10 Best-Selling Authors with Pen Names

10 Best-Selling Authors with Pen Names

Still buzzing in the news is the leaked tweet revealing that J.K. Rowling had used the pen name Robert Galbraith as the author of her new crime novel, The Cuckoo's Calling. News reporters and the public at large reacted with both shock and intrigue at her using a fictitious name. The big question is, Why? This has stirred up discussions in the literary world on the subject of pen names.

What is a Pen Name?

At its heart, a pen name is simply a fictitious name used by authors to sell their novels and literary works. Some, but not all, pen names are closely related to the author's actual name.

Why Use a Pen Name?

Reason 1: Authors might decide to use a pen name if they write in a different genre. This helps keep their readership and fan-base separate. Avid readers of military sci-fi might feel mislead or duped after buying their favorite author's new book only to see that it's a steamy romance novel.

Reason 2: An author may wish to preserve his or her anonymity when writing a book that's very unlike all the other books he or she has written before. An author who is writing erotic romance novels for women may want to use a separate pen name when writing erotic romance novels squarely aimed at middle-age men.

Reason 3: An author may choose a pen name due to pressure. J.K. Rowling decided to use the pen name Robert Galbraith for a few reasons:

  • she did not want to feel the pressure of writing a novel with the entire world waiting in breathless anticipation for its release; 
  • this novel is a departure from her Harry Potter book series and targets a different readership and age; and,
  • she wanted to receive critical unbiased feedback and reviews on her writing style from the public and popular critics. 

Once her pen name was leaked to a London newspaper and revealed publicly, sales of her new novel soared 507,000 percent on Amazon.

There are many reasons to choose a pen name, and many famous authors have done it. Below is a quick list of 10 pen names that come to mind, along with the author's real name, and why he or she used a fictitious name.

Real name: J.K. Rowling Pen name: Robert Galbraith

Real name: Joanne Rowling
Pen name(s)J.K. Rowling, Robert Galbraith

Many people don't realize that J.K. Rowling is itself a pen name. When Rowling was originally writing Harry Potter, her publisher decided that using the initial 'J' instead of her first name Joanne on the cover would make her name gender-neutral and have a better chance of selling the books to young boys, the potbelly of her readership. The publisher also asked her to use her middle initial as well. Rowling didn't have a middle name, so she borrowed the 'K' from her grandmother's first name Kathleen.

Real name: Stephen King Pen name: Richard Bachman

Real name: Stephen King
Pen name: Richard Bachman 

Known to the rest of the world as the master of horror novels, Stephen King originally started writing short stories under Richard Bachman. In interviews King revealed that he had used this pen name in the late 1970s because publishers would not accept more than a single book a year from an author, and he didn't want to look like he was churning out poorly written novels. A pen name allowed him to write two or more novels in a year.

Real name: Eric Arthur Blair  Pen name: George Orwell

Real name: Eric Arthur Blair 
Pen name: George Orwell

When Blair wrote his memoir Down and Out in Paris and London (pub. 1933), he worried that he'd embarrass his family with his in-depth reflection and emotional turmoil of living in poverty as recounted in this novel. To avoid strife between him and his family (and perhaps harsh criticism from close acquaintances), he used the name 'Orwell' from the famous English river, 'The Orwell River' and the name 'George' from 'Saint George,' the patron saint of England. In later years, still using the pen name George Orwell, he would write the best-selling classics, Nineteen Eighty-Four (pub. 1949) and Animal Farm (pub. 1945).

Real name: Agatha Christie Pen name: Mary Westmacott

Real name: Agatha Christie
Pen name: Mary Westmacott 

Known much more for her mystery crime novels under her own name of Agatha Christie, she used this pen name to write and publish six romance novels, a departure from her bread-and-butter genre, the mystery detective novel. During her prolific writing career, Christie wrote 66 mystery crime novels and established one of the largest readerships of this genre.

Real name: Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski Pen name: Joseph Conrad

Real name: Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski
Pen name: Joseph Conrad

Conrad is the Anglicized version of Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski. Korzeniowski used this pen name as a way to shorten his birth name because it did not fit aesthetically on book covers or their spines, nor could readers pronounce or remember it. He also used the pen name to achieve greater acceptance from the English reading public at large and to sell more books. Conrad is best known for his novella, Heart of Darkness (pub. 1899), which inspired movie producer Francis Ford Coppola to produce the 1979 blockbuster, Apocalypse Now.

Real name: C.S. Lewis  Pen name: N.W. Clerk

Real name: C.S. Lewis 
Pen name: N.W. Clerk

C.S. Lewis (Clive Staples Lewis) was a masterful Christian novelist, story-teller, and theologian, well-known for his fiction works (The Chronicles of Narnia, pub. 1956) and his non-fiction works (Mere Christianity, pub. 1952). He used the pen name for his non-fiction book, "A Grief Observed" (pub. 1962) in which he reveals his most personal emotions and struggles about the death of his wife. He did not want his regular younger-generation fiction readers to associate him as the author of a personal, memoir-style adult non-fiction book.

Real name: Stanley Martin Lieber Pen name: Stan Lee

Real name: Stanley Martin Lieber
Pen name: Stan Lee

Perhaps Stan Lee, famous for creating Spider-Man and X-Men, was saving his real name for when he hit it big as a best-selling book author. He didn't want to waste it on silly, flimsy comic books. Stan Lee, a cheaper more generic version of his name, was used instead. Of course, the opposite happened: he has become the most successful and highest paid comic strip writer of all time. After a string of comic book successes and a growing readership, he legally changed his name to Stan Lee in 1941.

Real name: Nora Roberts Pen name: J.D. Robb

Real name: Nora Roberts
Pen name: J.D. Robb

Nora Roberts was a popular author before she ever used the pen name J.D. Robb. As the author of over 200 romance novels, her publisher was nervous about her making a transition to detective novels, so she wrote them under a more male-sounding name. Roberts has also used other pen names: Jill March for short stories and Sarah Hardesty for novels published in the United Kingdom.

Real name: Louisa May Alcott  Pen name: A.M. Barnard

Real name: Louisa May Alcott 
Pen name: A.M. Barnard

Famous as the best-selling author of the novel Little Women (pub. 1868), Alcott used a pen name when she first began writing short novels called "potboilers," to keep her financially stable so she could write the kind of fiction she really enjoyed.

Real name: Isaac Asimov Pen name: Paul French

Real name: Isaac Asimov
Pen name: Paul French

Known globally for writing compelling science fiction works and respected by academic scholars as an intelligent writer of non-fiction science books, Isaac Asimov was asked to write a fiction novel that was meant to serve as a basis for a new television series. Fearing that the TV producers would mangle his work horribly, Asimov used a pen name. The television deal eventually fell through, but Asimov decided to use the pen name to write five science fiction novels for young adult readers.

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Brian Scott