To Pen Name Or Not To Pen Name?

What’s in a name? After all, as our sixteenth century colleague Will once penned:  “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  (Romeo and Juliet.)  Nevertheless, publishing experts all seem to agree that modern-day publishing demands the author build his or her own writer platform.  Blogs galore tout the same message and authorities on writing (e.g., Writer’s Digest) even offer classes on how to do just that.


From a publishing standpoint, building your writer platform is not just about exposure, but also about making connections, i.e., building a strong relationship with a regular community.  In short, how many people can you reach who might at some point be inspired to buy your books.  However, in my prior life, I used to practice intellectual property, media and advertising law.  So, the trademark lawyer in me sees it as something equally important:  B-R-A-N-D-I-N-G. 

Yep, that’s right, branding.  If you build your writer platform correctly, you will also be building your brand.

Advertising executives for leading corporate product and service brands often spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on naming consultants and focus groups before launching marketing campaigns for a new product or services.  They may change the packaging and even the formula of a product later on, but they rarely (if ever), change the product name after a national ad campaign is launched.  In the same manner, deciding what name will go on your published works should be given serious consideration before you launch your product — you — via your writer platform.

So back to my original question: What’s in a name? Well, if your name happens to be Oprah, you’ve got it made.  That little typographical error made by the delivery nurse on your birth certificate guaranteed that your name is so unique no one else is going to have one remotely similar (at least not until your local Chicago talk show goes to national syndication and inspires lots of little Oprah namesakes).  But, if your name is John Smith, distinguishing yourself from the crowd may be more challenging.

Of course, many a famous John has managed to take a common first and last name and build a writing brand.  Take John C. Maxwell for example.  He includes his middle initial on his bylines and that helps him stand out from the crowd.  Well, sort of, there’s also that little matter of having distinguished himself as one of the foremost authorities on leadership and a clarity of writing style that makes seemingly academic musings on the subject accessible and even enthralling at times.  I have to admit that his Failing Forward is one of my all-time favorite books.  In fact, I dare say, it should be required reading for any aspiring author (but I digress).

There are three common scenarios where a pen name seems to be the inspired choice:

(1)   You’ve made a faux pas in your past life and you want your writing career to be separate and free from any residual drama or your newest work is in a very different genre than your prior works.  Then, you may want to create something fanciful like Pittacus Lore as the pen name for your next go round at authorship (even if writing with a co-author).

(2)  You want to remain somewhat anonymous in your private life.  I say “somewhat anonymous”, because there will always be certain people who know you have a pen name and what it is.  Nevertheless, if you’re say a Kindergarten teacher with a gift for writing erotic fiction, you may not want the parents or administrators in your school district to see your name on the cover of that kind of book.  Oh, my!  I’d say a pen name might be de rigueur in this instance.

(3)   Or, perhaps, you simply don’t think your given name is sexy enough or its as common as John Smith and adding a middle initial just doesn’t satisfy you.  You want to take on a new persona, much like some Hollywood actors do.  You’d rather be Cary Grant than Archibald Leach or go from Norma Jean to Marilyn Monroe.  This can be particularly appealing if that URL you want is unavailable.  These days the writing platform seems to be all about the .com and your online presence.

Then again, you may just be one of those people who love their name and want to see it in print on everything you write.

Here’s the thing.  Whether you are set to write under your own name or decide to take a pen name, the best time to make that decision is before you build your writer platform unless you want to spend time educating your followers to look for your books under a different name.  Ugh!  Not that it can’t be done, but it sounds like a PR headache.  I’m excluding, of course, those instances where you are an established writer and your first authorship name is so famous it can sell your second writing brand — e.g., Stephen King writing as Richard Bachman or Nora Roberts writing as J.D. Robb (we should all be so lucky!).

Your author name will become your brand.  So, whether you stick with your birth name — with or without your middle initial — or you come up with something that keeps you in cognito, helps you distinguish yourself from the other Johns or Lisas (yeah, I resemble that remark) or simply seems sexier, remember a writer by any other name is … well … an author.

Please leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts on the subject.  Then, let’s connect:  Like me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter (@AuthorRayne).

Thanks for stopping by.


  1. Very informative, well thought out post. I legally changed my name years ago to something I liked, so it’s a “brand-name” I’m proud of. I’m building my blog as we speak, having been here only two months. I have noticed how important it is to connect with real readers and form relationships. I’m confused, however, on how “big” of a platform publishers need, want. Thoughts?

    1. Thanks so much for your kind words! So glad you liked the post. As for your question about the necessary size of your platform, I haven’t come across any definitive info on the subject. One thing I’ve started doing is looking up authors who work with publishers or agents I’m interested in and seeing what their platform and audience look like. Maybe that would be helpful for you to do as well if your genre is conducive to the exercise.

  2. Who knew there was so much homework involved in just choosing a name. Today, especially with self-publishing, I see that authors have to be sure to run themselves much like a small business. While developing the art of writing, authors have to remember to but on their business hat as well. Interesting article. I’d love to see even more info on branding.

    1. Karol, I agree that becoming an author these days is like starting your own business. Any author who is just focusing on the creative side (WIPs, etc.) without thought to the business side, will likely find that publishing isn’t all they thought it would be. Love your idea about discussing more on branding. It gives me an idea for a follow up piece!

  3. I have considered a pen name, mostly because I have an Arabic name and worried there would be some stigma from the public since English is not my first language; however, I read somewhere that there’s a lot of legal stuff involved, especially if the name on your payroll is different than the name on the cover.

    1. Zen, actually the logistics of getting paid while using a pen name are pretty simple. Publishing companies have been doing it for decades (as have other entertainment industries where professional names are common, like music and motion pictures). A good agent or lawyer can walk you through the process so don’t let this issue stop you from adopting a pen name. Think about the brand you want to market and whether your given name or a pen name would best help you achieve that.

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