A pen name, or nom de plume, is a pseudonym (fake name) used by authors who don’t wish to publish work under their own name.
Authors use pen names for many reasons, whether it be for branding purposes or just for privacy. Regardless of why one chooses to use a pseudonym, creating a pen name can play an important part in your book’s marketing.
In this article, you will learn:
- What is a pen name
- Why do authors use pen names
- Whether it's legal to use a pen name
- How to choose the best one
Let's dive into how to come up with cool pen names that will work specifically for your book.
Heads up: If you purchase something by clicking on a link in this article, I may receive a small commission. You don’t pay a penny more, but it helps me write more content like this.
Table of Contents:
- What is a Pen Name?
- Why Do Authors Use Pen Names?
- Is it legal to Use a Pen Name?
- Why and How to Choose Good Pen Names [Podcast]
- Pen Names of Famous Authors
- How to Choose a Pen Name [Step by Step]
- Step 1: Identify the Right Age For Your Pseudonym
- Step 2: Choose Options That Fit Your Literary Genre
- Step 3: Check Your Pen Name’s URL and Social Media Handles
- Step 4: Choose a Name That’s Easy to Spell, Pronounce, and Remember
- Step 5: Make Sure Your Pen Name Isn’t Similar or Identical to Another Author’s
- The Best Pen Name Generators (Including Anagram Makers)
- How to Properly Copyright and Use a Pen Name
- How to Create a Pen Name in KDP
- So, What’s Your Pen Name?
What is a Pen Name?
A pen name is a fake name used by some authors to protect or disguise their real name for a variety of purposes. This name is used on book covers, as part of copyright notices, and in marketing a book — in place of the author’s own name.
Pen names are also known as:
- Nom de plumes
- Fake names
- Literary double
Why Do Authors Use Pen Names?
What are pen names used for? Authors may use a pen name for many different reasons, including:
- Fear of reprisal: Authors may be afraid of some sort of retaliation against themselves or their families. This is particularly true when writing on controversial subjects. To protect themselves and their family, an author may write under a pseudonym.
- Separation of personal and professional life: Some authors have a day job and would like to keep it that way. If you don’t want to mix your side projects with your professional or even private life, a pen name can help.
- Similar name to someone famous: If my name was Steve N. King, you'd better believe I’d be choosing a pen name. Do yourself a favor starting out — have a unique enough author name to stand out online, and make sure no one confuses you with a more famous person.
- URL and/or social media handles for their name have been taken: For an author, your name is your brand — so make sure you have access to the URL and social media handles you need.
- Better marketing opportunities: Whether your name is hard to pronounce or has an overly complex spelling, simplifying it with a pen name may help you market your book(s) more effectively.
- Gender changes: Female authors throughout history have chosen male pen names for novels they didn’t believe would be as popular if readers knew they were written by a woman. This was especially common in the 19th century as women broke into literature but were still looked at as “lesser” writers. The Brontë sisters and J.K. Rowling are two famous examples. Even today, it’s perfectly acceptable to choose a pen name of a different gender than your own.
- A name doesn’t fit the genre: Hamilton Butcher probably isn’t a great name for spunky teen fiction novels about a 14-year-old girl. Penelope Thistle might not be a name befitting the author of detailed manuals on instructional design. Pen names can allow authors to choose names specifically targeted to their genre.
- Writing in multiple genres without confusing fans: To keep things clear when writing in different genres, some popular authors choose a pen name to match each genre in which they write. J.K. Rowling chose to write her Cormoran Strike crime fiction series under the alternate pen name of Robert Galbraith.
- Just for fun: I’ll let you in on a secret — we authors enjoy our creativity and fun. You don’t need a “legit” reason to pick a pen name instead of using your own name. If you want to do it, just do it!
I myself have published extensively under multiple pen names, although Dave Chesson is my real name. I started doing this because I used to work for a U.S. embassy and wished to separate the two worlds for professional reasons.
Should you write under a pen name? You should write under a pen name if you feel it’s the right choice for you. Whether it’s to choose a more memorable name, because you’re concerned about what people may think about your work, or if you think it just sounds fun, it’s up to you!
