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Should You Use a Pen Name for Your Self-Published Books?

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.


An author in a forum on social media was talking about difficulties she was having selling her self-published book series. In the conversation, she mentioned that she had multiple pen names spanning multiple genres, and that more series for them were planned. The “multiple pen names” may be at the heart of her sales problems.

Pen names, or pseudonyms, can sound like a good idea for building an author brand or identity, preserving privacy, and being able to explore different writing genres. But using them can have an impact, positive or negative, on your book sales and even your life.

When Using a Pen Name Is a Good Idea

Pen names can be useful if you are trying to build an author brand or personality that’s aligned with the type of books and content you create, but which may be different than your day-to-day self. It’s similar to actors and musicians who have stage names.

More importantly, if you are writing for multiple genres or reading audiences, pen names help keep your work separated.

Warning: Your Pen Name Could Become Compromised

You better be ready for the public backlash and consequences that could occur should your pseudonym become compromised and your real identity is revealed.

In the internet era, there’s always a possibility that your real identity could be revealed. For example, I saw a report shared in a Publishers Weekly article about a teen lit author who also wrote erotic fiction under a pen name. She had been invited to speak at a teen lit conference. But when her mature adult genre and pen name became known through a Google search, she was disinvited to speak.

Your close friends and family members probably know both your real identity and your pseudonym. And you know how they can often be the weakest link in keeping that kind of information private.

If you have a day job, what if your employer finds out about your pseudonymous self-publishing side hustle? Especially if the subject matter or genre is controversial, how will your employer and co-workers react? Even if it doesn’t end up jeopardizing your job, your clandestine activities will be on their radar from here forward. And Google might rat you out when you apply for other jobs in the future. Before you publish books while employed, consult an attorney about your rights and responsibilities.

Registering a copyright under a pseudonym is possible under United States copyright law. However, there may be issues regarding copyright claims for a fictitious name. To preserve your ownership, you can register the work under the pseudonym, and provide your real name as copyright owner. But then your real identity is part of permanent public record. The U.S. Copyright Office suggests seeking legal advice on the matter. You can easily see why.

Keeping Your Pen Names Separated on Amazon

Amazon lets you set up multiple author pages (the limit is currently three) on Amazon through Author Central. For each pen name’s author page, you would claim only the books for that pen name.

On Author Central, be very careful when claiming books for your pen name author pages! What I’ve found is that you can request to have a book removed if it is incorrectly attributed to you. But it’s up to Amazon to remove it. I did request a removal for an old title that I don’t want to promote, but wasn’t successful.

For authors who write books for both adult audiences and children, this can be critical. You wouldn’t want your adult content books showing up along with your children’s books, or vice versa, on your author page or in search on Amazon.

Too Many Pen Names Means Too Much Marketing

When you have multiple pen names, each one operates like a separate author business, even if you are just one author. Especially if each pen name represents a vastly different genre or market from the other, you could increase your marketing effort and expense by double or more by having two author identities. The greater the number of identities, the greater the cost. That can be overwhelming for a single-author operation.

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Constantly switching gears between genres and markets can also be exhausting. You’ll have to establish and maintain multiple social media profiles and audiences. That can take hours each week. Many self-published authors can’t even get their social media act together for even one identity, let alone two or more.

Both of these issues were likely at the heart of the sales dilemma for the author in the opening example. Not only could low sales be the product of overextended effort and expense for multiple books in multiple genres, she also could be self-publishing too many books overall. That’s another hazard of pursuing too many pen names and markets. It’s tempting to chase all of them with equal vigor, which will just wear you out, along with your resources.

Are You Leading a Secret Life?

Is your pen name just a manifestation of your desire to have a secret life that the world doesn’t know about? This goes way beyond creating an author brand for your work. It could be a symptom of more serious psychological or emotional issues with acceptance, self-awareness, and self-confidence.

Your pseudonym could be a cover for what you consider as an unacceptable part of yourself that’s longing to be expressed. Or you may feel that you or your work are unacceptable socially. Either way, you’re living two (or more!) lives. A public reveal of your real identity could be even more devastating for you.

If this situation applies to you, it might be worth considering some coaching or counseling to determine if there are better ways for handling these personal issues than through the brutal business of publishing.

Diversity Issues With Pen Names

One of my author friends noted that using a pen name could help authors be accepted by audiences who may be prejudiced against them due to their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

This has been done by authors for years. For example, in the 19th century, French female author Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin was better known by the male pen name, George Sand. More recently, Joanne Rowling goes by the now famous gender-less pen name of J.K. Rowling. It's been reported that her publishers suggested doing this since the target audience for her Harry Potter series could include young boys who may not want to read her books because she was a woman.

What a thorny issue surrounding diversity and inclusion! This is similar to the issue of using a pen name to cover your secret existence.

Are readers justified in their prejudice? Of course not. Even if the prejudiced readers appreciated your work under the pen name, they still might not appreciate you. Choosing a pen name to appeal to a prejudiced audience shows you are willing to be inauthentic to kowtow to them and their biased view of the world. You've also convinced yourself that you need to be somebody else to be acceptable.

Think about this question seriously. Are prejudiced readers your ideal reader audience? I say they are not. So why are you changing yourself to be acceptable to them?

