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Pen Name (Pseudonym): Everything You Need to Know

Picture of Mo Shehu

Mo Shehu

pseudonym, pen name

Find out why a pseudonym is essential for authors seeking privacy and creative freedom, with famous examples like Mark Twain and Lewis Carroll.

Table of contents

TL;DR – An author can use a pseudonym for privacy, creative freedom, and marketability. The benefits include separating personal and professional lives and exploring different genres. Challenges involve legal issues and maintaining anonymity. Research and legal protection are essential for effective use.


The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain has sold over 20 million copies since its publication​.

The 2010 film “Alice in Wonderland,” based on the book by Lewis Caroll, grossed over $1 billion at the worldwide box office.

There’s just one snag: “Mark Twain” and “Lewis Caroll” aren’t real names.

They’re pseudonyms.

What is a pseudonym?

A pseudonym is a fake name writers use instead of their legal name. 

Pseudonyms have been used in literature for many years by aspiring writers and their ghostwriters.

The word pseudonym has its origins from the Greek pseudōnymos, which means “bearing a false name” (pseud-, meaning “false,” and onyma, meaning “name”).

French speakers adopted the Greek word as pseudonyme, and English speakers later modified the French word into pseudonym.

A pseudonym is also sometimes called a stage name, nom de plume, or nom de guerre.

This article will explore why authors use pseudonyms, the benefits and challenges of a pen name, and how to choose and use one effectively.

pseudonym, pen name - a lady wearing a baroque party mask, writing in a notebook with an ornate pen

Why authors use pseudonyms: The 6 benefits of a pen name

The main reasons why authors use pseudonyms boil down to 

  1. Privacy and anonymity
  2. Creative freedom
  3. Professional protection
  4. Enhanced marketability
  5. Personal honoring, and
  6. Overcoming personal barriers

Let’s explore each reason in more detail.

Privacy and anonymity

A key benefit of using a pseudonym is maintaining privacy and anonymity. 

This is crucial for authors who write about personal, controversial, or sensitive topics. 

A pen name allows you to express yourself freely without fear of backlash or unwanted attention. 

For instance, an author writing about political issues in a volatile region might use a pseudonym to protect themselves and their family. 

Similarly, authors who write erotica can avoid awkward situations by using a fictitious name. 

This separation helps authors keep their personal and professional lives distinct and private.

Creative freedom

Another major benefit of using a pseudonym is the creative freedom it provides. 

A pen name provides a buffer that helps manage how different aspects of an author’s work are perceived.

It lets a pseudonym holder write about any topic, in any genre or style, without fear of being judged by friends, family, or colleagues. 

This is especially valuable when writing about controversial or sensitive subjects. 

For example, J.K. Rowling, known worldwide for her Harry Potter series, writes crime novels under the pen name Robert Galbraith

This allows Rowling to explore a different genre without the preconceived expectations that come with her famous name. 

Professional protection

Using a pseudonym helps protect an author’s professional reputation, especially if their writing content might conflict with their primary career. 

For instance, if you are a teacher or lawyer and an author, you might prefer to keep your writing career separate to avoid any potential conflicts or judgments.

Enhanced marketability

A well-chosen pen name can be catchy and easy to remember, making it more marketable. 

Sometimes, an author’s real name might not be memorable or appealing to the target audience. A pseudonym can be crafted to fit the genre and attract readers. 

For example, an author named Chad Brosepher might struggle to sell romance novels under his real name. 

However, a pseudonym like Chase Bryant could be more appealing and easier for readers to remember. 

A unique pen name can also help an author stand out in search results, making it easier for readers to find their books.

Personal honoring

Some authors choose pseudonyms that have personal significance.

This might be reflecting their heritage, honoring a loved one, or connecting with a part of their identity. 

For instance, an adopted author might use the name she would have had if she hadn’t been adopted, as a way of honoring that part of her life. 

Another example could be an author using their grandmother’s maiden name as a pen name, thereby paying tribute to their family history. 

This adds a layer of personal meaning to their work and can be a source of inspiration and motivation.