Is it legal to Use a Pen Name?
Pen name legality is actually pretty straightforward. Yes, it is legal to publish written work under a pen name. There is nothing illegal about using a pen name, and it’s often a smart decision from a business standpoint.
Amazon and all major book publishing platforms allow authors to use pen names or their own names.
According to intellectual property attorney Matt Knight, there are several facts about using pen names that new authors should be aware of:
- Authors are allowed to register copyrights for their created works under a pen name. However, this does reduce the length of time the copyright will be active. Plus, if you’re being very careful about your anonymity and choose to register a copyright without using your real name, it can be harder to prove you own the material. These are both items to discuss with your attorney before publishing.
- You may acquire a trademark for a pen name. Even though your own name cannot usually be trademarked, there are certain conditions under which you can trademark your pen name. Dr. Seuss, for instance, is a trademarked pen name.
- You can technically sign contracts using your pen name. It’s not done often, but it’s technically legal (according to Mr. Knight). Using your pen name won’t shield you from legal issues, though.
- You shouldn’t use another author's pen name or real name. Unless you’ve negotiated with an author to take over their established pen name, choose your own pen name. (Fun fact: This type of pen name swapping is popular among writers of romance novels.)
- Using a pen name doesn’t protect you from defamation lawsuits, taxes, or any other liabilities. Don’t badmouth other authors, skip paying your taxes, or breach a contract you signed, period. And don’t rely on your nom de plume to protect you from legal consequences of breaking the rules — it won’t.
Why and How to Choose Good Pen Names [Podcast]
Let’s take a look at some of the more well-known authors operating under pen names.
(Ready to pick your own pen name? Skip to the next section to get started!)
Pen Names of Famous Authors
There are many successful authors who write behind famous pseudonyms. Some of the most famous pen names are:
- J.K. Rowling
- Dr. Seuss
- Stan Lee
- Richard Bachman
- Lee Child
- Mark Twain
- The Brontë sisters
- George Orwell
- Mary Westmacott
- George Eliot
- J.D. Robb
- Lewis Carroll
- Lemony Snicket
Real Name: Joanne Rowling
Why she uses a pen name: Her publisher wanted to disguise that she was a woman so her books would appeal to boys as well as girls. She doesn't have a middle name, so she chose “K” from Kathleen, her grandmother.
- The Harry Potter series and various additional works in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (1997-2018, plus future unpublished works)
- The Casual Vacancy (2012)
- The Cormoran Strike series (by Robert Galbraith, 2013-2020)
Additional Pen Names Used: Robert Galbraith
Real Name: Theodore Seuss Geisel
Why he used a pen name: Geisel was banned as editor-in-chief from a magazine for drinking during Prohibition, so he wrote under the alias “Seuss”. He added “Dr.” for his father, who had hoped he would get his Ph.D., though he dropped out before finishing his education.
- Horton Hears a Who! (1954)
- The Cat in the Hat (1957)
- Green Eggs and Ham (1960)
- The Lorax (1971)
Additional Pen Names Used: Theo LeSieg and Rosetta Stone
Real Name: Stanley Martin Lieber
Why he used a pen name: Lieber wanted to save his real name for his more serious literary work, so he used Stan Lee for the “kid stuff”. After achieving worldwide recognition for his comic books, he legally changed his name to Stan Lee.
- Captain America (1941)
- Spider-Man (1962)
- The Incredible Hulk (1962)
Real Name: Stephen King
Why he used a pen name: Horror novelist Stephen King wrote as Stephen Bachman for 8 years early in his career. He says he made the decision because it was not considered “acceptable” in the publishing world at that time to release more than one book per year — but he had more to write.
After creating a rich backstory for the writer of his pseudonymous novels, King chose to stop writing as Bachman when the alias was revealed to be a nom de plume. While the name has not been used since the 1980s, critics still marvel at the unique writing styles of the Richard Bachman pen name compared to novels attributed to Stephen King.
