Pen Names

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about pen names. An aspiring writer (friend of a friend) sought my advice on whether she needed one. She knew that most of my books had been published under a pen name. Indeed, I use it on this website. Understandably, she asked why.

I could only answer part of the question. I’m Sophie Weston on this website because, after fiftyish novels and 11 million+ copies sold, mostly by Harlequin Mills & Boon, that is how readers know me.

Dirty Draft 1st bookBut taking a pen name was never my idea. And the only choice I got was to decide on a name.

I went for Sophie Weston mainly at my mother’s suggestion. We’d seen the movie of Tom Jones and she thought that Sophie, played by Susanna York, looked as a romantic novelist ought to look. Still makes me smile when I remember that conversation.

My agent told me that I had to have a pen name. She implied very strongly that the publisher required it.

Was she right? I can’t say, because I didn’t ask. Certainly most Mills and Boon authors about whom I know anything, including many friends, did and do have pen names.

Romance Author pen names

The late great Mary Burchell, President of the Romantic Novelists’ Association from 1966, was Ida Cook in real life. All the RNA’s papers of the time that I have seen use her pen name. When she died (in harness) very suddenly, there was an outpouring of genuine affection for her in the Newsletter. And every single one called her Mary.

Alan Boon became a good friend and guided Mary Burchell’s career from her first. When he bought Wife to Christopher in 1935, Ida was a Civil Service typist. Possibly he was thinking of discretion in relation to her employers when he suggested a pen name. Fairly soon she left the Civil Service and started writing full time. Indeed, she became one of their best-sellers, writing four books a year under that name.

Prolific Author Pen Names

It was different for other authors, however. Several of them could write faster than Mills and Boon felt they would be able to sell under one name. For them the solution was a  multiplicity of pen names. The South African Lillian Warren wrote mainly as Rosalind Brett or Kathryn Blair, both for Mills and Boon.

Six years after they published her first book she added a third pen name, Celine Conway. She continued to use all three for the rest of her publishing career.

But Ida Pollock, initially published by Mills and Boon as Susan Barrie, is probably the winner in the additional pen names stakes. Between 1952 and 2005 she also wrote as Jane Beaufort, Marguerite Bell, Rose Burghley, Anita Charles, Averil Ives, Pamela Kent, Barbara Rowan and Mary Whistler.

As she records in her memoir Starlight (2009), she was seriously hard up and needed to support the family.

So, when Alan Boon said Mills and Boon had reached saturation point, she took her books to other publishers as well, with his blessing.

A Slightly Dodgy Business?

Books with friends, Jane AustenBut why should authors want a pen name?  Jane Austen always wrote as Jane Austen, didn’t she?

Well, um, no, not exactly. The title page of her first book, Sense and Sensibility (1811), reads “By a Lady”. Her second book, Pride and Prejudice, is “By the Author of Sense and Sensibility” and so on, right up to Persuasion. She actually paid for the printing of that first book, so she wanted to be read. But put her name to it? No.

Did she feel it would be unbecoming? Too like trade? But her brother Henry was a banker. Unadylike then? Perhaps. Or might the satirical edge to her story reflect poorly on the rest of her family?

Or was it not her idea, at all, but, like my own, her publisher’s decision?

Poor Fanny Burney, who thought she had published Evelina (1778) anonymously, was outed by a poet called George Huddesford. It upset her enormously.  Her closest sister Susanna knew and so did a trusted aunt or two. It’s clear, however, that she hoped to keep it secret from her father. Maybe she thought her novel’s satirical take on Society would undermine Dr Burney’s long awaited History of Music (Volume 1 1776). 

And then, of course, there was poor Lady Caroline Lamb, whose Glenavon (1816) was a huge success because of the gossip it aroused. That title page simply ignores the author altogether.

But that novel was so clearly a roman à clef that the secret got out in no time and certainly increased sales. There were at least 3 editions in 1816 alone. It ruined her reputation. Mind you, she behaved so recklessly in pursuit of Byron, she probably didn’t care a fig for reputation by that time.

