The New World of Publishing: Pen Names

I get the “pen name” question more than any other question. Period. And that’s because I am very open about writing under different names and I have varied reasons for doing so. And weirdly enough, I have written under pen names since I started writing.

So after a few more varied questions this last week about pen names in indie publishing, I figured it’s about time I give a full and complete opinion on the topic. But let me be clear here once again.  Ready?


Or as a sign in our workshops say, “You are responsible for your own career.”

Take my opinion on this topic as opinion. Nothing more. Then do what you damn well please because… well, because you can. And should.


Pen names have been with fiction writing since the beginning. And the reasons for writers to take pen names is as varied as the writers doing the writing. I’m sure some of you English majors out there could even tell me a bunch of pen names of major literary writers through the centuries. But honestly, please don’t. (grin)

The pulp era of popular fiction brought in thousands and thousands of pen names. There are entire books that have been done trying to track the pen names of the pulp writers, from Max Brand to Kenneth Robison to all the hundreds of pen names of Edward Stratemeyer and his “Syndicate” of writers. (You remember Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and so on.)

Many of today’s major writers wrote under pen names, sometimes many, many pen names over their careers. And almost always for different reasons. I don’t think Robert Silverberg can even count all his pen names. Lawrence Block wrote under many, many names as well, sometimes in the erotic markets of their day. I was at Harlan Ellison’s house one day and asked him off-handedly that if next trip I brought down a copy of Adam Magazine that he had a story in, would he sign it. He laughed and said sure, and he would sign two of the articles in the same issue as well, since he had written those under pen names. I was impressed he remembered.

In fact, in the high peak of science fiction magazines, there were often only one or two writers per issue, even though the magazine showed six or seven authors.

So pen names are nothing new. And the reasons for using a pen name or not using one are varied depending on the author, the time, the publication location, and so much more.

Major Reasons to Use Pen Names

Again, there are thousands of reasons to use pen names, each depending on the author’s situation at the moment.  But let me give you a few of the main ones that have lasted over history.

Top Reason: Writer is too “fast” for traditional publishing.

In other words, the writer has a work ethic and has trained himself to sit at a typewriter or computer for more hours per day. And by doing that, the writer will just produce more work than someone who spends two years writing a novel. Just nature of the beast.

In the pulp era, it was fine to write fast and hard and long under one name. The writers had other reasons to switch names back then that I will get to in a moment.

But with the advent of the influence of the university system and editors coming out of that university myth-filled system, the belief started to sink into the traditional publishing offices that writing more than one or two books per year was a bad thing (except in a few genres like romance). And besides, the big machines of modern traditional publishing just couldn’t keep up with a fast writer. In fact, fast writers just scare hell out of them.

So those of us who have a work ethic and can sit at a computer for a regular work day, we flat had to have more outlets. So instead of putting novels into drawers, we came up with pen names and started many writing careers, often with numbers of them going at once.

At one point, Kris and I were joking around at a conference and actually counted the career income streams coming into our home at that moment in time. We had nine writers’ incomes coming into the house. That was more than we had cats at that point.

Today we have about that many, maybe a few more, but some are not making much, at least not enough to live on. Luckily the pen-name writers don’t eat much.

The key is the same with all aspects of the publishing industry: Diversity and a lot of product. If you have three or four writer’s incomes hitting your house, it’s a ton better and safer than only one. And nine or ten incomes just makes things much easier.

The idea of multiple income streams from different names is not something most writers think of until they happen into it by overwhelming their own publisher and deciding to not slow down (meaning spend less time at the computer or playing Angry Birds) as their agent wants them to do.

However, now with indie publishing, fast writers have far, far more outlets and the idea of being a “fast” writer, meaning spending more hours writing, is once again becoming a good thing. At least outside of traditional publishing. Inside of traditional publishing being fast still scares hell out of people and they will do everything in their power to get you to spend less time being a writer and more time being an author.

Second Major Reason: Help Your Readers While Writing What You Want To Write

This also has been basic from the early days of fiction writing. Readers identify certain types of books by the name of the author. You pick up a Max Brand these days and you expect to get an old-style western. (Max Brand was a pen name of a failed poet.) A Max Brand reader would be very angry if they started to read a Max Brand novel and discovered an old vampire lusting after young girls.

In the pulp era, authors often changed their names when moving to another genre magazine. Only a few major writers that jumped around (such as L. Ron. Hubbard) did not change names much. Writers of that level sold magazines in almost all genres, so editors didn’t want the writer to change the name.

However, the basic reason is that authors get bored easily and want to try new things, new genres, new plots. It’s the rare writer who can write the same story over and over as traditional publishers want them to do. Most of us would rather have teeth pulled than do that. So we write around like a wayward husband and change names on publishers to stay out of their contract traps.

But really, it’s the readers that matter on this one.

My wife, Kristine Kathryn Rusch writes under some major names. Her name is known as a science fiction and fantasy writer. And her fantasy series, The Fey, is a dark, high fantasy with lots of blood and death. So when she came up with a light, warm, humorous fantasy series set here and now using fairy tales, she didn’t want to confuse her readers and make the readers that liked one kind of fantasy and not the other angry. So Kristine Grayson, the bestselling paranormal romance writer, was born for the funny fantasy books.

