Thursday, April 1, 2010

On Pen Names

In the comments, Taylor Taylor asks,

How do authors go about choosing pen names? What are the pros/cons of having a pen name? What percentage of authors use pen names versus their real names?

Think of your author name -- whether your real name or an assumed name -- as a product brand. You want a brand that suits the product. Just as we wouldn't name a motor oil "Princess Sparkly Rufflepants" or a formal tea house "Jawbreakers," we wouldn't want an unsuitable author name for your books.

What makes a name unsuitable? If it's hard to pronounce or too closely resembles someone else's name, that might be a problem. Too unusual, too ordinary, too long, too sing-songy. If your primary market is a male readership, you probably want a male name, and a female name for a female readership. (Yes, there are exceptions. To all general rules.)

I don't think anyone keeps statistics on the number of authors that use pen names, but I can report that for my house, we're looking at more than 90% pen names. The primary advantage of using your own name is that nobody can keep you from using it again. Or ever. The primary advantage of using a pen name is not anonymity (though that's crucially important for some), but branding.

Let's say you already write a successful cozy mystery series under your own name, but you have a hankering to try your hand at something different. Your "Annie Author" books are already associated with certain qualities -- mystery, an amateur sleuth, a small-town setting, a cookie recipe in every book, or whatever. If you release an ultra-gory horror novel under the name "Annie Author," how do you think that will play to your mystery fans? Eep. Probably depends on the readers, right? So you create a separate brand, "Kassidy Killsalot," and cross-market the two brands. The "Annie Author" fans who like bloodsoaked pages might be more inclined to buy the "Kassidy Killsalot" stories if you reveal your double identity. And the ones who don't like that type of story will be tipped off by the different author name.

There's a rumor going around that the best author names start with the same sounds. Let's take a look at the top ten authors on the current USA Today list and see if there's any evidence to support that theory. For our purposes, I'll just list the author name and not the book or publisher.

1. Nicholas Sparks

2. Jeff Kinney

3. James Patterson

4. Nicholas Sparks

5. Michael Lewis

6. Stephenie Meyer and Young Kim

7. Chelsea Handler

8. Rick Riordan

9. Rick Riordan

10. L.J. Smith

Well, we have two places to the same author with an alliterative name, Rick Riordan. The rest, not so much. In fact, if we want to draw conclusions from this list, those might be: have a man's name (7/10 are clearly male), write MG or YA books (5/10 or more), and try to have a movie made of your book (4/10, but 5/10 if "Vampire Diaries" is a movie -- I think it might be). In any case, alliteration is probably not the way to the bestseller list. But don't let that stop you, if you really prefer an alliterative name.

Beyond that, you know, just think in terms of what might be appropriate for your genre. I know a lot of erotic romance authors reach for names that evoke female-empowered subcultures like the 60s freedom movement (Summer, Rain, River, Raven, Jade, Winter, etc.) and earth religions (basically anything that sounds Celtic or Gaelic or Native American). But you don't need a name like that. It's just that many authors writing this kind of story take on those types of author names.

Why do erotic romance authors choose names evocative of those particular subcultures? Because for many erotic romance readers, the stories and the subcultures share common traits -- open female sexuality, an end to the double standard, love as an empowering force, and so on.

So now I want to throw this back to you. Think about your favorite genre or subgenre. What type of name do you associate with that type of story? Why do you think it works?



Julie Harrington said...

I'm a fan of contemporary romance and it seems like a lot of the names are either classic female baby names (Elizabeth, Stephanie, Jennifer, Nancy, Linda, Margaret, Julie, etc) or classic last names like Roberts, Brown, Jackson, Miller, Kelly, Thompson, Foster)... but they *always* seem to be one or the other and rarely both. The 2nd 1/2 of the name tends to be more exotic or at least a more *contemporary* spelling of something familiar like:

Lori Wilde

Jillian Hart

Deeanne Gist

And if the name ties into a concept of romance, it seems, Wild, Heart, etc, it's not necessarily a bad thing as long as it isn't hokey or overt.

I tend to think they lean this way because while contemporaries lend themselves to classic setups in the here and now, they're also modern, forward thinking... so there tends to be the same thinking with name selection: something we'd recognize and be comfortable with and easily remember but with, perhaps, a thoroughly modern spelling twist.

Paranormal names, I think tend toward the more exotic -- familiar enough to not be difficult, spelled different to be exotic which kind of matches the whole paranormal industry, I think, and they lend themselves to Irish, Welsh, Gaelic, Celtic, etc.


Unknown said...

An estimate of 90% pen-names really surprised me. I wonder, is that generally the case across all fiction genres, or is that just particularly high for romance? Very curious to know.

Thanks! (-:

Leona said...

I tried to explain this concept to my husband. He didn't quite get it, although the whole JD Robb and Nora Roberts thing helped because he liked JD and not Nora. I used jayne Anne Krentz, Amanda Quick and Jayne Castle (all of which I own and he's seen in abundance) and he thought it was kooky. When I asked him if he'd buy a horror story by a Jayne Castle he looked at me quizzically. He hadn't thought much about the 'what's in a name' problem for authors and writers.

