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Should You Use a Pen Name?

I’ve sometimes had writers ask me if they should use a pen name. I always say “perhaps,” and then ask why they’re considering it. Usually they struggle to come up with an answer, so here are a few reasons to think about using a pseudonym.

You want to protect yourself

If what you write is controversial to the point that you’re worried about retribution you can help protect yourself. However, remember that if someone really wants to find you they will; a pen name is not complete protection.

Your name is difficult to spell, pronounce, or remember

On the other hand, you might also want a pen name if yours is too common or is the name of a well-known person. Worse yet is if your name happens to be the name of an infamous person.

Your writing conflicts with your other profession

I used to work in a highly visible, yet controversial, field. I’m retired now and sometimes write stories that are less than flattering about that profession, so I use my real name. But if I still worked in my former career I’d be hurting myself if I didn’t use a pen name.

You want to relate your name to your genre

It’s well known that certain Hollywood actors changed their names to more closely identify with the characters they portrayed. For example, Rock Hudson played leading men; that name perhaps more closely matched the characters he played than Roy Harold Scherer, Jr. would have.

You want to write in different fields

If you write both fantasy novels and in peer-reviewed scientific journals you wouldn’t be helping your reputation in either by using the same name for both.

Your name conflicts with your genre

If your name is “Grace Faith Love” and you write horror stories you might want to consider a pen name!

You’re wanted in three states for bank robbery . . . just kidding!

It’s fine to use a pen name, though, if you simply want privacy. There’s little enough privacy in today’s world; if you’re not comfortable with the name being out there more than it already is then go for it.

Here are a few caveats about using a pseudonym:

Sometimes when a reader enjoys one story or book they Google the author’s name with the intent of buying more of his or her work. But they won’t find your other writing if you used a different name. Name recognition goes a long way. Of course, you could include an “also known as” somewhere in your works, but that defeats the purpose of a pen

Using a pseudonym won’t protect you from legal issues. For example, if you libel someone they will still be able to find out who you really are and take you to court.

Your publisher will still need to know your real name. Don’t think you can hide income with a pen name. You’ll need to tell publishers who you are so they can send you the appropriate tax form and report your income to the IRS.

Don’t use the name of a well-known author or celebrity in an effort to attract readers. That’s a good way to get sued. Of course, if your real name happens to be John Kennedy you can obviously use it.

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Joe Wisinski