Then Kris came up with a dark mystery series set in the late 1960s that dealt with race and politics of the time. Again, not something her normal science fiction readers would enjoy, so multiple-Edgar-nominated Kris Nelscott was born. And now in romance this next year she has a wonderful science fiction romance series starting out of Sourcebooks under the name Kris DeLake. Pure space opera with a romance touch. But again the readers that love Recovering Apollo 8 or the gritty Diving into the Wreck series would not be very happy. Thus the new author is born.

You want a more major example than my wife? How about Evan Hunter, which was a pen name. Evan Hunter wrote a book called The Blackboard Jungle that won some major awards such as the Pulitzer Prize. But he was a writer, and wanted to write other stuff.  He got an offer to write a new series for a paperback house that needed short novels fast. So he created a new name and wrote police procedural novels for decades under the name Ed McBain.  Also, Evan Hunter, to help pay for a girlfriend or some such thing now lost in publishing lore, wrote soft-core erotica quickly, often finishing a book in a day or so, to help pay dating costs. Of course, those books were also under other names.

So writers, help your readers find a book they will enjoy because they read an earlier one like it. I know it’s alien for writers to think about helping out readers, but the more you do, the more fans you get and the more readers over time. It really is that simple.

Also, I suppose I should say something right here about “branding” your books and name or pen name. In other words, indie publishers, if you have a pen name, make all the stories and pen names under that name seem similar in covers and look, yet be different enough from book to book. That also helps readers. If you don’t know what I’m talking about here, go study branding because it will help you in publishing.

I’ll talk in a minute about keeping pen names secret or not. 99% of the time there is no reason to, so if the reader of your fun fantasy wants to read a blood-and-guts fantasy and you are clear you write that under that other name, let them be able to find it on your main web site.

Third Major Reason: You Have A Difficult Day Job

This reason is just obvious. You are an MD and you are writing medical thrillers. Really good plan to do that under a pen name to save legal problems with some patient believing you took their personal information and put it in your book, even though you didn’t.

And yes I know about Michael Crichton writing his way through medical school. Under pen names. He wrote under the names John Lange and Jeffrey Hudson and one of the books under one of those names won the Edgar Award for best novel.  He wrote numbers of novels per year all the way through med school, all under pen names, and got his MD the year he wrote three novels. (Yeah, you don’t have enough time to write.) By the way, his real first name was John.

Another example: James Tiptree Jr. was a long-term spy in the Second World War and in the Cold War, a CIA agent, and an experimental psychologist, so she came up with a very hidden pen name to write under. Her real name was Alice Sheldon, but everyone swore Tiptree was a man for a very long time.

Some Other Smaller Reasons to Change Your Writing Name

— Sales Record Goes Bad.

In traditional publishing, your sales record is tracked by your name. You write a book and something goes wrong along the way, often through no fault of your own, and your sales numbers go down and you can’t sell another book under that name.

Smart writers change their name and keep writing. Authors, on the other hand, sit in bars at conventions and complain they can’t sell a book.

So bad sales record in traditional publishing is one reason. That makes no difference at all in indie publishing. In indie publishing, writers publish the book and let the numbers of readers grow slowly over time.  In traditional publishing, they have to gamble that your book will sell a certain number in a certain amount of time. Remember the produce model? In traditional publishing, your books spoil, so if they paid you too much in comparison to your sales numbers, you can’t sell another book UNDER THAT NAME.

Change your name and move on. Or move to indie publishing.

— Family Issues.

Sometimes some writers just don’t want their mother stumbling across that erotic book they wrote. Do that under a pen name if you have that issue. Or if you hate your parents and don’t want to give them credit for anything.

— Future Divorce

Women, caution on using your husband’s name as your writing name. Writing careers often outlast marriages. Just saying…

— Your Real Name is Stephen King

Let me think… Oh, yeah, write under a pen name. That name is taken.

— You Think Your Story Sucks

Writers are the worst judges of their own work, but alas, we all still have strong opinions of our work when finished. So when you write a story that sucks in your belief as a writer and you wouldn’t want anyone to see it under your main name, sell it under a pen name. This is becoming very easy in indie publishing. And has been a standard practice since the beginning of publishing. You might be surprised how well your bad story sells. Let the readers decide.

— You are writing a Work-For-Hire Series.

Fine to do some under your main writing name, but caution on writing too many and getting know for doing them only. I am still known as a Star Trek writer even though I haven’t written one Star Trek book in almost a decade. Do you know I wrote Star Trek under seven different names? I’ll give you Dean Wesley Smith and Sandy Schofield. The other five you Trek buffs can figure out if you want to waste time for a trivia contest.

Better to just do work-for-hire or media under a pen name from the start. Trust me on this one.

As I said, there are thousands and thousands of reasons for writers to write under pen names. Most make great sense to the writer. But now let me talk about the elephant in the room with this topic. Ready?


So many writers deep down are out to be famous. And they want their own name to be the famous name. So the idea of changing their name is just alien for any reason, no matter how much it makes business sense to do so. I’ve seen many, many, many writers just give up writing completely because they would not change their name and something stopped their books from selling.

