13 Steps to Creating a Pen Name that Sells

Updated: Jun 14, 2020

So you want to be a fiction writer. You want to make it to the best seller list in a week. You want to earn multiple Hugo Awards. You want your books featured on every New York bookstore’s front display. You want Lionsgate to buy the rights to your masterpiece. You want journalists and agents groveling at your feet. Well, I’m here to let you in on a little secret: if you want all that (and, honestly, who doesn’t?), you’re going to need to make sure your author name has the right oomph. Think about it: the names of popular authors are their entire brands! Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, J.K. Rowling, George R. R. Martin, Nora Roberts, Nicholas Sparks, and John Grisham. (Many of these have—or are—pen names, by the way.) Their names evoke delight and fear and anguish and excitement and . . . you get the idea.

This doesn’t mean you should say sayonara to your own name and start thinking of hip alternatives. I mean, you can, but choosing a profitable pen name is a little more complex—and serious—than many writers realize. A writer’s name can be what makes or breaks his or her books’ success. Also, if you have a pen name, you’re basically resigning yourself to a split life; in one part, people call you by the name your parents gave you, or by the name you grew up with; in the other part, people call you by what is, at first, essentially a stranger’s name, and you have to get used to it. You have to be sure you’re fine with both those lives, especially if you’re planning to be famous someday. Because a pen name has the power to lift you into financial heaven or to crush you under the foot of failure, you should spend an ample amount of time doing the necessary brainwork and research to create a commercially successful pen name.

Thankfully, you don’t need much outside help to create a pen name, not if you know the process. So, here are the steps you need if you want to create a pen name that not only works—it sells.

Note: This article is geared toward fiction writers. If you’re a nonfiction writer, check out this great article.

Step 1: To Pen Name or Not to Pen Name?

Sometimes your real name is fine—even perfect—for an author. But sometimes you’re facing at least one of these issues:

·      Your name is too long. “Maximilian Higginbotham” is a fun-sounding name, but it’s too long for an author name because it takes up too much room and too much time to write and say. Sorry, Maximilian’s parents.

·      Your name is too commonplace. If your name is Robert Johnson, then unfortunately there’s a high chance that another Robert Johnson out there has already published a book or two. You run the risk of being mistaken for someone else if you use a really common name. For instance, I know of an award-winning author and graphic designer named Robin Williams. After doing a double-take when I read the name, I looked up this author and discovered that no, she did not provide the voice of a big, lovable genie. Apparently, this Ms. Williams’s career hasn’t been hurt by her name’s similarity to that of a popular actor, but in general you want to avoid sharing a name with someone else famous or semi-famous, or else you’ll end up confusing potential readers and attracting readers that you don’t actually want. (“I wanted to read the other George Smith’s series. One star!”)

·      People have a hard time remembering your name.

“Hey . . . Mr. Hearse, right?”

“It’s Horst. And it’s my first name.”

This might not always be a problem—a lot of people might not have a hard time remembering what to call you. But if situations like this happen often, consider just cutting everyone a break and going with a name that’s easier to remember.

·      People have a hard time pronouncing your name. Again, take clues from how people talk to you. Do they avoid saying your name? Are they always giving you nicknames? Is “Where does that name come from?” a common question? If you’re seeing people’s faces scrunch up as they read your nametag, creating a pen name will help those poor chaps who would have otherwise ended up slaughtering the pronunciation of your name.

·      Your publisher wants you to have a pen name. Trust the publishers—they’ve been in the business long enough (usually) to know when a name will work and when it won’t. However, they might not always broach the subject. If they don’t bring it up, you can decide whether to just go with a pen name and let them know about it (and maybe ask their opinion), or you can just stick with your name. A good publisher would be sure to tell you if your name just wasn’t going to rake in the bucks. However, if your publisher or editor never brings up the issues with your name, the choice is up to you (until they veto the pen name you propose).

·      You want to publish in multiple genres or multiple markets. You might be surprised by how many authors write in more than one market but don’t use the same name in them all. Part of the reason is that if, say, Danielle Steel were to start writing horror, the readers of the horror genre might be skeptical, since they mainly know her as a romance writer. Sometimes, however, authors can write in different genres using the same name if the genres are similar (like science fiction and fantasy); and sometimes an author is able to pull fans into reading his or her books in a different genre, but it’s fairly risky and usually works only if the author is already mega-famous.

·      You just want the chance to unofficially change your name without spending a penny. Hey, no judgment. Sometimes people just don’t like their names. If that’s you, then you’re absolutely eligible to have your own pen name.

If you fit into any (or most) of these categories, you should probably publish with a pen name. And if you decide to go with a pen name, you’re in good company; many authors have one or multiple pen names. In fact, pen names have been in vogue for hundreds of years. “Voltaire” is a pen name, as are “O. Henry,” “Mark Twain,” and “Stan Lee.” Even Nora Roberts (not real name) has published her books under four different pen names.

If you’ve decided you want to give a pen name a shot, keep on reading.

Step 2: Unload the Ol’ Thinker

It’s time to let ’er rip! Every name, word, phrase, or image that comes into your head—write them all down. Exercise your brain’s creativity muscle.

