Pen names, which are often called pseudonyms, are a tool that writers have used for many generations. It is either an alteration of their real name or a fictitious name that is used to create a distinctiveness for the work being produced. You may not know Samuel Clemens, for example, but you very likely know his pen name “Mark Twain.”
Pen names are also used to disguise gender, allow an author to distance themselves from previous works, or to even give an author a level of protection against retribution or negativity because of what they’ve written. Some writing groups will also use a pen name to create a singular author for the presentation of the book instead of listing every writer involved.
Sometimes the pen name is common knowledge. J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series of books, uses the pen name “Robert Galbraith.” This may occur because of the author admitting their pen name or through a discovery process – after all, a writer’s voice is fairly unique.
When Is a Pen Name Permitted to Be Used?
Authors will often use pen names if their real name could be confused with someone else who may be famous or a notable writer in their own right. A classic example of this is Winston Churchill, who would become a famous British politician. He published using his middle initial “S” to differentiate his work from American writer Winston Churchill, who had published works like The Celebrity and Richard Carvel.
An author who writes in different genres or formats will often use a pen name to keep their works separated from one another. Many times there is no intent to hide their identity. Author Nora Roberts even published books that specifically stated “Nora Roberts, writing as J.D. Robb.” This is done as more of a marketing purpose than to disguise the writing. It creates separation in the mind of the reader, preventing previous stories or articles from bleeding through to the reader.
A pen name is also permitted when writers are producing a lot of work. Certain authors are very prolific and may have multiple items being marketed simultaneously. Instead of having 5 different works by “John Smith” on the market to compete with each other, having 5 different author names allows for separation for the reader. Stephen King, for example, used to publish under the pen name Richard Bachman because his publisher didn’t think people would buy more than one book from a single author in a single year.
Those are clear examples of a pen name being permitted. In reality, any author can choose to use a pen name for any reason they wish.
When an Author and Their Name Doesn’t Suit a Genre
Sometimes an author chooses to use a pen name because they believe their real name isn’t a good reflection of their preferred genre. One of the most famous examples of this is from an author named Pearl Gray.
Gray loved to write Westerns. He is one of the most prolific Western writers of all time. Except you may not know him by his real name. His books were all published under the pen name of Zane Grey.
There may be legitimate reasons why an author may choose to use a pen name for their books because of the genre as well. Author Julie Woodcock, for example, writes romance novels. Instead of having people getting caught up in the double entendre of her name, she chooses to write under the pen name of Angela Knight.
In one famous example, author Romain Gary started writing under a pen name and had a relative pretend to be the author. This allowed him to one a French literary prize twice, which was not actually allowed.
Does a Pen Name Make Sense to Use?
A pen name makes sense to use if your real name is difficult to say, may create confusion for the reader, or could draw attention away from the material being used. When you are published as an author, your name becomes your brand. That brand must make sense for what you’ve written. If it does not, then a pen name is a good way to keep getting your work published.
But a pen name isn’t absolutely necessary. You can make slight alterations of your current name, add a middle initial, or change how your name is spelled to create the results you need. That way you can embrace your inner Samuel Clemens so that your work can embrace its inner Mark Twain.