When “Should” Writers Use a Pen Name?*

* Note: This is a re-post of a post that originally appeared in December 2014. I’m out of town at the Left Coast Crime Convention this week (seahorse fans, never fear…my husband stays home to fish-sit), but the question “Should I use a pen name?” seems evergreen, so I’m running this post again.

To clarify from the outset: I don’t think there’s a single answer to the question “should I use a pen name?” Use of a pseudonym involves multiple legal, business, and personal issues, and is a question each author needs to answer on his or her own (if appropriate, with the assistance of legal counsel).

That said, this post takes a look at some of the times when authors do elect to use a pseudonym, and examines some of the reasons why it might–or might not–be a good idea.

Why would an author want to use a pen name? Let’s look at some of the most common reasons, and the business arguments for (and against) a pseudonym:

1. Avoiding “Day Job Conflict.” Many authors have day jobs other than writing. In some cases, the author would rather not deal with conflict or overlap between the “day job” and the author life, especially where the day job seems incongruous with the author’s writing. (For example: a kindergarten teacher who writes steamy romance novels.)

There’s nothing legally wrong with “hiding” the author life behind a pseudonym to avoid this workplace conflict, as long as the day job contract doesn’t specifically ban or prohibit it. (Check your contract – your mileage may vary.)

From a business perspective, keeping the “day job” separate from the writing life has advantages and disadvantages. Avoiding conflict comes at the price of not being able to promote your work within your circle of business contacts–which can impact sales, especially for new or lesser-known authors. On the other hand, use of a pen name does allow the author to work in unrelated or incongruous industries without creating confusion in readers (or co-workers) who find it difficult to understand how the day job “fits” with the author’s writing platform.

2. Writing in Dramatically Different Genres. Many authors elect to use their legal names for one genre and a pseudonym for dramatically different works. For example: a political analyst who writes nonfiction commentaries and erotica. Use of a pen name for one or the other helps to prevent confusion in readers and also keeps the author’s “platforms” separate. Some authors elect to reveal the pen name and the legal name on a single website – but this removes the advantage of the pseudonym.

The obvious “business negative” here is lack of crossover sales…but if you’re writing political nonfiction and erotica, the crossover part of the audience is probably relatively small (and likely to find you anyway).

3. Personal Protection. Some authors elect to use pseudonyms in order to avoid or mitigate political, physical, economic, or social harm (or conflict). This happens most commonly in memoir and nonfiction, where the author fears the ramifications of public “whistleblowing” or potential libel claims.

Never use a pseudonym to prevent physical or social harm without consulting an attorney and ensuring the pen name will actually provide the desired protection. Pseudonyms do NOT provide a shield against defamation or other civil or criminal misdeeds. Pen names will not shield you from liability, and do not force the publisher to “protect” your real identity. The publishing contract will give the publisher rights to reveal your name to the government, law enforcement, & for legal reasons.

4. Long, Difficult, or Awkward Legal Names. Sometimes, authors elect to use a pen name because the author’s legal name is long, difficult, or awkward to pronounce. Sometimes the pen name merely shortens or simplifies the author’s legal name, and sometimes the author opts for a different name altogether.

A related decision is use of a pen name to avoid confusion with an established author who has a similar (or identical) legal name. While not legally necessary, use of a pen name to avoid confusion with an established author does help prevent reader confusion. Some authors may think that sharing a name with a famous author will help sales, but in fact it can lead to confusion (and bad reviews). Readers don’t like to buy a book and then discover it wasn’t written by the author they thought they were buying. However, judicious use of a pen name to simplify or avoid confusion may help an author’s sales and recognition.

5. Shelf Position. Authors sometimes elect to use a pen name to improve their position on the bookstore shelves. Authors whose surnames start with letters like W or Y sometimes want to “move up” to keep their books off the lower shelves. Similarly, some authors opt for pseudonyms that put them “closer” to the most famous authors in their genre.

Beware changing your name to chase a position on the shelves. Not all bookstores stock the shelves in similar fashion, and other authors can always play the “jockey game” to get close to the bigger names.


Like all business decisions, the choice to use a pseudonym is personal, and one that only the author can make. Before deciding, investigate the legal ramifications (and get a legal opinion if your choice is based on legal concerns). Weigh the pros and cons–and make the business decision that’s right for you.

And, since we’re on a particularly legal topic…

Disclaimer: This post is for informational purposes only, does not constitute legal advice, and does not create an attorney-client relationship between me, you, and/or any other person or entity. Consult a lawyer for an individual analysis of your legal rights, or if you have personal questions about your rights and obligations.

Have questions about this or other publishing law related topics? Feel free to ask in the comments, email me, or ask on Twitter using the #PubLaw hashtag!