Tricks and Traps of Using a Pen Name

If you are a surgeon, do you want your patients to know you crank out thrillers with high body counts? If you dabble in bondage fiction, do you want to share that information with neighbors, employers, and your church group? The more edgy or controversial your work, the more you’ll be tempted to hide behind a pseudonym.

But there are reasons to use a pen name beyond privacy. Writers switch genders for marketing purposes. Plain-Janes take on exotic personas. X-gens with hyphenated surnames opt for something short.

I am often asked if using a pen name is legal. Will a writer be accused of identity theft and fraud? Will he be sued if he uses the name of a real person?

Using a pen name is completely legal. In fact, it is often a wise choice. But one caveat about using a pen name – it will make your life more complicated.

Why Use a Pen Name?

  • Privacy
    Privacy is one of the main reasons writers choose pen names. In particular, memoir writers want to explore family secrets yet still be invited to holiday dinners.
  • Branding
    Writers often choose pen names to support their literary persona, be it mysterious, authoritative, or lovable. They may have different pen names for different genres. A writer with an audience in romance will choose a different pen name for a dark, dystopian fantasy. Writers who have bombed under one name start over with pen names.
  • Avoiding confusion
    I recently co-wrote an ebook with Jessica Brown, and we discovered there are at least three other Jessica Browns selling books on Amazon. If a writer has a common name, or the same name as someone famous, a pen name avoids confusion.
  • Easy-to-Read
    Today, people shop for books by scanning online thumbnails instead of browsing bookstore aisles. Writers are selecting short pseudonyms that pop from the screen, particularly if they have long names that are difficult to spell.
  • Collaborations
    Two or more co-writers might pick a single name for publication.

Choosing a Pen Name

Choosing a pseudonym can be as daunting as naming a character, especially since the character is you. The e-book Pen Name: How to Create Yours by Jennifer Blanchard lists 31 ideas for generating your perfect pen name and is worth a look.

Once you decide on a list of possibilities, do the following:

  • Research. Search the internet and bookselling sites. Avoid any name already used by a writer since that is likely to confuse readers. Do not use the name of anyone famous. If you write a book under the pen name Taylor Swift or Derek Jeter, you may be accused of trying to pass yourself off as the celebrity. I also suggest a trademark search through the U.S. Trademark Office. If you use the name of registered trademarks, you risk getting a cease-and-desist letter. Try to avoid using the name of a real person. If you happen to use the name of a real person, you are not committing identity theft. Identity theft involves intentionally acts to impersonate someone for financial gain. But if your writing affects the real person’s life, consider changing your pen name.
  • Search for available domain names. You will want to buy a domain for your pen name.
  • Claim the name. File a Fictitious Business Name Statement if you will be getting payments made out to your pen name. I explain the process in my blog. In some jurisdictions, you may have to add the word Books after you pen name because the local jurisdiction won’t accept a Fictitious Business Name that looks like the name of a real person.
  • Use the name. Place the pen name on your cover and your copyright notice, © 2014 [your pen name] . Some authors put the copyright notice in both their pen name and real name, but it is not necessary.
  • Be open with your publisher. Usually, you will not be able to hide your real name from your publisher since contracts are signed in your real name. The exception is when you form a corporation, LLC, or other entity (as I describe below), but even then, most publishers want to know their authors.
  • Register your copyright. You may register the copyright of your work under your pseudonym, your real name, or both. There are downsides to registering the copyright under a pseudonym only. First, it may be difficult to prove ownership of the work at a later date. Second, the life of the copyright will be shorter: 95 years from the year of first publication or 120 years from its creation, instead of 70 years after your death. I recommend that authors register their pseudonymous works under both their real names and pen names. This creates a permanent record of ownership, and few readers are going to research copyright records and find out the author’s real name.

What Not to Do When Using a Pen Name

  • Don’t go overboard in creating a fake identity. Never claim credentials you don’t have. If you are exposed, your readers may feel betrayed and dump you.
  • Don’t use a pen name to avoid a pre-existing contract. If you have granted a traditional publisher first-refusal rights or have signed a confidentiality agreement as part of a legal settlement or employment agreement, a pen name won’t change anything. You are still breaching your obligations.
  • Don’t expect a pen name to protect you completely from defamation claims. Most likely, you will be found out either through legal process or technology.

Decide How Secretive You Want to Be

Maintaining secrecy is difficult. The higher the level of secrecy, the more complicated the process. Plus, you need to keep track of which identity to use in what context.

Most authors choose to be open about their pen names. At book signings, they use their pen names, but at writers conferences they use their real names with a reference to their pen names. For example, Dean Kootz lists his various pen names on his website.

Some authors are more discreet. They try to maintain their privacy, but not to the point of lying. They don’t put photos on their books and blogs, do not link their websites, and limit public appearances. For a bio, they use their own life story, but told in generic terms. David Savage (a pen name) did that with his bio for his book How the Devil Became President.

Other authors put up roadblocks. They set up corporations and trusts to hold the copyrights and contracts. This is the most expensive alternative and may require an attorney. Even then, someone will know who is behind the corporation, and word may leak out.

In this internet age, secrets are almost impossible to keep. Remember what happened to J .K. Rowling? She tried to keep quiet about her pen name Robert Galbraith, but it was leaked by, of all people, her lawyers.


Photo credit: LarimdaME via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC

Disclaimer: Helen Sedwick is an attorney licensed to practice in California only. This information is general in nature and should not be used as a substitute for the advice of an attorney authorized to practice in your jurisdiction.

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