Things to consider when choosing a pen name

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This past spring, I was asked about pen names by someone writing an article for the RWR (the magazine all RWA–Romance Writers of America–members get monthly). The question was whether it was okay for authors to choose their own pen names, or if publishers and agents were going to want to have a say in the name. Then, a few months ago, I was writing a quick email to someone and realized their pen name was, I’m sorry to say, so ridiculous I could not ever imagine addressing them by it. So I thought we should talk a little about pen names. For some of you, it may be too late, but for the rest, read on and let’s discuss things to consider when choosing a pen name.

Does it sound like a porn star?

You want people to take your writing seriously, start by giving them a name that says you take your writing seriously.

Would you be comfortable sharing the name with your family and friends?

If you think you might be embarrassed to have your mom, dad, old high school acquaintance, or how about your current boss, find out your name, it might not be the right one.

Can you answer to that name for years to come and feel comfortable with it?

Your plan is to grow your writing career, I assume. Will you still want to be called by that pen name twenty years from now? Is that the pen name one they can share in the history books without blushing?

Will people feel foolish or awkward calling you by name in person?

Remember, it’s different to have someone speak the name than to write it. Try having people close to you call you by that name.

How difficult is it to sign?

Think positive. Someday, 500 fans are going to be waiting in a line for your autograph, will you be able to sign that name smoothly 500 times?

Does anyone else have a name so similar you may be mistaken for them?

Unless, of course, you don’t mind being mistaken for Jenna Jameson. Many of us wouldn’t, just as long as it was someone saying they thought we looked like her ;)

Will readers be able to read or spell–or most important remember–your name?

Things that can make this more difficult include long, complicated names, names with apostrophes (those can also mess up coding in html/metadata) and names that are so unique/unusual, most people haven’t seen them before.

Can you purchase the domain for the name you’re considering?

Not only the domain, but the Twitter and Facebook names? If you haven’t settled on a pen name, lack of availability of any of this may be a reason to choose a different name.

*Word of caution: if you search for a domain name and it’s available, be prepared to buy it, even if you haven’t settled on that name. It’s worth the $7 to $10 investment per domain to reserve a few options. There are people who watch sites like GoDaddy, to see what people search for, and then buy it, hoping you’ll come back and decide you want it and pay a higher price for it.

Other things I’ve heard should possibly be considered: where will you be shelved (in a digital world, this probably won’t matter),  how common is the last name and who will you sit near at booksignings (I often joke I’m going to write a book so I can sit next to Julie James at a booksigning, but I’d probably have to change my first name to Jenny because there are other James between us. Jenny James. And now I’m probably getting dangerously close to Jenna Jameson).

At the end of the day, a pen name may be one you use for years. Yes, you may have the opportunity to use more than one (not always a good thing) but it’s still important to be careful in your selection. As your career grows, in addition to the name on the cover of your book, it’s a name you’ll use on the internet, on forums, on social media, in interviews, at conferences, at dinners and drinks and casual meetings with readers. It’s the name that may become as much *you* as your real name, so make it one you can wear proudly.

46 thoughts on “Things to consider when choosing a pen name”

  1. “Does it sound like a porn star?”

    This. Please… just this. Holy crap, some of the pen names I’ve seen lately leave me laughing my butt off. No way would I buy them, because I can’t get past the name!

  2. People have asked how I came up with mine.

    Leigh for Geddy Lee
    Ellwood for Neil Ellwood Peart

    Geddy and Neil are members of Rush – pretty much the farthest from porn you can get. ;-)

  3. Inez Kelley says:

    I agree. An author’s name hopefully inspires trust and conjures feelings of camaraderie. You want a professional name that sounds good as both AUTHOR and, say, PhD. Dr. Kitty FeelGood is stupid and hence would not be a good pen name.

    I happen to have been born with this name but I think it works.

  4. Great advice! And I did practice writing my pen name a whole bunch of times before I chose it. It felt a bit weird at the time, but I rejected a couple of alternatives because I couldn’t get comfortable with how they looked on paper.