Overcoming personal barriers

Authors often face anxiety about what others might think of their work, which can lead to writer’s block. 

This fear can be especially paralyzing when writing about topics that are deeply personal or controversial. 

Using a false name can help you overcome these barriers by providing a sense of detachment from your work. 

For example, an author who writes about their experiences with mental health might feel more comfortable using a pseudonym to avoid judgment from people they know.

This detachment can reduce anxiety and allow the author to focus on their writing, leading to greater productivity and creativity.

pseudonym, pen name - a golden fountain pen on a book

Challenges of using a pseudonym

The biggest challenges with pen names revolve around legal issues, discoverability, marketing and PR, and consistency. 

Let’s explore each one separately.

There are important legal aspects to consider when using a pseudonym. 

In the U.S., you can list your pen name on the book’s copyright page, but your real name must be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office if you want the copyright protected. 

This is known as pseudonymous copyright (PDF). 

For works created on or after January 1, 1978, a pseudonymous copyright lasts 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter. 

Under the author’s real name, it would be the life of the author plus 70 years.

Authors who want to maintain complete anonymity may need to create an LLC and assign the copyright to it. 

This adds a layer of privacy by listing the LLC as the copyright holder instead of the individual author. 

However, setting up and maintaining an LLC involves additional paperwork, legal fees, and administrative tasks. 

You must weigh these factors when deciding how to legally protect your work while using a pseudonym.

Discoverability issues

Maintaining anonymity can be challenging.

If your real name is linked to your pen name through public records, such as copyright registration, it might be easy for determined individuals to discover your true identity.

For example, if you register your copyright without creating an LLC, anyone checking the public record could find your real name.

Creating an LLC can help obscure your identity, but this requires additional effort and resources.

You must ensure that the LLC’s information does not inadvertently reveal your personal information. 

For instance, if the LLC’s registration information includes your home address, it can still be traced back to you, risking identity theft and unwanted visits.

Marketing and public relations

Building a brand from scratch with a pseudonym can be challenging. 

Authors need to create and maintain separate social media profiles, websites, and marketing materials for their pseudonym. 

This can be time-consuming and might require professional help, especially if you’re not familiar with digital marketing and branding strategies.

Promoting a pen name involves the same effort as promoting a real name, and sometimes even more, because you need to establish credibility and trust with your audience. 

This includes engaging with readers, participating in interviews, and building a presence in the writing community. 

For example, if you attend a book signing event, you need to decide whether to appear as your real self or in disguise as your pseudonym, which can complicate public appearances.

Consistency across platforms

Authors should use their pseudonym consistently across all writing platforms, social media, and promotional materials. 

This helps build a cohesive brand and makes it easier for readers to find you. 

However, managing multiple profiles and ensuring consistency can be overwhelming. 

You need to regularly update content, interact with followers, and monitor your online presence under your pseudonym.

Plus, if you write in multiple genres under different pseudonyms, you need to manage separate identities for each one. 

This can be particularly challenging if each pseudonym requires a distinct marketing strategy and audience engagement approach. 

For instance, an author writing both children’s books and adult thrillers under different names must maintain appropriate content and interactions for each audience.

Preparing for discovery

Be prepared for the possibility that your real identity might be discovered, despite your best efforts to maintain anonymity. 

For example, if your romance novel becomes extremely popular, media outlets might seek to uncover the true identity behind the pseudonym. 

You should have a plan in place for how to handle such situations, including whether to reveal your identity or continue maintaining the pseudonym. 

Also, be prepared for potential backlash or reactions from your personal and professional circles if your real identity is exposed.

By understanding, anticipating, and addressing the above challenges, you can successfully use a pseudonym to enhance your writing career.

pseudonym, pen name - a pen on a book, laying on a wooden porch

Best practices for choosing and using a pseudonym

Research and uniqueness

Before choosing a pseudonym, conduct thorough research to ensure the name isn’t already in use. 

This involves checking online databases, social media platforms, and domain availability. 

A unique pseudonym helps avoid legal issues and ensures you stand out in a crowded market. 

For example, an author considering the name “Jane Smith” might find that it is already widely used, which could create confusion and reduce their discoverability. 