- Rage (1977)
- Thinner (1984)
Real Name: James “Jim” D. Grant
How he chose his pen name: Grant heard an American mispronounce the car Le Car by Renault as “Lee Car”. Anything “lee” became a joke in his family. His daughter, Ruth, was “lee child.”
Famous Works: Jack Reacher thriller novel series (1997-2020)
Real Name: Samuel Clemens
How he chose his pen name: Samuel Clemens was a licensed river pilot by trade. “Mark twain” is a river term that means two fathoms (or 12 feet), when water depth for a boat is being sounded. “Mark twain” means it is safe to navigate.
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
The Brontë Sisters
Real Names: Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë
Why they used pen names: The three Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, feared their literary works with obviously feminine names wouldn’t attract readers. Instead, they chose the gender-neutral pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (respectively). Today, the sisters are famously known for their real names.
- Jane Eyre (by Charlotte Brontë, 1847)
- Wuthering Heights (by Emily Brontë, 1847)
- The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (by Anne Brontë, 1848)
Real Name: Eric Blair
Why he used a pen name: Blair wanted to protect his family from the embarrassment of their time living in poverty. He chose George Orwell as a “good round English name” by which to publish his dystopian bestsellers.
- Animal Farm (1945)
- Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
Real Name: Agatha Christie
Why she used a pen name: Agatha Christie, already a famous author of Murder on the Orient Express (1934), used the pen name Mary Westmacott when she made the genre switch from crime and mystery to romance novels. Her Westmacott books include 6 semi-autobiographical books with a tragic and psychological take on the facets of love.
- Giant’s Bread (1930)
- The Rose and the Yew Tree (1947)
Real Name: Mary Ann Evans
Why she used a pen name: Like many female authors of the time, Evans chose a male pen name, in part, to conceal that she was a woman. However, “George Eliot” was also a cover for her unconventional lifestyle: an unmarried woman living with a married man (whose first name was also George).
Eliot is highly regarded as one of the most influential novelists of the Victorian era. According to The Encyclopedia Britannica, he is credited with developing “the method of psychological analysis characteristic of modern fiction”.
- The Mill on the Floss (1860)
- Silas Marner (1861)
- Middlemarch (1871)
Real Name: Nora Roberts
Why she uses a pen name: Roberts is a New York Times bestselling author under her given name, but uses the pen name J.D. Robb for her suspenseful romance “In Death” series and science fiction police procedurals.
- Naked in Death (1995)
- Mirror, Mirror (Taken in Death) (2013)
Additional Pen Names Used: Jill March and Sarah Hardesty
Real Name: Charles Lutwidge Dodgson
How he chose his pen name: Dodgson, a respected mathematics lecturer at Oxford, chose the pen name Lewis Carroll for his romance and children’s works. He first translated his first and middle names to Latin (Carolus Ludovicus), then reversed the order and re-translated them to English, resulting in his chosen pseudonym.
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)
- Through the Looking Glass (1871)
Real Name: Daniel Handler
Why he uses a pen name: Lemony Snicket was the made-up name Handler used to request materials for an early book project when he wanted to protect his true identity from the organization. He reused the name for his pseudonymous Unfortunate Events series.
Snicket became both author and morose narrator for the series, while Daniel appeared “on his behalf” at book events, encouraging readers not to read the works with “unhappy beginnings, middles, and ends.”
- A Series of Unfortunate Events series (1999-2006)
How to Choose a Pen Name [Step by Step]
When selecting a pen name, it’s important to first remember the huge marketing value a pen name holds (particularly in the era of Amazon and Google search).
The pseudonym you use for your writing can have a large impact on your book and your platform because it:
- Can become the domain name of your website
- Stares your reader in the face on your book cover
- Can impact whether your readers easily remember you as an author or simply remember the names of your books
In essence, your pen name is your author brand. You want to be sure to choose a pen name that evokes the right emotions for your target audience, is easy to remember, and doesn’t resemble another author.