This issue seems to be much, much worse for men than women. Women are raised to think they might change their name at some point in the future in a wedding. But men have this ego-thing about their name. Men, get over it.

For some reason I’ve never had that problem. No idea why not.  For me, when I walk into a store and see a book I wrote, either under this name or one I wrote for a major bestseller as a ghost novel, I know it’s my book. And that’s all that matters to me.

I walked into Safeway grocery store one night and saw three of my books there on the rack. One a media book with this name on it, one a ghost novel, and one a western under a series author name.  Fantastic fun. I didn’t need to show anyone or run up-and-down-the-aisles shouting what I had just done.  I just stood there for a moment staring at the three books, smiling.

Then I went home and went back to writing.

So before you start writing under other names, check the ego at the door. Evan Hunter is a pen name. At an Edgar Awards ceremony a number of years back he was the keynote speaker. In front of his plate was a name-tag that read “Evan Hunter.”  When the person doing the announcements called his name to come and speak, he introduced him as Ed McBain. Salvator Albert Lombino still stood up.

If you have ego issues, just stay with one name. And never ghost-write a book.

Indie Publishing Issues

Indie writers who are in a great hurry are usually the ones that ask me about pen names.  One of the truths of indie publishing is that if you have more products under one name, readers can find you easier and if they like a story they buy, they will buy more. And thus having more books and stories published leads to more sales. That is one fact most of us agree on about indie publishing.

But….  All those stories and books need to be in the same general area. If you write a vampire novel followed by a romance with rabbit-sex followed by a private detective novel, all under the same name, you are going to lose readers, not find more. So if you are moving across genres like that in your writing, you are going to need to realize that it’s going to take more time to build an audience. Because you are going to be building more than one career. Of course that takes more time. Duh.

That means as a beginning writer you are going to have to do what seems almost impossible to do. You are going to have to take the long view, meaning not just six months, but six years or more. (Please don’t scream at me. I’m being nice suggesting only six years. More than likely it’s ten years or more, just as it was in the old traditional-publishing-only days.)

I have no issue with a writer telling their readers they also write other kinds of novels under other names. I just told you about four of my wife’s names she writes in different genres. And sometimes readers will follow across genre lines. Give them the chance on a main web site under a main name.

Some Answers to Basic Questions

How do you create a pen name?

Simple. Put it under the title and put it in the author slots on the different sites. Have all the money go to your real banking name. In traditional publishing, on your manuscript, you put your real name where the check is sent in the upper left-hand corner of the manuscript with your address. You put your pen name under the title. It really is that simple. No need to set up any kind of legal anything.

How about copyright under a pen name?

If you ask this question you need to buy a copy of The Copyright Handbook at once. It’s from NoLo Press. Go buy it now.

But the short answer is copyright protection vests in the words as you commit them to a form, meaning as you write them down or type them onto a screen. The form of everything you write automatically has copyright protection and does not matter what name you publish it under. If you are worried, spend the extra money to get your copyright registered. But for heaven’s sake, go learn copyright.

Do I have to keep my pen name secret?

Up to you. I wouldn’t unless you have issues with your family or are a medical professional. Or unless you signed a legal document agreeing to not disclose the name. (I have signed many, many of those documents.) But if you are just starting a new name to help readers stay clear on which genre they are reading, I can see no reason to keep a pen name secret.

Should I have a web site for each pen name?

Of course. Author name is the most important selling tool you have over time. So before you invent a new name, make sure no one else is writing under that name and then go get the domain. When you go in search of the domain, don’t hesitate, just spend the ten bucks and buy it. Otherwise someone will grab it because it has interest in the search engines.

But at the same time don’t be silly and think you have to blog on the site and work it all the time. Just use it as a static web site where readers can get to your books or back to your main web site. That’s all you use it for. It’s an advertising site.

You want to see an example of a static web site for my Dee W. Schofield pen name?  Go to There’s even a free story there. And notice the bio and picture. That’s a picture of me about two years old standing on a hood of a car.

Should I make up a fake bio for my pen name?

No need unless it’s going to be very secret, but then be careful. Better to say less or nothing about the author.

Do you need to do some branding of each pen name?

I would certainly try. Use the same font on the covers, use the same basic design, same type of art, that sort of thing. Anything to give the reader a feeling that you are sort of paying attention to stories being similar. I would do this more for novels than short stories. If you can’t or don’t understand branding, don’t worry about it. Minor at first.

There are many other minor questions about pen names, many I’m sure will get answered in the comments section.


Again, there are thousands of reasons to use a pen name. None are wrong.

For me, I’ve used pen names for business because I was writing someone else’s novel for them. I’ve used pen names on work-for-hire novels, I’ve used pen names in different genres. I’ve used pen names to write erotica. I’ve used pen names when my wife and I wrote together. And sometimes I used a pen name just for fun.  Why? Because I could, that’s why.