If you’re having trouble thinking of options, look at old phone books, your family tree, names of colors, encyclopedias, maps, fairytales, historical figures, and other places where you might find inspiration. You can also think of a word that relates to you or to your book and find out what that word is in different languages. Make sure to write down anything that could even remotely work as a first name or a last name.

Some ideas may seem like piles of muck, but you can jettison those after you get everything out. Then, once your brain is fresh out of ideas, you can start throwing out the weeds. Come up with a good ten or so words that could work as first names and ten or so that could work as last names (and a few for middle names, if you want). Once you have your list, it’s time to turn those random words into plausible human names.

Step 3: Mix It, Match It

Start making combinations from the lists of names. Note any pairs (or trios) that are passable. Say the names out loud—first and last names together—and see how they sound. Do they feel good on your tongue and sound pleasant to your ears? Do they make sense as a pair? If so, hold onto them. Try to put together at least several possible matches.

There are just a couple of things to keep in mind when mixing and matching:

·      Middle names can be a hassle. Often it’s helpful to go with a middle initial, or no middle name at all.

·      Pay attention to names that, when put together, sound like words or phrases that maybe you don’t want to be associated with. For instance, you probably don’t want to use the name Anita Goodman unless you’re a comedy (or comedy-romance) writer.

Hey, you have some options for pen names! Now you just need to use a bit of logic, psychology, and instinct to determine which of those options is going to fit you, your book, and your wallet.

Step 4: It’s Okay to Play Favorites

We’re going to take a quick break from outside influences and strategies. I want you to look at the list of pen name options you have and then go through and put a star next to each of your favorites. Try to narrow the list down by at least twenty-five percent, but make sure you have more than just a couple of options.

Once you’ve done this, go grab some water or a bite to eat, wind down for a bit, and get ready to dive into the finer points of effective pen names. (Hey, I warned you this wouldn’t be a quick process!)

Step 5: Know the Status Quo

This one might raise some hackles, but unfortunately it’s something authors have to deal with. The problem is this: readers in certain genres are less likely to read books written by a specific gender. It’s a sad truth, but it’s also the reason Joanne Rowling decided to go by the gender-neutral “J. K. Rowling.”

So, take a look at your target audience. Are you a science fiction author? Then your audience is likely made up mostly of men who will probably be more open to a new author who has a masculine or gender-neutral name. However, if you would rather have a feminine name, you might be able to sway your audience by having either a first name that is intriguing (like Ursula, Octavia, or Justina) or a last name that sounds hardcore (like Novik, Sargent, or Brackett), or both. (Those ones are all taken, by the way.)

What if you’re a romance author? Then your audience is mostly made up of women, though this situation is a bit different: women usually don’t have a problem with reading books by men, even in the romance genre. (Hi there, Nicholas Sparks!) However, romance-reading women will probably be more open to an author with the name Joshua than an author with the name Boris. Pay attention to those small details.

If you’re adamant about not adhering to the status quo, that’s absolutely fine, and it may even work to your advantage. But it’s important to know that there are risks involved when using certain names in certain markets.

Step 6: “Grzegorz . . . Brzęczyszczykiewicz?”

STOP! Before you move on, look at the pen name options you have so far. Now read them out loud. Now have someone else try to read them out loud. Is there are possibility that it will be hard for readers to pronounce any of those names? If so, consider very carefully whether you want to hold onto those names.

Now, names that people pronounce in different ways are different from names that people always butcher. For instance, others may pronounce Isaac Asimov’s last name differently than you, but you would still know who they’re talking about. However, a name like Yevgeny Arkhangelsky would be difficult for anyone outside of Eurasia to pronounce—avoid that kind of name.

After you’ve determined that your pen name options are pronounceable to the general public, you can continue.

Step 7: Mind the Genre!

Out of that list of pen name options, you want to pick one that fits in with the rest of the books in your genre. Some names might be a little too cutesy for a horror writer, while others may be too dark for a comedy writer. The best way to navigate this terrain is to look at the footprints others have left; what names do other authors go by? Analyze the names of authors who have published successfully in your book’s genre. What emotions do they stir up? What imagery do they raise in your mind? Do they sound gritty? Elegant? Mysterious? Cheerful? Majestic?

To help, I’ve created a short list of popular authors in a few of the mainstream fiction genres. If your book fits into one of these genres, analyze these authors’ names (and add more authors to the list if you’d like). If your book doesn’t fit into one of these genres, or if you would like to analyze a subgenre, go ahead and make your own list.

·      Fantasy: David Farland, Neil Gaiman, J. R. R. Tolkien, George R. R. Martin, Ursula K. Le Guin, Patrick Rothfuss, Naomi Novik, H. P. Lovecraft, Holly Black, and Stephen King.

·      Science Fiction: Isaac Asimov, Orson Scott Card, Michael Marrak, H. G. Wells, Margaret Atwood, Anne McCaffrey, Robert Silverberg, David Brin, Gene Wolfe, and Connie Willis.