To choose a pen name:
- Identify the right age for your pseudonym
- Choose options that fit your literary genre
- Check the availability of your pen name’s URL and social media handles
- Choose a name that’s easy to spell, pronounce, and remember
- Make sure your pen name isn’t similar or identical to another author’s
Step 1: Identify the Right Age For Your Pseudonym
The age of a writer plays a huge role in the psyche of the readers. If you are writing an instructional book targeted at middle-aged adults, it isn’t a good idea to choose a name that sounds like it belongs to a 21-year-old.
A name that sounds younger than your target readers is a fast way to kill a book project before you get started.
Pro tip: Once you know the age of your ideal reader, use BabyCenter to find the list of top baby names from your pseudonym’s birth year. Their lists of top baby names by year go all the way back to 1880 (although you’re probably not going to pretend to be a 141-year-old author).
It’s okay to pick a name a few years older than your target audience in most cases. Try to avoid sounding younger, if possible.
Let’s say, for instance, your target audience is 35-year-old females. You’d like to select the name of a woman of about 40 (born around 1981).
In many cases, people choose two first names for a full pen name. For female names, a male first name can also serve as a great last name.
Using this list from BabyCenter, we can come up with age-appropriate pen names like:
- Tiffany Michelle
- Elizabeth Daniel
- Rebecca Nicole
Step 2: Choose Options That Fit Your Literary Genre
Names evoke emotion. The very structure and sound of a name might bring to mind anything from sci-fi adventures to erotic romance novels and anything in between.
A great real-life example of this is author Ali Knight, who changed her name to match her genre. Her real name, Alison Potter, felt too close to children’s author Beatrix Potter (of The Tales of Peter Rabbit) and the fantastical tone of the Harry Potter series.
When Ali’s publishers requested she change her name before her first book was published, they chose a name more sensible to the thriller genre. She needed something that was risky and dangerous — like her books. Ali Knight sounds much more fitting, right?
When choosing your author pen name, consider whether or not it fits with your genre. If you aren’t sure, check the other books in your genre and category on Amazon and ask yourself:
- Are there similarities to names in this genre?
- Do the authors more often use initials or fully spelled-out names?
- Are the author names primarily male, female, or a mix?
- Do the names feel simplistic and basic, like “Christina Stone,” or fantastical, like “Lemony Snicket”?
As an author who understands your target market and your competition, you’ll more easily be able to come up with a pen name that fits the vibe and makes sense to your readers.
Step 3: Check Your Pen Name’s URL and Social Media Handles
To promote your book, you’ll probably want to own the internet domain and social media handles for your pen name.
You may or may not intend to brand your pen name or write more books under it. However, if your book takes off and you want to pursue it, it will help if your name’s domain is already yours. Otherwise, you will be stuck with a second-rate URL or have to pay a boatload of money to get your name’s URL.
Before picking your pen name, go to Siteground and check if the domain name is available. This one step could save you a lot of heartache in the long run.
To find if a domain is available using Siteground:
- Type the pen name you're considering into the domain search bar.
- Change the extension if you’d like to try something other than a .com. (In the last few years, as .com sites have become harder to find, there has been a surge in popularity for new extensions.)
- Click ‘Search'.
Siteground will tell you if that domain is available or give you alternative suggestions if it is already taken.
Pro tip: Domain squatters (cybersquatters) sometimes track search frequencies of URLs to snatch up domains they can turn around and sell for more. It’s a good idea to be ready to purchase your chosen domain when you sit down to search, rather than searching for it several times over a period of weeks before buying.
Many domains are available for between $7 and $80 per year from domain providers like Siteground. If someone else owns the domain, even if they aren’t using it, it can cost upwards of $1,000 to procure.
The good news is that, if you own the copyrighted and/or trademarked rights to a specific name, you may now have legal rights to a domain someone else purchased in bad faith.
You should also acquire the social media handles for your pen name. Consider signing up for the primary social media sites (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.) with your pen name as soon as you can, even if you wait until later to use the accounts.
Step 4: Choose a Name That’s Easy to Spell, Pronounce, and Remember
Try to choose a pen name that uses a simple and/or familiar spelling, is not difficult to pronounce, and is likely to be remembered.