As a beginning writer, I had the silly idea that “Smith” was a bad name to write under, so I wrote stories under Wesley Dean. One very long day at Damon Knight’s house, he spent the entire day going out of his way to call me all the variations of “Wes” and “Wesley” and “Wesser” and so on. By the end of the day, even though the name was fine, I had decided I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life answering to that name. It just didn’t fit in my mind as a name for me. I went back to my real name after that day, but I had already sold four or five stories under that name. I got a couple of them changed before they were published.

And now when I pick a pen name, I imagine being called that name for the rest of my life.

So basically what I am saying about pen names is this:

There are no rules. Do what you want.

But if your ego stops you from starting a new name when you should for business reasons, then there are repercussions. As I said before, the simple desire to stick with a certain name has killed many, many writing careers. But those people, in my opinion, were not writers. They were authors.

Writers are people who write and don’t much care which name their writing appears under. They only care that they can keep writing and that readers in one fashion or another get a chance to read what they write.

And trust me, it was great fun to walk into that Safeway grocery store and see three of my books on the same paperback rack. Great fun. But if I had been so wrapped up in my own ego that I couldn’t write under another name, that moment would have never have happened.

So when deciding about which name to publish a book or story under, think first of your readers.

Then think about your readers some more.

And then decide which name would be best for them. And which name you can live with the rest of your life.

And then have fun.


Copyright © 2012 Dean Wesley Smith

Cover art copyright Philcold/Dreamstime

This chapter is now part of my inventory in my Magic Bakery.  I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated over this last year. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!

Tip Jar: Go To Paypal

This entry was posted in On Writing, publishing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

119 Responses to The New World of Publishing: Pen Names

  1. I write across genres and have a last name that many acquaintances misprounounce x years, so I have pen names (Melissa Yuan-Innes, Yi, Yin, and Yuan, to be precise).

    However, just a tip to increase the titles that appear under your name and therefore your discoverability: Amazon allows multiple authors, so I use Yuan-Innes as my secondary author on all of them. It’s also my most popular name, so that works out well, i.e. almost 40 titles pull up instead of as few as two.

    Smashwords does allow people to view by publisher, so that should also help on that platform, but B&N and Apple use only the primary pen name, so I have to just write more books to increase my visibility on those sites.

    Thanks, Dean.

  2. Cyn Bagley says:

    I thought about putting together a pen name for when I start writing romance. Yea, I have been thinking of a paranormal romance type and it doesn’t quite fit with my normal style of writing. I thought I was fantasy, but I have a friend who likes to read my stuff and considers it thriller with horror elements.

    I also have some writing that fits in a Western genre, but is not the normal shoot-em ups.

    I thought about it – but I think that right now I don’t have the time or energy. I will write what I have and not worry about branding. I was going to blurb about my disease again. It is close to my heart and is something I can’t forget and it shortens my life considerably. :-)

    I realized in 2003 after I became really ill that I don’t have any more time left. I am grateful I have been given 9 more years. I hope it will be longer. –

    So branding, pen names, and other building skills are out. What I have left??? Writing.


    • dwsmith says:

      Exactly, Cyn. Writing and having fun and getting your work in place for readers to find. And Kris and I both will be talking about estate issues for writers this spring. We’ve learned a ton and writers, especially with work up and selling regularly, even small amounts, have estate issues they didn’t have in the traditional publishing only days. Hang in there and keep having fun.

  3. Dean Fan says:

    Thanks for your reply, Dean. There’s some sex/violence material inappropriate for kids in my adult novels, so for the kid books, I wasn’t going to mention the connection.

    I’m thrilled you think I can use the bestseller creds with the pen name. I asked bob mayer same question and he had same answer, so great minds think alike. :)

    Glad i’m not the only one who’s encountered the crazies. Home security courtesy of Smithfield. ha ha.

  4. Well, Dean, some of us are still early in the process. When you don’t yet have your first income stream (from writing, that is — programming is my current income stream), the thought of a second or further stream is hard to imagine.

    But I do imagine that having your three names was a significant factor in having those three books on the shelf simultaneously. If they were all under the same name, I can imagine some store buyer saying, “No, I want some variety. I’ll order from some other authors, too.”

    I haven’t decided to use a pen name yet. I’m mostly writing similar stories in the SF genre. Yet oddly I’ve had my first pen name in the back of my head for the past 34 years.

    • dwsmith says:

      Martin, dreaming and planning. Writers are great with the first part of that, so dream about many income streams. Planning for writers is another matter and I know of few writers who can do it. So skip that. (grin)

  5. joemontana says:

    Great post Dean.

    BTW I was hoping you could change your name to Dean WELSEY Smith. Every time I type your name into Google’s search engine I fat finger it and come up with that version. I expect it changed by Friday. Thanks! :)

    To the point of pen names – I think I’ll use one. My real last name is uncommon, hard to spell and a nightmare to pronounce. I spent all of my school years up to college correcting people.

    It’s why I always post as Joe Montana actually – there was a funny contest in a San Francisco newspaper back in the 1980’s when the SF 49ers were THE team in the NFL. The paper decided quarterback Joe Montana needed a nickname and held a contest for readers to suggest one. A reader suggested that Joe Montana already sounded like a nickname and dubbed him David W. Gibson because that was a ‘real name’.

    Montana liked it so much he had it as the name over his locker in the 49ers facilities.

