Ever wondered if should write under a pen name? Or why some authors choose to write using a pseudonym? In this post, you’ll learn why you might want to write under a pen name (or not) and how to navigate having multiple pen names.
A year ago, I tried an experiment.
I found a genre that was selling well where I thought I could find success. I didn’t really want to use my already-established email lists and social media, so I started almost completely from scratch.
You can see how that worked out after one year in this post. (Spoiler alert: month to month it’s up-and-down, but has been four figures–sometimes closer to five-figures–a month for over a year.)
So why write under a pen name?
For me personally, it was more about marketing and testing the waters than anything else. In terms of marketing, I have a few nonfiction business books under my own name. These are NOT the same genre as the clean romance I wanted to write as Emma St. Clair. That can provide a muddy brand and reader confusion. A new name seemed like a good option.
To test the waters, I wanted to know if I could use the knowledge I’ve gained over the past however-many years in this online space to find success self-publishing without using my already-established platform.
I’m actually about to launch a second pen name (Sullivan Gray) who will do Young Adult paranormal and contemporary books. I’m planning the same strategy as I used to launch Emma and we’ll see how it goes.
EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT PEN NAMES
Listen to Episode 169 – How and Why to Write Under a Pen Name
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WHY DO AUTHORS WRITE UNDER A PEN NAME?
Authors might choose a pen name if the subject that they’re writing about might cause conflict with their actual life. I’ve seen this a lot when authors write steamy romance and don’t necessarily want their mom reading it. Some steamy romance authors also write clean romance and don’t want any crossover.
In this case, authors will be very careful to keep their pen name completely apart and separate from everything else they write. It’s a lot more hidden.
Authors might choose a pen name if they write in multiple, unrelated genres. This is the main reason I chose a pen name. When we shop online, we don’t realize how many quick snap decisions we make on things. Having a pen name can keep ultimate clarity in terms of branding.
Are my sweet romance books that different from my Christmas devotionals or my book on email lists? No… but the readers aren’t the same. The crossover is likely minimal at best. And when a reader glances at my author name and the books that customers also bought on the Amazon sales page, it presents a problem to see unrelated books. It would be confusing to see a romance book next to a book on business. Readers need quick and easy cues with clean author branding.
Whenever you’re as big as Stephen King or JK Rowling, you could write whatever and people will buy it. (Big authors still sometimes write under pen names!) But when you’re starting out, it’s much easier to have one author name PER GENRE for crystal clear marketing and branding. I’ve seen personally how well this has worked for me and I’ve also seen authors struggle trying to keep multiple unrelated genres under one name as they start out. It was HARD.
- Some people in the space (whom I really respect) say that you don’t need to worry about a pen name. I disagree when it comes to branding and marketing, but if you want to see another side to this, check out this great post by Anne R. Allen.
WHEN SHOULD YOU NOT USE A PEN NAME?
Amazon will only let you have three pen names under one Author Central account. It isn’t TERRIBLE to have multiple pen names (more on that below), but if you can keep things easy, DO.
If you’re writing books that are related or might have a larger crossover audience, then don’t do a pen name. An example might be writing clean romance and clean romantic suspense. These are the same steam level in terms of sexual content (which matters to readers), though the audiences might not be a 100% match.
That said, my Emma St. Clair clean romance books will have a similar steam level to my YA content, BUT the YA books will have more violence and intense action. Some have paranormal elements. The crossover might be there (I read both genres!) but it’s going to be a way smaller number. Just look at what these different covers convey!
You can see how these are likely not the same audiences, right? Everything from the color to the tone of these book covers sends signals to the readers, even subconsciously. Pen name = good plan.
If you don’t NEED a pen name and already have an established brand or public-facing name that you could use, don’t create more work for yourself.
If you don’t care as much about branding and sales and just want to write for the love of it, put it all under your name.
If you have a HUGE platform under your name and people will buy whatever you write, then don’t worry about a pen name.
If you know it would be easier to write under pen names but you can’t handle the idea of juggling them all, you might want to consider not writing under pen names.
HOW DO YOU HANDLE MULTIPLE PEN NAMES TECHNICALLY SPEAKING?
Speaking for Amazon, you can create up to three pen names under one author central account. That means that you’ll be getting paid in the same place and don’t need to worry about technicalities or weird legal stuff. Publicly, they are separate. Privately on the back end, they’re all under your account.
