When I completed Shadow Rider, my first full-length fantasy novel, I sucked in my breath, summoned every ounce of courage, and nervously handed a binder containing the printed manuscript to two influential English teachers to read over summer vacation.
The first teacher returned the manuscript to me with glowing praise. She loved it and was thoroughly impressed that a high school student had written such an in-depth story. But there was a caveat.
She pointed at my title page, where the name Kara Nite was printed as the author.
“What is this?” she asked.
“A pen name,” I replied. “You know, a pseudonym.” (As if she didn’t already know that.)
“Yes, but why?”
The simple question stumped me. It had seemed like a good idea at the time. Until that point, I’d never had any aspirations to be a published author. I was supposed to be a landscape architect — I was about to head off to college and earn my degree.
I knew writing novels wasn’t a feasible full-time career ambition. Really, I had no disillusions about the astronomically low chances of becoming an instant bestseller and making a living off writing. In my mind, it would be better to completely segment my two lives — a landscape architect by day and an author by night. Those two halves of my life didn’t seem compatible.
And, okay, confession time… it was circa 2009, and I had fanciful daydreams of living a Hannah-Montanaesque double life except as a bestselling author instead of a pop star.
Don’t judge me too harshly! It was more than a decade ago.
Granted, I wasn’t expecting to be mobbed by paparazzi or be interviewed on talk shows, but I was guilty of fanciful daydreams concocting my alter ego. I could reinvent myself however I wanted as Kara, and it would be such a fun and exciting secret. No risk of embarrassing myself if Shadow Rider flopped — it would be Kara’s failure, not mine. Nobody would even have to know.
As I stumbled through vague, flustered answers, my teacher said, “Do you sign your artwork?”
“Yes,” I replied, puzzled by the change in topic.
“Because… I don’t know. I guess because it’s mine, and I’m proud of it.”
“Aren’t you proud of this story you wrote?”
“Then why isn’t your name on it?”
I had no answer. Her words replayed over and over again. Yes, I was proud of my work. That story had come from my soul and had been an obsession as I was writing it.
But putting myself out into the world so openly, so vulnerably, was a terrifying notion. My heart would be on the chopping block if this passion project failed.
We talked at length about pseudonyms. My teacher even admitted that part of her push was for a selfish reason: “You were my student. I want to brag about you when you’re a published author! How can I do that if you write under a pseudonym?”
But ultimately, it was her comparison to my artwork that wormed through my thoughts long after our conversation ended. Not once had I ever, ever thought about signing one of my sketches or drawings with a false alias. Good or bad, I still claimed it as my own. And although it was a different medium, I saw my unpublished book as a form of art.
Shadow Rider came close to being published in 2010 when I was a high school senior. By then, I had put Kara to rest and vowed to stand by my work, for better or worse.
Sadly, the novel never made it to publication (although I do plan to revive the project someday after I complete my current series). Back then, my relationship with a mentor I’d trusted fell apart, and as I started my college career, I threw myself into a new project because writing was easier and less depressing than publishing, and this new story was eating its way through my mind at all hours of the day and night. I had to get it onto the page and out of my head.
A Fallen Hero was published in 2018, under my real name. Kara had been dead for more than 8 years… that alter ego wasn’t even a consideration. (Fun fact: there’s a minor character named Kara who appears briefly in the book. Although she’s a young girl in the story, her name is a subtle nod to the pseudonym that never came to life.)
There was a time in my life when I was sure I was going to publish under a pseudonym. It’s an alluring option for writers to take the pressure off and retain some peace and anonymity. However, it’s not right for everyone, and it comes with complications that I hadn’t factored into my calculations.
What is a Pseudonym?
A pseudonym, also referred to as a pen name or nom de plume (“name of feather”), is a fictitious name or alias used instead of an author’s real name.
The word pseudonym originated from the Greek word pseudōnymos (pseud- meaning “false” + onyma meaning “name”). The word evolved when the French adopted it as pseudonyme and then English speakers modified it to pseudonym.
Using a pen name is legal, and you can register your manuscript under a pseudonym when copyrighting your work. However, separating your real identity from your pen name can be tricky from a legal standpoint since you have to provide contact information, like your real address. You also need to be absolutely sure another author isn’t using that alias (otherwise you could be sued for identity theft).
Why Do Authors Have Pen Names?
Choosing a pseudonym is often a personal matter for an author. Some of the most common reasons authors use a pseudonym include:
1. Privacy concerns
Authors can have many reasons for wanting to maintain their privacy. In some cases, such as the example of François-Marie Arouet, publishing politically controversial works under his real identity would have put his life in jeopardy. Hence, the creation of Voltaire.
2. To hide their literary career from friends, family, and/or colleagues
When The Bell Jar was released in January 1963, Sylvia Plath didn’t want her mother to know about the book out of fear of upsetting her and other people she had featured in the novel. For this reason, she published it under the name Victoria Lucas.