    So there you all go – someday Alex Trebek will ask a question about this on Jeopardy! and one of you will win 25k thanks to me!!!!

    David W. Gibson sounds like a good pen name too… hmmm…

  6. Harper Jayne says:

    Which is really most relevant when you have an “oh crap this writing is bad” moment or a “damn i have screwed this name” moment.

    I think if you do a consistent job with all your writing and do not toss out too many incendiaries you will likely end up being able to use just one name.

    Diverse names might just make it easier to compartmentalize any future damage you might do to yourself with an awful book or some other PR fallout. :)

    • dwsmith says:

      Harper said, “I think if you do a consistent job with all your writing …”

      Wow, never met a professional writer that could do that. Unless you never, ever take a chance at anything new. But if you are taking chances and pushing your skills all the time, consistent is a long distant memory and something you never worry about. You can try new stuff and not fail at times. That’s part of the fun, honestly. Sorry, Harper, just sort of laughed when I saw the word “consistent” associated with writing and writers. (grin)

  7. Annie Reed says:

    Right now I write under three active names. One pen name already has an established brand (I’ve been writing under it for years), and you’re right, it’s a nice steady income stream separate from the income I get from my real name and my second pen name, both of which I’m still building. The fun part is when something I’ve written blurs the lines — then I have to look at where the new work would be the best fit. Such happy problems, right? *g*

  8. Lyn Perry says:

    I’m contemplating this very issue. I have a “secret” pen name reserved for some “gritty realism” and am debating with myself (lol) about making it public on my blog. I write light, clean, speculative fare, but my alter ego uses bad words. Need some help here. :)

    • dwsmith says:

      Up to you, Lyn. Whatever you can handle personally would be my way to check in with yourself. If having that name public would always be a distraction, keep it secret. If not, then take the slight crossover of readers. But no right answer, just what your stomach is telling you. (grin)

  9. Rick says:

    I’ve written a short romance which is appearing in an online magazine under my own name. I usually write horror or fantasy or just plain weird stuff under that name. If I use my real name on the romance story in the mag, could I still publish elsewhere (Amazon, etc.) using a pen name?

    • dwsmith says:

      Rick, color me confused. Are you talking about the SAME story using two names? If so, the answer is NO! If you are talking about two different stories under two different names, why not? I don’t understand your question I guess.

  10. Harper Jayne says:

    Which was kind of my point.

    I think you have to just accept the advantages of having a single name (people know you) along with the disadvantages (if you screw up you own it) just as you have to do the same with multiple names.


    No right answers, just answers.

  11. I’ve got just one pen name now — for suspense. All my fantasy, SF, horror, and even a few mainstream stories I wrote accidentally, I keep under my own name. F/SF/and Horror have a fair amount of crossover, at least among readers of those genres that I know, and mainstream, I don’t anticipate ever writing enough of to reach a critical mass a titles.

    My only comment was that a big factor that went into my creation of my pen name was length. I picked a name (Evan Cobb) that’s short and easy to work with when designing covers. For anyone else making their own covers it makes things a lot easier to have a compact name, it reads clear in thumbnail size.

  12. Frank Dellen says:

    “… that no one has commented on the income aspects of pen names I talked about. Maybe I wasn’t clear on that.”
    I thought it was so clear, it would need no further discussion.

    Re: “this was tampered with by editors” pen names – an example from the movies would be Alan Smithee, the director doing all those crappy flicks. The difference is that many directors used that alias – writers should invent a similar strawname we all could use, that would be funny.

    But the main reason I posted again is to thank you, Dean – and all of you commenters, too (especially Dean Fan for bringing up the security aspect). Considering your opinions helped me making some decisions regarding pen names, so this blog had real value for me.

  13. Suzanne says:

    Thanks, Dean. I was just wondering if writing fast meant you wrote shorter novels, but I guess not! My first novel only made it to 70K words, and it took me 2 months to write. I guess it’s because I’m a newbie writer. Hopefully I’ll get faster at writing to at least 80K words for my novels, but not if it means churning out scribbly work! lol

    I know you already blog post a lot of helpful advice, but have you or could you write a post about how YOU have come to be able to write a novel in 2-3 weeks? I suppose it just comes with practice and time, but if you have any secrets about how you persevere (i.e. fight procrastination), please do tell!

    • dwsmith says:

      Suzanne, I almost hate to tell you this, but I’ve written full 90,000 word novels in six and seven days. One in six, slightly shorter, two over 90,000 words in seven days each. So writing a full-length novel for me in 2-3 weeks is pretty easy and normal.

      How do I do that? I write about 750 words per hour, up to 1,000 words per hour when going along, including a short break to move around.

      90,000 words is then 90 hours at 1,000 words per hour.

      That means when writing on a book I tend to work about 30 hours per week on the book. That’s less than a full-time job down at the grocery store.

      That’s how it’s done. I don’t type fast or have any tricks. I just spend 30 hours per week writing. And trust me, no matter what your English teacher tried to tell you, writing is not the hardest job on the planet.

      My job description: I sit alone in a room and make shit up. And they pay me large amounts of money to do that. Go figure.

  14. Having been fortunate to have been given a popular name (John Smith), I had to resort to a pen name from the beginning.

