Why Many Authors Choose Pseudonyms

Most authors want the whole world to know that they have written a book, and the typical author is thrilled to have his or her name on the cover. However, some authors choose to use pseudonyms when publishing. Why do authors use pen names, instead of their own names, when publishing books?

Here are some of the most common reasons that many authors choose pseudonyms:

The author wants to maintain privacy. For many authors, their names are much better known than their faces. If an author wants to keep a low profile in his personal life, he may choose to publish under a pen name. That way, he can write a check at the grocery store without his name being recognized.

The book is controversial. The subject matter or point of view may be something that will anger some readers. Keeping the author’s identity a secret may even be a matter of personal safety.

The author and publisher want to create controversy. The author of the novel “Primary Colors” was “Anonymous.” Because the book included inside information clearly taken from Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, there was a lot of speculation about who “Anonymous” was. That speculation created a lot of buzz and helped to generate book sales.

To avoid confusion with another well-known person. If there is another author or celebrity with the same name, or even a similar name, the public may be confused about who is who. Using a pen name avoids that problem.

They write in multiple genres. When an author writes, say, both horror and Western novels, they may use a pseudonym to avoid having disappointed readers. Someone who orders the latest book by their favorite author expecting to read about vampires might not be happy to find out the book is actually about a cattle drive.

They write a lot of books. Many authors publish a book every year or two. Prolific authors may be able to write more than one book a year; however, there is sometimes a perception among readers and reviewers that if someone writes two or three books a year the books can not be very good. To allow the books to stand or fall on their own merits the author may use a pseudonym.

The “author” is actually more than one person. Some writing teams use a pseudonym on their books instead of listing two or more authors. They might use one person’s first name and the other’s last name, a pen name that combines elements of each of their names, or a made-up name.

A pen name may be better than the author’s real name for marketing purposes. Although perceptions are changing, it used to be that publishers believed that they could not sell a hard-boiled mystery written by a woman or a romance novel written by a man. These authors often used pseudonyms to conceal their gender from readers.

The publisher has an established “brand.” There are book series that use one name because the author name is used to brand the series. For example, there have been many authors who wrote as Ellery Queen.

The author’s name is hard to spell or pronounce. Readers may find it hard to remember a name such as Grynsplyt Majaswijcz, which means that they will have a hard time finding the book. When they are looking for the book at Amazon.com or asking for it at their local book store, they may decide it is easier buy a book by Anne Rice instead.

Writing and publishing under a pseudonym is not for most authors, but there are times when it is the best choice.

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  1. Andrea W says

    Cathy, great article. I have a question though:

    Unless we are talking a potential bestseller, wouldn’t traditional publishing companies see the lack of a real ‘face’ to promote the book, as a disadvantage? :-(

  2. says

    It could be a disadvantage; however, it can depend on the reason for the pseudonym. If someone really wants to be a recluse (e.g., J.D. Salinger) they will have a hard time getting published today whether they are using their real name or a pen name. However, using a pen name can provide a modicum of privacy for an author desiring to keep their writing life separate from their “real” life.

    An author who wants to use a pseudonym as part of a strategy to hide from the public probably would have a hard time finding a publisher, but there are lots of authors who use pseudonyms while still being public faces. Using a pen name protects their privacy between book tours.

    And many times pseudonyms are open secrets. For example, Nora Roberts (whose real name is Eleanor Robertson) has also written as J.D. Robb, Jill March and Sarah Hardesty. This is common knowledge, at least among her fans and anyone else who cares.

  3. says

    Cathy, excellent article. I’m one of those authors who use a pen name for my debut book, Dead Dwarves Don’t Dance. (For the following reasons you mention: multiple genres, hard to pronounce real name, privacy). I’m still debating whether or not to use my real name for my second genre, which I’ll release next year.
    Maybe you could address the challenges to having multiple pen names? Such as having to maintain multiple websites/facebook/twitter, not getting the benefit of a popular pen name to the other pen names, etc.?

  4. Loni Harrington says

    Some authors also have extremely mischievous pasts as well, in which they’ve tarnished their birth name (with criminal records, escort services, mass-manipulation, badly written fanfic porn etc.) and feel the need to hide such indiscretions from their new readership.

    In the world of self-publishing, this seems to be more of a commonality these days.

  5. says

    Derek, it does complicate things. If you want to keep things simple yet separate, perhaps you could use different versions of the same name for different genres (e.g., J.M. Smith and John Smith).

    Loni, I thought having a checkered past made it easier to sell books. At least you would think so, from some of the things you see out there. ;o)

  6. Anonymous says

    On the issue of personal safety, some individuals have been victims of crimes such as stalking which makes publishing under a pseudonym an attractive option.

  7. says

    Great article! Under the privacy category, there’s also the dilemma of authors who have day jobs and write in controversial, or even plain ol’ “adult” genres. If a business client or prospective employer does a Google search it may be preferable that they don’t immediately come across links to erotica publications, fer instance.

  8. says

    Anonymous, although stalking can happen, it is rare. And the cases that do occur are seldom related to writing and publishing. Of course, that is not comforting if you are the person it happens to. I was stalked as a teenager by someone I did not know, so I know how creepy and scary it can be. And that was before the Internet, where people can find all kinds of information about others. Certainly, if there is any reason to be concerned about stalking, a pseudonym would be a good choice.

    Joshua. you are right–anyone writing in a controversial area may want the privacy of a pen name. A friend of mine has a political blog where he uses a pseudonym. Most of us who know him (including me!) do not even know what the blog is–we just know that it exists. Politics and porn are both areas where you may not want people to know your real name. ;o)

  9. says

    As the pseudonym, I liked this.

    But, we deserve to be exposed; we are the true genius of the writing orgy that is our existence. Being harassed, stalked and ritualistically disemboweled by our biggest fan is a birthright – destiny.

    Also, I am Mel Gibson. There – I said it.