I find it an interesting prejudice that we associate the type of book with the name. Wonder if it's left over from the days of thinking that women shouldn't write anything, and women shouldn't write anything serious that's not for other women?

Interesting thought.

Julie Harrington said...

I almost mentioned Jayne Ann Krentz aka Amanda Quick aka Jayne Castle aka Stephanie James aka Jayne Taylor aka Jayne Bentley aka Amanda Glass... LOL.

It's a great example because she of those identities defines the type of story you'll get.

Quick? Historical.

Krentz? Contemporary.

Castle? Futuristic.

All potentially with a touch of paranormal. My mom's a huge fan. She loved getting to meet her at the RWA Nationals a few years ago.

But yeah, she's a great example of what you get with each "Brand" and surprisingly enough? She said a lot of her readers won't budge over the lines. They read one and that's it. So I find it interesting that she's really making it clear on her site and her emails these days that she *is* all 3 of those names and I think her marketing of her arcane society across all 3 genres and 3 names was brilliant. But that's another topic for another day. :)


Riley Murphy said...

Okay, I could have a field day with this one but, I’m not going to...

So, as to the question?

Think about your favorite genre or subgenre. What type of name do you associate with that type of story? Why do you think it works?

This is interesting. What initially came to my mind - being a romance junky - was the name Jennifer. Why? Because Jennifer Blake wrote THE BOOK that hooked me for life. Anyone remember Tender Betrayal? Loved it! That initial trust in a normal type name - still draws me over a play on a name or a playful name. I mean, I'd be more inclined to buy Lori Foster's new release over Darlain Buttercup’s. So, yes, I can see where there's been an impact in my life with this. I trust normal names. I’m scarred! Ugh! Thanks for pointing this out, Theresa. Now I'll be perusing the book shelves with more to worry about than finding that perfect book. Like that’s not enough to worry about...

Murphy :D

Leona said...

Okay, Murray, er Murphy, not sure how someone like you could have a field day...

What's wrong with Princess Buttercup? I do not think that word means what you think it means.


How in the world did you find the termnity to blame THERESA for your neurosis. You know it's WES and DAVE who are constantly picking on you whom are to blame. (A little bit Jami G's fault as well with her PPPs etc) :P

Dave Shaw said...


Is termnity sort of a terminal version of temerity? It sounds so cool, even if I don't know what it means! But blaming me for Murphy's neurosis? That would be like blaming the rat for mine! Now, Wes, on the other hand...

Now, if y'all will excuse me, I need to come up with a pen name for my mantasy series.

Leona said...

Dave LOL

I'm doing scriptfrenzy PLUS 3k words a day (currently at 5pages on script and 900+ on WIP) so a little frazzled lmao.

It's working to help snap up my dialogue and action, but trying to learn a new formatting skill, new writing type and keep up on my super secret awesome new idea paranormal manuscript and making costumes for a show (dress rehearsals start on MONDAY April 5) is nerve wracking LMAO

Did I mention I have five kids?? My writing time was getting eaten up so I made it a priority whether they liked it or not!

Wes, yes we can blame te large part on him, but you and your cameras have surely made her paranoid?? :P

Wes said...

How did I get dragged into this???? I was being nice and minding my own business.

But as to the question. I don't see any pattern to names of authors in my favorite genre, historical fiction. Margaret George's name does lend a little authority. James A. Michner.......don't know what to think of that. Can't find a pattern.

Riley Murphy said...

How could I have a field day dreaming up a pen name for, hmm...say, an erotic romance writer? Geez, Leona, I have no idea. But hey, let me take a throbbing stab at it - shall I? ;) How's B.J. Luver, sound? Or, Floozie Pantsbegone?

You say: How in the world did you find the temerity to blame THERESA for your neurosis.

I say: Um, because I didn't know I had one until Theresa got me to thinking about it.

You say: You know it's WES and DAVE who are constantly picking on you whom are to blame.

I say: Not a chance! (You’ll notice I didn’t add JG in there) :D

AND, I’d just like to point out, that I was behaving myself and STILL - I catch some heat. What’s up with that?


Amanda Borenstadt said...

I never thought of this. It takes me forever to choose names for my characters. Could be fun picking a pen name for myself. :)

Leona said...

*groan* I just asked my family to help me think of pen name for the erotica I'm writing as I've already published under my name for science fiction and guess what names where suggested. First, here's my yahoo email addy lebonasmiles. Second, my kids who contributed range from 8 to 18.

First suggestion from 18 yr old daughter - leBONasmiles. and 17 yr old son said yeah. roflmao

8 yr old son said skelegirl lol wow any comments suggestions??? I think I've had enough input from the local peanut gallery!!

Ian said...

Do publishers ever REQUIRE an author to use a pen name?

Julie Harrington said...

