Going Incognito: How to Choose A Pen Name

Every time you publish a book, you’re putting your name out into the world.

People will look for you on Amazon and other bookselling sites, they’ll look on social media sites, and they’ll look for an author website.

Being a well-known writer and having your name instantly recognized might be the ideal for most self-published authors.

But, do you really want all that attention focused on your true identity?

What if you’re a member of the PTA at your child’s school, yet you want to write a bodice-ripper?

What if you are known for writing business books, but you want to write in an entirely different genre?

Or maybe your name is Ishcabbible Humperdink, and it just doesn’t seem to fit with the romance novels you want to write.

Using your own name in any of the above instances could cause problems, either for promoting the book you wish to write, your day job, or even the safety of you and your family.

What’s a writer to do? Choosing to write under a pen name (a.k.a. writing under a pseudonym, a.k.a. nom de plume) is an option writers use for many reasons.

5 Reasons for Using Nom de Plume or Pen Name

Here are a few of reasons for going incognito:

Change Persona

Using a pen name allows you to change as much or as little about yourself as you wish.

If you are male, you can become female (and vice versa). If you usually write non-fiction business books, you can create a new pen name to write fiction or academic works.

If you are already well-known in the religious community, you can create a new persona to write for the secular market.

Shorten Name

A pen name allows you to take a hard-to-pronounce or long ethnic name and shorten it, so it is easier to spell and pronounce.

Chikalinski becomes Chik, Hladisova becomes Ladd, and Goytiom becomes Guy.

Memorable Name

Creating an easy-to-remember name will go a long way toward boosting your branding.

Names like Bear Smith, Duke Wayne, Laura Drum, and Violet Dawn are short and easy pen names to remember.

Not only are they easier to recall, but they are also easy to write and create logos around if you choose to build a full-blown business around your nom de plume.

Match Genre

Creating a pen name that matches your niche makes it easier to remember.

Case in point: “Remington Steele,” the pseudonym created by a woman who wanted to start a private investigation business.

woman typing choose a pen name

Rose Tanner could be used by a man who wishes to break into beach romances.

And Jon Byte could be created strictly for writing technical computer manuals.


Staying safe is another reason to use a pen name.

If the topics you write about have the potential to jeopardize your job, your social standing, or the safety of your immediate family or yourself, creating a pen name could be your only choice if you wish to be published.

Keep in mind it is never okay to create a pen name for illegal purposes.

Don’t create a pen name as a way to get around a contract, infringe on another author’s name, or to write something you’ve promised not to write about.

How to Choose a Pen Name

Now that you’ve decided to use a pen name it’s time to choose one.

Picking a pen name is even harder than naming a baby because you need to come up with a last name as well.

Some authors will even go so far as to create a whole character, complete with backstory, to go with their name.

Do you want a name that’s obviously fake?

Many authors will use names that are common to their genre when picking a nom de plume: names like Kandy Kisses for romance, Prairie Dawn for westerns, Jack Hammer for true crime, and Star Knight for sci-fi.

Still, other authors will choose less obvious pen names and make the spellings unique, like changing LeeAnn to LeighAnne, Jane to Jayne, or Charles to Chaz.

Or maybe you want a regular name, one that blends in with society as a whole. Many writers opt to go that route, too.

Here are a few pen name generator techniques:


Grab a pen and some paper and start going through the alphabet.

Decide if you want a male or female name and then start writing. Adam, Alan, Alfonso; Betty, Barbara, Brenda; Clifford, Charles, Cameron. You get the picture.

Click a Button

Name generators are easy to find online.

Namegenerator.biz – This site generates random names using the fewest filters. Click a button and get a name. Don’t like it? Click the button again and get a new name!

There are various generators available at this site; you can search for a first name if you already have a last name you like, or you can search for a last name if you have a first name you prefer.

Name-geneator.org.uk – Like the first generator, this site has various generators available to use, but they also offer filters, such as nationality and type of character.

Fakenamegenerator.com – This is an amazing site. Not only does it give you a name, but it also gives you a complete identity to go along with the name.

Set your filters to show nationality, gender, and age, then click the button.

Your resulting alias comes complete with a fake address, social security number, mother’s maiden name, phone number, birthday, email, username and password, place of employment and job, physical description, favorite color and the car he or she drives, as well as a few other things.

There’s even a map showing you approximately where this person would live.

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Search, Search and Research

Check everywhere to see if the name is already in use:

Head over to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or any other large bookseller online, and type in the name you’re thinking of using. Is there already an author with that name?

Look specifically in the genre or niche you are considering.

If there is already an author with the name you want, you may want to consider changing the spelling, adding a middle name or initial, or picking a new name altogether.

Choosing a name based solely on the idea of riding on another author’s coattails is never a good idea.

