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Should You Use a Pen Name or Not?

by Tom Ashford

Whether it was right for me to choose a pen name or not is a question that will haunt me until the day I die. My real name is Tom Ashford (obviously). My pen name is T.W.M. Ashford (W and M are real initials for real middle names). Should I have gone with the casual name that friends and family know me by, or the initialed approach that potentially – but not necessarily – sounds a little more distinguished?

One thing was for sure – adopting my wife’s surname was out of the question. Thomas Hardy, not to mention Tom Hardy, were already taken.

I suspect that in reality, it doesn’t really matter. Anyone who knows me can find my books easily enough, and anyone who doesn’t isn’t going to be wondering how to find Tom Ashford – they’ll only know me by the pen name they come across anyway.

And for every Mark Dawson there’s a J.K. Rowling (Joanna has no middle name). For every Stephen King there’s a George Orwell (real name, Eric Blair). And some science fiction authors go the seriously weird route with their nom de plumes. That being said, who would have thought that Ursula K. Le Guin was her real name?

Let’s take a look at some famous pen-names.

People were worried that boys wouldn’t read a book written by a woman (it was the 90s), though these may have been the same people who thought that a story about a boy going to wizarding school wouldn’t make any money. Joanna Rowling cut her name down to an initial and added an extra one (her grandmother’s name, Kathleen) to sound more professional. She also uses Robert Galbraith for her crime novels, to separate them from her fantasy books.

Dean Koontz uses multiple pen names (alongside his real one): Aaron Wolfe, Brian Coffey, David Axton, K.R. Dwyer, and more.

Ayn Rand? More like Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum. You can see why she’d change it for her front covers.

E.L James, author of Fifty Shades of Grey, is actually Erika Leonard.

James S.A. Corey (author of the Expanse series of books) isn’t even really a person at all – he’s two, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

John le Carré is actually David John Moore Cornwell.

Lewis Carroll was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Apparently his pen name was a play on his real one – Lewis was the anglicised form of Ludovicus, which was the Latin for Lutwidge, and Carroll an Irish surname similar to the Latin name Carolus, from which comes the name Charles.

Sometimes the publishers couldn’t keep up with Stephen King’s prolific writing habit, so he published some of his odder works under the name Richard Bachman. It didn’t seem to do his sales any harm.

Chances are that you aren’t any of these authors, so why might you want to change your name for publication? Well, there are numerous reasons. Perhaps you think your real name is too mundane for a writer. I wouldn’t put too much faith in that argument, however – Dan Brown is hardly struggling, despite his name being not even a fraction as exciting-sounding as his books.

It may be that you plan on writing in multiple genres, and you don’t want a.) your readers to accidentally pick up your new release only to find that it’s horror rather than romance, and b.) your Amazon Also Boughts to be irreversibly messed up.

Or it may be that you share a name with somebody who’s already famous (much like if I became a Hardy). That doesn’t mean you have to come up with something totally different and made up (though if that person is super famous, or your names super similar, it might be worth considering), but you might want to go down the initial route.

It may even be as simple a reason as your webpage not being available. If there was no option to have T.W.M. Ashford in my URL, I likely would have switched to a different pen name. After all, there’s no point having a name which people can’t find, or worse… a name which leads your readers to somebody else entirely.

Or perhaps you’re writing about something controversial. That might mean something political or religious, or it might mean that you write erotica that your family would frown on. A pen name protects your identity… in as much as a pen name can stop anybody determined enough from finding out who you are, that is.

At the end of the day, whilst a name that sounds authoritative may help sell books in non-fiction, and names which are easier to remember are bound to help in some capacity, it’s the strength of your writing – and of your marketing – that will determine whether your books are a success or not. As much as some of us fret about our choices of nom de plumes, unless it’s for a specific purpose, I doubt our choice of name makes as much of a difference as we’d like to think.

If you fancy reading more about the necessities (sometimes) of a pen name, here’s an interesting article: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jul/01/writing-pen-name-alternative-literary-identities-sarah-hall-sarah-vaughan.

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford is a professional copywriter, author of numerous dark fantasy and sci-fi novels, and the Head of Content at the Self Publishing Formula Blog. His books include the Blackwater trilogy and the Checking Out series.

He lives in London with his wife, in an apartment that doesn’t allow pets. Find out more about Tom here.