A common question that most new writers have is why do authors use pen names / pseudonyms? Observing your favorite authors will show you that this isn’t a trend that is restricted to one or two of them. There are several who have used pen names at some time or the other in their career.
Using pseudonyms or pen names is a decision that is completely up to the author. Some have used them as an experiment whereas others have used them to establish whole careers.
When viewing them as a tool for an author, you should consider that they are just meant for use in this manner. Some authors don’t feel like they need pen names or pseudonyms at all whereas others find them comforting to have.
Why Do Authors Use Pen Name/Pseudonyms?
To further understand the usability of this multi-purpose tool, we’re going to take a closer look at just why do authors use pen name/pseudonyms for their work. You’ll be surprised to find that the motivation behind choosing one is multi-faceted.
1. To Maintain Anonymity in Their Work
Many authors are private people and don’t want the public to scrutinize them. They want the focus of the reader to remain on the work being shared with them. Other reasons for anonymity include:
- Not wanting their families to learn about their writing.
- Avoiding conflict of interest at work – Government officials or teachers.
- To maintain privacy – Authors don’t want everyone to be able to look for them in the phone book or find their address.
A pseudonym is a perfect solution to keep the peace and let the author work in complete anonymity. While these aren’t all the reasons for wanting to work in anonymity, they are major ones for most people.
2. To Try a New Genre
Some authors have a different problem. They are so notorious for being amazing at their genres that if they want to switch to another one, they needed to use a pen name. This is because their audience has a preconceived notion of their writing skills.
For example: How would you feel if a favorite, best-selling, romance author started to write stories in the science fiction genre? That was the very issue that famed author Nora Roberts faced.
Having established herself as a romance author, she later revealed that she’d also been publishing successful science fiction books under the pen name of J.D Robb.
3. Limitations of Fame
In other cases, famous authors also use pen names because they want to write without the pressure of their readers. Many readers have expectations from their favorite authors. You want to read spine chilling horror stories from Stephen King while you’d expect magical stories from J.K Rowling.
That’s why both these authors used pseudonyms to write books without pressure.
Additionally, some authors have achieved so much fame that any book they introduce becomes a best seller. For some, a pen name can be an experiment to see whether their fame is responsible for their best sellers or are they truly able to write well.
It’s a risky move but for some, it has been a very rewarding experience.
4. Avoiding Same Names
It can be so confusing if two authors have the same name and it is all too possible. In this case, a pen name or pseudonym becomes a necessity because you have to make sure that you stand out. It’s a common occurrence and one which occurs outside of the writing industry as well.
Many actors, singers and performers also take stage names, particularly if they have a name which is similar to another one. A good example of this is the name similarity between Kate Hudson the actress and Katheryn Elizabeth Hudson the singer who is now known as Katy Perry.
She had to change her name to avoid any confusion. Writers who share names often rely on pen names for their readers.
5. To Switch Publishers
Many authors are signed up with a publisher with a contract in which they are required to publish a set number of books. The publisher will own the rights of any work that is being produced by the author at this time. This can leave an author in a creative bind if they want to work with a bit more freedom.
That’s why some authors like to work with a pseudonym or a pen name so that they can write and take the profits of their work without their publisher finding out. While this can be a breach of contract now, previously, many famous authors relied on this method to make ends meet and get some surplus cash.
If you’re tempted to do this now, just make sure to read your contract again. You don’t want to get stuck because of a clause that prevents this from happening.
6. To Avoid Embarrassment
Authors are people too but their readers can be pretty brutal with their criticism, feedback and opinions. It’s normal for authors to feel scared because sharing your work with others can be a very sensitive undertaking.
Some authors who are afraid of rejection or want to avoid embarrassment usually take up a pen name. This gives them a degree of separation from their work and allows them to remain anonymous from the readers.
Plus, if the work was not good, it does not hit them as personally as it would have if they were using their own name. So if you’re feeling scared of writing something, try out a pen name and see if it helps you overcome your fear.
