Using a pen name when self-publishing is still an option, and the use of pseudonyms by writers and artists has been a popular practice throughout the centuries.
While pen names may be less common today, they are still a good option to consider for modern authors!
Since the 1700s, renowned authors have been disguising themselves under one or several noms de plume for a host of intentions.
Who would have thought that famous names in literature such as Mark Twain, Lewis Caroll, and Dr. Seuss were actually pseudonyms for Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, and Theodor Geisel?
Before you begin muttering to yourself that you absolutely had no idea at all and start feeling deceived, understand that these authors must have had legitimate reasons for publishing under their fake names.
Their decision to write and become an author under a pen name contributed to their individual sweet success in some way, and it all happened for a reason.
How about you?
If you’re reading about using a pen name when self-publishing, it’s probably true that you’re an aspiring author that’s considering a pseudonym, or pen name.
What is a pen name?
A pen name, also known as a pseudonym or nom de plume, is a name that a writer or author uses instead of his or her real name. A pen name is what’s listed as the author’s name on a published book, and readers often do not know the real name or identity of the author.
If you’re considering using a pen name when self-publishing, here are eight pieces of advice to consider before plunging into publishing with your new nom de plume.
1. Know Why You Want a Pen Name
You must be jittery with excitement, immediately wanting to hunt down the most unique and creative pseudonym you can find on Google. But you need to stop in your tracks and ask yourself a few questions first.
Is it necessary? Do I really need one? Why do I want one?
Authors down the years have taken on pen names for a variety of reasons. You might relate to any one of them.
Let’s take a quick look at the major reasons authors have chosen to take on a pen name throughout history.
#1 – To protect their identity
Consider Francois-Marie Arouet, who chose to write as Voltaire because of his politically controversial works. Voltaire had to use a pen name because his life would’ve been in jeopardy if his real identity was known.
Robinson Crusoe, who was actually Daniel Foe, was in the same situation.
Wanting to protect his family, the well-known George Orwell also decided to hide his real name, Eric Arthur Blair, as his first novel described how they had lived in poverty.
#2 – To escape gender discrimination and prejudices
Female literary giants were forced to pick male pen names because novels written by women were not well received, and depending on the times, may have put the women authors in danger.
For example, George Eliot (real name: Mary Ann Evans) and the Bronte sisters: Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily), and Acton (Anne) Bell, all used male pseudonyms since there was rampant discrimination of women in their time.
“Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel… It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.”–Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
#3 – To escape racial and/or cultural discrimination and prejudices
Similarly, the racial and cultural prejudice felt by Ayn Rand, who was Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum in real life, led her to hide her ethnicity so that she would be well received by the general American reading public.
#4 – To start with a clean slate
Writers like O. Henry (William Sydney Porter) and Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) desired to escape from their dark past and clean up their reputation.
Taking on their widely-recognized pen names allowed them to gain a new opportunity and voice to be heard again on paper.
#5 – To dabble in other genres
Popular names like J.K. Rowling, author of the famous children’s fantasy series Harry Potter, took a fancy to contemporary crime, a totally opposite genre to the one she became famous for. This led her to use Robert Galbraith as her pen name for this genre.
Likewise, Nora Roberts, who is one of the best-loved romance writers in our day and age, wanted to try her hand at science fiction. She, therefore, took on J. D. Robb to publish herself in this genre.
Maybe you’re considering using a pen name for self-publishing for a similar reason. For example, let’s say you want to write a serious adult drama, but also have a passion for writing a children’s picture book; an easy solution would be to use a pen name for one genre!
These are all some pretty serious reasons that justified authors using a pen name. But there are, of course, simpler reasons for choosing a pseudonym, which we’ll cover below.
#6 – To have an easy-to-remember name
Joseph Conrad (Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski) just wanted his name to be easily remembered and pronounced by his English readers, which is why he came up with a simplified twist on his real name.
#7 – To reserve a name for other works of art
Stan Lee originally longed to be known for more serious works and wanted to reserve his real name, Stanley Lieber, for his novels. However, his pseudonym unexpectedly rose to fame for The Amazing Spiderman.