Gorge Eliot and the Gender Issue

fictional Blondes George EliotI remember a teacher at school telling me that George Eliot chose to publish her novels under a man’s name because she was dealing with important subjects and felt that women weren’t taken seriously.

But the full circumstances were a little more complicated than that. For one thing, she was always a bit of a name changer. She had long picked up a number of affectionate names from her friends and correspondents. For another, well, there was George Henry Lewes.

Lewes was a philosopher, an amateur scientist, a critic and a member of London literary society. He and his wife had an open marriage by mutual agreement.

However, in 1854 Lewes left his wife and Mary Ann Evans moved in with him. They  considered themselves married — even went on a honeymoon to Germany – and lived together as man and wife until his death in 1878. But Lewes could never get a divorce. Knowingly accepting his wife’s relationship with another man, he was legally complicit in the adultery.

So when she came to  choose a pen name in 1857, “George” carried deeply personal significance. When asked about it, she acknowledged that “George was Mr Lewes’s Christian name, and Eliot was a good mouth-filling, easily-pronounced word”.

However, there is no record of anyone ever calling her George – unlike our dear Mary Burchell.


Pen Name and Gender

For many years publishers have looked at authors’ names as part of the marketing package. Boys allegedly don’t read books about girls or by women. Hence J K Rowling’s use of initials. P D James followed the same principle, I understand, though I don’t know whether that was her initiative or the publisher’s.

And the Brontë sisters, of course, all started their publishing careers with male pen names

An editor once read one of the unpublished novels in my stash. It was set in the world of 1990s international banking, which I knew a bit about at the time. “You,” he said, “have managed to write a completely unsaleable story. Women won’t read about banking and men won’t read a book by a woman. A wandering Martian might go for it.”

Moth Anniversary memoir of RNA

But the story I know best about a gender reassigning pen name is Peter O’Donnell, author of the Modesty Blaise comic strip, novels and franchise.

In 1978 an historical adventure called Merlin’s Keep by Madeline Brent won the RNA’s Romantic Novel of the Year Award. Her biographical detail claimed that the book was inspired by family stories of a great uncle who had served with Younghusband in Tibet. Ms Brent herself was unable to accept the award, which was picked up by her editor.

The secret was closely kept between author and publisher. Indeed, it looks as if the whole idea of writing a Gothic romantic novel came from the UK publisher, not the author. Rumour has it that the American publisher never knew Ms Brent’s identity. I’m pretty certain that the RNA didn’t know until I fell over it while putting together the 50th anniversary memoir.

Pen Name for Privacy

First draft libraryThe other great Victorian Pen Name,  of course, is Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, author of Alice in Wonderland. Dodgson, the son of an Anglican clergyman, was a talented mathematician. He won the Christ Church Mathematical Lectureship in 1855 and lived in College, teaching and nearly but not quite taking holy orders, for the next 26 years until his death.

He decided on a pen name in 1856 on the publication of a romantic poem Solitude. Dodgson submitted a list of 4 to his editor, Edmond Yates, who made the final choice.

As you would expect from an inveterate games player, Lewis Carroll is a word game – an inversion of his two Christian names, transcribed into Latin, Carolus Ludovicus, and then back again into English. Alice was published in 1865, reviving the nine year old pen name. His mathematical studies were published under his real name.

Reasons for a Pen Name Today

Writing energyI’m not sure that a pen name has ever protected an author’s privacy for long – though Peter O’Donnell managed better than most. JK Rowling was outed as Robert Galbraith within the year, if I recall aright.

A fascinating article in the Smithsonian Magazine says that the identification was down to “forensic linguistics”. A computer programme perfected by Patrick Juola of Duquesne University identified her unmistakeable linguistic quirks for the Sunday Times.

story tellerBut, looking at an author’s name as part of the marketing package, it’s probably a good idea to have a pen name which ties you firmly to a particular genre.

After Tolkien and Martin, for instance, a multi protagonist epic fantasy would probably benefit from the initials R R in the mix.

