How to Choose the Perfect Pen Name

Should you publish your work under a pen name? Kristen talks pros, cons, and tips for choosing the perfect name over on the She's Novel blog!

Well hello there, writers!

It's time to talk one of my MOST REQUESTED TOPICS EVER. Seriously, the question of pen names has popped up in my inbox and social media notifications a hundred times over since I launched She's Novel.

So it's about darn time I wrote a post on them, eh? I thought so, too!

As you probably know, a pen name–a.k.a. a pseudonym–is a fictitious name that an author uses when publishing their books. There are a ton of different reasons why an author might use a pen name, which we'll get into in a bit, but first there's something I need to say:

I am not a definitive authority on this topic.

I mean, I'm not a definitive authority on any writing topic really. And neither is anyone else. Because all the rules are made up and the points don't matter, and they're more like guidelines anyway (talk about a pop culture mash-up there, am I right?!).

Why do I mention this? Because...

There's some debate on just how necessary pen names are in the modern publishing world.

You see, in decades past, pen names held more weight. Women published under male names to afford themselves a better opportunity at success, privacy and anonymity were valued more highly, and readers didn't expect their favorite authors to write in multiple genres.

Granted, there were always exceptions to this "rule". C.S. Lewis comes to mind, as he wrote both adult and children's literature, as well as Christian non-fiction and essays on a variety of topics. But generally speaking, the use of pen names was much more popular in years gone by.

But the times are a'changin'!

Female writers have more respect and credibility, privacy means less since we can all be found on social media anyway, and, with the rise of technology, writers can now produce new books more quickly–giving them more time to expand into multiple genres while still building their career.

But the great pen name debate still lingers. 

I've been reading and researching author platforms, writing careers, and book marketing like crazy lately, and I've found that the pen name debate typically yields two opinions:

Opinion #1: If an author plans to publish in multiple unrelated genres or writing styles (fiction, non-fiction, poetry, essays, etc.), they should use separate pen names so as not to confuse readers.

Opinion #2: Now that it's far more common for writers to publish works in multiple genres or writing styles, they no longer need to use separate pen names in order to sell well.


Which camp do I fall into?

I have mixed opinions!

I recently did a lot of thinking about my own pen name, and I decided that I will publish both my medieval fantasy novels and my non-fiction writing reference books under the same name: Kristen Kieffer. 

Which, of course, isn't really pen name since I was born with it. But you get my point.

I also have a young adult urban paranormal manuscript that I may or may not publish in the future. If I do, I still plan to use the same pen name since paranormal and medieval fantasy both fall under the umbrella genre of speculative fiction. 

That said, I think if I were ever to publish a novel in an unrelated genre–say contemporary romance or spy thriller–I'd probably choose a different author name. But that's just my preference, and I think that's the point here: pen names are a preferential choice.

However, here is something good to keep in mind:

Your pen name is your brand name.

If you're planning to publish for profit, you need to consider the brand you're building. Yes, writer! You are indeed building your very own small business when you choose to publish. Congrats!

And the name you give your business–a.k.a. your author name–needs to be one that accurately represents the products–a.k.a the books–you're planning to offer. 

You can create one big brand that sells multiple types of books or several niche brands that offer more limited styles. The choice is yours! But no matter which you decide to pursue, choosing a solid brand name is a vital element of your success.

What goes into a solid brand name, you ask? Check out these four keys:

  • The name should be fairly pronounceable and easy to spell.
  • The name should flow well when spoken.
  • The name should set the right mood.
  • The name should be unique. 

Your author name doesn't need to fulfill every last one of these keys, but the more you hit, the better. That said, out of all these keys, I'd say that the last two are the most important.

If your author name doesn't reflect the type of fiction you write, readers are going to be justifiably uninterested. Take Judith Rumelt for example: 

Judith wrote popular Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings fanfiction for years before she finally decided to publish her own series of young adult urban paranormal fantasy novels. But Judith knew that her name would sound dated to her ideal teenage audience, so she chose to use a pen name instead.

Now you may know her better as Cassandra Clare, the author of The Mortal Instruments series!

See how your author name can set the right mood for your readers? But don't forget to make sure your potential author name is unique as well. It should stand apart from other authors for sure, but perhaps from other well-known humans, too.

Take my author name for example:

The trouble with my author name...

My name is Kristen Alexis Kieffer. Has a nice flow to it, right?

I'm lucky to have a fairly uncommon name that isn't terribly hard to spell or pronounce. I've gotten my fair share of "Kristin"s and "Kirsten"s over the years, as well as "Keiffer"s and "Kiefer"s (thanks Kiefer Sutherland), but all in all, my name is different without being too difficult.

A real winner when it comes to publishing, right? Maybe not...

When I first began thinking about my author name several years ago, a quick Google search revealed something horrifying: Kristen Kieffer is a well-known and critically-acclaimed potter. 

That Kristen Kieffer is also not me. (For the record, I'm a crap potter. Believe me, I've tried.)

So what was a new writer and blogger to do? 

Well, I ended up using my middle initial on the ~interwebs~. I became Kristen A. Kieffer...but I didn't like it at all. It had no flow. It sounded wrong on my tongue. The "A" really didn't need to be there. But how else was I to stand out?

Well, as fortune would have it, the rise in She's Novel's popularity (you guys, rock!) also led to a rise in my work among Google searches for "Kristen Kieffer". I was gaining some SEO ground on my name-buddy!

So when it came time to finally decide on an author name last month, I was thrilled. I felt like I had a fair claim to my own name again. After all, the world is wide enough for two of us, right? Especially when we run in different circles!

The point of my story?

It's alright if another talented person has your name, so long as they aren't a fellow writer. You're looking to stand out in your field, not necessarily from the rest of the world. Of course, if your name is something like Taylor Swift or John Mayer, you might want to reconsider, but you get my point. 

At the end of the day, the choice comes down to you.

If you want to use your real name when publishing, go for it. If a variation of your real name will help you stand out from other people, consider giving it a chance. Or if, for any reason, you'd like to use a completely fictitious name, go rock it friend. 

At the end of the day, there is no right or wrong in the pen name game, so long as you're building a stand-out brand that will help you sell your novels.

I hope you've enjoyed this pen name breakdown, friend. Before we chat it up in the comments, I have one final note for the ladies:

Dear fellow female writers,

I understand the desire to use your initials or a male pen name when publishing. We've had a tough go of it all these years, and many of those heavy patriarchal undertones still flow through our societal mindset today.

If using your initials or a male pen name is something you're absolutely certain you want to do, you have every right to do so. 

But if you're only considering one of these options because you think certain readers wouldn't take you seriously otherwise, please reconsider. If a reader wouldn't read your book simply because you're a woman, they're not the type of reader you want to attract anyway. Okay?

And while we're at it, the same goes for you lovely writers with "ethnic" names. Don't feel pressured to anglicize yourself just to make potential readers more comfortable. Books aren't meant to make people comfortable in the first place, so why change? Okay? 

Power to you, friends!

Love, Kristen


Let's Chat!


Did you enjoy this post, friend? I have a few questions for you!

  • Are you planning to use a pen name for your work?
  • What name did you decide on?
  • How did you come to your decision?
  • Do you have any questions about pen names I can answer for you?

Share your questions and answers with me in the comments below. I can't wait to hear from you!

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Kristen Kieffer is a writer of fantasy fiction and the creative writing coach behind She's Novel. She's made it her mission to help aspiring authors write sensational novels because obliterating expectations is her jam. Her other passions? Coffee and Tolkien, of course!

Kristen is the author of the upcoming The Books of Maveryn series and The Astral Series, as well as several non-fiction books for writers.