·      Historical Fiction: Kate Alcott, Sebastian Barry, Marie Benedict, Geraldine Brooks, Elizabeth Chadwick, Ken Follett, Margaret George, Philippa Gregory, Toni Morrison, and Amor Towles.

·      Mystery: Agatha Christie, Tana French, P. D. James, John Grisham, Stephanie Black, Sue Grafton, Michael Connelly, John le Carré, Lee Child, and Mary Higgins Clark.

·      Young Adult: Marissa Meyer, Veronica Roth, Suzanne Collins, J. K. Rowling, Marie Lu, Patrick Ness, Cassandra Clare, Jenny Han, Sarah J. Maas, and Ally Condie.

Once you have your list and you’ve analyzed the similarities (and differences) between authors’ names, look at your own list of pen name options. Do a few stand out as names (last or first or both) that would fit into your book’s genre? If so, and if you don’t hate them, then grab them and move forward. However, if none of your options seem to fit, then you can choose: you can go back to Step 2: Unload the Ol’ Thinker and try a new brainstorming session; or, if you love the options you’ve chosen, you can go ahead to the next step.

Step 8: And Don’t They Forget It!

We could go on and on about the psychology behind what makes a name forgettable or unforgettable. But that would be boring, so let’s just focus on a few basics:

·      For the most part, names with fewer syllables and letters are easier to remember.

·      Names with only three syllables (Stephen King, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, etc.) are more memorable, but only barely. Just keep the name to a sensible length and you’ll be fine.

·      Well-known names (or words) are generally easier to remember than made-up names or exotic names. If you want to amp up your pen name’s memorability, then it may be helpful to eliminate any options that sound invented or too foreign. However, if you want to keep a more exotic-sounding name, then do it! You may end up turning that name into an effective branding tool for yourself.

Though this, like every step, is optional, keep these principles in mind as you continue to narrow down your list of pen name options.

Step 9: About them Bookshelves . . .

This one is going to surprise you: bookshelves can play a part in how well your book sells. Of course, this only applies if you want to publish traditionally—if you’re just interested in publishing your books as eBooks, then you can skip this step.

When readers walk into a bookstore or a library, usually the first place their eyes land on are the shelves where authors’ last names begin with letters near the middle of the alphabet. If an author’s name is closer to the beginning or the end of the alphabet, readers have to reach up higher or bend down lower to see books by the author. Of course, this doesn’t hurt authors like Brandon Sanderson and Margaret Atwood, but those authors started out when the market was slightly less competitive. Now, you want readers to zoom straight at your books with no back problems obstructing their way or Markus Zusak bestsellers distracting them.

Step 10: Phone a Friend

You’re almost there! You’ve narrowed down your list of pen name options to a small handful (hopefully). Now, go out and talk with some people (digitally or in person). Asking them what their opinions are on the options you’ve chosen. If they are readers—and this is especially important if they’re fans of the genre that your book is in—ask them which of your pen name options they would rather buy a book from and which they would remember easier.

Do this with multiple people. You can even set up polls on social media to ask your friends or people in your writing groups which pen name(s) they think would work best, and why. Then sit back and let your future fans do this part of the work.

Step 11: The Final Countdown

You’ve reached the most heart-wrenching part of the process. You have to take the pen name options you’ve come to know and love (even, perhaps, the one you’ve decided you like the best), and you have to find out if any other writer in the world uses that name. Gather your courage. You can do this!

Go to Google, and searched for “[pen name option] author”, then again for “[pen name option] writer”. You’re going to have to do this for all your options. If any searches bring up results showing that your pen name is already taken by another writer, you have to scratch that option, no matter how much it stings. The reason this is important is that if you publish under a name that another writer has, readers may end up finding that other author’s books instead of yours! You do not want that to happen, so toss out that “Lauren Oliver” pen name you were hoping to use.

Step 12: Drumroll, Please!

The time has come! It’s now your turn to choose your favorite pen name option. Just go for it! Then get a good night’s sleep—you deserve it. May your dreams be pleasant and full of book signings.

Step 13: “Why Didn’t You Tell Me?!”

Oh, you thought you were done? Not quite. This final step doesn’t help you create a pen name, but it’s crucial to your success (and to your stress levels). After you get up, stretch, sit back down at the computer, look at your new pen name, bask for a bit in its gloriousness, and then tell your publisher/agent/editor. If you don’t have a publisher or agent or editor yet, then make sure you let them know immediately what your real name is as well as your pen name. Otherwise, you might end up facing some awkward situations with your publisher and bank.

If your publisher or editor or agent tells you to—gulp—change your pen name, ask why. He or she probably has a good reason.

And now you’re done.

Congratulations—you have an effective pen name!

What you do with your pen name is up to you, but you should start getting it out into the wide world. You can start marketing it, creating a website around it, building a social media following with it . . . but those are a whole new bag of rocks. For now, keep working on your book, and be ready to run your fingers over the printed letters of your pen name and grin every time you overhear someone mention it. Your excellent pen name will complement your excellent books and help lift you into the ranks of today’s popular authors. 

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EditingTime © 2021 by Suzanne Uchytil
suzanne.uchytil@gmail.com | Developmental, substantive, and copy editor

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