  5. PS says:

    Ha, your number one is everyone’s number one, I think. 1b should say that in no way should first or last name resemble real or faux French. Maybe even if you are genuinely French. :-D

    A classy name is so versatile. Too bad we have a bias toward classy = English. (Thinking Judy Cuevas’ successful reincarnation as Judith Ivory eons ago.)

  6. I wanted to choose a pen name that sounded like it could be a real person’s name, so I chose a variant of my first name and selected a last name from my family tree. (Fortunately, I have a cousin who’s into genealogical research, so I had many generations to choose from.) I happened to exchange business cards with a Scottish author and Celtic gift shop owner while on vacation last week, and was happy to be able to say honestly that I AM a Fraser, even if the name on the credit card I was using to buy a wall hanging for my office is my husband’s English last name.

  7. Kathy Ivan says:

    I had this exact problem when I decided to try and get a domain name. “Kathy Sullivan” Now can you imagine how many Kathy Sullivan’s there are out there? So I decided to drop the first 4 letters off my last name, and thus Kathy “Ivan” was born. It’s still close enough to my real name that I will answer to it (I think).

  8. Annmarie says:

    I have clicked away from many a book because the author’s name was too ridiculous. I figured if they didn’t have the imagination to come up with a good pen name… Well. It says a lot about your writing.

    I also wish someone would talk to authors about their publicity shots. Maybe most readers don’t notice publicity shots. Maybe they do.

    Things I hate to see in a author publicity shot:

    Women: Men:
    Lingerie Bad Toupe
    Too Much Breast Bad Toupe
    Hustler Poses Bad Toupe
    Amateur Hair & Make-up Too Much Make-up

    Yes. It’s unfair that my men’s list only has 2 items. Sorry. If men started wearing chaps & showing their bare butt in publicity shots, I’d call em out.

  9. Elyse Mady says:

    Loved the hilarious advice, Angela. I think it’s much like naming a baby – Eleutherius isn’t going to have an easy time of it in the play group and Candi with an ‘i’ is probably going to have trouble getting ahead in the boardroom :)

    Elyse
    (who is an Elyse in real life – thank you Mom and Dad!)

  10. Annmarie says:

    My form was lost. Since there is no ‘preview’ I couldn’t know til after I submitted.

    What I hate to see in a woman’s publicity shot:

    Lingerie
    Too much breast
    Hustler poses
    Amateur hair and make-up

    What I hate to see in a man’s publicity shot:
    Bad Toupe
    Too much make-up

    Yes. It’s unfair that my men’s list only has 2 items. Sorry. If men started wearing chaps & showing their bare butt in publicity shots, I’d call em out.

  11. Jane Kindred says:

    I took mine from the name of Philip K. Dick’s twin sister who died in infancy. I also happen to have a sister named Jayne, however (not a twin, and not dead), so it will definitely be weird to have people call me that. I’m sure I’ll keep looking around for my sister…and then I’ll have even more in common with PKD. ;)

    (As for why I’m not using my real name? It sounds like a porn star. lol)

  12. Well, thanks to Tiger Woods, I guess I have to come up with a pen name. ‘Jennifer Madden’ was number 16 on his hooker parade.
    Although if I wrote erotica….

  13. Katrina says:

    I’d love to choose a family name for a pen name, but I don’t have much to choose from. I can never remember how to spell my grandmothers’ maiden names, and my grandfather was named Dick Biggs. I kid you not. Dick Biggs. No way will I be Katrina Biggs.

    I’ve tried that old children’s game where you use the name of the first street you lived on as your last name, but then I’d be Katrina de las Rosas. While I’d love to be known as “Katrina of the roses”, since I’m not Hispanic I don’t really think it fits me.

  14. Christine says:

    I’d love to hear what people think about having a pen name if you write in different genres. I would have used my real name for everything, but I was really concerned that a reader of my paranormal would want to buy something else I wrote and get a BIG surprise when they got my full out erotic romance. Same goes for my steampunk romance novella which is funny and only moderately hot. If someone who really liked my erotic romances picked it up, I would think they would be very surprised. Anyone else use two names? Pros and cons?

