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With the rise of AI authors, how do you prove you are a human author? Most authors prove their humanity with their names and photos. Your identity protects you from being called a bot writer.

But what if you use a pen name? Will AI bring the age of pen names to an end? 

While pen names are going out of style, there are some reasons you still might consider using one. We will talk about seven reasons authors use pen names and if those reasons still make sense in an era where your verifiable humanity has become a marketing asset.

Seven Reasons Authors Use Pen Names (and does it still make sense?)

Reason #1: To Stay Anonymous and Avoid Consequences

When Thomas Paine first wrote Common Sense, he used the pen name “A Son of Liberty” to avoid retribution from the English Crown. As of 2006, it was the all-time best-selling American title and is still in print today.

But everyone knows who wrote Common Sense. Pen names rarely work as a tool for providing anonymity. Someone always talks or follows the money. Maybe they notice a familiar writing style. Or your phone, which tracks your every activity online and off, may rat you out.

I challenge you to think of someone who successfully stayed anonymous after becoming famous through their writing. It didn’t work for the Unabomber, Vox Day, Mark Twain, or Thomas Paine.

If you hope a pen name will protect you from scrutiny, consequences, or criticism, think again. Good writing requires courage. If you lack the courage to put your name on the cover, you likely lack the courage to write with clarity and specificity. The best protection from scrutiny, consequences, and criticism is obscurity. But if your goal is obscurity, you have to ask yourself why you are writing in the first place. 

Pen names did a terrible job protecting authors from scrutiny before the age of AI. The age of AI only makes it more likely that your true identity will leak out. 

Reason #2: Avoid Reader Bias

In the 1990s, Joanne Kathleen Rowling was convinced that fantasy readers were biased against female authors. So, she went with the pseudo pen name JK Rowling to hide the fact that she was a woman. I say pseudo pen name because she used her real initials and last name.  

Men who write romance often use the same technique. They will choose a female pen name to attract female readers.

I don’t think readers are nearly as biased as authors think they are, but using her initials protected Rowling from knee-jerk-reaction readers who didn’t know who she was. However, once an author is successful, readers will find out who the author is. Everyone knows JK Rowling is a woman, and now she is stuck with everyone calling her JK rather than using her real name. 

I’m not convinced this is a good reason to pick a pen name in the age of AI. To hide your sex, you will also need to avoid using a photo. With no photo and no name, you start to look like an AI author rather than a human author.  

Reason #3: Simplify Spelling

Some names are easier to spell than others. Trust me, I get it. No one can spell Umstattd correctly without seeing it first. Back when things were on paper, an unusual spelling could be a real hindrance. 

But computers are much better at identifying variant spellings. If you type “Thomas Umstat” or any other near misspelling into Google, you will still find me.

Unusual spellings can be an asset. The .com for your name is probably available if your name is hard to spell. Authors with common names often find the .com for their name is already taken.

Trying to simplify the spelling of your name is a terrible reason to use a pen name. 

Reason #4: Avoid Confusion with a Similar Author

What if another author has your same name?

When I get this question in our patrons-only live Q&As, I ask the person the following questions:

Is the .com available? 

Whoever owns the .com has the high ground. Three Thomas Umstattds exist, but I’m the only one with ThomasUmstattd.com. It would be hard for those with my name to push me out of the top-ranking spot in Google. 

Is the author still alive/actively writing? 

A dead author with your name is less concerning than an actively writing author. Generally speaking, dead authors recede from our collective memory each year. Your dead namesake is unlikely to suddenly hit the bestseller list. 

Are you likely to be confused with your namesake? 

If you write sweet romance and people confuse you with your namesake who writes academic books about anthropology, it’s not a huge deal. However, if your namesake writes erotica and the writing gets confused with your sweet romance, your readers (and hers!) will be angry. This second scenario is more concerning.

If there is a popular living author with your name, you probably should use a pen name, but I recommend staying as close to your name as possible. 

For example, James J. Butcher writes urban fantasy. He uses the name James rather than Jim to reduce confusion with his dad, Jim Butcher, who also writes urban fantasy. 

