P. L. Travers, Mark Twain, Robert Galbraith – these are all fictitious names used by writers. In this case, Helen Goff, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, and Joanne Rowling. But you knew that, right? Most writers have read at least one book by an author with a nom de plume. For centuries, authors have resorted to using pen names to publish for a myriad of reasons. But in the digital age, are those reasons less of a concern making pen names outdated?
Historically, pen names were common practice in the literary world to fit a marketing need, maintain anonymity, or enhance the aesthetic presentation of an author’s work. Some authors wanted more distinctive or memorable names. Others wanted to disguise gender, ethnicity, or public personas. Women writing in a male-dominated genre often needed a male pen name to have their work recognized. Likewise, males have used female pen names to make their books more appealing to female readers. Some authors who wrote in different genres or wrote too fast (under the old traditional publishing philosophy that overexposure hindered an author) used pen names to distinguish themselves from their various works. Some authors wanted to remain anonymous, maybe to protect themselves from retribution for works containing controversial, socially unacceptable, or illegal subject matter like erotica, porn, or radical politics. Sometimes authors used pen names to combine more than one author into a single author.
While these reasons used to make sense, many are no longer practical when you consider how we market books in the social media era. Here is why.
- Branding — Author branding is an essential component in marketing a book. If you use only a pen name for all your books then you can create a brand around one name. But should you use a pen name and your real name for different genres, for example, then branding becomes more problematic. Now your efforts are split developing not one, but two brands. Running multiple social media accounts will be a nightmare. When you attend a conference, you have to avoid confusion and decide on one name to promote, preferably one that makes the best impression. It is hard enough maintaining one brand to sell books, let alone two brands. So why not skip the extra name and focus your marketing effort behind one author brand.
- Reading habits – Readers binge read these days. The old adage that authors will be overexposed by publishing more than one book a year makes no sense. When a reader finds an author they like, they hate waiting a year or two for the next book. And if a traditional publisher does not want to publish more than one book a year from a prolific author, there is always self-publishing.
- Privacy – Secrecy is not what it used to be now that information is readily available in the digital age if you search hard enough (and sometimes not so hard). So if you think you will be anonymous by using a pen name, think again. People love to sniff out a secret. You might make it harder for them to discover your real name, but if someone wants to know that tidbit about you, they’ll eventually find out.
- Multiple Genres – It is more common now for authors to write in multiple genres under one name, partly because readers expect this and partly because books are marketed to genre readers through covers and advertisements that reflect the genre. There is less confusion if an author writes romance and thrillers. Plus, it is more acceptable for men to write romance novels or from a woman’s POV and women to write thrillers or from a man’s POV, thereby eliminating the need for gender disguise.
- Co-authored books no longer need a single name. It is acceptable to have two authors on the cover (plus you will get twice the marketing bang too). This also eliminates the problem of when the partnership dissolves and the authors cannot decide who gets custody of the lucrative brand name.
While pen names might be outdated now, there are exceptions. You might choose a pen name if:
- You have always been known by a name that is not your legal name (like a nickname, your middle name, or your maiden name). Maybe everyone called you Huey all your life. Maybe you developed a public persona around that name. A pen name using the nickname would make sense.
- If another author has the same name, a pen name would avoid confusion.
- You and a well-known character have the same name. Winnie The Pooh will not work for those thrillers you want to write.
- Your name does not complement the genre or complements the genre too much. Maybe your name is too soft for writing horror, or your name is a pun in the erotica genre – in that case, a pen name may be in order.
- You need a name with better aesthetics. When it comes to marketing a brand, you do not want a name that is hard to spell or pronounce — Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient).
- You really feel the need to conceal your identity – like memoirists who reveal family secrets, authors who expose subject matter that puts their lives in danger, or an author who wants to distance themselves and their families from true events. If you really want to maintain privacy, you will have to work hard at it and there are no guarantees.
- Your day job might suffer because of your writing, or your book might suffer because of your day job – like a therapist who writes romance novels, or a porn star who writes children’s book.
- You want to distance yourself from a shabby publishing record. Pen names can offer a fresh start.
If a pen name is where you want to go, here are a few pen name pointers.
- Research your name on the Internet. Will there be confusion in the market place? Does it mean something you did not intend?
- Avoid using a generic name. You want something memorable – not John Smith. The tripartite name works well (Orson Scott Card). Names with rhythm to the pronunciation are a plus (David Foster Wallace). Double letters have a snappy ring. (Sidney Sheldon, Fannie Flagg). Avoid a name that is hard to pronounce or spell.
- Pick a name that is not someone famous, another author, or if possible, a real person.
- With famous people, exploiting another’s identity for personal gain will get you sued. Identity theft to develop momentum in a writing career never works. If I used Stephen King as my pen name, I would hear from Stephen’s lawyers pronto.