  15. Mary G says:

    Excellent post. Some other things that affect book searches:
    Initials like N. J. Walters. Sometimes they appear with the periods & sometimes without.

    Having 3 names like Lisa Marie Rice. Sometimes listed under Lisa Rice.

  16. Love the advice. I would add “Does it sound like the genre you write?” A name that might fit light comedy could sound out of place on the jacket of a thriller.

  17. My real name is soooooo easy people wonder why I bothered. Simple, I’m already using my real name in my other profession. And in that profession, I can’t have someone suddenly yelp out, “Hey! Didn’t you write Healing Hearts? I’m your biggest fan/worst nightmare!” and get themselves bounced off a jury. (No, I’m not a repeat offender. Well, okay. Maybe I am.)

    A RL friend once told me she was sorry she hadn’t chosen closer to her own name b/c she doesn’t always remember to turn around when someone calls. So I tried to stay a little close — same initial, similar sound — so I could at least sign off with an initial with no confusion.

    As for the last name? Okay, it’s the street I grew up on. Hmm. Maybe it is porn star, after all. But actually, I was hoping to sit next to Jayne Ann Krentz.

    — T

  18. Cynnara says:

    I write under a pen name. However, the first name is actually a nickname from my grandfather- it’s Celtic in origin and since it’s close to my real name, I love using it. My real surname would give most people fits, so picking a different one was mandatory. Our family names are not much better, so I ended up going with one of my favourite heroes of all time in the literary world. (Thank you, Elizabeth Peters!) Since the name also blends well with the Celtic first name, it just rolls off of me and it’s funny, I have responded to the name in person. It’s made my family laugh until they realized that yes, I do respond to both names equally.

  19. Zee Lemke says:

    My legal name is five names long (parents gave me both of their last names and then I got married…) so for me it’s just a matter of figuring out which part to use. “Zee” is short for Elizabeth, but I’ve now gone by it for more than half of my life and many of my friends don’t know what it’s short for. It’s also easy to pronounce, which helps, and androgynous. I would consider using something else if someone more experienced in the industry gave me some good reasons, but for now this will do.

  20. Crista says:

    I have to use a pen name. The last thing I want if a patient googling my real name and then wanting to discuss my writing over their pap. I chose Crista because it sounds close enough to my real that I’d answer to it, and McHugh is a family name. I was going to use my initials and my maiden name (C. L. White), but that sounded too close to C. L. Wilson… although I’d love to be mistaken for her. ;-)

  21. Elisa Paige says:

    My pen name is almost my actual name (first: Elise middle: Paige), but is a bit of a family joke because it reflects my mother’s southern accent when she’s mad and two-naming me. Because I pub nonfiction under my real name (Elise Gaston Chand), I thought it made sense to have a pen name for fiction.

    Teasing my mom? Priceless.

    – Elise/a

  22. Monica VanBeekum says:

    I loved this article! I have been thinking of using a pen name and I was surprised that my husband agreed! I think I will use a nickname that my friends call me and my mother’s maiden name. I want it to be easy to remember,and one I will answer too! You don’t want your kids’ teachers knowing you write erotic romance the first day of school! ;)

  23. Tia Nevitt says:

    I married into a great last name, and Tia is an old, old nickname of mine. I had been using “Tia Nevitt” online for years, so it seemed practical to continue using it.

    It’s cool to see how you guys came up with your name!

  24. Cat Marsters says:

    Christine, I use two separate names for my erotic stuff and my non-erotic. That’s the line I draw, regardless of sub-genre. Basically, would I be happy with my mother or my teenage cousins reading it? If the answer’s no, then it’s a Cat Marsters title. If yes, then it goes under the Kate Johnson name.

    Kate Johnson is my real name, and yes it’s hardly uncommon but at least people can spell it. I occasionally get misspellings of ‘Marsters’ but on the other hand, it gets pronounced the same way in England (where I live) as in America (where I’m published).