Instead, they might choose a more distinctive name like “Janelle Smythe” that is memorable and easily searchable.

Registering a DBA (Doing Business As) can help formalize the use of a pseudonym. 

This process varies by region, but it typically involves filing paperwork with the local government to officially associate the pen name with your real identity. 

This step ensures you can conduct business under the pseudonym, including signing contracts and receiving payments.

Consider also setting up an LLC (Limited Liability Company) for added privacy and legal protection. 

An LLC can own the rights to your work and handle financial transactions, further distancing the pseudonym from your personal identity. 

For instance, an author named Jane Doe might create “Mystery Writers LLC” to publish her detective novels under the pen name “Sam Spade.” 

This structure helps protect the author’s real identity while providing a professional front for business dealings.

Consistency across platforms

Maintaining consistency across all platforms is crucial for building a strong brand under a pseudonym. 

Use your pen name consistently on book covers, websites, social media profiles, and promotional materials. 

This helps create a cohesive brand image and makes it easier for readers to recognize and follow your work. 

For example, if you use the pseudonym “Ella Bright” on your book covers, you should also use “Ella Bright” for your website domain, social media handles, and email address.

Also, ensure your branding elements, such as logos, color schemes, and fonts, are consistent across all platforms. 

Using the same profile picture and bio on all social media accounts helps readers quickly identify you.

Building a brand

Building a strong brand under a pseudonym involves more than just choosing a name. 

You’ll need to create an engaging persona that resonates with your target audience. 

This can include developing a backstory for the pseudonym, crafting a unique voice and style, and consistently interacting with readers through social media, newsletters, and public appearances.

For instance, an author writing cozy mysteries under the pen name “Maggie Holmes” might create a persona of a charming, small-town sleuth who loves baking and gardening. 

This persona can be reflected in the author’s social media posts, website content, and even in interviews. 

Engaging with readers in a way that aligns with your pseudonym’s persona helps build a loyal following and strengthens your brand.

Engaging with your audience

Interacting with readers is key to building a successful author brand. 

Actively engage with your audience through social media, blog posts, newsletters, and book signings. 

Respond to reader comments, participate in discussions, and share updates about your work. 

This engagement helps build a community around your pseudonym and fosters reader loyalty.

For instance, an author writing under the pseudonym “Sophie Winters” might host a monthly Q&A session on Instagram, where readers can ask questions about her latest book. 

By regularly interacting with her audience, ‘Sophie’ can build a strong connection with her readers and keep them engaged with her work.

pseudonym, pen name - a pen on a book laying on a carpet

Real-life examples: Famous authors with pseudonyms

Samuel Clemens / Mark Twain

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain, is one of the best known authors in American literature. 

Twain used his famous pseudonym to write classic novels such as “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” 

The pen name allowed Sam Clemens to create a distinct literary persona that became iconic in the world of storytelling. 

The name “Mark Twain” itself, derived from a riverboat term meaning safe water depth, reflects Clemens’ roots and experiences as a riverboat pilot, adding a layer of authenticity and color to his works.

J.K. Rowling / Robert Galbraith

Joanne Rowling, the celebrated author of the Harry Potter series, used the pseudonym Robert Galbraith when she decided to venture into the crime fiction genre.

Writing as Galbraith allowed her to release books without the immense pressure and expectations associated with her real name. 

It gave her the freedom to be judged on the merit of her work rather than her existing fame. 

The Cormoran Strike series, published under the Galbraith name, received positive reviews and stood on its own in the literary world before her identity was revealed.

Stephen King / Richard Bachman

Stephen King, known for his prolific output in horror and suspense, used the pseudonym Richard Bachman to test whether his success was due to talent or luck. 

Under this name, he published several novels, including “Roadwork” and “The Running Man.” 

The Bachman books allowed King to explore different writing styles and themes without the pressure of his established reputation. 

Eventually, his identity was uncovered, but by then, the Bachman books had already gained a following, proving that his writing could succeed on its own merits.

Nora Roberts / J.D. Robb

Nora Roberts, a bestselling romance novelist, also writes futuristic suspense novels under the pseudonym JD Robb. 

