Pen name, nom de plume, or pseudonym… Call it what you want, but as an author, these typically mean the same thing. So what is a pen name? And when are author pen names used?
Creating a pseudonym and using a pen name when self-publishing is still an option for authors, even in today's digital age of social media, eBooks, and the internet, which makes information accessible at the click of a button.
Pen names have been a popular practice throughout the centuries, and author pen names are still in use today. But what is a pen name? And what is a pen name's purpose?
While pen names may be less common than they were in the past, they are still a good option to consider for modern authors. In this article, we will discuss what a pen name is, what a pen name is used for, and tips for creating a pen name of your own.
This blog on pen names will cover:
What is a pen name?
What is a pen name? A pen name, also known as a pseudonym or nom de plume, is a fictitious name that an author uses instead of their real name. A pen name is listed as the author's name on a published book, and readers often do not know the real name or identity of the author.
So what is a pen name's purpose?
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?
Their decision to write and become an author under a pen name contributed to their individual success in some way, and it all happened for a reason.
Top reasons authors use a pseudonym
Now that you know what a pen name is, and that pseudonym, nom de plume, and pen name meaning are all the same, you might be wondering why authors have chosen to go by anything other than their real name.
After all, don't they want credit for their work?
It's important to understand the reasons why an author would choose to use a pen name, so that you can decide if a pen name is what you should be using too!
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.
To protect their identity
Consider Francois-Marie Arouet, who chose to write as Voltaire because of his politically controversial works. Voltaire had to use an author's pen name because his life would’ve been in jeopardy if his real identity had been 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.
To escape gender discrimination and prejudice
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. A pen name is what helped to launch them into fame.
“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
To escape racial and/or cultural discrimination and prejudice
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.
To start with a clean slate
Writers like O. Henry (William Sydney Porter) and Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) desired to escape from their dark pasts and clean up their reputations.
Taking on their widely-recognized author pen names allowed them to gain a new opportunity and voice to be heard again on paper.
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. A pen name is what allowed her to switch writing genres, and she goes by the name of Robert Galbraith when writing her crime fiction books.
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 an author's 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.
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.
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 pen name unexpectedly rose to fame for The Amazing Spiderman, so a pen name is what he is best known as!
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.
But not all reasons for choosing a pen name are good ones. Let's examine some instances when a pen name isn't what you are looking for.
Reasons why you shouldn't use a pen name
Being an author in the digital age can make the use of pseudonyms a bit more tricky than it might have been in the past.
Nowadays, authors don't really have to use a pen name like many authors throughout history had to. It's more of a preference, which is why it's important that you have at least one solid reason for wanting to use a nom de plume to publish your book.
Here are the top reasons why you shouldn't use a pen name:
- You have a dedicated readership. If readers or followers already know you by one name, don't confuse them and switch it up your name.
- You want to avoid extra work. There are extra legal steps involved with using a pen name to self-publish, and it can be a headache if you're not exactly sure what you're doing.
- You want your real name used in social situations. Consider any interviews, writing conferences, book signings, and in-person events that you may attend. Is a pen name what you want to be known for? If not, use your real name.
- You're not sure about using a pen name. If you're just considering using a pen name because it sounds like a good idea at the moment, think on it more. If you don't have a solid reason for using a nom de plume, like to protect your identity, then your pen name meaning will lose its charm eventually.
If a pen name is what you want, then it's important to know how to make one.
How to choose a pen name: 11 simple tips
The key to creating a fresh pseudonym that will last throughout your author career is to select it carefully, and do your homework on the pen name first. After all, what is a pen name if not lasting in the public eye?
Once you publish a book under your pseudonym, it’ll be really difficult to change it without having some negative repercussions on your author brand. With that said, note that when you choose a pen name you give yourself the opportunity to align your name with the genre you write.
If you want to write thrillers but your last name doesn't fit well, this is your chance to do something many writers don't – align your last name with your chosen genre. A pen name is what helps you to do that.
Similarly, what if you already established yourself in the thriller genre but want to write children's books? A pen name is what allows you to target your new potential readers.