Many authors base their characters off real people, and those people might not be happy to see flawed characteristics immortalized in the pages. Perfect characters are boring and unrealistic, but writing less-than-flattering flaws (even if they’re accurate) can cause some friction with the real people the characters are based on.
Authors who write about touchy subjects such as abusive parents, extreme familial poverty, criminal activity, etc. also run the risk of defamation. Publishing under a pseudonym, however, gives the subject matter as well as the author anonymity.
Even if a work is entirely fiction, some authors simply don’t want to share it with loved ones and prefer to keep their publications a carefully guarded secret to avoid unwanted attention.
3. Ease of pronunciation for authors whose names are difficult to spell or pronounce
Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski is a prime example of an author who chose a simplified name to make it easier for readers to remember and pronounce. He published under the pen name Joseph Conrad.
4. Continuing the use of a maiden or former legal name
Authors who start their career publishing under their maiden name often maintain that name for future works to avoid confusing readers, even though their legal name has changed. Likewise, authors who get divorced and/or remarried may choose to continue publishing under their previous married name.
5. A professional conflict of interest
Sometimes an alter ego is necessary to preserve an image, especially in the field of academia. Depending on your genre, even if it isn’t anything sensitive rated for mature audiences, your writing still might send the “wrong message” to clients or be perceived as a negative reflection on your employer in some way.
Rather than risk their day-job career, some authors choose to publish under a pen name. Better to be safe than sorry.
6. An extremely common, easily forgettable legal name
Part of the path to success is being memorable. How can you do that if you’re another John or Jane Doe in the crowd? In this case, coming up with a catchy name is a good marketing strategy.
7. Another author with the same name already has an established writing career
If someone sharing your name (or a similar version of your name) beat you to the punch and made a name for themselves in the writing world, you might seriously consider differentiating your work by choosing a pseudonym.
While it might be tempting to try and ride your competitor’s coattails and show up on Google when people search for the other author, it’s also more difficult to separate yourself. You need your own brand.
8. To avoid gender prejudice and discrimination
Gender bias goes both ways, although women have generally had a tougher struggle breaking into an industry that was (and in many genres, still is) largely dominated by male authors.
For instance, best-selling Harry Potter author, JK Rowling, published under JK instead of her real name, Joanne, at her publisher’s request. Why? Because the publisher was concerned that a female author’s name on the cover wouldn’t be appealing to the targeted young male audience.
Clearly, that wasn’t the case. JK Rowling became famous, and boys and girls alike eagerly devoured the books regardless of the author’s widely known gender. With more than 500 million copies sold, the Harry Potter series is the highest selling series worldwide. Even more impressive, it contains only 7 books, while #2 on the highest selling list, Goosebumps, has 62 works.
And yet, it goes to show how women have historically been pressured into writing under a pseudonym or simply their initials in order to superficially hide their gender on the book cover. In the cases of Mary Ann Evans and the Brontë sisters, discrimination of women in their time was so severe that they used male pseudonyms.
The bias does go both ways to an extent, depending on the genre and subject material. Benjamin Franklin, for example, famously published letters in The New-England Courant under the persona of a middle-aged widow named Silence Dogood.
9. To avoid racial or cultural prejudice and discrimination
Much like gender bias, there can be racial or cultural stigmas. Some authors might choose a pen name that appeals more to their targeted demographic or aligns better with the subject material, while others publish under initials for their first name to leave both gender and race a mystery.
10. To branch into a drastically different genre
Authors who write in multiple genres sometimes need to keep their works separated. In many cases, this isn’t necessary (readers don’t usually mind some overlap). But there are definitely exceptions.
Let’s say, for example, that an author writes in polar opposite genres, like erotica and children’s books. Obviously, those two don’t mix well. Parents would probably think twice about buying books for their kids when they see the adult content coming up in a search for the author, and you can’t blame smut enthusiasts for having doubts about a children’s book author being able to shift gears and capture those hot and steamy R-rated details. A pseudonym would be a good way to keep those two genres separate.
11. To wipe the slate clean
Some authors just need a redo. They have a dark past and/or a tarnished reputation of failures and mistakes, and it’s easier to start from scratch than it is to do extensive damage control.
Pseudonyms: Fiction vs. Nonfiction Authors
In most cases, using a pen name works better for fiction authors than nonfiction authors.
The two types of writers market their work in very different ways. In fiction, the story is usually is the most important element. Yes, it helps to have a platform and recognizable name, but potential readers are more interested in the synopsis. They don’t need to know who wrote it in order to escape from reality and lose themselves in an adventure.
But with nonfiction, the person writing the novel is usually just as important, if not more so, than the subject material. Nonfiction authors have to sell themselves just as much as the story.
What are their qualifications? What is their connection to the material? Why should they be regarded as an expert on the subject? A nonfiction author’s history, experience, authority, credentials, and life circumstances are critical pieces of their marketing strategy to demonstrate why they are the best person to tell this story.
