To Pseudonym or Not to Pseudonym

photo by Giovanni Orlando

When I learned I was going to be published five years ago (wow, that’s crazy. Like so many things, that feels like yesterday and a lifetime ago), and I started telling people I was going to have a book coming out, one of the many questions I got that surprised me was, “Are you publishing under your real name?” My quippy answer was, “Of course, I want the three hundred people I’ve met in my life to buy my book!” But honestly, I didn’t give it any more thought than that. I mean, why wouldn’t I publish under my own name?

But I realize now, of course, that there are lots of people who do just that—publish under a pseudonym—for a myriad of reasons. It’s a question that’s been on my mind lately because my next WIP is somewhat of a departure for me. And because of that, there was talk of perhaps putting it out under a pseudonym or semi-pseudonym (anything from something completely made up to some variation of my real name like C.E. McKenzie). So, out of curiosity, I polled a couple of authors I know about why they chose to write under a different name than the one they use IRL, as the kids say. (I assume they are still saying that; I’ve been a bit out of touch these days)

The answers turned out to be varied and enlightening. One of the funniest was provided to me by Randy Susan Meyers (author of the excellent The Comfort of Lies,and the upcoming Accidents of Marriage):

I’ve never written under a pseudonym by choice . . . but I do write under another name in Britain, at the request of my UK publishers. It began when Little Brown bought The Murderer’s Daughters. They requested that the book be published under R.S. Meyers, because the slang meaning of the word “randy” in Britain translates to “of or characterized by frank, uninhibited sexuality.” Now, Simon & Schuster UK has requested that my next book, Accidents of Marriage, also be issued under R. S. Meyers.”

I couldn’t help but think that perhaps, if Randy had been writing in a different genre, her real name wouldn’t have been an issue! But I digress.

Author M.J. Rose (the critically acclaimed The Collector of Dying Breaths) has a different, but equally interesting reason for her pen name:

 My whole life people have mispronounced my name—Melisse. Either they refuse to believe its not Melissa—and call me Melissa—or they say it to rhyme with head lice—when it should be said to rhyme with valise. People answer my emails telling me I misspelled my name. All in all though I do love it (Melisse is a French name for a flower used through the centuries by European herbalists and perfumers and smells like Lemon balm), I realized that it was going to make things difficult if people didn’t know how to say it or spell it in looking for a book. So I took M—for Melisse—and J—for Jacqueline (the name of my mom who had just died and wasn’t going to see my first book come out) and became M.J.”

Interesting side note. Microsoft word is telling me that “Melisse” is a typo. Suggested correction? Wait for it … “Melissa”.

Author Lisa Brackmann (the intriguing The Hour of the Rat) had a whole other reason for adopting her pseudonym, one that was, perhaps, more what I was expecting when I asked the question:

I had a lot of reasons for adopting a pen name, some of which had to do with my work at the time. Mostly I just wanted a little bit of separation between my private and public personas. It isn’t a great deal of space, but enough so that I feel a little more comfortable being out in the world as an author while still maintaining some privacy, at least in my own head.”

I feel you Lisa! As someone who still practices law, the mix of my two “personas” does sometimes feel awkward. It’s not that I wish I hadn’t used my real name—for me, I’m not sure my books would feel like they were “mine” if my name wasn’t on them—but that zone of privacy is something I think a lot of writers connect with. So many of us (even me sometimes) are introverts by nature.

For debut author, Claire Ashby (When You Make It Home), it’s all about process:

Using a pseudonym gives me freedom to let go when I write.

As a child, I kept a diary. My diary was an escape and I took great pleasure in recreating life, dreams and daily dramas on those pages. One day, someone discovered and read it all, so I quit writing. I couldn’t let go knowing that my world might be violated. I suppose I use a pseudonym for the very same reason. (…)

I’m not pretending to be someone else. A pseudonym gives me freedom to be me.”