7. To Add Some Interest
In some cases, authors also try out pseudonyms and pen names when they want to add a touch of mystery or appeal to the work they are producing. Readers are more likely to read action adventures or spy thrillers from authors named Jeffery Archer, Dan Brown or John Lange.
Similarly, readers can have preconceptions about author names in other genres. For this reason, you might have a better chance of attracting the attention of your audience by using a pen name or a pseudonym.
You might not think that it makes a difference. But many writers have noted that using a pen name actually allowed them to tap into the reader’s attention more effectively in this case.
8. Avoiding Gender Discrimination
You might not think that there is gender discrimination in writing nowadays but it is still rampant. Unfortunately, many readers still consider some genres as largely masculine or feminine which is why some authors have to change their names so as to bypass this bias with their readers.
PD James, hailed as the Grand Dame of British Crime, is a woman named Phyllis White. Would she have been as successful without her pen name?
J.K Rowling was famously asked to use a pseudonym. This was due to the fact that her publishers believed that boys might not be interested in reading a book written by women.
9. Limitations of the Name
Sometimes a pen name is used by authors who have earned a bad rep in the market for having books that don’t perform well. This can make it difficult for them to get a good publisher.
For most publishers, the main concern is how well the books sell. If an author doesn’t have good performing books, they’re not going to get many publishers.
This was the issue that Patricia O’Brien faced when her fifth novel underperformed in the market. As a result, publishers were too cautious to work with her for her sixth one. Luckily, O’Brien’s agent decided to try the pseudonym, Kate Alcott.
Not only did O’Brien get a publisher in three days, the book also became a bestseller in the market.
With these reasons, it is easy to see just why some authors use pen names/pseudonyms.
15 Famous Authors Who Used Pen Names or Pseudonyms
We’ve already talked about the reasons behind why authors use pen names/pseudonyms. You might think that only small authors used pseudonyms but, did you know that many famous authors used it? The following is a list of the 15 most famous authors who used pen names or pseudonyms.
1. David Cornwell
Chosen Pen Name: John Le Carre
David Cornwell relied on the use of a pen name because he was serving in the British Intelligence in the 1960’s while he was writing his books based on espionage. His pseudonym was soon retired when he left his job in 1964 to work full-time as a writer and wrote his next best-seller, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.
2. Elena Ferrante
Chosen Pen Name: Still Unknown
Elena Ferrante’s work has won several awards. Ranking among Time Magazine’s List of 100 Most Influential People and also getting shortlisted to receive the Man Booker Prize, the Italian author has kept her true identity a secret. Her core belief is that “books, once written do not need an author.”
3. Erika Mitchell
Chosen Pen Name: E.L. James
The author of the Fifty Shades series, Erika Mitchells initially started writing adult fan-fiction based on Twilight, using the pseudonym of Snowqueens Icedragons which slowly gained traction. She published her books under a gender neutral pen name of E.L. James which has her initials.
It has also been attributed to her success. The Fifty Shades series have been record breakers and were also ranked at No. 1 in the list of New York Times Bestsellers.
4. Agatha Christie
Chosen Pen Name: Mary Westmacott
Known for her crime novels, Agatha Christie has amassed around 66 best selling detective crime novels and more than 15 different collections of short stories too. To experiment with writing in a different genre, she used the pen name of Mary Westmacott to write 6 romance novels.
They performed well but not as well as her detective crime novels have.
5. J.K. Rowling
Chosen Pen Name: Robert Galbraith
Having gained international fame for her Harry Potter series, J.K Rowling tried branching out in other genres with her book “The Casual Vacancy.” However, with her fame following her, Rowling eventually used the pen name Robert Galbraith to publish and work on different books before it was discovered that she was the original author.
Rowling has also stated that the experience was very liberating for her as she loved working without the expectation or the hype that her previous works had garnered and to get feedback as well.