Questions to Ask Before You Decide to Use a Pen Name

There is nothing wrong with using a pen name for your publishing adventures, and there are benefits to using one. But you should do some soul searching to figure out why you’re interested in using a pen name with questions like these:

  1. Is your primary intent for using a pen name to create an author brand that will aligned with your genre and help you market your work appropriately? (That's the legit reason to use one.)
  2. Do you want to conceal the fact that you’re publishing? Who or what is keeping you from publishing publicly under your real name? Are you trying to avoid rejection? Are you afraid of judgment or ridicule by those who know your real identity?
  3. Is your pen name a ruse to hide some aspect of yourself you either want to explore privately or don’t want to show to the world? Are you choosing to use a pen name to fit in with prejudiced people who are not your ideal audience?
  4. If your real identity is compromised, how will you handle it? Would you be able to handle it emotionally and financially?
  5. Is your subject matter considered taboo, controversial, or socially unacceptable within your sphere of friends, family, fans, and employment? If your foray into these topics becomes public, what potential consequences would that bring for these relationships?
  6. Would your friends, family, and fans feel betrayed if your secret publishing adventures became public? Conversely, would you feel betrayed by people who reject or ridicule you because of the work you do under a pen name?

Your pen name decisions could have long-lasting effects. Take time before you self publish under a pen name to consider the value and risks of doing so.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2020 Heidi Thorne


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 23, 2020:

Mary, glad to hear that you thoughtfully considered whether or not to use a pen name. It's a big decision for authors and writers. I'm glad we get to hear from the real you.

Thanks so much for reading and sharing your experience! Have a lovely day!

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on September 23, 2020:

Heidi, before I considered using a pen name, but I'm glad I did not. After reading your very informative article, I have to admit that it is not a good idea. Thank you for posting this and enlightening us on this issue.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 22, 2020:

Hello Chitrangada! Indeed, authors need to know what they're doing when they use a pen name. I use my real name, too. Just makes it easier for me. :)

Thanks so much for reading and commenting, as always! Have a beautiful day!

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on September 22, 2020:

Great insightful article.

You have provided some valuable points, which the writers should understand before using a pen name. I have used my real name to write, but it’s good to know about the pros and cons of using a pen name.

Thanks for sharing another wonderful article.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 19, 2020:

Marie, glad you find these posts interesting. Thank you for your support. Have a lovely day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 19, 2020:

Peggy, it's most certainly possible that many authors are operating under a pen name, for whatever the reason. But it's a big decision for authors. Thanks for reading and commenting! Have a lovely day!

Marie Flint from Jacksonville, FL USA on September 19, 2020:

Good point, Heidi. Thankfully, I'm only interested in the first, rational reason.

I love reading your thoughts about the writing business. Thank you for sharing!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 19, 2020:

You have given us reasons to think about the pros and cons of using pen names. I was familiar with the pen name George Sand, and her being a woman. There are probably countless others out there that may, or may not serve them well.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 19, 2020:

Flourish, we all make some decisions in publishing that we'd want to do differently. And, yes, we run into the weirdos everywhere. :)

Thanks so much for adding your experience to the conversation! Have a lovely day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 19, 2020:

Linda, so few authors take the time to consider the consequences of their publishing decisions. So I hope these questions give them some food for thought.

Thanks so much for reading and commenting, as always! Have a lovely day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 19, 2020:

Maria, if the genres you write in aren't on opposite sides (such as children's books and mature adult romance), then sticking with one pen name isn't that much of a problem. You've obviously found that this pen name works for you and that's great. Limiting the number of pen names is certainly the way to go.

Thanks so much for sharing your experience in this topic! Have a beautiful day!

FlourishAnyway from USA on September 19, 2020:

Having had my share or more of weirdos over the years the only regret I have had if any is that I didn’t pick a regular sounding name for my pseudonym. Most people are kind and harmless but then once in a blue moon there is the person who is not dealing with a full deck.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on September 18, 2020:

You've discussed some interesting points, Heidi. The questions at the end of your article are important to consider.

Maria Giunta from Sydney, Australia on September 18, 2020:

I use one pen name - Maria P Frino for my short stories and novels. I write family sagas and science fiction. I see no reason to change my pen name just because the genre is different. My stories are doing well, so I see no need to change.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 18, 2020:

That's a good point, Farrah! If you limit your identities to those niches where you excel, a pen name can be a great marketing tool. I just think that some authors get carried away with it.

Thanks for adding that perspective to the conversation! Have a great day!

Farrah Young from Lagos, Nigeria on September 18, 2020:

Great points. However, if you write under just one niche a pen name isnt so bad.

If anything, it will fufil your desire of continued anonymity

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 18, 2020:

Bill, or billybuc, I think we've all set up a user name that now we regret. Luckily, I've been using heidithorne (or some variant of it) since I started on Twitter in 2008. So I've been pretty consistent over the years, and I'm always glad I did. It's served me well. But it's oh so tempting to get cute and creative, right?

Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts on the pen name issue. Have a wonderful weekend!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 18, 2020:

Hello, Janis! I never thought about using a pen name either. But I have a number of author friends who do. And there seems to be a fascination with doing it. Yep, just trying to give authors the big picture before they do something they might regret.

Thanks so much for reading and commenting! Have a wonderful day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 18, 2020:

Pamela, just trying to show the real deal before authors go launching into territory they're not prepared to experience. Thanks for reading and commenting! Have a beautiful day!

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on September 18, 2020:

This is an interesting article concerning pen names. You have certainly explained the ramifications, along with the pros and cons.

Have a wonderful weekend, Heidi!

Janis Leslie Evans from Washington, DC on September 18, 2020:

Very informative, Heide. I never thought about using a pen name but these issues helped me understand the pros and cons and what's at stake using one.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on September 18, 2020:


I still have regrets for signing up on HP with the name billybuc eight years ago. If I had it to do over again, I would have simply used my real name, which I use on all of my novels. That was a mistake in my opinion, but I'm much too busy to spend time crying over that spilt milk, you know?

But you are absolutely correct!

Happy weekend to ya!

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