    As a reader, the indicators of genre are not the name. I’ve liked writers that have written other things. Like one back in the 80’s that I started with in Swords and Sorcery trilogy but later read a Vampire Mystery that I wouldn’t have read because I already ‘knew’ the author.

    Also as a reader, I get a bit disappointed when I find out an author is using a bunch of different pen names.

    And isn’t starting a string of separate names hard to get the book count up for each – since we’ve been talking about novel counts relative to discoverability? Even with the long view .. is 50 books in two names better or worse than a 100 books in one name? Or 10 for two names vs 20 for one name? I can write pretty fast but this whole Amazon is the Wild West thing will have a setting sun – sooner than later – and a small group will be back ‘in charge’. That group might be independent authors (certainly unlikely the old-guard Legacy Publishers .. buggy manufacturers didn’t make it into the automotive business as one example of many), but it will tighten up. Only a matter of when.

    Story titles, cover designs, and carefully placed sub-sub-titles “A Nancy Drew Vampire Tale of Horror” or “Happy happy dragon and unicorn Romance” can help the reader decide if that book is for them.

    I’m still torn about it due to some old MBA marketing things with “line extensions” and weakening brand message if you do. You want to have separate brands for different products. Proctor & Gamble is the king in this. “Tide” and “Crest” are two separate brands they make and you only know it’s P&G by looking at the fine print. They almost never show P&G on commercials for these products.

    • dwsmith says:

      Ahh, but J Gordon, if you went to the P&G web site, you would find information about Tide and Crest among their other products. That’s what I was saying about not hiding your names and having a major site somewhere to link everything. That kind of thinking. But I agree, it is harder, as I said, to get more names up and running. But if one doesn’t work, you already have another one or two started. It’s just a much longer term approach. Hurry does not work for numbers of pen names.

  15. Ravven says:

    What about single-word pen names? I am just finishing my first novel, which is an illustrated steampunk fantasy. I would like to publish it under the name that I have been associated with for almost fifteen years and which I create all my art under, but I am unsure how this would work as a pen name. I have a well-established blog, Twitter account, and so on…all under the single-word name.

    Are there perceptual (feels odd because no one does it) or logistical (lack of first/last name structure) drawbacks to publishing under a single name?

    • dwsmith says:

      Ravven, wow, not sure on that to be honest. Computers are strange things in some programs and might require a first and last, but honestly, I think it’s only the last that is required on most forms. So it should be fine. The problem you have also is that it might be confused with a title at times, so watch your book titles. Or confused as part of the title. But I sure see your reasoning. Just wish I had even an opinion, but I sure don’t. (Love your work, by the way. Wonderful.)

  16. Rese says:

    this is great! thanks for this.

    also, aesthetic reasons. for me, the main reason for picking a pen name is because my real name is so blah generic. i’ve found that authors with strange, quirky, great-sounding names tend to stick in readers’ minds and seem more successful, whether they’re real names or pen names: china mieville, ursula k. le guin, j.r.r tolkien, etc. even going as far back as shakespeare.

  17. Martin Vavpotic says:

    He he, good one, Martin. I needed a few moments to get what you’re trying to say.

    Actually, what you see here is my real name, apart from a wedge on the ‘c’ that English keyboards don’t have. Now I’m wondering: would a letter like ‘č’ even pass through to Amazon and Smashwords? Because I sure don’t like the way English speakers pronounce that ‘c’ in the end since it’s really not a ‘c’ but a ‘ch’.

  18. Heh. I hadn’t considered the name length issue. I’ve had trouble coming up with a cover design that fits both my long(ish) last name and my shorter first name and middle initial. If I put them all on one line, it’s a long line that only fits on a cover in a small, hard-to-read font. If I put them on two lines, the last name is so long, it unbalances the lines. Finally I settled on first and middle in a smaller font sort of inset in my last name. I think it actually looks good this way, but it took a lot of experimentation!

    My pseudonym, on the other hand, is 7 characters. Counting periods. That’ll fit anywhere!

  19. Guy Antibes says:

    The name on this post is a pen name. I totally agree with your blog post and unwittingly have been following it. I’m a fantasy writer (three lonely books) and am currently writing more of a women’s oriented series. I’ve got a name already figured out and intend to get a website up before I publish.

    I was very happy to see that my strategy was aligned with your post. Since I am an indie publisher, a writer can easily switch and manage genres rather than write and wait and wait and wait in a traditional publishing setting.

    Great post. Much appreciated.

  20. Tori Minard says:

    Hi, Dean,
    I don’t want to hijack the thread, but I tried to email you and couldn’t get thru. I was just wondering if you’d seen this interview with John Locke. It seems he’s changed his views on what sells books to be a lot more in line with yours.

    “For an entire month I sold more than 12,000 units a day. At one point Saving Rachel and Wish List were #1 and #2 overall. On my best day I sold 30,000 ebooks. All the marketing methods helped, and the Amazon sales engine was a huge factor. But these days I’m convinced the major factor, or tipping point, is the book itself. Writing that type of book is like catching lightning in a bottle. And when you write one of those, you know it. But everything you write is not going to have that type of effect on the public.”

