A pen name, also known as a pseudonym, is an author name that you choose to attach to your writing. It can be a variation on your legal name or something completely different. You can use it for unpublished or published work. You can apply it to work that you post online for people to read for free. The popularity of using pen names has waxed and waned during different time periods. From what I remember as a reader, it became fairly uncommon through the last three decades of the twentieth century for an author to use a pen name, but all that changed with the rise of the internet. So why use a pen name?
To protect your privacy.
Many authors, especially of genre fiction, might not want to expose their creative efforts to possible ridicule from people in their everyday lives who are not their intended audience. It can waste energy having to defend one’s work to coworkers and people who wouldn’t read the genre in the first place. Imagine being an author of inspirational fiction who conducts research in a science lab, or an author of science fiction who proofreads for a literary magazine, or an author of erotic romance fiction who teaches children or works for a church. Another concern is the ease with which strangers can obtain one’s personal information online. In the age of the internet, it makes sense to have a few obstacles such as a pen name to keep one’s personal life hard to access.
To brand your work.
You can write one genre under your real name and choose a pen name to keep your work separate if you branch into another genre. This helps your two readerships to sort out which of your books belong to which genre, especially if they really don’t want to read across both of your genres. Imagine establishing yourself as an author of young adult fiction, and then wanting to give hardboiled crime novels a try. You really wouldn’t want your young readers to try your adult stuff, so you make the distinction clear by branding your new efforts under a pen name. Scottish author Iain Banks is an example of an author who did this: he wrote literary fiction under “Iain Banks” and science fiction under “Iain M. Banks.”
To manage your image.
This can be controversial, but some authors choose pen names to hide their real identity and imply that they are something that their targeted readership might find more relatable. For example, children’s literature has a long tradition of publishers advising female authors to reduce their full names to initials plus a surname because supposedly boys will not read books written by women authors: J. K. Rowling is one famous example of this. There are also men who write romance novels under female pen names because it is what the readers expect.
Because it is fun.
What could be more fun than picking out your own name? And what could be more unfair than having to go through life saddled with a name picked out by our parents when we were too young to give any input? I have noticed that those given unusual names often grow up weary of explaining and spelling them to everyone and long for simple names. Those who received normal, popular names often reach adulthood wanting a more unique name that will make them stand out. We writers like making up stuff to begin with; with a pen name, we can finally have our heart’s desire.