public figures, bad PR might keep them up at night: say the writer writes mainly fictional Sci-fi books and one day decides to pen a non-fictional work on the latest culture war topic.
These scenarios–internal debates about whether or not to shift genres (and the potential consequences of doing so)–are virtually endless.
This is where pen names come in.
The biggest names do it–or have done it.
- Nora Roberts becomes ‘J.D. Robb’ when writing erotic thrillers.
- Samuel Langhorne Clemens, when writing across different genres, was known to the world as ‘Mark Twain.’
- The King of Horror himself, Stephen King, has penned various novels outside of horror under ‘Robert Galbraith.’
For the Weary Reader…When Pen Names Can be Beneficial
A quick note on King and others like him. Writers who have an especially large output – such as King and other authors who publish in different genres – are wise to use a different name if they are simply publishing a ton of material – more than a loyal fan base might be able to keep up with.
So, for instance, in one calendar year, once you have established a regular publishing pattern, one or two books a year, and you still think you can churn out a third, but, say, in a different genre, a name change might work here in terms of sales, marketing, and keeping a loyal fan base.
Again, the particulars of this will look different for every writer but as an example, consider the following: you establish a great reputation, both in print and on social media, as an expert on the topic of, to use a modern trendy example, the ketogenic diet.
You’ve written a book or two already, have a great Youtube channel, perhaps even a podcast. You are firing on all cylinders. Say, now, you would like to shift gears, and pen something on leadership.
Here are some things to think about:
- Should you go full steam ahead and risk everything by delving into a brand new subject?
- What if it flops? Perhaps the market is flooded with such books already.
- Maybe your fan base thinks you are “faking it to make it” by hiring a ghostwriter – your latest attempt to exploit your following by offering something they probably don’t even need.
- Worse, they begin to question your previous books and think it was a marketing ploy–using others to manufacture your claim to fame.
Using a pen name is a strategic marketing decision arrived at after considering your track record, future goals, personal passion, and subject expertise.
Below follow some reasons why ought to consider using one.
Pen Names Are a Great Way to Test the “Writing Waters” and Experiment with Your Craft
Personal journals/diaries detailing your deepest darkest secrets were once the domain of only one person–you, the individual. But, today, in an internet-crazed world where people are looking for more answers to more and more of life’s complex problems, you very well may have the answers people are looking for.
Pen names allow you to publish material that you otherwise would not publish–material that could form the basis for a loyal following, people so loyal who could be salivating for your next biggest project–a book-length work that, who knows, goes on to span a fictional series, a memoir based on personal life experiences, a novel that you later sell the movies for, etc. Most great fiction finds its basis on non-fictional real life accounts, after all.
Think of it in terms of a question: why do new cookbooks or rock groups come out each year?
Personally, I think it comes down to the market always allowing for new and unique voices that offer a fresh perspective on a given subject. What you think is only good enough may very well be great for somebody else. You may be that special person people connect with. There’s only one way to test this out: get your material out there.
A Medium article published by the writer S.K. Anthony further elaborates on these above points. Expounding on her point of what pen names do for a writer’s branding, Anthony makes the excellent point that “there’s no better reason to have a pen name than having flunked under a different name and needing to start over” – a phenomenon she says happens more than people even realize.
Think of the virtually limitless creative opportunities that you, the aspiring writer, are afforded. No other creative profession – no profession at all, for that matter – allows for such wondrous potential.
The lawyer who loses too many cases develops a bad rap; the athlete who blows the big game one too many times finds it hard to rebound; the musician who plays a horrible note hardly recovers his or her musical prowess; the restauranter who gets too many bad reviews on Yelp, and on and on…
Not so with writing…
If you fail to resonate with readers after publishing your deepest personal memoir but feel you can give it a shot at short story writing—who can stop you?
Who will know you – the real you – failed?
