March 10, 2016

Who to Be, or Who Not to Be? (That Is the Pseudonym Question)


I’ve spent my entire literate life inventing pen names. And before you ask, NO—I will not tell you what my creative pen names are. It’s possible that they are already in use, or that they will be in future use. The beauty of a pen name is that you won’t find out until I want you to find out, which may be never ever ever!

The Brontë sisters famously used their own initials toward their pen names: Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily), and Acton (Anne) Bell (Brontë)

The Brontë sisters famously used their own initials toward their pen names: Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily), and Acton (Anne) Bell (Brontë)

The long tradition of pen names testifies to a pseudonym’s usefulness or even necessity. Many women have used pen names to protect themselves from scandal, or to better their chances at publication in an industry historically dominated by men (think Currer Bell, George Sand, or George Eliot). Some men have used pen names in order to re-invent themselves (think Stephen King, who wrote some novels under the name Richard Bachman). And others have used pen names in order to maintain an air of privacy for whatever reason (think Bella Forrest, who is the completely mysterious internet-famous author of the Shade of Vampire series).

I recently attended a publishing workshop wherein several of the would-be writers were concerned about publishing a book, building a social media presence, and somehow maintaining a level of privacy through it all. This is a tricky balance because the author’s name is generally a key part of the branding process. Readers are often just as fascinated with “the author” as they are with the books themselves; and the idea of a book being successful without the personal push and presence of its author is not very modern. In fact, I’ve worked for a publisher that so relied upon the power of the author’s presence that they would not publish something under a pseudonym. Not all publishers are this strict, but such rules testify to the perceived power of a name and its potential brand.

If you’re thinking about publishing under a pseudonym, here are a few questions to ask yourself first (aside from what your name should be!):

  1. Will my book sell better if it is connected to my actual name? The answer here may be obvious. If you are a credentialed professional writing within your area of expertise, then of course you want to use your real name. If you are well known within social or professional networks that would value your name, then go for it. In such cases, you are the brand; and without your name, the book will suffer.
  2. Would my personal life or reputation be harmed by the use of my actual name? Romance novels are ubiquitous, but there are still people in the world who are scandalized by them. Many romance writers use pseudonyms in order to maintain a distance between themselves and their novel-writing lives, while others see no need for such distance. If you’re not concerned about the stigma of certain subjects or genres, then you may not want a new name for yourself. Let’s just say there’s a reason why “Anon” is famous.
  3. Will I be confused with someone else? Some writers choose pen names in order to distinguish themselves from people with the same name. Jane Smith, for example, may give herself a pen name, if only to not be confused with the other Jane Smiths who are publishing books. On the other hand, if you are choosing a pen name for any other reason, make sure you aren’t choosing a name that intentionally sounds like someone else’s. J.K. Rowling would not appreciate you trying to publish with that name, and you might get into legal trouble for trying to impersonate someone who is already famous.

At the end of the day, we are all brands whether we like it or not. Think about your writing name as part of what sells your book. In a later post I will describe some of the legal aspects of publishing with a pen name; but until then, have fun deciding which name will be gracing your covers!


Jocelyn / (The BH)

PS: If you’re stumped, have some fun with this pen name generator.

PPS: Image of “Poems” by the Bells from the UPenn digital library

About theJocelyn
1 comment
  • Ashley R. says:

    That name generator was A HOOT. My favorites:

    A. N. Robshaw
    Aimee Ashson
    Abigail Roberts
    Robinson Ashblood (!!)
    Alretha Nicdiamond
    Abhishek Mirage Robinson (LEGIT WTF)
    Antoine Saturn Robatron (my fav)

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