It’s funny, too, that something about all of this reminds of the debate that many women have these days about whether to take their husband’s name when they get married. For me, there was no debate because I live in Quebec and—interesting tidbit—Quebecers are not allowed to change their name because they get married. But my sister and many of my friends who have moved out of province or out of the country have faced that choice, and made different decisions. And if I had it to do all over again—the pen name, I mean—I might have made a different choice, too.

Of course, if I did, I’d have to take my ‘stripper’ name (first street name + first pet name) and so my books would’ve been published under the name: Fang Mount-Stephen.

And who wouldn’t want to read a book with that moniker attached?


About Catherine McKenzie

A graduate of McGill University in History and Law, Catherine McKenzie practices law in Montreal, where she was born and raised. An avid skier and runner, Catherine’s novels, SPIN, ARRANGED, FORGOTTEN and HIDDEN were all international bestsellers and have been translated into multiple languages. HIDDEN was a #1 Amazon bestseller, and a Digital World Bestseller for five weeks. Her fifth novel, SMOKE, will be released on October 20, 2015. You can preorder Catherine's upcoming release, SMOKE, on Amazon. 


  1. says

    At my job, we used (First Pet name + Childhood Street)

    So I would be “Midnight Kelly”. Oh yeah, baby, bring on the Nitro.

    I would only use a pseudonym if I needed to separate myself from my present identity, or if I wanted to perform a “mad scientist” experiment. You know, for the sake of curiosity.

  2. says

    Your essay resonates with me, Catherine. My name is Alexander Massey Wilson III but I have always been comfy with the less pertentious ‘Alex Wilson’ and let it go at that. When I turned to writing, I just naturally titled my stories by ‘Alex Wilson’. But, as they began to accumulate on Amazon and Smashwords I discovered a slight problem; I wasn’t the only Alex Wilson on Amazon and my (few) fans kept being directed to another author’s work. My wife/muse/editor had initially suggested I write under ‘A. Massey Wilson’ and I should have listened to her. Too late to change the authorship, I changed my Amazon identification to …’by Alex and Barbara Wilson’ that brings up my 23 story ouvre intact.

  3. says

    >>I couldn’t help but think that perhaps, if Randy had been writing in a different genre, her real name wouldn’t have been an issue! But I digress.>>

    Maybe, maybe not on the genre. When Quercus Books UK picked up my UK-Aus-NZ rights for Dead Rules, the editor made the same request of me, Catherine. They really don’t like the name Randy. :)

  4. says

    I have two YA books, two humorous adult novels and a darkly comic sci-fi book. So far, I’ve used the same name for all of them, but I’ve been wondering whether I ought not pick different names for each genre. That way, readers would know what to expect from each author. Does anyone else have this problem?

  5. says

    STRIPPER NAME: I grew up in the city. My first street address name was 10th Street, my second was 35th Avenue. I think it’s fate’s way of telling me to keep my clothes on.

    PSEUDONYMs: Lots of great reasons to have one, brand one, ditch one and get a new one… A friend and I way back when (mfa students) wrote our own individual sets of poems under a SHARED pseudonym. As a competition. We both managed to have a few pub’d in literary magazines.

    Then it got scary, because we were larking a total fiction. Wrist-slashing blood-in-the-bathtub Lesbian poetry was a new fad at the time and our “created” poet was a Lesbian. We were both guys.

    We started getting letters (one magazine took my entire batch of poems as there “was a strong consensus among the editors” that the “poet” was “going places” — uh, straight to hell in a burning Easter basket?) and, then… an invitation to read. And another one.

    We didn’t even have an author photo and neither of us wanted to get up in drag and see how far we could carry the conceit/deceit (until publicly flogged and perhaps drawn and quartered was our best guess). After deciding neither of our futures involved gender-switching surgery, we abandoned the pseudonym and the competition. The surgery wouldn’t have been major, btw, because neither of us had the balls to include any of the pseudo-poems (though published) in our mfa thesis-works.