6. C.S. Lewis
Chosen Pen Name: Clive Hamilton
A Christian writer who created the Narnia series, C.S. Lewis, known as Clive Staples Lewis is known for having worked with a pen name as well. He used Clive Hamilton to write different books such as Dymer and Spirits in Bondage.
In 1961, when his wife passed away, C.S. Lewis used his pen name again to publish a book called A Grief Observed, in memory of his wife and to process the bereavement he felt at losing his wife.
7. Stephen King
Chosen Pen Name: Richard Bachman
When he had just started writing, King was bound to old publishing rules that limited a writer to work on only one book per year. In a bid to increase his productivity and revenue, King created a pseudonym in order to boost his publications without negatively impacting his brand.
He was able to create 7 different books under his pen name of Richard Bachman from 1977 till 2007.
8. Patricia Highsmith
Chosen Pen Name: Claire Morgan
An award winning author who is renowned for her psychological thrillers including The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train, Patricia Highsmith used her pen name to avoid any negative connotations she might receive.
Her pen name was used to publish a book named The Price of Salt. Based on the themes in the story, Highsmith did not want readers to label her on the basis of her sexual orientation.
9. Ulrich Leonard Tolle
Chosen Pen Name: Eckhart Tolle
Eckhart Tolle’s pen name is one that he writes with exclusively and it is a combination of his original name. Tolle’s work has been in the No. 1 position twice in The New York Times Bestsellers, but it is not clear if his pen name had anything to contribute here.
It is said that he chose his name based on the German philosopher Meister Eckhart and hoped to pay homage to him.
10. Isaac Asimov
Chosen Pen Name: Paul French
Famed for his work in science fiction, Isaac Asimov chose to use a pen name at the height of his success. At the time, his publishers were looking to turn his series into a TV program. Asimov worried that the TV series would start to diverge too much from the books.
In a bid to prevent this from happening, he started to publish them under his pseudonym, Paul French.
11. Michael Crichton
Chosen Pen Name: John Lange and Jeffery Hudson
The best-selling author of books like Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton actually started writing when he was a student at Harvard Medical School.
At the time, his work was meant only as a means of supporting himself which is why he used the pen names, John Lange or Jeffery Hudson. Crichton was such a prolific writer that he usually wrote a book in a week and sold it for around $2,500.
12. Madeleine Sophia Wickham
Chosen Pen Name: Sophie Kinsella
While she had already gained success with five previous novels, Wickham wanted to experiment with a new genre and a new style of writing. She wrote the first book for her famed Shopaholic series under the pen name of Sophie Kinsella.
Wickham went to explain that she was scared of embarrassment. Luckily she didn’t face any because the first book, Confessions of a Shopaholic was loved so much that it was even adapted into a film.
13. Samuel Langhorne Clemens
Chosen Pen Name: Mark Twain
A person who kept a pen name for his entire writing career, Mark Twain derived his name from the phrase he most commonly heard while working on a riverboat. It was a term that was used to mark two fathoms of the boat in depth in the water.
His reason for picking a pen name was stated simply that he was a fresh journalist and needed to have a pen name. Given his background with riverboats, it was the most natural choice for him.
14. Benjamin Franklin
Chosen Pen Name: Mrs. Silence Dogood
The founding father of the United States was fond of writing and had a killer sense of humor. He initially submitted many letters for publication in the New England Courant which was the first American newspapers function at that time.
After facing too many rejections, Franklin eventually took up the pseudonym of Mrs. Silence Dogood, a middle-aged widow. Not surprisingly, the letters under her name got published.
15. Nora Roberts
Chosen Pen Name: J.D Robb
The first author who was inducted into the Hall of Fame for Romance Writers in America, Nora Roberts has built an unshakeable career in romance writing.
This is the main reason which prompted her to adopt the pseudonym of J.D Robb to pursue writing in the science fiction genre. Under this pen name, she created the In Death series which consists of 19 novels and as a series; it has become a bestseller in its own right.
As you can see, using a pen name or a pseudonym can be really beneficial to you or serve your purpose as a writer by offering you a lot of flexibility!