And apparently Zane Grey was actually Pearl Zane Grey before dropping his first name. Presumably he thought Pearl didn’t have quite the right ring for a macho Wild West adventure.

Which leads me to my second point: changing genres.

Rosamund Pilcher began writing for Mills and Boon under the pen name Jane Fraser as whom she wrote 10 shorter romantic novels. She then switched to her own name and began to write on a wider landscape. Her breakthrough novel was the  family saga The Shell Seekers set in Cornwall and covering a generation of time from World War 2 onwards.

Pilcher was very savvy to keep back her name until she was sure exactly what she wanted to write.

Writing energy, happy writerStan Lee of Marvel Comics and idol of the guys in The Big Bang Theory was not so lucky. For years he kept his full name, Stanley Martin Lieber, in reserve for when he wrote his Great Work.

Eventually he realised that the comic strips were a world wide phenomenon and took Stan Lee as his legal name.

So my advice to anyone wondering about taking a pen name? Don’t use your own name until you’re sure you’ve found your writing home. And recognise when you’ve found it.

Good luck!

Sophie Weston Author






22 thoughts on “Pen Names

  1. Liz Fielding

    Loved this blog, Sophie and the reminder when my friends and I were all wearing poet shirts and buckle shoes after seeing Tom Jones. I couldn’t watch the latest version – Tom will always be Albert Finney. And I remember being asked to choose a pen name when Mills and Boon accepted my first book. My mother was furious — “No one will know it’s you!”

    1. Sophie Post author

      How interesting. Your mother’s reaction is pretty much the opposite of mine. Hers was pretty much “Excellent, you can see how it goes and if it doesn’t work for you, you can walk away with no bones broken.” I was just surprised.

  2. lesley2cats

    I did enjoy that. I tried writing romance, not very successfully, and was eventually published as a crime writer under my own name, but two of my earlier efforts were eventually published. However, I insisted on a pen name which is, in fact, my own two first names reversed. I’m glad I did it that way round. I don’t think I could have stuck being called Rosina for the last twenty years.

  3. Sarah

    Great post, Sophie, thank you. I chose my first pen name (Melinda Hammond) mainly because I really did not like being me. My first name was considered old fashioned when I was a child and my surname was almost impossible for people to spell (even a teacher once told me to bring a note from my parents to prove I was spelling it correctly!). As a child it really impacted on my self-confidence.

    I also thought it would be a good idea to have a different name because I could then deny I was the author, if anyone criticised my book! When I started writing for Mills & Boon I already had Sarah Mallory picked out as a writing name: now I use it mostly because that’s how most readers know me.

  4. Louise Allen

    I started writing jointly with a friend, with Hale, so we needed a pen name. Then we wrote for M&B – another pen name. And when I began writing solo I definitely needed to change – the voice was different. My editor wanted “something short, suitable for the historical line & approachable.” I could work out short, I wasn’t going to call myself Chardonay – but approachable? Eventually we agreed on Louise Allen!

    1. Sophie Post author

      Oh goodness, Louise. Short and approachable. What a brief. What a challenge. So Ermyntrude Gentlebreeze had no chance but Polly Posh was in with a chance?

  5. Sophie Post author

    Ah, I can sympathise with the weird spelling thing, Sarah. My much loved Great Aunt Floria (sic) suffered from it all her life. The theory was that her father was so drunk when he went to register the birth he couldn’t remember how to spell it himself.
    And the surname spelling is exactly why Joseph Conrad chose his pen name. His birth name was Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski and, of course, he was publishing in English.

    From the age of 11 I went to school with a number of Polish girls and adored getting my tongue round the ‘zeniowska’ element of some of their names. In fact my parroting later so impressed a night school lecturer, that he immediately broke into Polish. And I had to confess that surnames was all I did in the language.

    1. Sarah

      And on the other side of the coin – book signings can be hazardous as not only does one need to remember which name one is using, it also helps to ask the recipient for the spelling of their name, too! Thanks for a great Sunday morning read, Sophie.