    I chose Marsters purely because of my gigantic crush on James Marsters (Buffy was still on TV when I started out). And Cat because it’s the name I’d have chosen for myself had I been christened Katharine instead of Kate. Plus I’m a huge cat person.

    I did also Google around before I settled on it, to make sure no one else was known by this name, although someone did contact me on MySpace to say it was her real name (she didn’t seem worried about it, though). However, recently I’ve seen another author whose first and second names are only one letter away from mine! Hmm, I’d have Googled a bit more if I were her.

  25. Yeah, if I had it to do over again, I would possibly ditch the middle name as sometimes I end up seated in the Ps at booksignings and sometime in the Ss and lots of people try to put in a hyphen. BUT it meant a lot to my father when I included my maiden name on my first book. And by itself, Cindy Pape sounds just a little juvenile. Since Cindy is my full legal name, I just worked with what I had.

  26. Dawn says:

    Love this! Really brings valid points to life. And it’s most likely not what people even think of when choosing a pen name.

  27. Jody W. says:

    I use my name for my romance and a pen name for my erotic romance to differentiate.

  28. I’m currently having doubts about my pen name, but I still think it rolls of the tongue nicely. I’m thirteen, and so the only place to show my work is FanFiction.net. I’d advise ‘Emi’ as a start, if you feel like you wish to sample my magic- and now onto my pen name.

    Aiden, is Gaelic for little fire, interesting no? I thought so to. Fletcher is a maker of arrows, as I’m sure you are aware, its a simple name that people can grasp and remember me way faster then if it was- say Killoniaon, plus that would take forever to write at signings. Plus I like the way my tongue moves and makes it sound exotic, the pairing of the names.

  29. J.F Moody says:

    I’ve chosen a pen for privacy reasons of course. My pen name is roughly based the main character in one of my short stories.

  30. Rin Ivory says:

    I chose the name “Rin” because I am a huge fan of a Japanese singer called Kagamine Rin (Rin is her first name, but in Japan they put the last names first and it feels weird for me to put her name the Western way) and I like surnames beginning with vowels, and “Ivory” sounds pretty.

    A pen name is good for me, because I share a full name with:
    •My friend’s twin
    •A contestant on a TV show last year
    •…and a porn star. Nuff said >_<

  31. I chose to use a pen name for privacy and because there are segments of my life (my church, my daughter’s parochial school) where people don’t need to know I write werewolf smut, you know?

    Kinsey is my SIL’s dog, Holley is close to my real first name. I chose the middle initial for another SIL but now I kind of wish I didn’t use it – on ebook sites and elsewhere I’m sometimes listed as Kinsey Holley, sometimes as Kinsey W. Holley.

    Answering is no problem – it feels natural. When I did RT last year with several of my fellow Nine Naughty Novelists we called each other by pen names all week, and no one found it confusing.

  32. Pippa Jay says:

    My pen name is just an abbreviation of my real name. So it’s dead easy to remember, and people already called me Pip/Pippa since Philippa is such a mouthful! Also my surname is Green, which is pretty common, so I just used my middle initial (J) to make a new one.

  33. Juliana Howell says:

    I am currently trying to come up with a pen names for privacy reasons and had a question. Some of you say you only use a secondary pen name if you write erotica and non-erotica and some do use it for fiction vs. non-fiction and I’ve found a few people that say to use different pen names for different genres. I have several stories that fit into 4 different fiction genres, Sci-fi/Fantasy, Western/Historical, Drama/Thrillers, and one Horror. Most will have sex scenes except maybe two of them. I wondered if I should use different names but same initials or possibly similar last name. Any advice would be appreciated.

  34. Angela James says:

    Hi Juliana! Keep in mind that as many pen names as you have, is effectively doubling, tripling or quadrupling the marketing efforts you have to do. Think about why you really want or need a different pen name, and if you have the time commitment to both write the books and market all of those pen names!

  35. There’s an author whose name (first and last — the city’s name is two words) is identical to that of a city in Maryland. I assume it’s a pen name (according to Amazon, she lives in Maryland). It’s a lovely name — if one has never heard of the city. If one has, IMO the connection is a bit distracting.