It only confuses readers when they think it’s the same person. And, if the other person has a brand built on that name, you may find yourself in court.

Do a trademark search to see if anyone has claimed the name already. Again, don’t infringe on anyone else’s name. It’s just not worth it.

Head over to betterwhois.com and search for your chosen pen name as a domain. Many authors snag their names as domains to promote their books.

If the name you want is taken, is it an author?

Once again, consider adding a middle initial or changing the spelling of the name, if needed, to alter it, or create a new one.

Check social media for the name you want to use. Facebook, Linked In, Instagram, Twitter – even Pinterest – are all places you want to check to see if the name you want to use is already taken.

There’s a very good chance the name you choose will be someone’s real name.

A quick Google search will tell you just how popular they are – and it will help you decide if you need to alter the name or come up with an entirely new one.

Yes, it is legal to use a pen name.

However, before publishing works, engage in a little legal due diligence. Pay particular attention to the following:

  • Copyright formalities
  • Other intellectual property issues, like trademark and the right of publicity (if applicable in your jurisdiction)
  • Contract negotiations and signatory legality
  • NDAs for literary teams and publishers, if you want to keep your real identity private

Additionally, understand that pen names aren’t legal shields. They don’t absolve you from paying taxes; people who defame others under pen names must still face the statutory consequences.

How to Choose a Profile Picture for Your Pen Name

Choosing a picture to accompany your pen name is somewhat of an art. For starters, you can’t randomly take another person’s visage. You risk legal trouble by doing so. Plus, it’s rude. 

That said, it’s understandable if you don’t want to use your own image. After all, that somewhat defeats the purpose of having a pen name. 

In the not-too-distant past, the best option was finding royalty-free face pics. But these days, there’s a better option: AI-generated images

What should you consider when feeding the generator details?

  • Age: How old is your authorial alter ego? Having fun with age is fine; just be reasonable. For example, don’t try to pass your work off as the genius of a child prodigy. 
  • Gender: Is your writing personality a man, woman, or nonbinary? Pick whichever feels appropriate for the piece in question. Just remember that each gender comes with its own set of realities, so ensure the prose matches the person.
  • Ethnicity: Does your writing avatar hail from Oslo, Otavi, or somewhere in between? 
  • Hair and Eyes: What color hair and eyes does your character have? Don’t be afraid to break normative barriers. Pink tendrils and purple eyes, anyone? At the same time, try not to make your “snapshot” too cartoonish unless that’s the point.
  • Emotional Features: We humans wear emotions on our faces, and AI generators can mimic them.

Can You Have Two Pen Names?

Yes, you can have two pen names.

In fact, you can use as many pen names as you want — and doing so would put you in good company. The venerated Mark Twain had about five nom de plumes, as did Agatha “The Great” Christie. Enlightenment heavyweight Voltaire is said to have used over 100 pen names in his life. 

If you assume various pseudonyms, aim to give each a distinct personality, backstory, and writing style.

Claiming Your Pen Name

Once you’ve settled on a pen name, it’s time to claim it.

Start by securing the domain name and social media accounts, if possible.

Register the copyright on the pseudonym. In most cases, you’ll want to note your real name on the registration form as well, so you never have trouble proving it’s your pen name.

Next, create a “doing business as” (dba) for payment purposes. Add it to your bank account, and set up a PayPal account if needed.

You’ll probably want to create an email address for your pseudonym, too, so you can stay incognito as you deal with editors, cover designers, and all the other people involved in getting a book put together, as well as fan mail.

Go ahead and create a bio for your new name now, to cement the persona in your brain. You’ll need it for the back cover of your book anyway.

Keep in mind there’s a good chance your die-hard fans will find you if they really want to, even if you use a pen name.

The question is, do you want to make it easy for them, or hard?

Make it easy for your fans:

Create a primary website under your real name or your brand and list all your pseudonyms on one page with links to their respective sites.
Include your real name on the registration form to copyright the pen name.
Use your photo on the back of the book and in all promotional materials across all media.
State in the author bio that “this author is a fictional character.”


Make it hard for your fans:

Keep all your websites, email addresses and social media accounts separate (this could get hard if you have multiple pseudonyms).
Do not list your real name on the registration form to copyright the pen name.
Do not provide photos or do public appearances.
Do not say anything anywhere about the name not being that of a real person.


Whatever your reasons for choosing a pen name, make sure you’ve thought through all the pros and cons entirely before setting the wheels in motion.

Decide beforehand if you want to be completely hidden behind the name, or if it’s okay if word leaks out that it’s you.

Having a pen name could give you the life you always wanted – one book at a time.

Since your a self-published author, you may encounter situations when writing a book in which you don't want to use your real name. Learn how to choose a pen name that works for your publishing goals.

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