- As for using a real person’s name, that may be hard to avoid. It happens. But the risk is low you would be accused of identity theft unless you intend to impersonate the person for financial gain. If you think your writing might affect the real person, consider another pen name. That way you will avoid any claims of defamation.
- There are some exceptions when you can use another person’s pen name as your own but only if the circumstances are right. For example, sometimes a publisher will negotiate for ownership of a pen name. Romance writers understand this all too well. The publisher knows an authors’ pen name can become well-known and a marketable commodity. If the publisher retains all rights in the pen name, the publisher can then hire a troop of writers to create new work under the well-known pen name. Or if an author dies, publishers will hire other writers to continue the brand (like the Robert Ludlum series).
- Avoid using a trademark in your pen name. This will only up your chances of receiving a cease-and-desist letter. It will also prevent you from obtaining a trademark for your own brand name. While the name of a living author is not usually entitled to trademark protection, a pen name can if certain conditions are met. The author must prove that the name has “secondary meaning” by being part of a unique brand that is used in marketing and commerce, and is widely recognized. Like J.K.Rowling which is a trademark owned by Joanne Rowling.
- Make sure the domain name for your pen name and any permutations are available. You do not want to pick a pen name only to find out you cannot have the website.
- Query agents or editors using your pen name. You can alert them to your real name in the body of the query.
- Pen Names and Copyrights — Copyrights protect whatever work a writer creates, automatically. While authors tend to use their legal names to register copyrights, authors can register a copyright under their pen names, or both if they like. The copyright registration process provides an author the opportunity to add both their legal name and pen name to the copyright application.
- Question is, how anonymous does the author want to stay? Copyright registrations are searchable public records. If you want to remain anonymous, then register the copyright in your pen name only. But you should be aware that action could affect the copyright term.
- Copyrights normally last for the author’s life plus 70 years. But for works published pseudonymously, the term is 95 years from the year of first publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever period expires first. While the author’s life plus 70 is usually the longer term, do the math and determine which term best benefits your creative work and your career desires. Maybe the longer copyright term is not worth the sacrifice if a writer has to give up anonymity.
- If a pen name is used to register a copyright, the registration can be amended later to add the author’s identity so the term will revert to the author’s life plus 70 term.
- If you do not use your real name on the copyright application, you may have trouble proving you own the copyright. As long as someone knows the real identity of the person behind the pen name, proving ownership of the copyright will not be a problem. Then again, if you have been extremely careful about staying anonymous, the proof may be that much harder.
- One more tidbit, copyright does not protect a pen name (because you cannot copyright names) but intellectual property protection does exist for a name under certain circumstances (see trademarks on point 4 above).
- For more information, see the copyright office fact sheet about pen names.
- Contracts and Pen Names — Contracts are an exchange of promises memorialized in writing (either on paper or a digital file) signed by persons who have demonstrated unequivocal intent to be bound by the terms (either personally or for the business they represent). Using a pen name does not affect the validity of the contract. The act of signing, rather than what name was used to sign, is what determines a contract was formed. Using a pen name does not provide any special legal privileges, nor shield a writer from say, a breach of contract claim (see point 11 below). An author is still bound by the contractual obligations, whether they signed using their legal name or pen name.
- The bottom line — signing a contract using a pen name is possible. That said, most contracts involving a writer whose creative endeavors require a pen name are still signed using the writer’s legal name. This is mostly out of convenience. Typically payments and tax matters are managed in the legal name of the writer. However, full disclosure plays a part too. Often contract parties want to know with whom they are contracting.
- See my earlier Sidebar Saturdays article for more information on contracts and pen names.
- Do not use a pen name to lash out at your enemies. While a pen name might make it difficult for a plaintiff to figure out who is behind the pen name, eventually plaintiff’s lawyers will link the writer to the pen name. It is the age of the Internet, where almost any information is available if you know where to search. Pen names cannot and should not be used for any unlawful purpose, either civil or criminal.
- You cannot avoid taxes with a pen name. The old cliché about death and taxes comes to mind – two things you cannot avoid. Attempting to skirt income tax by using a pen name would be tax fraud. Just because money is earned under your pen name, does not mean you can cut your taxable income and avoid paying taxes. Uncle Sam always gets his money.
- A pen name won’t allow you to breach a contract. If a contract has been signed under the author’s name, the author cannot avoid contract obligations by hiding behind a pen name. For example, if an author’s contract has a non-compete clause or right of first refusal for the next book, that author cannot use a pen name to publish a competing work or publish under a pen name to avoid giving their publisher first crack at the new work.
While pen names may be more unfashionable these days, there still are a few reasons to use a pen name. If you decide to use a pen name, be cognizant of the legal nuances that must be navigated. Use a little common sense, or when in doubt, consult a qualified lawyer.
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Legal Disclaimer: This information is provided for educational purposes only. Consult a qualified lawyer in your jurisdiction for all legal opinions for your specific situation.