    The good thing about a pseudonym is you can drop it and run if you need/desire to. The onus, however, is deciding how much of a pseudonymous character you might want your author-person might want to become. You know, show up at genre conventions as the pseudonym instead of as yourself… Just using a variation of your own name is one thing. Creating a creature other than yourself as an “author” is another. And lots of in between.

  6. says

    My name is Caitlin Jennings, which I think is too ubiquitous for branding purposes so I’ve been publishing essays and short stories under my full name, Caitlin Sinead Jennings.

    But when I got my first book deal recently, my husband (who was, btw very cool and supportive about me keeping my name when we got married), suggested I shorten it to just Caitlin Sinead. It’s easier to remember as it’s shorter. But he also thought it just had a nicer ring to it and perhaps the “Jennings” sounds a bit formal when my writing is not so formal.

    Perhaps none of these factors matter much at all, but I decided to go with it so here I am! I did think it was a little funny recently when someone emailed me as “Ms. Sinead.”

  7. says

    This was really an interesting read, thanks, Catherine! Since I grew up on Princess Anne Way with a dog named Sebastian, there won’t be any of that nonsense. ;)

    My only concern was for my sons, but since I’ve remarried and taken another last name, that gives the distance I was looking for. So I didn’t need a pseudonym.

  8. says

    Love this post, Catherine. It makes me think of Ralph Lauren’s real name: Ralph Lifshitz. Guess he made a smart move by going with Lauren, right? I suppose authors’ pseudonyms aren’t much different from actors having stage names. We all want memorable or at least catchy names associated with our work. I use my real name Paula Cappa but a marketing guru suggested I use Paula Poe because I write supernatural mysteries. I didn’t because I felt it was too obvious a pen name and didn’t ring true for me personally.

    Oh yeah, one other thing comes to mind: “I am who I am.” Popeye the sailor man.

  9. says

    I do a pseudonym for a number of reasons.

    First, my “legal” name is quite common. I get lots of phone calls from bill collectors looking for other women with my name. There is absolutely nothing distinctive about my name. I wanted a name that might stick in a reader’s mind.

    Second, there is already a book published by a different person under my legal name. But more importantly, it’s so common

    Third, my family asked me to use a pseudonym. My mom was concerned I would write steamy and hot (yep!) and we live in a small town. NOW? she denies saying that and wishes I had used my maiden name!

    Fourth, privacy. I know a number of romance authors who have ended up with stalkers.

    The reality is that most people who know me outside of writing do know my pen name. It’s a terrible secret! LOL

  10. says

    STRIPPER NAME? Chulo Lindavista. Maybe I’ll save it for something… else – sounds like a porn star either way (Lindavista Chulo?).

    PSEUDONYM: I created a name for myself when I was a teen, for my future writing. I would be known as D. Liebja Hunter (with the D standing in for Diana, Diana the Huntress).

    Or I intended to publish under a single name – Liebja – which I still use for a lot of convenient things, since I apparently invented it (Lee-ebb-jah/jaw).

    I took my husband’s name after mine, because I didn’t want to be Dr. Butcher when I got my PhD, and I didn’t want to be Alicia Ehrhardt (no, I don’t fly), and I’ve been fighting all my married life the battle that Hillary Rodham Clinton sometimes wins: to have people use all three names (hint: if you get a check signed by ‘Alicia B. Ehrhardt,’ it’s a forgery).

    So names are a problem for most of us, somewhere.

    For the longest time I thought my husband would rather I not use my full legal name when I publish – but when I asked him, he said it wouldn’t bother him (let’s see if he remembers when the books actually go out – this Fall for the first if I make my deadline).

    But now it’s plastered all over my tiny portion of the internet, and the world is just going to have to take me that way – because it’s going to be hard enough to do the rest of the things necessary, and I don’t think I can handle having to keep track of who I am, too.

    Names are identities – it would be fun to be someone else, but I don’t want to do the paperwork!