And do publishers ever help you select one?


Stephen Kozeniewski said...

Somebody else riffing on this subject (I can't claim credit, unless it's valid, in which case, I claim full credit) said that the ideal name for an author is a two-syllable first name plus a one syllable last name and (as you mentioned) not alliterative. Stephen King, Brian Keene, Irvine Welsh, and so on and so on. So when you're constructing youre pen name you're supposed to use that as a structure. But failing that use one of these: Hercules Rockefeller, Rembrandt Q. Einstein, Handsome B. Wonderful, or Max Power

Jami Gold said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Leona said...

@Jami G more, my teenagers (17 & 18)and husband. whole family involved in my writing :D 8 year olds suggestion was funny considering he didn't understand what he was voting for LMAO

oh and between you and me? I knew if I needled Murphy a bit, she'd make me laugh again!!

She's too fun to heckle, as I'm sure Dave and Wes can attest (Wes, you may not have entered the fray here, but you are a permanent gladiator on the field here :D).

Dave? If you write a mantasy after all the wonderful information you have access to on this blog, you will be tarred and feathered - after we have laughed our butts off.

And btw, I do believe we have a winner on the pen name: Anita Richards...

Whirlochre said...

Hey — don't knock that Princess Sparkly Rufflepants. It's good stuff.

Dave Shaw said...


The rat voted for Dirk Manley. What do you think?

Riley Murphy said...

Gee, Dave, I'd be more inclined to switch that name up - as in: Manley Dirk. ;)


Riley Murphy said...

I forgot the most important part of choosing a name. Thinking from a business perspective - shouldn’t a writer be concerned about shelf placement? What about if you have a last name beginning with Z, well - you may be last in the alphabet line - so down low on the shelves but, the upside would be - you'd be found rather quickly - as the end is where the reader starts to look for you. So, that being a thought - hmm...what about choosing a name that begins with the same letters as someone already well established and entrenched in your genre? Lots to think about...


Jami Gold said...


*ahem* Try 'Dick Manley'. :)


Yes, my entire extended family is so sick of me running various drafts of my query letter by them. LOL! Gotta love drafting the family.


You know, that's a really good point about shelf placement and the possibility of being shelved near someone well-known. Very interesting...

Jami G.

Amanda Borenstadt said...

M.T. Rodriguez sounds good and it's genderless.

I kind of like the idea of putting my novel next to Neil Gaiman's Maybe I should be A.K. Gabble. Change my initials too? P.T. Gabble? LOL Kinda fun.

Then again, here I am, building up my little blog following, using my real name, like I've heard I should, only to publish under a brand new unknown name? Do I quick, use the new name now and publish all future short stories under it?

Leona said...

I think your first name is better than the initials that sound like "empty" or that stand for mountain, especially for mysteries.

Women have a harder time which is funny considering great authors like Dame Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers leading the way.

Personally, I'm more likely to by a mystery by someone named Monica than MT but, I'm weird. Just look at all my previous posts, especially those with Murphy involved. Somehow those always get skewered. :P

Leona said...

Oh and Dave,

weird or not, I don't think any woman would buy a romance from someone named Manley.

pulp said...

I've read that a pen name becomes the property of the publisher. You alluded to that when you said "The primary advantage of using your own name is that nobody can keep you from using it again. Or ever."

It sounds as if you're agreeing that a pen name belongs to the publisher, not the author. Therefore the pen-named author would not be allowed to use her popularity to sell books the name-owning publisher doesn't want to buy. Is this true?

Julie Harrington said...

I believe the whole sexism issue was why J. K. Rowlings went with her initials vs her name -- her books were targeted at young boys (8 to 12 I believe the article said) so they made the decision to go with initials as not to put young boys off reading what "girl wrote." LOL. They used to do it all the time with mysteries as well. For some reason "back then" mysteries were a man's domain, so a lot of women wrong under male pen names.

These days though, I don't know. I don't associate thrillers & mysteries with male or female. Maybe it depends on the subject matter and tone? If it's a grittier, gorier, graphic type novel, I can see going with M.T. because you won't run into that issue. Men will still pick it up and women won't care (I don't think) one way or the other.

I like the M.T. route myself. :) I ran into this when I wrote a sci-fi novel and a mystery novel way back when and submitted it under my initials J.A. Any correspondence I got back on it all began the same -- Dear Mr. so and so. LOL. In fact, most of the people I dealt with online at the time for crits all thought I was a -- and I quote -- 50 year old man. I was more like a 20 something woman. *G*


Dave Shaw said...


Rodriguez is fast becoming mainstream in the US, so I don't think it's a bad possibility. M. T. Rodriguez - hmm, not sure if 'empty' is a good thing. Monica Rodriguez is a bit of a mouthful, though. Lots of things to consider there.


After the input from Murphy and Jami G, and reading Docmon's post, the rat has modified her suggestion to Sir Manley Dickie. I'm not sure if she has her little tongue in her whiskery cheek, though.