  6. Jan Jones

    I’ve always written as me (Jan Jones is beautifully short and alliterative), in whatever genre. However, I did need to invent a pen name for the racier short stories in Loving magazine (Elissa Murray) as I was running a playgroup at the time and the parents knew I wrote. I then had to invent a third for the (sadly rare) few occasions when they took more than four stories in a month so it didn’t look like favouritism!

    1. Sophie Post author

      Ah yes, I can see the playgroup would be a determinant in the decision to pen name or not. Thanks for the laugh, Jan.

  7. Ros Rendle

    This is particularly interesting and apposite for me as my publisher has suggested I write the next book under a pen name. Reason being linked to a previous publisher and Amazon. It’s a long and unproven theory, apparently. I’m in the process. I’m looking for something further up the alphabet, as an RR (all my own name) I’m way down and was almost always last when going for an interview etc. I can’t decide whether to go for something which could be either male or female but it needs to be meaningful to me and not some random name pulled from the ether. Hey ho! I don’t mind other people knowing but not the great book giant.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Very good point, Ros. I didn’t think of that as a reason but, of course, these days it could well be.

      Best of luck!

    2. Sarah

      As Sophie says, good luck, Ros – when I was looking for a pen name, I was advised that a surname beginning with a letter from the middle of the alphabet had the best chance of being at eye level on the shelves….not such a factor in these days of digital publishing and online bookstores!

  8. Elizabeth Bailey

    Fascinating post, Sophie. Oddly, I had a pen name all ready when I was accepted into M&B, but they didn’t like it. Suggested I use my own name which fitted well with historicals, so I’ve used it ever since. Makes life a lot easier and I didn’t change when I changed genre either, since I was using the same historical period.

    1. Sophie Post author

      I must say I think the genre-changing is more of a concern to publishers than readers.

      Changing genres from contemporary romantic adventure to Arthurian fantasy didn’t do Mary Stewart any harm, after all. People loved her voice and followed where the storyteller took them.

  9. Louise Allen

    And with PLR you want to be as high up the alphabet as possible. From my years as a librarian I can tell you that people browse form A to Z mainly

  10. Elizabeth Hawksley

    I like having a pen name – it gives me the opportunity of privacy, and I chose my two middle names – Elizabeth Hawksley. I took on the point that it was best to have a surname beginning with a letter near the middle of the alphabet and ‘Elizabeth’ is a well-known first name in most European languages. It seemed to fit – and, disconcertingly, I’ve discovered that Elizabeth Hawksley is a rather different person from Rachel Summerson.

    1. Sophie Post author

      That’s character shift is really interesting, Elizabeth. I must think about what are the differences between Sophie and Jenny.

  11. Alison Knight

    I used a pen name for my first two books on my publisher’s advice. They were contemporary romances any my third book was a YA time-travel adventure and they felt that I should use different names for different genres. I was quite happy with that until I discovered someone else using the same pen name to write sex manuals. It caused me no end of embarrassment when her books were included on my author page on Amazon! I was teaching creative writing at the time and had some very awkward conversations with students who had looked me up online. I reverted to my own name for my subsequent books, until I signed with a new publisher this year. They have insisted on a new pen name and it took quite a while to find one that we were all happy with – my grandmother’s name. I don’t think anyone else is using it, so fingers crossed!

    1. Sophie Post author

      Fascinating, Alison.

      For a while there was a Sophie Weston who appeared to take part in what seemed to be – er – adult films. Only one person told me about her and that was a reader who found it quite amusing. Fortunately, I don’t think our clientele overlapped too much.

      Good luck with the new pen name.

  12. Liz Fielding

    Awkward, Alison! Liz is both my mother and grandmother’s name. Fielding was homage to Henry. It’s served me well and I’ve stuck with it, although I have been asked if I was going to use a different name from my crime books. I know it’s usual when you change genres, but the new books have very much the same voice and emotional feel so it didn’t seem necessary.

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