This allows her to keep her two writing careers distinct and target different audiences. 

As J.D. Robb, she created the popular “In Death” series, featuring a strong female detective in a future world. 

Using a pseudonym enabled Roberts to diversify her portfolio and expand her readership without causing confusion among her fans.

Mary Ann Evans / George Eliot

In the 19th century, Mary Ann Evans adopted the male pseudonym George Eliot to ensure her works were taken seriously in a male-dominated literary world. 

Her novels, including “Middlemarch” and “Silas Marner,” are considered classics of English literature. 

Using a male pseudonym helped her avoid the prejudices against female authors at the time and allowed her to critique social norms and explore complex themes with greater authority.

Elena Ferrante

The true identity of the author behind the famous pseudonym Elena Ferrante, known for the “Neapolitan Novels,” remains a mystery. 

Ferrante has managed to keep her real identity hidden, which she believes allows her work to be judged independently of her personal life. 

This anonymity has not hindered her success; the novels have gained international acclaim and a devoted following.

This proves that a strong narrative and authentic voice can shine through without the author’s personal identity being in the spotlight.

Daniel Handler / Lemony Snicket

Daniel Handler writes the “A Series of Unfortunate Events” books under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket (I loved the movie). 

This persona is integral to the storytelling, as Lemony Snicket is also a character within the series. 

Handler’s use of a pseudonym adds a layer of intrigue and whimsy to the books, enhancing the reader’s experience. 

The pseudonym allows Handler to maintain a playful and mysterious presence, which has contributed to the series’ popularity and success.

Agatha Christie / Mary Westmacott

Agatha Christie, the “Queen of Mystery,” wrote six romance novels under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott

This allowed her to explore different themes and genres without affecting her reputation as a mystery writer. 

The use of a pseudonym gave her the freedom to experiment with her writing and reach a different audience. 

Her Westmacott novels, although less famous than her mystery works, received positive reviews and showcased her versatility as a writer.

Isaac Asimov / Paul French

Science fiction legend Isaac Asimov used the pseudonym Paul French to write the “Lucky Starr” series of juvenile science fiction novels. 

Asimov wanted to keep these works separate from his more serious and scholarly writings. 

Using a pseudonym allowed him to target a younger audience and create stories that were more adventurous and light-hearted compared to his other works. 

This strategy helped him expand his readership and demonstrate his ability to write across different sub-genres of science fiction.

Ruth Rendell / Barbara Vine

Ruth Rendell, a renowned author of psychological thrillers and murder mysteries, also wrote under the pseudonym Barbara Vine. 

The Barbara Vine novels are known for their deep psychological insights and complex characterizations. 

By using a pseudonym, Rendell was able to distinguish between her two writing styles and allow readers to appreciate the different nuances of her work. 

The Barbara Vine novels garnered critical acclaim and reinforced Rendell’s status as a master storyteller.

Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin / George Sand

Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, known by her pen name George Sand, was a French novelist and memoirist in the 19th century. 

She chose a male pseudonym to ensure her works were published and taken seriously in a society that often dismissed female authors. 

Sand wrote numerous novels, plays, and essays, becoming one of the most prominent and influential writers of her time. 

Her pseudonym allowed her to freely express her ideas and challenge societal norms without the limitations imposed on women of her era.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson / Lewis Carroll

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known by his pen name Lewis Carroll, was an English writer, mathematician, and logician. 

Carroll is famous for his imaginative works, including “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass.” 

lewis caroll's alice in wonderland represented as a pseudonym

Dodgson chose to write under a pseudonym to keep his literary pursuits separate from his academic and clerical work. 

The pen name allowed him to explore whimsical and fantastical themes that were quite different from his professional persona as a lecturer in mathematics at Oxford. 

By using the name Lewis Carroll, Dodgson was able to create a unique and enduring legacy in children’s literature.

These real-life examples of pseudonyms illustrate how authors use pen names to explore different genres, maintain privacy, manage expectations, and build distinct literary identities. 