    Here’s the link

  21. Cyn Bagley says:

    Thanks Dean,
    Yes, I would be very interested on your info on estate issues for writers like us.

    Yours, Cyn

  22. Tori Minard says:

    Martin Vavpotic: would you consider changing (anglicizing) the spelling to Vavpotich? That way (I think) people would be more likely to pronounce it correctly. BTW, what country are you from? My dad is Croatian, and I guessed the pronunciation of your name-I figured it had one of those wedge thingies over the “c”, so I was wondering if you were from Serbia or Croatia. 😉

    Ravven: what about just putting an initial in front of your name? Like S. Ravven (or whatever). The Ravven is still emphasized and it looks more like a regular name.

  23. Suzanne says:

    Wow. I am gobsmacked. That is, I was FLOORED until you summed it up in the end where it comes down to a 30 hour work week.

    Thank you so much for breaking it down. If I approach my novel writing like this from now on I’m going to be blasting out the good words!

    Cheers, mate! You’re a star.

  24. Rick says:

    I was talking about the same story, Dean. Thanks for the input, I’ll just leave well enough alone for that one! :)

    By the way, I love this blog. One of the best for practical info for us neophytes trying to build a career.

    Keep up the good work!

  25. Dean said:
    “90,000 words is then 90 hours at 1,000 words per hour. That means when writing on a book I tend to work about 30 hours per week on the book. That’s less than a full-time job down at the grocery store. That’s how it’s done. I don’t type fast or have any tricks. I just spend 30 hours per week writing.”

    I can hear the groans already – “at the end of 90 hours, I might have 90 words, but I’m not even close to finishing a book in that time!” My fastest novel writing was 140K in five months (writing around my work schedule), although I have managed 8-12K in a single day on occasion.

    I think the part most people miss (or will choke on) is the fact that you’ve also spent a lot of time “in training” to be able to come out at the end of that 90-hour week with a finished book. So while I can type a lot faster than you – you blow me out of the water at writing speed, because *you’ve trained for it.* Another benefit of building the inventory, IMHO, since the more you write, the more you train your storytelling muscles to respond on demand when you sit down at the keyboard.

  26. gypsy says:

    I’ve found that – besides the reasons you list above – there’s an added benefit to writing under a pseudonym for different genres/styles of work: the more you write, the more each alter-ego begins to develop their own “voice.”

    Story ideas come to me in a variety of ways – sometimes I finish the story and then have to figure out which of my pseudonyms wrote it, while other times the story idea has enough cues that I know which alter-ego’s hat I’m going to be wearing while I write. Oddly, when I sit down as that writer, I slide into his/her voice, and write in the style that writer is developing. It’s similar to slipping into the accents and rhythms and cadences of a foreign language when I travel or visit with friends who speak that language – the brain finds the natural rhythms that belong to the pseudonym I’m running at the time.

    Probably sounds a little nuts, but hey, it works for me!

  27. allynh says:

    “Ravven on 01 Feb 2012 at 8:20 am
    What about single-word pen names?”

    Look up the wiki pages for: “Saki” or “O. Henry” or “Starhawk”.

    “Martin Vavpotic on 01 Feb 2012 at 8:57 am
    Because I sure don’t like the way English speakers pronounce that ‘c’ in the end since it’s really not a ‘c’ but a ‘ch’.”

    Look at C. J. Cherryh<—-the "h" was added to her real name.

    Go ahead and have your name be "Vavpotich" with the added "h'. HA!

    "Martin L. Shoemaker on 01 Feb 2012 at 9:46 am
    Heh. I hadn’t considered the name length issue. I’ve had trouble coming up with a cover design that fits both my long(ish) last name and my shorter first name and middle initial."

    Try having the name like this on the cover. A mix of lower and uppercase with the last name all uppercase.

    Martin L.

    Have it fill the cover like:


    When your name is big, go really big. HA!

  28. Susan Shepherd says:

    @Ravven: There’s a writer of YA fiction who goes by “Avi.” I liked those books and have seen them in the libraries of multiple schools, so in at least some cases it is fine to have a one-word pen name.

  29. Tony Noland says:

    Great post, thank you! I write stories in different genres, and readers will tell me that this or that piece was “unexpected”. I’ve thought for a while about setting up some alternate names to keep them straight, if only so readers will know what kind of story they’ll be getting, based on the byline.

  30. J. R. Nova says:

    This was one of the most informative posts I’ve read anywhere on the web in weeks. Thanks a ton for the information.

  31. Lassal says:

    “Ravven on 01 Feb 2012 at 8:20 am
    What about single-word pen names?”

    It works, although you have to get creative once in a while with some forms that require two names. I usually write a “.” or a “-” as first name and I have not had any complaints yet. Other than Facebook, where I became a saint.

    Personally I would go ahead and use your single-word pen name if it can activate an existing fan group from your illustration work or if you can work out some synergy effects. If this is not the case, I would rather avoid the hassle.

  32. “If you write a vampire novel followed by a romance with rabbit-sex followed by a private detective novel, all under the same name, you are going to lose readers, not find more.”