This isn’t a shot at all those difficult names out there, but understand that someone is more likely to remember you if your name is something that sticks out and is not too hard to spell.
Just imagine your fan struggling to remember your pen name. “Oh, what was it?” they say, scratching their head.
Or, worse, it's a name they can’t even begin to spell. How will they ever search and find you on Google or Amazon?
A few rules of thumb for choosing an easy-to-understand pen name:
- If you’re picking a common name, such as Ashley, be very careful about going with an alternate spelling, like Ashleigh, just because you think it looks nice.
- Say the pen name out loud. Now, ask 5 of your friends to say it out loud. Did they all pronounce it the same way? Did any of them stumble over the pronunciation?
- Try not to pick a name so common that it’s forgettable. Ashley Nicole is a pleasant-sounding name, but it’s so common among millennial women that it might be easily forgotten.
- Consider using alliteration, initials, or making up a creative name (if it fits with your genre). After all, no one has ever forgotten the name Lemony Snicket after hearing it once — it’s even easy to spell!
Step 5: Make Sure Your Pen Name Isn’t Similar or Identical to Another Author’s
Beware of choosing a pseudonym that's similar to a famous author, person, or character. Leeching off someone else's fame is not a good tactic. More than likely, you:
- Won’t get your author name URL,
- Might get into hot water with the famous person, and/or
- It will be nearly impossible to rank on Amazon or Google for your name
People who search for you will have to go through pages and pages about the famous person before they can even find your work or website. Having a name that's close to someone else who is more popular than you can be a real killer.
You can also search the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) for any existing trademarks using the name you want to use. Using someone else’s registered trademark will earn you a fast cease-and-desist letter.
Before you choose a pen name, do a Google search and look through the results. When I do this for “Dave Chesson,” it turns out there is a famous skateboarder in the UK who has the same name. Luckily, he isn’t uber-famous — or else we would be in major competition for Google space.
We’re safe on Amazon since he hasn't written a book. Hopefully, he doesn't get mad at me for overtaking the “Dave Chesson” search… sorry, bro!
You should also say the name out loud to make sure it doesn’t sound like another famous author’s (or another famous person’s) name. Mark T. Wayne may not belong to another author, but it sounds a whole lot like “Mark Twain”.
The Best Pen Name Generators (Including Anagram Makers)
Still not set on a good pen name? Try a pseudonym generator or anagram name maker below to create cool pen names.
A pen name generator is a piece of software that randomly goes through a database and finds legitimate-sounding names. If you used the steps above, you likely have a first name in mind.
However, it can be difficult to figure out an interesting last name that doesn't scream “I'm a fake”. This is where a pen name generator can come into play.
One that I like is the Fake Name Generator. This pseudonym generator is above and beyond any other. Not only will it generate legitimate names, but it will also create a real address, phone number, occupation, and even a fake credit card number so you can give your new persona supporting context and a backstory, if you like.
The Fake Name Generator is one of the only pen name generators that lets you specify gender and culture. How about them apples?!
If you want to try more alias name generators, choose from the list below one that best fits your genre and needs:
Reedsy’s Pen Name Generator — Pick a first letter, gender (or neutral), and spoken language to find a fun author pen name.
Masterpiece Pen Name Generator – Get a list of pen name ideas after adding details and fun words from a few prompts. Masterpiece will give you multiple options by literary genre based on your answers. You can even choose zombie, vampire, or wizard names.
Fantasy Name Generator – This massive name generator has hundreds of types of fake names to choose from, whether you need a Victorian-era name or want to sound like one of the Marvel Eternals. Hover over the name types on the top menu, select a name generator, and then generate 10 random male or female names at one time.
Evil Name Generator – This creative tool gives random creepy names for all your evil naming needs. (This one is also great for coming up with fantasy or sci-fi character names, including for monsters and beasts.)
Finally, some writers like pen names that use the letters of a word, sentence, phrase, or name to create a pen name with hidden meaning. An anagram maker makes this super easy.