#8 – To maintain privacy
Lastly, Lewis Carroll was very private so he kept his personal life as Charles Dodgson to himself. Ironically, it was still found out later, as with all the other authors mentioned.
As a self-published author, you’ll rely heavily on the internet and technology for publishing, book production, and book marketing. Consider how easy or difficult it might be to maintain a pen name on the internet!
What is important to note is that these authors were sure about their reasons for deciding to employ pen names.
They knew the publicity and other implications that publishing might possibly bring into their lives and families, so they stood by their decision to opt for a pen name.
Whatever your reasons are, I hope you will too. If you’ve decided on using a pen name for self-publishing your book,
2. Do Your Homework Before Choosing a Pen Name
I know you really want to skip directly to number three because you are already imagining signing your books with your fresh pseudonym, but please do your homework first!
Once you publish a book under your pen name, it’ll be really difficult to change it without having some negative repercussions on your author brand.
That’s why, we encourage you to do as much research as possible before pulling the trigger on using a pen name for self-publishing your book.
Think of it like a name change that’s directly tied to your career. You want to take it seriously!
Here are some tips for doing your homework on a pen name.
#1 – Research to see if the name is already being used
Don’t skip this step! Scour through the web, particularly bookselling sites, to find out whether someone else is using the same name.
You don’t want to confuse readers, and credit for your work might be given to the wrong person.
Even worse, you don’t want to have to compete with any other well-known person within the same space – just because you both are using the same name!
For example, we did a quick search for authors on Goodreads for the name “Henry Adams” (a seemingly common name).
After we entered “Henry Adams” our search results led us to this page, where it is confirmed that more than one author shares this same name!
#2 – Never use the name of someone famous
Avid followers of the entertainment industry might be disappointed with what I am going to say next: Do not use the name of your favorite actor or actress as a pen name.
The public might mistake you for their beloved celebrity, which will definitely frustrate you, them, and the one idolized by many.
Worst case scenario: you may end up bashed on and offline, maybe even branded as an impostor. So for your own personal and literary good, please don’t.
#3 – Check out official name registration listings.
This step takes your research a bit further, but your efforts will pay off in the grand scheme of things.
Browse through all registered trademarks at your country’s trademark office. You may unintentionally select a registered name without malice, and put yourself in danger of receiving a cease-and-desist notice.
Likewise, search for domain names that have not been taken yet. This will prevent problems if you decide to register a domain in the long run.
Use sites like this one to conduct a quick name domain search. This will tell you if the domain is available, or taken.
Word of caution: Be careful with domain searches! Sometimes people are able to see what domains have been recently searched, so that they can purchase it and re-sell it to the original searched. This usually happens if the domain name you are looking at is a high-volume word. Shady business, but it happens.
#4 – Avoid using a real person’s name
Curb possible accusations of identity theft by following this reminder. With billions of names and faces in the world’s population, this is virtually impossible.
You will need the help of social media and search engines to discover if a real person has been, regrettably, named with your pen name.
To comfort you though, this will not be an issue as long as you do not write about controversial topics that may harm them nor deliberately try to impersonate them, which is identity theft. If you cannot avoid such, then please look for another nom de plume.
3. Pick Your Pen Name
Here’s the fun part that we have all been waiting for – well, maybe just me. And perhaps, it is not really that fun after all; as they say, selecting a pen name is more difficult than naming a baby because you will need to look for an appropriate last name.
So, how do we begin? Get your pen and paper ready, and let’s start.
#1- Brainstorm using the alphabet
Similar to the process of writing where you start off with a blank sheet of paper (or the blank glaring screen of a word processor for that matter) and doodle your ideas away until the annoying writer’s block is warded off, go through the alphabet one letter at a time and list all the first names that appear in your mind with every letter until you find “The One”.
Repeat the same process for last names.
Some authors even make up their own fictional character with a backstory. It’s really up to how wildly far your imagination flies.