    Everyone’s mileage will be different.

    Great discussion-starting question – I like what you’ve done with it.

  11. says

    Catherine, I won’t even go into my stripper name here, because there is no way it would make it into the publishing world. (Unless I published with a vanity press.)

    But as for pseudonyms: I’m a fan of them. I think they are an excellent way for an author to brand him or herself, and they are by no means a way of hiding from people. Like you put it, it’s a way for authors to be more free because they aren’t concerned about exposing too much that is private. You just go and be who you are, with a different name attached.

    I have heard of authors who write under a pseudonym to reinvent themselves. For example, previous books or sales were ruinous, so in order to start over again, they pick a pseudonym and start fresh. Since agents and publishers, by law (I think I have this right?) have to know the author’s real name, they know it’s the same author, so unless that author is self-publishing, this isn’t a way of tricking the publishers into accepting their work, rather, it’s a smart business move and, I imagine, something that would depend on the author’s skill and how much the publisher / agent believes in them to give them a second chance.

    (Agents / editors – please correct me if I’m wrong, because this is what I’ve learned from reading and may not entirely reflect the truth; hence I mention it here.)

    There’s also something to be said about the anonymity. Think of the Wizard of Oz. What’s it like to be the man (or woman) behind the curtain? Just a plain person, living your life, yet when you walk through a book store, or go to a convention, there’s your book; or at a coffee shop, people are talking about this “new, awesome book” and it’s yours. You have the choice then and there to enjoy in quietly and go on with your coffee, or to join in the conversation and, maybe, tell them a bit about the plot of the next book (they will either think you are crazy, or will ask for your autograph).

  12. says

    Pseudonyms are always a personal thing, but I get the privacy aspect. It’s nice to have that layer of separation. I’ve also heard that if you’re not currently employed or think you’ll be looking for work, pseudonyms are good. Potential employers are reluctant to hire someone they think will be spending their workdays working on their novel, rather than the job they were hired for.

    Real name or pseudonym, it has to work for you.

    As for my stripper name, it would be Heidi Joc. (the first house my parents owned was in a subdivision where the developer named several of the streets after his children. So my stripper name is always a relatively innocuous real name; We later moved to Chad Ct. in the same subdivision, so I must say Heidi is a better stripper name than Chad)

  13. says

    My wife wanted us to take her name so she wouldn’t spend the rest of her life answering The Question. I won, arguig that our kids would be better baseball players with ESTRADA across their jerseys. It worked for them about as well as it worked for me. And when my wife gets The Question, she simply replies, “Eric who?”

    As far as pseudonyms, I’ll have to see if the reading public is prepared for the name of a great Mets pitcher and lousy actor on a book cover. I wouldn’t mind taking on a female pseudonym for my venture into clean mommy porn and so that I can finally wear yoga pants.

    I do like the idea, though, of a pseudonym for genre jumping. And the female pseudonym may not be a joke, seeing how YA readers tend to be female as are most of the writers. Though I hope Mr. Green has broken through that barrier. Still, any excuse for yoga pants…

  14. says

    I use my real name as an actor & filmmaker, and I’m planning to use it as an author as well just to keep those on the same page. I’ve got a fairly unique last name, and I’m not overly concerned with privacy.

    The one place where I AM planning to use a pseudonym is when I publish the children’s books I’m working on. Given the content of some of the rest of my work, I don’t think it would meld very well with the image of a children’s book author.

  15. says

    Here’s one. I was friends with an author of historical romance who took a pseudonym when she switched to cozy mysteries, a number of which have been published. She chose her pseudonym to purposefully shelf next to Agatha Christie in a bookstore. Don’t know if that helped her or not. Maybe I’ll write as Ed Grisham or something.