I like this pen name generator anagram tool because it lets you customize more and gave better results than the other anagram makers I tried. The results were actually really cool. The letters from David Chesson can be turned into:
- Edison Chad
- Vance Sho
- Issac Devon
- Vince Ash
- Denis Vasco
- Noah Vic
- Neo Issac
- Sho Davis
A similar tool, Igne's Anagram Generator, used the letters from “Jonathan Blackwood” to generate names like:
- Janna Woodblock
- Honda Bowjack
- Jakob Landon
- Landon Jackboot
- Jacob Landown
- Dalton Johan
- Kahn Tojo Waldon
- Jonah Town
- Joanna Wonk
- Johan Walton
Whether you call it a pen name generator, an alias generator, a fake name generator, a pseudonym generator, or an anagram maker, these tools can help you come up with a pen name that makes both you and your readers happy.
How to Properly Copyright and Use a Pen Name
Choosing a great pen name to use for your books, poems, or short stories is the hardest part of this process (I promise!).
To properly choose, copyright, and use a pen name:
- Do all of your research using the 5 steps above, ensuring that you’re not choosing another well-known person’s name. (Just a note: While it’s okay to choose a pen name of a different gender, it’s not as acceptable to choose a name specific to a different ethnicity than your own. There’s no point in unnecessarily offending potential readers.)
- Purchase URLs and secure social media handles for your pen name.
- Legally set up a business using your pen name, especially if you plan to open bank accounts or other accounts using your pen name. Most authors choose sole proprietorship or LLCs, but you should discuss this with your financial advisor and attorney before proceeding to make sure you’re doing what’s best in your specific situation.
- Apply for a Fictitious Business Name Statement (FBN Statement) if you plan to receive payments under your pen name. This is a type of DBA (doing business as) statement. Some places in the US require you to have a qualifying word, like “books” or “publications” after your name when setting up an FBN Statement. These registration websites differ by state. (Amazon will make payments to the account owner name of your KDP account, so if you’re only selling on Amazon, this may not be necessary.)
- Inform your agent and publisher of your real name for contracts and tax purposes, if possible. (There are a few exceptions to this rule — you can sign contracts with a pen name — but using your real name for official purposes makes things easier in most cases.)
- Use your pen name on your book cover and copyright notice (like this: © 2017 [your pen name]).
- Register the copyright for your work under your real name and/or your pen name. There are drawbacks to using only your pseudonym. In particular, it’s harder to prove your ownership of the work with a pen name only — plus, it reduces the amount of time your copyright will be in effect. Attorney Helen Sedwick says, “I recommend that authors register their pseudonymous works under both their real names and pen names. This creates a permanent record of ownership, and few readers are going to research copyright records and find out the author’s real name.”
How to Create a Pen Name in KDP
Once you finally choose a pen name, make sure you have it set up correctly in KDP.
To set up your pen name in Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) for Amazon book sales:
- Go to the KDP website.
- Select a book already uploaded to your account or start the process of adding a new book.
- Enter your chosen pen name in the author First and Last Name fields.
- Press “Save and Continue” and finish publishing your book to KDP.
Because you entered the name within your KDP author account, which is under your legal name, Amazon knows you’re the true owner of your book. There should be no legal concerns of someone with the same name claiming authorship or any other legal standing for your book with Amazon.
Amazon will make payments to the name listed on your KDP account, not your pen name.
You will also be taxed via your KDP account with your legal name. If your KDP is used to publish books by multiple authors, you will be responsible for ensuring they cover the taxes for their books — and that you pay them what they’re owed for their book sales. Pen names won’t help get you out of your dues to Uncle Sam.
Watch the video below to see how to set up a pen name in your Amazon author account.
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So, What’s Your Pen Name?
As you can see, there are many steps that go into choosing a pseudonym.
A pen name shouldn’t be something you carelessly decide because it can be an important part of marketing your book. Pen names can be your brand and your identity — and once you've established that brand, it can be costly to erase and restart.
Choose wisely using the tactics and criteria listed above.
Did the pen name generators give you any perfect or terrible pseudonyms? Let me know your results in the comments below.