#2 – Connect your name to a deeper meaning
If you want your pen name to be meaningfully connected to a particular concept, idea, or theme, then narrow down your brainstorming.
Think of what you want in terms of your preferred standards or expectations.
For example, you may only want realistic American or Spanish names, or you may want symbolic or totally fake names. You may prefer to jumble the letters of your name or list only similar-sounding names to your real name.
The ideas are limitless, so take some time to select a meaningful pen name for your self-published book.
#3 – Browse through resources for baby names
If you’re a parent, you probably know how stressful naming your child was. And you probably found baby name resource to be super helpful.
In the case of discovering your nom de plume, you might find that baby name resources are your best bet when you’re feeling stuck on ideas for coming up with your pen name.
Take some time to peruse through baby name sites, and you just might stumble on the perfect name. You can even search for certain themes, time periods, or languages.
A quick Google search led us to this baby name resource:
#5 – Use a Name Generator
If time is running out, and you badly need to decide on using a pen name for self-publishing, do not lose heart! There’s always Name Generators that you can try your hand at.
Here are a couple pen name generators online to help despairing writers like you:
4. Purchase the Rights When Using a Pen Name for Self-Publishing
After many agonizing hours, you have finally chosen your pen name and you will not let it go. Now what?
It’s time to claim your name and own it for yourself.
How in the world do you do that? You will need to buy a domain for your name and register it as a trademark before using your pen name for self-publishing.
If you plan to receive payments using this name, you will need to apply for a Fictitious Business Name or Doing Business As (DBA) Statement. These laws will differ in each country, so make the necessary inquiries to be safe.
Once you have purchased the rights to your name, then feel free to use it on your book cover, title pages, and copyright notice. There is no longer any need to add your real name. Sweet!
Of course, you must register the copyright of your work under your pseudonym. And don’t forget your ISBN! You may opt to add your real name in the copyright records but bear in mind that your soon-to-be fans may find out your true identity in the public copyrights file which will be published online.
5. Let Your Publisher Know About Your Pseudonym
There is no use hiding your real name from self-publisher. After all, your legal name will be required in order to get paid royalties and other fees.
They will want to be aware of the identity and background of the authors they publish since their own company name will be at stake, too.
Even if you were to have your book traditionally published, keep in mind that contracts are signed in your real name.
6. Be Honest About Credentials When Using a Pen Name for Self-Publishing
A fake name with a fake biography may be too much for your readers to handle. You may lose credibility, especially if you are dishonest about your achievements.
Once found out, your readers may reject you and throw all your writings out the window. Then, you may have to return to square one and hunt down another pen name all over again to revive yourself. Just kidding.
7. You Are Still Legally Bound With a Pen Name
Having a registered pseudonym does not automatically mean you can now avoid all the legal issues connected with your real name.
If you have pre-existing contracts like confidentiality or employment agreements, you are still bound to them. Your pen name cannot transform you into a different person and release you from legal papers.
Also, if you plan to defame others with your pen name as an instrument, think again. A thorough investigation will still find you out.
8. Decide Your Level of Mystery
How secretive should you be? That depends on your reason for picking up a pen name.
If you never want to be revealed, then you should cut off all links between your websites, limit your book signings or speaking engagements, and take down all your selfies. After all, you don’t want exposure.
On the other hand, if you long to build and maintain connections with your readers, then you may want to disclose yourself at writers conferences or on your website and social media platforms.
Of course, consider that this may defeat the purpose of using a pen name in the first place.
Always remember, your name is your identity.
I myself have been intrigued with pen names and enjoyed using them whenever I write. As I grew up and entered the world of freelance, I realized I needed to be real if I were to create my own niche online and provide services to people.
Pen name or no pen name, the decision is yours. Should you make up your mind to use one, you have those eight pieces of advice at your disposal. Just remember:
Your name is your identity.
Coming up with a pen name leaves all of us with an awesome privilege: to build a unique persona with a voice that can impact our world and influence people for the better.
Use it wisely.