Does A Pen Name Protect An Author?

by Marylee MacDonald in For Beginning Writers

Does the pen name Richard Bauchman mean anything to you? How about Robert Galbraith? Okay, here’s a third: Rosamond Smith.

The true names of the authors above are Stephen King, JK Rowling, and Joyce Carol Oates.

pen, fountain pen, ink

Image from Pixabay via jackmac34

Unlike most new authors, these famous writers didn’t write under a pen name because they were afraid of getting sued or causing upset in the family. In Stephen King’s case, he wanted to find out if his early popularity was a fluke, or if his writing really could achieve success in the marketplace.

Rowling wanted to escape the success (and the trap) of her Harry Potter books, and after publishing her first adult novel (The Casual Vacancy) under her own name, she sent out the manuscript for The Cuckoo’s Calling using the pen name Rosamond Smith.

Joyce Carol Oates wanted to publish an experimental, literary novel. By using a pen name, she protected her Joyce Carol Oates “brand” from the stigma of low book sales, the inevitable result of an novel that is experimental.

What’s In A Pen Name?”

To quote Shakespeare’s Romeo, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Many authors have used pen names for a variety of reasons:

  • Women who seek to disguise their gender, hoping to improve their chances of getting published (George Eliot aka Mary Ann Evans);
  • Writers who want a less ethnic-sounding name (Ayn Rand aka Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum)
  • Authors whose names suggest a satirical intent (Busy Body aka Benjamin Franklin)
  • Writers who want a simpler or more distinguished-sounding name (George Orwell aka Eric Arthur Blair)

Why might today’s authors want to use a pen name?

A name with fewer syllables looks better on a cover. A first and last name that rolls off the tongue might be easier for book-buyers to remember (Ford Madox Ford aka Ford Hermann Hueffer). Or, perhaps, authors, like school children, are sensitive to mockery (Eric Iverson aka Harry Turtledove).

There’s one other reason an author might want to use a pen name: her first book did not sell well. Authors with “debut novels” actually have a slightly better chance of getting picked up by a New York publisher than do authors whose first novel had abysmal sales. To borrow the language of advertising, a pen name can give an author a new brand.

All in all, it’s up to the writer. If you hate your name and want to invent a new identity, take inspiration from authors who have used pen names and succeeded.

Can You Hide Behind A Pen Name?

The real reason most new authors wonder about using pen names is that they’re afraid of embarrassing themselves or being sued.

Let’s imagine that the novel you’re writing leads to a hot, steamy sex scene. You’re part of a church community or synagogue, and you worry what your friends might think. If you’re a grandparent, you imagine horrified grandchildren.

Let’s take another example. You’re writing about a group of friends from your past.

Will they recognize themselves? Perhaps a pen name will allow you to write more freely than if you self-edited, fearing your friends’ hurt feelings.

Autobiographical Material

Writers use autobiographical material in their fiction, and writers of memoirs certainly do. You can change the names and put a disclaimer in the front of the book, but, inevitably, if you are an author, your friends are going to look for themselves in the pages of your books.

If you’re writing fiction, then you can take liberties with identifying features. Change sexes. Move people from one part of the country to another. Combine characters so that you’re pretty sure the people from your past won’t recognize themselves.

But, here’s the thing. They will recognize themselves. They will, because they want to be clever and discover how you have mined the past. When they discover themselves in the pages of your book—and they may be wrong!—they will be hurt or outraged at your portrait.

I have a writer friend who used me in his novel. This was when I was working as a carpenter. I wore overalls. I had long hair and wore it in braids to keep it from being caught up in my circular saw. He dared to say that my stomach pooched out. I don’t remember his exact words, but I remember the feeling of horror. My God, he thinks I’m fat!

The Issue of Narcissism

No matter what you do to disguise identities, you will bump up against the very real issue of narcissism. Every human being wants to be the hero or heroine in his or her own story. None of us wants to wind up as the flawed protagonist in someone else’s tale. None of us wants to be a walk-on either. The world revolves around us! Why didn’t the author see that? Why didn’t she understand our suffering?

I’m not talking here about people who are pathologically narcissistic. No. I’m talking about the normal majority. Each of us harbors a tiny seed of narcissism, and if an author douses that seed with the water of words, the seed will sprout.

For more on this subject, take a look at my earlier post on the issue of “write what you know.”

Also, consider that every writer, including the Nobel prizewinner Alice Munro, faces the same questions. In her essay, “What Is Real?,” she writes about the questions she hears over and over again.

Whenever people get an opportunity to ask me questions about my writing, I can be sure that some of the questions asked will be these:
“Do you write about real people?”
“Did those things really happen?”
“When you write about a small town are you really writing about Wingham?” (Wingham is the small town in Ontario where I was born and grew up, and it has often been assumed, by people who should know better, that I have simply “fictionalized” this place in my work. Indeed, the local newspaper has taken me to task for making it the “butt of a soured and cruel introspection”).

Write Under A Pen Name If…

I’m going to stick my neck out here and just tell you what I’d do; but, then, you are you, and undoubtedly have your own fears and motivations.

I’d use a pen name under these conditions:

  • I hated my real name;
  • My real name was hard to spell;
  • I wanted a name that would match the kind of fiction I was attempting to write (detective, romance, action-adventure);
  • I could crank out more than four books a year and wanted to write in multiple genres, such as romance and sci fi (I’d want a pen name for each genre);
  • I was writing a humor book (think Lemony Snicket aka Daniel Handler);
  • I was writing an expose of crime bosses and didn’t want to wear concrete overshoes.

Will You Use A Pen Name In Social Media?

Are you determined to publish under a pen name? Maybe an agent and one of the big New York publishers will buy into your plan.

The thing is, even if you write under a pen name, someone is going to have to promote your book. Think about how you hope to publicize this book and subsequent books.

Can you truly remain anonymous? Your face will be on the book cover and in press releases. You’ll appear in bookstores. You’ll want coverage in local newspapers.

Unlike writers in the past who used pen names, today’s writers must be active on social media. Can you create an avatar to take the place of your very own portrait? Can you post to Facebook and dream up things your pen name would be likely to post? Could you have fun on Twitter if you post what that pen name would post? If yes, to the above, then go for it.

If you’re going to write under a pen name, then pick a good one and begin creating your online presence. In addition to writing your book, you can have the fun of creating an imaginary “you.”

But, if writing your book seems like a big enough task, then wait until you have an agent or until you’re ready to self-publish. Gather opinions. Vet the book with your beta readers. Don’t be too hasty in your decision. After a while, I think the work of maintaining a false persona would feel like another job.


  • Marylee MacDonald

    Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, BODY LANGUAGE, and THE BIG BOOK OF SMALL PRESSES AND INDEPENDENT PUBLISHERS. Her books and stories have won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, a Readers' Favorites Gold Medal for Drama, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, a Wishing Shelf Book Award, and many others. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, and when not reading or writing books, she loves to walk on the beach and explore National Parks.

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