    NOW you tell me. I’ve already published a young adult science fiction novel and a paranormal urban detective novel under this name. Drat. I already have a couple of pen names for other genres. I’m starting to feel like I have multiple personality disorder.

    I think my next novel will be written by Sudo Nim. Or maybe Penn Nayme. It’s getting hard to keep track…

  33. allynh says:

    “Sarah Stegall on 02 Feb 2012 at 5:05 pm
    I think my next novel will be written by Sudo Nim. Or maybe Penn Nayme.”

    Oh, those are great. I wish I’d thought of them. Try using “Naym” instead. The added “e” makes the speech function on my computer pronounce the “e”.

  34. Once a wikipedia page has been created for you, it becomes virtually impossible to maintain a pen name. We know that true anonymity on the Net isn’t possible, especially for someone highly motivated enough to dig up the clues. Also, it is virtually impossible to keep up a sock puppet online for a sustained period of time. That said, the world’s indifference to most writers and books means that there is not a high level of interest in unmasking identities.

    But when making a pseudonym, you don’t need absolute anonymity; you need protection against casual google searches and close friends & family who reveal your identity in a public place. On the other hand, I’ve kept my pseudonym for 8 years without being unmasked.

  35. Thanks for answering so many of my questions. I have several good reasons for writing my third novel under a pen name. I just wonder about having to create a new public persona to accompany it.

    I mean, what about public appearances, such as book signing, readings, awards (one hopes!), and so on? Do you have to go out in public and present yourself as someone other than yourself? What if you’re tremendously successful with a book under a pen name and get media attention? Have you just become a new person for the rest of your public life?

    I have no problem putting pen names on my writing; I’m just not sure I’m ready to become several different people in real life!

    • dwsmith says:

      Marty, did you read my blog? Go back and read it again. You don’t have to do that. And I would suggest you never try to pretend to be a different person. I told the story of Ed McBain. My wife Kris writes under four or five major pen names and when a fan at a signing brings up a Nelscott book, she just signs it with the right name: Nelscott. The biggest problem she has is making sure she gets the right pen name signature on the right book. She doesn’t change. She’s still just Kris.

  36. TPouliot says:

    I am curious about how you handle those pen names no one knows are you. Do you publish them on e-sites as author accounts, or are they under a second publisher account? Do you adapt your blurb “written more than 90 popular novels” to “by a major author” or do you not use the blurb? Do they get invites for appearances, and if so how do you handle them?

    • dwsmith says:

      I avoid all comments and both my major secret pen names have a static web site done by the publisher. I do no signings or appearances, of course. (I don’t do those anyway except for local signings to support my local bookstore or if I am at a convention.)

      I have no secret pen names that are indie published. All my secret stuff is through New York traditional. And all my ghost writing through them as well most of the time. (A few exceptions.)

  37. Good post – and very good advice – as per usual.
    And, to add another good reason for a pen-name.
    If you’re a newbie and selling genre books in a traditional bookstore choose a pen-name somewhere between A and L in the alphabet.
    Reason? If the potential buyer hasn’t found your book by the letter M they’ll have given up – they won’t want to stoop and crick their necks to read the spines any more than they have to.

    That’s why my pen-name is HP while my birth name is WS.

  38. I knew you had this article “somewhere.” I remembered reading it. You still irk me, Dean, trying to equate “branding” with a book cover layout or font choice but I know from the rest of the context of the article, you DO understand how a name (pen name or real name) is the crux of an Indie Author’s brand. You totally cracked me up with the “Your real name is Stephen King” reason for using a pen name. The unspoken message there, however, is the POWER of a name AS a brand and that’s what really matters in this article. Your pen name(s) will become your brand for that particular style/type of writing, like it or not.


    p.s. My branding article where I cited you/this article is part of my Immutable Laws of Branding (for Indie Authors) series on my non-fiction pen name’s blog :) That is, Sarah, The Webbiegrrl Writer in case you actually didn’t recognize my inimitable voice behind my SciFi Friday pen name :) Check it out here:

  39. dannah says:

    i am writing a self help book that is sexual in nature and do not want to be public about it as the mom of a 9 year old girl. I am certified health coach and wonder if i can add the credentials next to a pen name. ALso i imagine it is hard to do any publicity if you have a pen name ? Do people put a fake picture next to their pen names or their own picture anyway?
    Thanks in advance for any guidance or info you can give to me.

    best regards

    • dwsmith says:


      Yes, you can put your credentials next to your pen name. Just be clear that the name you are writing under is a pen name. And no lying at all in the bio, so no picture. But bios can be slanted even though true to hide identity.

  40. Mike Yin says:

    Very glad to have stumbled onto this post! I’m keen to hear your thoughts on this. Would you recommend a Korean or Japanese writer to adopt an English pen name? Wouldn’t it be too much of a discrepancy when the writer is introduced as, say, Michael Douglass, at a conference?

    • dwsmith says:

      Mike, all personal choice to be honest. I sure don’t see much need for it if your name is easy to remember by readers and easy to pronounce when someone is telling someone else about your wonderful book. If Mike Yin is your name or part of it, fly with that. It’s a good one. Just my opinion. Names are a personal thing and no real rules to govern them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>