    I use my own name for all my publications because, to me, my nonfiction, horror, and paranormal romance are all connected by my interest in vampires. So I want the crossover effect; I hope some readers of my books about vampires in literature will seek out the fiction and vice versa.

    1. Angela James says:

      Margaret, now I’m imagining an author named Ocean City or Mount Airy, lolol! (I live in Maryland so I can imagine some bizarre names)

  36. Amy Blume says:

    My Question is, if your main character is a man and you are a woman, should you go out of your way to make your name seem as neutral as possible? J.K. Rowling and P.N. Elrod are examples that pop to the top of my mind when I think about this. I almost always write from the point of view of a man, so this concerns me.

    1. Angela James says:

      @Amy good question. My answer is not necessarily, but if you’d feel better about it, why not do so?

  37. Nancy Hardy says:

    I love hearing how everyone came up with their pen names!

    I write in a few different genres, so I have come up with pen names that I feel are appropriate for each.

    For my YA/New Adult, I’ve chosen A.J. Colbert. My daughters names are Amanda and Jessica, and Colbert is my maiden name. And like Amy noted, I wanted something a bit neutral, because I write from the POV of both my male and female protagonists equally, hence the initials. My dad would be tickled to see his last name on the cover of a book, plus there’s the added benefit of being linked to Stephen Colbert – years ago, an imigration official at the airport in Jamaica asked me if I was related to Stephen.

    For historicals, I’ve chosen a first name with the same initial, but am using my married name because I love it: Nicola Hardy.

    For my contemporary romance, I’m sticking to my real name, at least until I think of something better.

  38. Shantea says:

    My first and last names are both obnoxious (and yeah, last name is French,) so I want a pseudonym so people can say/spell/remember it but I haven’t really been able to settle on anything. I’ve been writing a lot more and am getting ready to start submitting, so I’d better get to work on that!

  39. Mizumaki Masahiro says:

    First off, I’d like to apologise in advance for any grammatical/spelling errors – English is not my first language.

    I had to choose a pen name because another author/mangaka already had the same name. I found your article very helpful. Thank you!
    Mizumaki is a far cry from my original surname, but it works. Masahiro is similar to my actual first name (Masanori).

  40. The Nameless says:

    I’ve been trying to come up with a pen name for as long as I’ve been writing, and never fell on one that wasn’t stilted or ridiculous. I’ve looked at so many websites, tried all the tips and tricks, and got nowhere. Not even my porn name will work because I’ve always lived on streets with awkward names.

    The sad thing is that I probably need for safety reasons. I’m a gay man who writes about gay guys doing gay things, and that could make certain members of my family fatally angry.

  41. Kitty Gamble says:

    I’ve just settled on mine, and I think it’s working. It’s my maternal great-grandmother’s maiden name (because she was awesome) and my paternal grandmother’s name. Well, nickname. Because of the subject matter of the novel I’m currently writing, Catherine or even Kate was not a good idea.

    Though having seen Kitty as a bad name above, I’m having second thoughts. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing? I’m Irish, and my exposure has been my grandmother and Kitty Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, and so I didn’t consider it would sound bad to other ears…

  42. Angela James says:

    Kitty, I think maybe it depends on what you’re writing, but my suggestion is always for authors to look at what the pen names on the bestseller lists (repeatedly) are like. Do they sound cute or do they sound serious? Are they names people will take seriously or think someone is being clever? Are they names people won’t be embarrassed to use in a recommendation? If you’re comfortable with your pen name, in answer to those questions, then go for it!

  43. anon for now says:

    Thank you for your comments, very insightful and helpful! :)

  44. Sandy Panting says:

    Actually my real name sounds a bit adult film star-ish which is one of the reasons I’m considering a pen name. :) I picked out a name a few years ago which is a combination of my name and my husband’s name Kevin and Sandra – Kendra and Thomas which is my dad’s name. It’s fairly normal sounding so it way less embarrassing than my actual name.


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