J.K Rowling. Dr. Seuss. Mark Twain. Nora Roberts.
These authors aren’t who you think they are.
Well, on paper at least. These authors, and many more, choose to write under a pseudonym, also called a pen name, meaning the names printed on their books are not the names they were born with.
Some people might think it’s strange to put a different name on their books, but there is a rich literary history of writers publishing under a name pseudonym. While motivations may have changed throughout history, there are many reasons an author today might choose to publish their work under a pen name even after they’ve become well-established in the industry under a different name.
Let’s take a look at some of the reasons a writer might choose to write under a pen name so you can decide if it’s right for you.
1. Use a Pseudonym to Explore Different Genres
Branching out and exploring other genres is a great reason to write under a pseudonym.
Authors who start out or make it big in one genre might want to experiment in another. But the marketing techniques and audiences are often different from one genre to another.
Romance readers might be drawn to bright, cheerful color palettes, while horror readers know to look for dark shades and sinister taglines. To keep things simple and separate, a writer who began in romance might choose to use a pen name if they want to try writing horror.
When J.K Rowling wanted to break away from the world of Harry Potter and Hogwarts and explore a new genre, she wrote under the name Robert Galbraith.
J.D. Robb is a bestselling crime and thriller writer…who also happens to be bestselling author Nora Roberts. Though Nora Roberts was already a pen name, she began writing under J.D. Robb to break into the suspense genre and went on to write dozens of books in a futuristic police procedural series.
Beyond marketing, a writer who is well-established in one genre might have a hard time convincing their fans they will be able to create compelling stories in a new genre…so, they might want to create a pen name to break away from the reputation they’ve already established.
2. Use a Pseudonym for Gender Neutrality
Authors may use pseudonyms to write under a gender-neutral or opposite gender name to avoid bias or discrimination based on their real gender…because sadly, it still exists (particularly in certain genres). A pseudonym can help boundary pushing authors reach a wider audience or challenge gender stereotypes.
This is the reason Joanne Kathleen Rowling chose to publish as J.K. Rowling, which is technically a pen name. Her publisher suggested she use her initials to avoid any bias that may have been shown toward her as a woman writing in the primarily male-driven fantasy genre.
This technique goes both ways and Wade Rouse, USA TODAY, Publishers Weekly and internationally bestselling author of 13 books, writes his books under the name Viola Shipman. He uses the name and his stories to honor the women, and the voices, that raised him.
In the 2010s, 97% of bestsellers in the Spy/Politics genre were men. If you’re a woman who wants to break into this genre and worried you might not be taken seriously in such a male-dominated genre, you might consider using a pen name.
If you don’t want your readers to know your gender, identify under a different gender than your birth name, or just don’t want to be a stereotype within a genre due to your gender, you could consider using a pen name.
3. Use a Pseudonym for Privacy and Anonymity
Using a pseudonym allows authors to maintain their privacy and protect their personal identity. This can be especially important for individuals who want to separate their writing career from their personal life, change careers, or who wish to discuss sensitive or controversial topics without fear of personal repercussions.
If you’ve established yourself in one career, especially one that practices another type of writing or is fairly public, a pen name can help you keep both careers separate and achieve a level of professionalism in both. For instance, if you’re a reporter with a well-established career and you want to break into fiction writing, you might consider using a pseudonym for your fiction work.
If you want to write a memoir and you’re worried about revealing facts or information about your family, you might wish to protect their identities and your own by writing under a pen name.
4 More Reasons to Use a Pseudonym
You might also choose to write under a pen name of pseudonym if:
- Your name is common or already used by another author
- Your name is too similar to an already famous author
- Your name is difficult to pronounce or spell
- Your name doesn’t fit your genre (Sarah Loveless might be a great romance writer name but probably not a great fit for a horror writer. In this case, Sarah might choose to write under a pen name)
How to Choose a Pseudonym/Pen Name
There is no right or wrong way to choose a pen name but it’s a good idea to choose one that means something to you, that you like, and you won’t mind seeing and being called if you’re successful!
In the case of Wade Rouse, A.K.A. Viola Shipman, he chose his grandmother’s name as his pen name because her heirlooms and family stories inspire his fiction.
While the right name should feel right to you, here are some tips to keep in mind when choosing your pseudonym.
- Check for availability (websites, social channels, etc)
- Choose one that fits your genre (look at other author names)
- Make sure it’s easy to spell and say
- Make sure it won’t be confused with another name
- Consider how old (or young!) the name makes you sound
- Use a pen name generator (you can find these online just by Googling)
Should You Use a Pseudonym?
While these are all reasons why you might choose to use a pen name, the real question is; should you? In the early 1900s, it was fairly easy to disguise your identity by writing under a pseudonym…today, it’s a lot harder. Even when writers choose to write under a pen name, it’s fairly easy to find their true identity.
So, if you’re choosing to use a pen name, you should consider how strict you’re going to be about keeping your real identity a secret.
If you’re choosing a pen name due to branding and marketing, then it’s not a big deal if your double life is revealed. If you’re trying to stay anonymous, you’re going to have to be a lot more careful.
Choosing to write under your real name or use a pseudonym is a big decision and should not be taken lightly. The choice will follow you for your entire career and is a hard choice to undo once you start publishing. Consider your reasons, your audience, and the type of career you’d like to have and then…get writing!