Here are the steps to choose a pen name for yourself:
1. Brainstorm a nom de plume using the alphabet
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 baby name resources
If you're a parent, you probably know how stressful naming your child was. And you probably found baby name resources 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.
4. Use a pen 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 are always Pen Name Generators that you can try your hand at.
5. Research the pseudonym to see if it's available
Make sure you research to see whether the pen name is already being used by another author or artist.
Don’t skip this step! Scour through the web, particularly bookselling sites, to find out whether someone else is using the same name. After all, a pen name is what is supposed to set you apart.
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!
6. Don't 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.
7. Research 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 you.
8. 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 author's 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.
9. Check the pen name's website domain
If you plan to publish multiple books under your pseudonym, or if you plan to create a book business, it is highly likely that you will consider creating an author website for your books later in your career.
When that time comes, it's important that a pen name is what your website domain is named after – or closely linked to it.
If someone else already owns the website domain for the pen name you want, you might consider choosing another nom de plume that is available.
10. Purchase the rights to your nom de plume
Once your heart is set on a pen name, it's time to begin the proceedings to secure your new nom de plume officially.
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. A pen name is what you will go by going forward.
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).
11. Let your publisher know about your pseudonym
There is no use hiding your real name from your 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 a pen name is what you write under, if you were to have your book traditionally published, keep in mind that contracts are signed in your real name.
Legal issues using pen names
As you may have guessed from some of the tips above, there are some potential legal issues using pen names. But those aren't the only issues to worry about. You are still legally bound, even if you use a pseudonym, nom de plume, or 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.
Are pen names legal?
Yes, an author can legally use a pen name or pseudonym to publish their intellectual property. Pen names are legal, as long as you have purchased the rights to your pen name, and have copyrighted your name.
An author of a copyrighted work is allowed to use a pseudonym or a pen name. When you register your work for copyright, you can choose to be identified by your legal name with the U.S. Copyright Office, or you can omit your legal name and just have your pseudonym listed.
If you need more information on legal issues using pen names, make sure to reach out to a lawyer.
Decide your level of mystery
How that you know what a pen name is, what a pen name's purpose is, and how to make a pen name of your own, it's time to decide on your new lifestyle and identity.
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.
Of course, consider that this may defeat the purpose of using a pen name in the first place.
Using a pen name when self-publishing
With the rise of self-publishing, many authors are confused about how to approach the idea of a pen name for their work, and if a pen name is what they even want.
There are several questions that we often hear from self-published authors who are curious about using a pen name, which we'll briefly cover in this section.
Can you self-publish under a pen name?
Yes, authors can self-publish using their pen name or nom de plume. If you're self-publishing a book, you can definitely use a pseudonym when writing and publishing your book.
In fact, many indie authors use a pen name when they publish books in several different genres.
Think of indie author Joanna Penn, who published non-fiction by her real name, and thriller and dark fantasy books under her pen name J.F. Penn.
Here's how to use a pen name when self-publishing:
- Know the reasons why you want to use a pseudonym. You should have a solid reason for why a pen name is what you want to use.
- Create a pen name that speaks to you. Your pen name will be with you forever, so be sure it's meaningful and makes sense for your career.
- Choose a nom de plum after doing some research. Always be sure to do your research before selecting a pseudonym.
- Purchase the rights to your pen name. Be sure to purchase the rights to your pseudonym so that you can avoid legal troubles that may arise if you're using a nom de plume that's taken by someone else.
- Copyright your pen name. You can register your pen name with the U.S. Copyright office for added protection.
- Notify your self-publishing company about your pseudonym. Always be sure to let any publishing company that you work with about your real name.
- Publish under the pen name on a self-publishing platform. Depending on your self-publishing platform, you'll want to ensure that you publish your book under your nom de plume, and not your real name.
- Understand that you are still legally bound. You aren't above the law with a pen name, and you must still abide by legal regulations.
- Be honest when using a pseudonym 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.
Pen name or no pen name? The choice is yours
You know what a pen name is. You even know how to make one. But is a pen name what you really want?
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.
But remember, your name is your identity. Only you can decide if a pen name is what you should write under.