The success of these authors under their pseudonyms demonstrates that, with careful planning and consistent effort, using a pen name can be a powerful tool in a writer’s arsenal. 

Expert advice and resources

For authors considering using a pseudonym, several valuable resources can provide guidance and insights into the legal, marketing, and practical aspects of using a pen name.

This book is an essential resource for anyone planning to self-publish. 

Helen Sedgwick offers clear, step-by-step guidance on the legal issues surrounding self-publishing, including the use of pseudonyms. 

The book covers topics such as forming a DBA (Doing Business As) and setting up an LLC, which can help authors understand the legal steps necessary to protect their identity and their work. 

By investing in this handbook, authors can ensure they are well-informed about the legalities of using a pseudonym.

“The Business of Being a Writer” by Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman’s comprehensive guide to the business side of writing includes practical advice on marketing, branding, and legal matters. 

The book addresses the use of pseudonyms and offers strategies for building a successful author brand. 

Friedman’s insights can help authors navigate the complexities of maintaining a pen name while effectively promoting their work.

Interviews with authors

Hearing directly from authors who have successfully used pseudonyms can provide invaluable real-world insights and tips. 

Many authors share their experiences through interviews, blog posts, and podcasts, discussing the challenges and benefits of writing under a pen name.

Podcasts

  • “The Creative Penn” by Joanna Penn: This podcast features interviews with a wide range of authors, including those who use pseudonyms. Joanna Penn, who writes fiction under the pen name J.F. Penn, shares her own experiences and offers advice on building a brand and marketing work under a pseudonym.
  • “Writing Excuses”: Hosted by authors Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Howard Tayler, this podcast covers various aspects of writing and publishing. Episodes include discussions on the use of pseudonyms and how to handle the associated challenges.

Blog posts and articles

  • Jane Friedman’s Blog: Jane Friedman frequently writes about the business of writing, including the use of pseudonyms. Her blog offers practical advice and insights from her extensive experience in the publishing industry.
  • Writer’s Digest: This site provides numerous articles on writing and publishing, including pieces on pseudonyms. Authors can find tips on choosing a pen name, legal considerations, and branding strategies.

For complex legal questions, consulting a lawyer who specializes in intellectual property and publishing can be beneficial. 

Legal professionals can provide tailored advice based on an author’s specific situation, ensuring that they fully understand the implications of using a pseudonym.

Lawyers specializing in intellectual property

  • Intellectual property lawyers can help authors navigate the intricacies of copyright registration, trademark issues, and setting up an LLC or DBA. They can offer personalized guidance to ensure that authors are legally protected when using a pseudonym.
  • Consultations and workshops: Many law firms offer consultations and workshops specifically for writers and creators. These sessions can provide valuable information on protecting one’s work and identity.

Writing communities and forums

Engaging with writing communities and forums can provide support and advice from fellow authors who have experience using pseudonyms.

Online communities

  • Reddit (r/selfpublish): This subreddit is a vibrant community of self-published authors who share their experiences and advice on various topics, including the use of pseudonyms. Authors can ask questions and receive feedback from those who have faced similar challenges.
  • Absolute Write Water Cooler: This popular writing forum includes discussions on pen names and offers a wealth of information and support from a large community of writers.

Writers’ associations

  • Authors Guild: Membership in the Authors Guild provides access to legal advice, resources, and a supportive community of fellow writers. The Guild often addresses issues related to pseudonyms and can offer personalized guidance.
  • Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI): For authors writing for children and young adults, SCBWI offers resources, legal advice, and community support, including information on using pen names.

pseudonym, pen name represented by a pen on a book with smoke around it

Final thoughts on using a pseudonym

Whether for creative freedom, professional protection, or enhanced marketability, pseudonyms continue to play a significant role in the literary world.

By taking advantage of expert advice and resources, authors can navigate the complexities of using a pseudonym with confidence.

Recommended readings, interviews with experienced authors, legal counsel, and engagement with writing communities all provide valuable insights and support. 

With the right knowledge and preparation, you can effectively manage your pseudonym and enjoy the benefits it offers.

And if you’re considering writing a book and need support, explore our ghostwriting service today.

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