Thursday, September 22, 2016

Indie Choices: To Pen Name or Not to Pen Name

By Marcy Kennedy, @MarcyKennedy

Part of the Indie Author Series

In traditional publishing, many of the choices are taken out of our hands, including sometimes whether or not to use a pen name. As independent authors, this becomes another choice we’re able to make ourselves based on what we think is best for our situation and our business.

Authors use pen names in a few different ways, so this month I wanted to walk through some of our options and the pros and cons of each.

The Full-Time Pen Name

The full-time pen name is what I call the author who writes all their material under a single pen name. If this is what we want to do, we’ll have the added decision of whether or not we’re hoping to keep our pen name secret or be open about it.

It’s hard to keep your real identity perfectly hidden in our online age, but many authors select a pen name to add an extra layer of security. You might write entirely under a pen name if, for example, you’re a lawyer or psychologist writing something where former clients might assume you’re secretly writing about them. Many erotica or steamy romance writers will also select a pen name so their “day job” professional lives can stay separate from what they’re writing.

If you’re writing under a full-time pen name, you’ll likely be setting up separate social media accounts. That’s good in that you can post whatever you want on your personal accounts and not worry about how it’s affecting your writing brand. It’s bad because you’ll need to maintain double social media accounts.

The major drawback to the full-time pen name, in my opinion, depends on where you live. In some countries, the length of copyright post-death is shorter for pen names, so if you want your works to provide for your heirs, you need to consider that. You might also be required to set up special bank accounts or register your pen name as a business name. Additionally, if someone decides to pirate your books, you might have a more difficult time proving they belong to you. (You’ll need to figure out the guidelines in your particular country. I’m not an international copyright lawyer.)

The Branding Pen Name

The branding pen name is when an author writes under their real name for some of their books and a pen name for other books in a different genre. (More rarely, writers won’t use their real name at all and will instead use multiple pen names.)

The topic of branding pen names is hugely debated among writers.

On the one side are authors who say that you don’t need to bother with a pen name because readers will figure it out. They’ll buy what they’re interested in and ignore the rest. This camp highlights the importance of strongly branded covers to signal to the reader what they’re getting.

On the other side are authors who say that it’s best to have a unique author name for each genre (or group of related genres) that you write in. This keeps your Also Boughts (a major selling tool) on Amazon clean and genre-specific. It also makes sure that your audience doesn’t accidentally pick up a book they don’t want. This ties back in with what I talked about last month in that we want to become an auto-buy for our readers. If they have to stop and check to make sure what we’ve released is in a genre they want to read, we’re no longer an auto-buy.

So what’s the main drawback of branding pen names? If you believe that social media is an important part of an author’s platform, then you’re faced with the quandary of whether or not to set up separate social media accounts for each name. If you do, it can quickly become overwhelming.

A good middle ground if we want to use a pen name to help with branding can be to have a single social media account under our “main” name (often our real name) and to simply make it clear on our website that we write under different names for each genre of book. Along with a strongly branded genre cover, this can help reduce reader confusion.

To help direct readers who might find us through our pen name, we can even buy the corresponding domain name and have it redirect to a special page on our main website where we explain that the pen name is a name we use for a specific genre but that we also write under other names.

What are your thoughts on using pen names? Do you write under a pen name? I’d love to hear why you made that choice if you do. 

Marcy Kennedy is a suspense and speculative fiction writer who believes fantasy is more real than you think. Alongside her own writing, Marcy works as a freelance fiction editor and teaches classes on craft and social media. She’s also the author of the Busy Writer’s Guides series of books. You can find her blogging about writing and about the place where real life meets science fiction, fantasy, and myth at

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  1. I am recently divorced and as I anticipate my first novel being published, I consider more and more that I don't want "his" name on my book. So, I'm considering using my maiden name. That way all my older friends will still know it's me and I use my maiden name as a middle name now. I've hesitated to make my maiden name official because of all the logistics and expense of changing my name.I need to know if it's a good idea. I would have to include my middle name since there are too many Karen Nolans out there in cyber world.

  2. I'm going for a shorter, simplified version of my name because my real last name doesn't exactly sell dreams and is hard to pronounce for most people. Plus it will be easier for readers to remember and it will look "good" on the cover. My pen last name is "Good", so I'm hoping it inspires plenty of hilarious puns =D

  3. I made the choice to use a pen name for three reasons: 1)I'm a fine artist, and my paintings are signed with my given name. 2)My given name is difficult to pronounce, and I feel that if readers are on the fence about which book to spend their $ on, they'll choose the one with an easier to remember author name. 3)I write romance, I thought it would be fun to have a romantic nom de plume.