If you are forced to use a variant of your name or even a full pen name to avoid confusion, make sure you put your photo everywhere. Strive to be as personal as possible with your online presence so that you look as human as possible. 

Reason #5: Avoid Confusion with a Villain

Some authors Google their names only to find they have a namesake who has committed terrible crimes. Assuming the villain has been arrested and imprisoned, I don’t think this is a reason to use a pen name. Most criminals are quickly forgotten and languish in obscurity. 

If the trial is still ongoing, it will continue to generate headlines. Usually, you can overcome this with effective Search Engine Optimization. Criminals are unlikely to own their name.com, which gives you a chance to claim the high ground. 

That said, there are exceptions. If your name is Ted Kaczynski, you may want to use a pen name. 

Reason #6: Avoid Confusion with a Celebrity

Tom Holland is a famous author of Roman history. As a history nerd, I hear him referenced, quoted, and interviewed more than I hear about the actor Tom Holland, who portrays Spider-Man. But most people who hear the name Tom Holland think of Spider-Man.  

Tom Holland, the author, started writing before Tom Holland, the actor, was born. However, since the actor became famous, the historian has made no effort to change his name to avoid confusion. There is a lot to be said about standing your ground when it comes to branding. Celebrities come and go. Don’t let some actor push you away from the name your parents gave you.

That said, if you go by Tom Cruise, you may consider using Thomas Cruise as a pen name when you publish your book. 

There have always been celebrities and namesakes. It’s ok to tweak your name to avoid confusion, but I recommend sticking close to your actual name so you look as human as possible. 

Reason #7: Keep Also-Boughts Clean on Amazon

In the rapid-release indie world, authors often create a pen name to help manage metadata.  For example, Joanna Penn uses the pen name J.F. Penn to separate her nonfiction from her thrillers. Thriller readers don’t want to see her books about writing in the “also bought” section of an Amazon page. 

For most authors, maintaining two pen names for metadata purposes is a mistake. 

But there are a few exceptions. You can use a pen name:

  • If you write at two different steam levels. Some authors want to write both erotica and sweet romance. A pen name helps avoid surprising either readership. 
  • If you can write fast enough to keep two different reader bases happy. 
  • If you write about writing. Readers don’t want to see books about writing. 
  • If you write both religious and secular books, and the audiences are mutually exclusive. 

It’s common for authors to write both religious and secular books, but it’s uncommon for those audiences to overlap. However, Scott Adams is one author whose religious and secular audiences overlap. He’s a very famous humorist who created the popular Dilbert cartoon. He also writes religious books, the most famous of which is God’s Debris, in which he shares his metaphysical views on the world.

He published that book under the name Scott Adams because he marketed his religious views to the same people who read his comic books.

How do you disclose your pen name and prove you are human?

If you find yourself in any of these situations, don’t try to hide behind a pen name. Make your identity obvious and use your human photo.

One author who does this well is Camy Tang. Camy writes Christian contemporary romantic suspense as Camy Tang and Christian Regency romantic suspense as Camille Elliot. On the About page of her Camy Tang site, she links to her Camille Elliot site and vice versa.

Her Camille Elliot about page features a photo of Camy wearing a Regency romance dress. So, while she has a pen name, her about pages make her look very human and help reduce confusion between her two names. 

There may be other exceptions or reasons to use a pen name. If you think of one, please comment below or in the thread at AuthorMedia.com. I might add your exception to later versions of the blog post. 

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Widowed, childless, and estranged from family, Rachel wonders if she’ll ever have a second chance at love. When her therapist suggests she “get back in the game,” she enrolls in dance classes to learn the Tango. Romantic, passionate, and dramatic, the Tango embodies everything missing in her life. 

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Personal Update

Baby #4 is just around the corner. My poor wife started her third trimester just before summer officially started. Of course, summer in Texas unofficially started about two months ago. 

Our air conditioner has been set to numbers it has never seen before. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all our wonderful patrons who support this show and our family.

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