  16. says

    Catherine– I am glad you wrote so well on this topic, and glad for readers’ comments. When I was deciding what to call myself before self-publishing my mystery/thriller The Anything Goes Girl, I faced a problem similar to Randy Susan Meyers’. If I used my own name, might not readers mistake me for Barry Obama (the President’s user-friendly name, back when he was young)? Worse still, what if women readers were turned off by a man writing a book with a woman central point-of-view character? Advice from experts convinced me I should do what so many authors do: use my initials instead, BW Knister. That way–nudge nudge, wink wink–people wouldn’t know my gender. But as launch day approached, I chafed at this idea. Barry Knister had written The Anything Goes Girl, not BW Knister. I had never gone by my initials in any other context, why now? Branding? Gender sensitivities? Was I actually going to let such considerations control my thinking? None of it had anything to do with what I’d actually written, so what was I up to? In the end, I chose what seemed the most straightforward and least contrived: I used my given name, the one on my birth certificate, my passport and university degrees, my marriage certificate, medical records, driver license. Doing otherwise now seemed embarrassing to me. It would mean the 95,000 words in my book would be held hostage to a bogus triviality. So, I stuck with me, as in Barry.

  17. says

    Great post! I loved seeing the reasons behind why so many authors have chosen pennames. I especially loved the reasoning for Randy’s! And suddenly, I want to name a character Melisse someday. BEAUTIFUL!

  18. says

    Hi Catherine, This is so interesting because I used a pseudonym for my first YA novel because it is in English but my married name is Austrian and has a foreign looking Umlaut, so I thought a pen-name would be better. When I decided to change to my real name, I had to go through the hassle of “unpublishing” the novel on KDP and re-publishing it in my real name, and in the process wasting the one review I’d got!

    I also wanted a pseudonym because I was suffering very badly from imposter-syndrome when I published the novel. Although I wanted to publish it, I was somehow terrified of negative reviews and didn’t feel that I was a genuine member of the writers’ club. It took a while to get over that and to persuade myself that I can write and I should be proud of finishing my novel. Now that I have, it’s really empowering and I’m motoring through my next book (a non-fiction title).

  19. Densie Webb says

    I was nodding my head in agreement throughout this post. As someone whose name is mispronounced about 99.9% of the time (it’s Densie, not Denise), I think I’ve decided to go the initials route (D.L. Webb). My secondary consideration is my day job (science writer). My women’s fiction and articles for professional journals are best kept in separate bins. :-)

  20. Marissa John says

    This is a great topic and one I wrestled with as I am launching my writing career (finally).

    I’ve opted to go with a pen name because of my genre. (Romantic Fantasy). At the most recent RWA conference last year, pen names are highly recommended in romance genres because of the rabid nature of the fans. The word from established authors is those who don’t use pen names, now wish they were.

    I also went with a pen name because I wanted to protect the privacy of my immediate family. I don’t write erotica, but I write pretty steamy love scenes. I also went with a pen name for branding purposes. I want to ‘save’ my real name for serious historical fiction.

    Last, my pen name is a tribute to two important men in my life whose moral support has meant so much to me and enabled me to hone my craft, my husband & my late father. My husband, Mark, is a former stunt man and helps research and plot my gaslamp fantasy series and my Dad was John.

  21. says

    I write under a pseudonym because my first name is not common and I wanted some separation between my real life and my writing life. At least with a pseudonym if someone that I know personally happens to come across my book and see themselves in it they won’t be able to take it personally.

    I also like pseudonyms because it allows for genre exploration. I plan to publish in different genres and I don’t want my readers to confuse my Contemporary Fiction with my YA or Romance.

  22. Ted Duke says

    Let’s see, Brandywine Tramp or Tramp Brandywine. Hummm! I think if I decide to write Romance I will use Brandywine Tramp. Mabe for other genres I could use T Brandywine.

    Serious, though, I have written and am shopping a YA adventure and likely will pursue that genre, but I have a (several time rejected) cozy mystery in rewrite and a sequel to that in final stages.

    I’m thinking of a pseudonym for different genres WHEN, not IF I get a deal.
    What do you think?