That said, some people want more separation even than THAT. This post talks about ways to find more separation.
If you want to know how to set up a new pen name in an author central account, here’s a brief video I made walking you through the process.
WHAT DO YOU NEED IN TERMS OF AUTHOR PLATFORM FOR A PEN NAME?
Now we’re getting into the nitty-gritty of what it takes to juggle multiple pen names. It’s less than you think! This also may vary wildly depending on how you want to promote books. With my pen names, I’m not very actively blogging (if at all). I don’t post much on a Facebook page or Twitter. My main focus was email list (which sells more books), a FB page for ads, and a FB reader group.
My basic suggestions for a pen name:
- Set up an email list (this is my main focus and I use and am an affiliate for Mailerlite)
- Set up a web page with yourauthorname dot com or something similar (I use Siteground for hosting and am an affiliate: SIGN UP HERE)
- Set up a Facebook page (so you can run ads)
- Set up ONE social media account that you’ll use (this could just be the Facebook page)
Important note about Facebook: It’s against Facebook’s terms of service to have two personal profiles (where you add friends vs a business page where you get “likes”). Don’t create a personal profile for your pen name! You could get completely booted from Facebook. A page may not see a lot of organic growth or reach, but if you want to create ads, you need a page. Plus you can use a small page with few likes to market to a broad audience.
That’s really not that much to do. For one of my pen names, I own AuthorSullivanGray.com, but if you go there, you’ll just get a landing page to sign up for my email list. I don’t have a full web page set up.
I focused on growing my email list through Bookfunnel and other author promos and I send weekly content to subscribers. I barely post on my Facebook page, but do run ads. My social media focus is Facebook groups and I am working to build active reader groups where I share my books, teasers or bonus content, other people’s books, and have discussions.
HOW DO CHOOSE A PEN NAME?
I think it’s a good idea to check your genre. For some, gender (or perceived gender) may send a signal to consumers. (Joanna Penn talks about that in this post under #3.) I personally chose names I liked that fit more with the genres.
Emma is like everyone’s BFF. You can’t hate Emma! So of course, she writes sweet romance.
Sullivan is a great name. (We almost used it for our fifth daughter!) It’s tough, cool name that generally is a last name. Because it’s not as common as a first name, I think it probably might speak to being a guy’s name, but could be either. This felt like a great, edgy pen name for my more intense YA.
- Dave Chesson at Kindlepreneur has a great post on choosing a pen name.
DO YOU NEED TO CREATE A WHOLE PRETEND PERSON FOR YOUR PEN NAME?
The answer to this goes back to whether or not you’re trying to keep things separate for marketing purposes or SECRET. If you just want some separation, then it doesn’t matter as much if you use the same photo or you have the same bio. If you’re trying to keep it a secret, then you’ll want to consider how to handle the personal info, bio, and images for that person.
I like to create a PERSONA for my pen names. Emma St. Clair is still me. It’s just the part of me focused more on clean romance than the part of me that loves sarcasm and shows like Arrested Development. In my Emma emails, I don’t talk about my love for horror movies, but focus on romantic comedies or Hallmark romances.
Emma isn’t untrue, but is more an edited bit of who I am. We all have a lot of facets to our personality, so for me, I let the pen names shine a light on a facet that relates to the genre.
Some people might be fine with creating a fake person, but it’s hard to keep secrets in the digital age. Just be aware of that. I’d be fine for anyone to know that Kirsten is Emma is Sullivan.
- If you’d like get a fun avatar made for your pen name, I’ve used this artist on Fiverr and been really happy with their work.
So… do you need a pen name?
Maybe. Maybe not.
I think there are strong reasons to create pen names for clear branding and marketing in different genres, especially if you are newer. I don’t think you have to do a ton of work to create a pen name. Keep it streamlined and simple. Don’t feel like you have to be all the places all the time. Do what sells books.
One day, my own personal brand might be a large enough umbrella to house everything, but for now, I’ll keep my own name and the two pen names to write and publish books across multiple genres.
Chad Boyer says
How do you handle market growth between pen names? Basically you are just slicing your own time thinner and thinner.
Great question! When I started the Emma name, I wasn’t focused on writing books under my own name. Maybe one a year and more for authority than sales. I focused 100% of my writing on that one pen name for a year to establish it so I have a solid revenue monthly. Only now am I doing another. I need a creative break, but I’m also choosing to write in profitable niches within YA. Personally, I need some time off from writing one thing, though I’ll still be releasing romance and YA books for the rest of the year. I feel like switching back and forth is just a nice, healthy break for me, and now I know how to handle the marketing aspects, so it’s kind of old hat. I don’t spend a ton of time marketing. Much more on the writing. I wouldn’t recommend doing multiple pen names if you don’t have a lot of time. Or, unless you want to experiment on what sells really well on its own. Even under the Emma name, I started two series, then wrote in the one that sold triple the number of books and put my focus there. Hope that helps!
Chad Boyer says
That makes sense. Since I am in a time deficit, I’ll stick to one name and try to get as many books out as I can. 🙂
Rhonda McK says
I’m launching books under a pen name next week. I was just about to look for some information. Thank you.
Angela Strayer says
This is something I’ve been thinking about on and off too, using a pen name. My question is how would you handle any public promotion under a pen name? And if it’s a certain genre I don’t necessarily want my main identity linked with how you handle that? Or just no do public meetings, etc.? Thanks for the article, great information!
I think it may depend on your reasons for using a pen name. If you’re trying to keep things separate, public stuff would be super hard. If it were me, doing pen names that are more marketing purposes, I’d probably be clear in the event that it’s for Emma St. Clair readers, but I’d probably be introduced at the event as Kirsten, the person behind the pen name? I don’t honestly know. I don’t see in-person events selling more books for me in my genre, so it’s not something I’m considering and I haven’t looked to see how other people handle it!
Great post Kirsten, thank you for sharing your experience on the topic.
One question popped up in my mind though.
How did you collect email addresses under your pen name? (Regarding GDPR and US Spam rules) Do you need to care about them when collecting/building another email list for your second/third pen name?
What if one wants to keep their real name secret? (Or shall I write SECRET? 🙂 ) What shall the footer of their email contain in this case? Can pen names used for that matter?
Thanks a lot,
Kirsten S Oliphant says
I use email service providers (Convertkit and Mailerlite). I talk a lot about email on the site if you’ll search, and for the MOST part, the email providers handle a lot of the ins and outs of legality. You totally should be concerned with those things, but again–the providers typically handle a lot of that. You can check other posts on email to see the ways I’ve grown my list.
If you actually want your name to stay secret, you’ll likely want to make sure your website has privacy enabled and check to see what emails and public-facing things might tie back to you. For the address on your email, you can purchase a Po box or look at viabox. Some providers, like converkit, have an address they let you use. 🙂
Thanks for the advice, I will check your site for more on MailerLite. 🙂
Amber Parham says
Thanks again for the excellent post. You helped me make sense of a lot of vague swirling ideas here.
David Callan says
Great information. When you create a FB page for your pen name, can’t people see who’s account it links to? Wouldn’t this then defeat the purpose of the pen name?
Hi Kristen I know this is an older post but I was wonder about a situation where you’re writing under the same genre but different subgenres. For instance if you are a romance author but write for contemporary romance and erotic romance would it be necessary to have two different pen names or this advice only for those writing for two completely different genres?
Kirsten S Oliphant says
For different heat levels, for SURE I would have two different pen names. That’s my take on it. Some people put all the things under as long as it’s romance but I think for reader expectations, it’s easier to split up something that’s sweeter and something that’s spicier. I guess it might depend how far apart the heat level is in what you’re writing? But for me, yes. I’d split that too.
I’d like to use a pen name but I’m unsure how to copyright the book. Is the pen name the correct name to put in the copyright notice or does it become invalid as that name isn’t a real person?
Any advice would be much appreciated.
Kirsten S Oliphant says
There’s actually a spot when you’re filling this out online to put your pen name (pseudonym). Here’s more info: https://info.legalzoom.com/article/how-to-copyright-a-book-with-a-pen-name
Hi! Very informative post! Does making a new pen name matter when one is writing short stories, aiming for books in the distant future? My portfolio is only a fraction erotica, though I often touch upon sexuality in my other works. Should I grab that extra pen name in prep for the future? I think I might be writing more erotica down the line.
I guess I’m confused because I’m worried about potential brand dilution. (Thinking about it I write plenty about sexuality) But…is this a similar question/answer to romance subgenres and heat levels? (I saw you answered this question above in the comments).
If you write anything political in any way these days, and don’t want activists beating on you, a pen name is a must.