This is why nonfiction (especially autobiographical) audiobooks are more likely to be read by the author rather than a hired narrator.
Famous Authors and Their Pen Names
Pseudonyms aren’t a new and novel concept. In fact, you’ll no doubt recognize many famous authors who wrote under pen names:
- Currer Bell (Charlotte Brontë)
- C.S. Lewis (Clive Staple Lewis)
- Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel)
- E.L. James (Erika Leonard)
- George Ellot (Mary Anne Evans)
- George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair)
- J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts)
- JK Rowling / Robert Galbraith (Joanne Rowling)
- J.R.R. Tolkien (John Ronald Reuel Tolkien)
- Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler)
- Lewis Caroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson)
- Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens)
- Mary Westmacott (Agatha Cristie)
- Maya Angelou (Marguerite Annie Johnson)
- Robinson Crusoe (Daniel Foe)
- Stan Lee (Stanley Martin Lieber)
- Victoria Lucas (Sylvia Plath)
- Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet)
In some cases, famous authors have written under lesser known pseudonyms. Stephen King, for example, released seven novels under the pen name Richard Bachman, and Charles Dickens published anonymously under the name Boz.
This list is just the tip of the iceberg… see a much more expansive list here.
Cons of Using a Pen Name when Publishing a Book
We looked at a long list of reasons why an author might use a pseudonym. But the question is… should they?
It’s an alluring thought, creating a whole new name and identity for yourself. You can be whoever you want to be, write whatever you want to write.
But there are a few catches. Here is why authors should NOT use a pseudonym:
Reason #1: The first and biggest drawback of a pen name is the marketing limitations.
Whether you publish traditionally or independently, most of the marketing is going to fall on the author’s shoulders. There’s a misconception that if you have an agent and a publishing house behind you, they’ll take care of all the marketing while you kick back and work on the next book.
But that’s not the case. In today’s publishing marketplace, the author is expected to do most of the legwork. Social media, blogging, speaking events, panels, book signings, pitches for local features, interviews, guest blogging, podcasts… an agent might help put some of the pieces in motion, but the author is the one doing the heavy lifting and maintaining their own platform.
How are you going to market your book if you’re trying to keep your real identity a secret? Are you going to bypass any in-person features and stick to podcasts and blogs so you can hide your face? What about book signing events? If you’ve chosen a pseudonym that is a different gender, you’ve severely limited your marketing potential. Face-to-face is a major part of the strategy — people enjoy meeting authors and talking to them directly.
Most authors can, at the very least, rely on their inner circle of friends, family, and colleagues to show some support and help spread the word. If you’re keeping your literary identity completely under wraps, you’re knocking the foundational scaffolding out from under your own feet and diving into the ocean completely blind and without a life jacket.
Reason #2: Keeping your identities separate can be a legal and social headache.
Frankly, you’re putting a lot of extra work on yourself. How far will you take this new identity? Will you get a PO Box to separate your mail? If you attend a writing conference or other type of event, which name will you use? Your real name, or your fake one?
Are you ready to take necessary legal steps? Are you 100% positive you didn’t accidentally stumble across someone’s actual name when you were thinking about yours, risking an identity theft lawsuit? Definitely do some research before publishing anything under a pen name.
Reason #3: The allure of a pseudonym might fade.
Before you commit, think long and hard about why you want to use a pseudonym. Is it just because it seemed like a neat idea at the moment, or is there a legitimate reason why you don’t want your real name attached to your work?
Remember that you run the risk of your pseudonym losing its charm over time. There may come a day when you regret going this route and want to take credit for your hard work, especially if it’s being well received.
Reason #4: An artist’s work deserves a signature.
This was the reason that shifted my stance, all because my English teacher questioned whether I was proud of my work.
“Then why wouldn’t you sign your name on it, like you do your artwork? Don’t you want to take credit?”
It really made me think. I had worked hard on my first novel and then my next series — the Chronicles of Avilésor: War of the Realms. I was immensely proud of my work, even if I was hesitant about sharing them with the whole world.
My books did, I decided, deserve my signature. I would stand behind them and claim them as my own through success or failure. They were mine.
It’s been 3 years since I published my first novel under my own name. Not once have I ever regretted abandoning my pseudonym and opting to stake my own name and reputation on the series.
I’ve had more than two dozen events, including book signings, author fairs, writing conferences, and festivals. I delivered a public presentation about writing in the science fantasy genre, and I participated in an author panel. Recently, I started cosplaying as my protagonist at events, which helped me attract attention and engage with people, not to mention embrace COVID mask mandates as part of my marketing (since Book II is titled Phantom’s Mask).
It’s hard to imagine what this life would have been like if I had published under a false name. Using my own name has helped enable me to step into this new role and embrace myself as an author. Every once in a while, I still suffer from imposter syndrome (but then again, I think almost every author does at some point)… but I have a feeling that contending with an alter ego might have amplified that effect.
In the end, I’m grateful that I embarked on this journey as myself.