If the funny punchlines that you thought could form a humor book fall flat and get bad reviews on Amazon but think you can write the lastest Sci-Fi book, what law exists to prevent you?
How do you make such drastic genre changes you still be might wondering?
CHANGE YOUR “NAME!”
Perhaps you need reminding from a daring historical figure who stopped at nothing to accomplish greatness – Thomas Edisons’ timeless quote: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
The only difference is his failings were made public; yours will remain private. Talk about a win-win!!
The beauty of writing is that you can control the extent of your privacy; nobody sees you in the privacy of your home formulating your craft, nobody even has to know the person behind the name…too shy to engage with your audience live? Do it through a personal fan page where you interact digitally until you announce your “coming out” moment.
Not to go too far with my point here, though. I guess I’m just pointing out some additional benefits to being a writer who dares to experiment and who, perhaps too shy and introverted, wishes to remain anonymous.
BRANDING: When pen names may work; when they may not be necessary
Here are some pointers to keep in mind regarding pen names. I provide some examples – some hypothetical, some real-world–on when pen names are appropriate and ways you might be able to further brand yourself:
- It seems that very famous writers, like celebrities, can “get away” with certain things based on how successful and loved they are; nobody questions when a celebrity of any field decides to write a book (that is standard practice), but when a writer decides to enter a new genre – write a screenplay, launch a videogame, invent an app – they can only do so if they have truly proven themselves
- To give an example of the previous point, the creator of the Rich Dad Poor Dad series, Robert Kiyosaki, has been able to successfully brand his international hit, the Rich Dad Poor Dad book, into many successful follow up books, a board game, popular website, speaking engagements, popular seminars, etc. Keep in mind, his second book (you may not score big on your first)–which to this day remains a huge hit–allowed not only his writing career but his broader entrepreneurial brand to really take off.
- NOTE: There was no need for him to use a pen name because his books and larger brand centered around personal finance, investing, business, self-help, etc. If he ever wanted to brand himself outside of this world, it might make sense to use a pen name.
- Genre-hopping requiring a pen name, to be clear, need not even happen for you, the aspiring writer. If you truly find your niche and can keep building it up through follow up books, seminars, a game, a movie, consulting, etc…why rock the boat, right? Consider the biggest brands like Star Wars and Harry Potter and the immense scalability they both wield across the globe. From the first HP book to movie adaptations, LEGO sets, action figures, various toys, video games, etc. THINK BIG.
- No matter where you are in your personal/professional life you likely already have a powerful story to share–and you need not even have to use a pen name, no matter how deep and personal. I love the story of Matthew Crawford, the “philosopher-mechanic,” whose New York York Times Bestselling Book, Shop Class as Soul Craft, became an instant bestseller. Here was a Ph.D. in political science working as the Director of a think tank who made the occupational change to a motorcycle mechanic who wrote a book – a very powerful thought-provoking one – to tremendous acclaim. Imagine what his next move might be – speaker, consultant, follow up book on a similar topic. No need for a pen name. Judging by the reception of his first book, people likely want a second.
- Long complicated, difficult-to-pronounce name, too ‘soft’ of a name for a ‘strong’ subject you are tackling—these are situations where a pen name may work. Again, many musical artists do it. When they want to sound fun, upbeat, and energetic, they pick a name accordingly. Think of the countless rock bands that pick names connoting danger, death, and what have you. The literary equivalent for a writer would be picking a mysterious-sounding name for a suspense-themed book. Many artists –including writers– “Americanize” their name, if, for instance, the name is too long/difficult to pronounce. However, the opposite works too. To get in touch with their roots (and their potential readership) writers will use their foreign names to great effect. Two such examples of works dealing with strong ethnic themes that have garnered much literary acclaim are Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah.
You literally have unlimited freedom when it comes to choosing a pen name. Whether or not you choose one comes down to a consideration of factors that this article hopefully helped to frame for you. Self-Publishing School can certainly help with this important decision and more. What are you waiting for?