Update: this is an old post that still gets a lot of traffic, so I made a video in 2018 on some critically important pen name tips that will help you sell more books. Watch the video to learn more.
For a long time I thought using an author pen name was disingenuous. Plus it gets confusing to readers if you are called by different names in different places and nobody is really sure who they are talking about. But pen names (nom de plume) can be useful.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think my name “Derek Murphy” is cool at all. Annoyingly, there are several other Derek Murphys on Amazon, which gets confusing.
If you have a boring or plain sounding name, a cool name that fits the genre may help sell more books. If you’re a woman writing action or a man writing fantasy romance, a gender-neutral name (J.K. Rowling, J.F. Penn) might be a smart move.
Another reason you might want a pen name is if you write in very different fields: for example I write non-fiction academic historical/philosophical books, and if I start cranking out short paranormal stories (which I hope to) or inspiration how-to books for authors and artists (in the works now) using the same name *might* weaken my reputation in my main field (unless they’re totally awesome. but still…)
Or if you write spiritual how-to books and also something like how to clean a toothbrush (industrial/practical). At any rate, a handful of books in the same field or genre makes the author sound more like an expert, rather than a jack of all trades; if they see that you write about all sorts of different stuff, and that you don’t have a consistent way of using and punctuating your name, they might view you as unprofessional.
What are you hiding, and why?
Something you need to consider is, what is it you don’t want people to find out? Are you trying to keep your real life away from your author life? Do you write erotica and don’t want your family to find out? Are you a militant atheist for some books but pious Christian for others? Of course it can make sense to segment things, especially your audience, but the bigger the secret, the bigger the risk.
Think about this, if people learn the truth about who you are, will they feel betrayed, surprised, confused, let down? If so, that can be dangerous for your reputation.
Setting up a Kindle book project with a fake author name is easy, so it won’t matter… but what if people like the book and start searching for the name? They won’t find anything. They’ll assume it’s a fake. They’ll assume the author is hiding and unapproachable.
Even if they love the book, they won’t share it or comment on it, because it’s just a book, and they can’t forge a relationship with a book.
But pen names can help sell. If your name is Lacey Darling and you’re writing a spy thriller, having a cooler name might influence just enough early buyers to make a difference. (On the other hand, if your book is good and people love it, having a name like Lacey Darling will stand out and help brand you.)
I’m not convinced that pen names help sell more books. I’d probably urge against picking a random fake name. But they can be useful in some circumstances.
The right way to do it
The only thing I suggest is not make it a big secret or mystery. Don’t set up different fake websites and fake lives of these fake people.
Own up to it all on your personal website. My name is ‘X’ and I write romance under ‘Y’ and thrillers under ‘Z’.
You might want to put an FAQ page or answer the question “why don’t I use my real name?”
For each genre and name, try to use the same font, size and style for the author name (Especially for a series). However, if you don’t have a genre and your books are all unique, I’d focus more on making a great cover than making your name look the same way.
Still, branding is about elements of repetition.
How to create your author pen name?
Try to start from your real name and make little changes. Maybe use your middle name, or initials, or a name that’s almost the same but a little cooler. Use a friend’s name that you’ve always envied.
There are also a few neat online generators for pen names, here are the links for two, you can find more. Just keep clicking until you see something you like and copy it down. Find 5 that you like best, then ask your friends and family which seems to fit the target genre. You may have to mix and match.
Then, go to amazon and search for your name, to make sure somebody isn’t already using it.
Ps) These are also great for thinking up character names!
If you want to create a whole new identity, with names, addresses, social security numbers, credit card numbers and more with 33 nationalities and 24 countries, you can try this android app: