June 7, 2011

Branding 101: To Pen Name or Not to Pen Name

Three theater masks

I wasn’t planning on doing another Branding 101 post right away, but my commenters had other ideas.  *smile*

If you read my last post, you know the steps to be Google-able.  The last piece of advice I gave in that article was if all else fails—use a pen name.  That suggestion led to several comments and questions, so I figured I’d write a follow-up post because I don’t want people to misunderstand my suggestion.

First, I want to clarify what I mean by “pen name.”  As defined by Wikipedia (emphasis is mine):

A pen name may be used to make the author’s name more distinctive, to disguise his or her gender, to distance an author from some or all of his or her works, to protect the author from retribution for his or her writings, or for any of a number of reasons related to the marketing or aesthetic presentation of the work.

When we think of pen names, we often consider the privacy or marketing aspects and assume that means using a name completely different from our real name, such as Samuel Clemens writing as Mark Twain or an author using one name for their YA stories and another for their steamy romance.  But I’m going to focus on one of the other motivations in that definition.

I brought up pen names last time to address the need to make our names more distinctive and Google-able.  These types of pen names can be connected to our real name.  They don’t have to be completely different.

James or Jim?  Joanne or J.K.?

That’s an important concept.  After all, once we’ve spent years working on our first book, we probably want to see our name on the cover.  We want to see that name and think, “Hey, that’s me.”  Many people don’t want to use a pen name because they worry they won’t feel that sense of ownership.

But what if it was our name, just tweaked to make it more distinctive?  Being Google-able means trying to make our website, blog, or profile information show up on page one of a Google search.  For this purpose, having a pen name might be as simple as adding our middle name or initial to our author name, using just our initials (like J.K. Rowling), or using our legal name instead of a nickname.

Let’s pick a random name to make the point.  “Cindy Johnson”: 263,000 results.  “Cynthia Jane Johnson”: 10,700 results.  So if you’re having a hard time making your author brand Google-able, try Googling variations of your name to see if you can find one with fewer results.

If nothing helps, you still don’t have to go with a completely different name.  Many people keep their first name and change their last name to something else with significance to them, a maiden name, a grandmother’s name, their name in a different language, the town where they grew up, etc.

The only other Jami Gold who shows up on page one of a Google search is an interior decorator in California.  I don’t worry about confusion, as I make no secret of the fact that I live in Arizona and am an author.  Google is more likely to ask: “Did you mean: jamie gold?”  I’m not male or a poker player, so anyone who can’t figure out that one must not be trying very hard.  *grin*

My point here is that pen names can simply be a variation of our real name.  Experiment with Google searches, using quote marks around the full name with and without the word “author” (i.e.: “Jami Gold” and “Jami Gold author”).  See if you can find a name to use that still feels like you.

Shouldn’t I Wait?  What If My Publisher Doesn’t Like It?

This is a common misconception.  I’ve heard many people say they were going to wait because they wanted to see what their publisher wanted them to do.  They worry their publisher will make them change their pen name and they don’t want to waste all that time and effort.  Um…no.

This post was partially prompted by a comment by Kait Nolan on my last post when she made a great point about pen names:

I started building my platform before I released any work. I picked my pen name (for reasons you mentioned above…someone else already HAS my real name and has snapped up all the virtual real estate thereto), grabbed up the domain, facebook, twitter handle, and everything else associated with it. And I worked on building it.

If we own all the “virtual real estate” (love that phrase!) for our author name—whether that’s our real name or a pen name—and we have a strong platform based on that name, there is no way a publisher will make us change it.  The only reason a publisher would have for making us change our author name is if it matched one of their other authors.  But we know our name doesn’t match another author because we’ve already done our homework with our Google searches and picked a name that had virtual real estate available.

Also, I’ve seen how difficult it can be to find a pen name a publisher agrees with.  One of my critique partners, Rachel Graves, hadn’t established a pen name before receiving a book contract.  She submitted dozens upon dozens of options to them before they agreed on one.  Much easier to avoid that decision-making-by-committee hassle if you ask me.  *smile*

I Have My Author Pen Name Picked Out, Now What?

We should start using our author name as soon as we start branding ourselves as authors, whenever we’re wearing our “author hat.”  We should use it for our website, blog, social media profiles (Twitter, Facebook, Blogger, etc.), and when we leave comments on other people’s blogs.

When networking as an author, we need to use our author name.  The consistent use of our distinctive name will build our brand.

Do you use a pen name?  Why did you make that decision?  Have you thought about using a pen name but decided to put it off for some reason?  Has this changed your perception about what it means to use a pen name?

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Roni Loren

Great post! I do use a pen name. I kept my first name but changed the last. Not so much because other people shared my name. My first name is pretty unique already. But I write erotic romance and live in TX which is very conservative, so I did the change mainly to give one level of protection for kidlet and the hubby.

And I agree–do not wait until you get a book deal to change it. I started platform building with me real last name. Then when I realized I wanted a pen name, I had to go change all this social media stuff and my web domain and all that jazz. And I can’t even imagine the decision-by-committee thing with the publisher. Finding a book title that way was tough enough, lol.

Frances Silversmith
Frances Silversmith

great post!
I picked my pen name as soon as I started writing, and have been making a (so far rather half-hearted) attempt at building a platform.
The reasons I didn’t want my real name out there were manifold – starting with a need for privacy (and a pronounced disinclination to have my employer and customers in my real job know about my writing).
More importantly, though, the new name gives me a feeling of freedom, since I’m starting over from scratch so to speek, and my boring everyday personna doesn’t drag me down when I’m being Frances Silversmith. 🙂


“Misti Wolanski” is my online identity and my penname. I do that for a variety of reasons, one of which is safety. My given name is an uncommon name, and it’s a rare spelling of that name, and… my name getting widely known would give me reason to fear for a close relative’s life.

I actually have another penname, unused, but I own the domain.

The “Carradee” handle I use all over as a unifier. “Misti” is taken all over, and I really would rather have Google focus on returning my websites and not my comments all over the place when my name is searched for. I’m also a bit of a gamer. I’ve actually picked up several fans from MMOs I’ve played and moderated. See “Carradee” in an MMO? I’ll be surprised if it isn’t me.

Kait Nolan

Kristen Lamb talks about this a lot in her book We Are Not Alone. There are so many people out there who hide behind some cutesy moniker, but as she points out, our books will not be sold under cutesy moniker. They will be sold under a NAME. If you’re not centering all your marketing efforts around building THAT NAME, then you’re wasting your time because readers won’t remember the RIGHT name when they go to buy your books. And face it, people are lazy If they don’t remember you, they will, most likely, go buy the books of the author whose name they DO remember because they branded themselves properly.

Kait Nolan

Oh one other thing I forgot to say. You made the comment that some people were waiting to see what their publisher would say…that’s really going about things all wrong (them, not you). Because that’s giving up some of your power as an author. Historically authors had very little power in the publishing relationship, despite the fact that publishers would not exist without our product. But in this new age of social media, where authors have an unprecedented amount of control over how their career goes, it’s foolish to give up something THAT important. Authors should maintain as much control as they are able, and that includes building the brand, the reputation that THEY want as an author before their opus ever hits an editor’s desk.

Rachel Graves

“Dozens and dozens” is perhaps the understatement of the year. I carried a notepad of possible names with me for a while, eventually it was filled. An entire notepad filled with names, sigh. At one point I actually pulled out a listing of street names and started randomly trying them with my first name. I was thisclose to being Rachel First.

But honestly, in the end Rachel First wouldn’t have been so bad. It’s easy to remember, easy to spell, and genre non-specific. Yep, as I think about it, I think your next Blog-of-Great-Wisdom topic should be things to considering in picking a pen name.

Irene Vernardis
Irene Vernardis

Hiiii Jami 😀

I think that the use of a pen name, first and above all, should be used for marketing purposes. It should be likeable and easy to read, in order to be imprinted for good in the readers’ minds. Readers should remember and very easily the name of the author. If it’s a long name and difficult to pronounce, it won’t be remembered or it will be subject to mistakes.

Take my surname for example, it’s a long and rather difficult name to pronounce and remember (although there are many more difficult). Chances are that someone will at least forget one of the “r”s, the most frequent mistake. And even if not, it is difficult to be remembered. So, it’s not a marketable name. I’ve already chosen my pen name, using my 2nd name and a part of my surname.

In any case, on the inside page of the book, where the info is provided, the copyright is stated in the author’s real name, to be legal. So, the author’s name is not lost to the readers.

In conclusion, the first thing to bear in mind when choosing a pen name is marketability – that is part of the branding. Easy to pronounce and remember.

Thank you for another interesting post 🙂

Suzan Butler

I’ve had two domains parked with potential pen names in addition to my real name in case I wanted to use one. I finally decided to use one because I wanted to write a contemporary YA. Now, I’ve been writing adult steampunk fantasy, but I decided to focus on my currently-more-profitable freelance editing gigs with my real name. I may use that third name I have parked for the fiction. Right now, it’s just hanging out. It’s a lot more work building from the ground up for a second presence, but I’ve noticed it going a little more quickly now than when I was building the first. Possibly because I know what I’m doing now. 😉

PW Creighton

Great post. I started using my Pen name because there are too many variants of Phil and Phillip out there to tolerate a google search even with my last name but PW… still dignified and perfect virtual real-estate 🙂

Piper Bayard

Hi Jami! I do have a pen name. I chose to do so for two reasons. First, because my real name, K. Miller, is pretty common and doesn’t google well, and variations of it didn’t feel right. Second, because a friend of mine convinced me at 7 p.m. the night before Kristen was sending her final draft of WANA to Who Dares Wins that I should at least deter opportunistic creepy people by using a pen name if I was going to blog, because I was sure to be controversial. (My bio is in Kristen’s book so I wanted it to have the right name on it.) So I chose Piper Bayard. It’ a variation of Pieper Bayard, the Belgian gun manufacturer. I’d just seen it in a gun catalog a couple of days before and thought it sounded like someone’s pen name. Guess it sounded like mine. I LOVE having a pen name for reasons I didn’t anticipate. It helps me compartmentalize my work and my family life. Since I work at home, putting on my pen name is like going the office. When I’m at Piper Bayard, I’m focused on writing and social media. Also, K. Miller is actually an introvert who doesn’t even keep an answering machine and only answers the phone for family, expected callers, and Kristen. Piper Bayard talks to hundreds of people every week and is happy to do so. It helps me compartmentalize my introvert and keep her feeling safe. Great post as…  — Read More »

Gene Lempp

I “almost” used a pen name but after a great deal of consideration and advice from Kristen Lamb’s posts decided to keep my actual name. Well almost, Gene is a shortened version of my first name but it’s what I go by in day-to-day life, so it is my name. At first I thought that Lempp would be an issue, then I did a Google search and there was only my posts to a couple of blogs, including this one. That’s when I realized that I already had a great name, I just had to have faith in it.

Now there could be one future exception to this. I write science fiction and science fantasy (which is a sub-cat of sci-fi). If I decided to write fantasy or horror or paranormal romance I’d most likely consider doing so under a pen name for the same reasons that Bob Mayer is also Robert Doherty, each genre has its own set of distinctive followers and I would want to avoid cross-genre confusion. But even if I did that I think I would always stay Gene.

Great Post Jami 🙂

Lynn Kelley

This is such a helpful and interesting post. I plan on using my maiden name when my edgy YA novel gets published. My other books are for younger kids, and I write under my married name, plus another pen name, BBH McChiller, with two co-authors. So, building three platforms seems intimidating. I need to give this a lot of thought. Thanks.

Darcy Peal
Darcy Peal

Using my real name (as posted) I get 800 Google web results and 140 image results, since most of them are about me or something I have posted I guess I don’t need a pen name.
I just need to clean up a bunch of dead links.


Hey Jami!
Great post. I love your website, it’s so useful. I don’t know whether to use a pen name, I’ve had a blog for 6 months, do you think it is too late to change? I would one day like to become an author, although that wouldn’t be happening right now. A pen name does sound like a good idea. I just don’t know. Thanks for the posts.

Suzanne Johnson

Great post! If I had it to do over, I’d have chosen a pen name to start with since my name is common, but I’ve spent too much time promoting my own (and I do come up as the top two searches for my name in Google). Now, I have written a book in a different genre (para-rom) and my agent thought I should go with a pen name so I picked Susannah Sandlin. LOL. Now when I do a search for that name, I get first, me, then genealogical sites featuring my ggg-grandmother, from whom I stole the name!

Catie Rhodes

I use a sort of pen name. Catie is just a diminutive of my longer first name. I thought Catie Rhodes had a sort of ring to it, and Rhodes is my maiden name. I like Rhodes because I’m proud of where I came from. Plus, Rhodes is easy to spell, and easy to remember. And, besides that, life changes as you go along. I’d prefer to use a name that will always be “mine.”

I do not use my “real” name anywhere online. IRL, I’m sort of like Piper describes herself. I’m kind of quiet and boring. I don’t socialize much, and the only people I’d call friends are my family. I enjoy my online socializing and adore the people I’ve met, but I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t want to build an author brand.


Excellent post, with lots to think about. My married name has a lot of connotations that have nothing to do with me, and it gets zillions of hits. It’s Washington, for Pete’s sake. I’m happy using it in real life, but it drives Google nuts.

So, pen name. You say to use the pen name in all author-y interactions. RWA requires its members to use their real names. How do you get around this?

And yes, it is confusing. There are folks on my FaceBook page who seem to have at least three names, depending on what series they’re writing at the time. I solve the problem by just never speaking to them. Well, mainly by just never speaking, because who knows who is “listening”?

Barbara Watson

With a name like Barbara Watson, a pen name beckons. Although I haven’t gone there yet, I’ve considered it, and your post smacks me in the head, saying, “Now is likely the best time.” Before I build an author brand. Before, well, everything. Much pondering in my future.

Deri Ross
Deri Ross

Really great blog. I’ve been devouring all your blogs on branding the last couple of days (along with blogs from Jane Friedman and Kristen Lamb) and it’s been eye-opening. I do have a question, though, and would love your opinion. I have had a Facebook for years now under my real name, which is Deri Pryor. Pryor is my married name. I’m now divorced, but kept the name to make things easier with my kids and bank accounts and other sundry details. In hindsight, I wish I hadn’t, but oh well. The idea that I could turn my love of writing into a career as a novelist wasn’t even a glimmer in my eye, never mind the fact I’d never heard of the idea of branding oneself online. Anything I’ve done online has been under Pryor, and my FB has strictly been for socializing with friends and family. I would say other than a few writing friends I’ve made in the last year or so since returning to college, none of my FB friends have any interest in the writing life. In fact, most of them are friends I made in my previous life as an EMT or FB gamers. Now that I’m getting into writing more seriously, I worry that I will alienate tons of people if all of a sudden I stop playing Frontierville and start promoting myself as a writer (lol, but really I was addicted to that game for a while). I took the step of…  — Read More »

Deri Ross
Deri Ross


That all helps me tons! Thank you so much! I’m going to ponder the page vs. second profile for a day or two, but I really appreciate the idea of adding the word “author” to the url. I hadn’t thought of that. I’m just dipping my toes in the water, so to speak, so I hope you don’t mind if I pick your brain some more in the unlikely event that I should have more questions. That was sarcasm, btw. LOL. I’m sure I’ll have more. Thanks again!


Susan Sipal

Great post, Jami, as always. I feel like you’re talking to me again as I waffle between SP Sipal and Susan Sipal. I have the advantage that either way, not many Sipals come up (at least outside Turkey)!

Funny story — a few years ago when I had one of my Harry Potter analysis articles published online and fans were discussing it on a forum, someone questioned whether my name was for real. They thought I’d picked a pseudonym to hide a clue and figured Sipal spelled backward was lapis and SP was PS for Philosopher’s Stone! I’d never noticed what my name was spelled backward, but ever since then I’ve decided to make lapis lazuli as my favorite stone. 🙂

Laura Marcella

I sort of use a pen name; it’s my first and middle name. It’s more unique than my last name!

Michele Shaw

I’ve thought about this because my name is sort of common, and well…boring. So far, I haven’t made any changes. A google search brings up me and a lawyer, but I’ve considered my maiden name because it is quite unique. Thoughtful post, Jami!

Sonia G Medeiros

I briefly considered a pen name but decided to stick with my real name instead. I spent a lot of years not liking my first name because it was so out-of-the-ordinary when I was growing up. That and people were forever mispronouncing it. And it was too short to make a nickname out of. LOL. Extremely silly now that I look back. I’m proud of my name now and I want to see it on bookcovers (and the NYT bestseller list of course 😉 )

I didn’t check virtual real estate availability first though. I google okay though…so no worries. There are lots of Sonia Medeiroses but none that seem to be competing in the blogging or writing arena that I’ve seen. Besides, I’m Sonia G Medeiros 😉 I love my middle initial too. Like Michael J Fox. LOL

I had a funny thought. Wouldn’t it stink if you were a writer and your name was Susan Meyer or Stephen King. You’d be forced into a pen name. Sigh. Not to be able to use your real name because there was already a mega bestselling author out there who had it first. And imagine the fun if you did make it to the NYTBS list and somebody “outed” your real name. Oh the confusion. 😀


Well, it’s not like we’re in the Screen Actors Guild or anything. If your name’s Stephen King, use it. You have as much right to it as that other fellow and it’s not your fault if people buy the book just because of the name on the cover. How long have we been told not to judge books that way?


I’ve got one novel out under my name and plan to write others under the pen name of a supporting character (Bennu Wright) who is a writer and my Twitter ID. I’m torn on short stories. I’ll decide those as I go.
My reasoning, though, is that Phoenix (the entity) surfaces as a significant character and an influential presence in a sci-fi/fantasy series WIP of mine. I’ve already had readers asking me if I see myself in a godlike role after all my worldbuilding in my first novel without even a mention of “Phoenix”. No delusions here, but I really think it would confuse some people, so my use of a pen name is for the protection of the *ahem* vast masses comprising my future audience.

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