Should You Use a Pseudonym?
by Moira Allen
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As a writer, you naturally want to make a name for yourself. But what if
that name isn't the one you were born with? Writing under pseudonyms or
"pen names" is a fine and honored tradition; many of the greatest names in
literature were "invented," and many of today's bestselling authors use
pseudonyms as well. Should you?
The answer may depend on why you wish to do so. As with any writing
decision, there are good reasons and bad reasons to use a pen name. Let's
start with some of the bad reasons:
- "I'd like something more exotic." This often involves an
assumption that editors (or readers) will be more "impressed" by a more
interesting name. They won't. Let your writing impress them, and soon
your name will be considered "impressive" in its own right.
- "I'd like a name that reflects my inner self." This depends on
who your inner self happens to be. While a name like "Merlin Firecat" or
"Lady Starshine" may reflect something deep within you, it is likely to
convey an impression of amateurism to an editor. If you want a pseudonym,
keep it professional.
- "I don't want anyone to know that I'm the author." Most editors
have little tolerance for writers who want to "hide" behind a false name.
If you're presenting a controversial opinion, you should be willing to
defend it. If you're writing in a genre you fear others won't respect,
keep in mind that this is their problem, not yours. And finally, if you're
writing material that you feel ashamed of, it's probably better to change
the material than to change your name.
- "I don't want my relatives/friends/coworkers to know that I'm
writing about them." A pseudonym won't protect you from the legal
repercussions of writing about other people -- e.g., from charges of
slander or libel. Rather than disguise your own identity, it would be
wiser to thoroughly disguise the identities of your subjects, so that no
one will think you are writing about "them" in the first place.
- "No one will respect me because I'm a ------ (fill in the blank)."
The days of having to write under a male pseudonym simply because
you're a woman are long past. Today, there is no need to call yourself
"Georges Sand" when "Aurore Dupin" will do just as well. Nor,
theoretically, should you feel it necessary to conceal your race,
ethnicity, or culture behind a pseudonym. However, your own experience may
be the best determinant in this regard.
There are also a number of very good reasons to use a pseudonym:
- Your writing could interfere with other aspects of your career.
Sadly, some careers don't mix well with the writing life. If you're a
well-respected literature teacher by day and a writer of what your colleagues (and supervisors) might consider decidedly "non-literary" fiction by night, you may have good reason to use a pseudonym. Many writers find a pen name to be an excellent, and necessary, way to separate their writing careers from their day jobs.
- You write in more than one genre or field. Writers who have
tried to "cross genres" often find the results disappointing. Agents and
publishers also may prefer that a writer use different names for different
genres; Dean Koontz, for example, has used several pseudonyms in the past
(but no longer does so). Rather than confusing your readership, it may be
better to develop separate and distinct followings.
- You write in a genre that has "expectations" about its authors.
When was the last time you saw a romance novel by "Jake Hammersmith" or a
hard-core thriller by "Felicity Valentine"? In certain genres, writers
often prefer to conform to reader expectations (or may be required to do so
by their publishers).
- You have a history of failure. More than one writer has penned
a series of flops (or even a single less-than-successful novel), and gone
on to write bestsellers under a different name. If an editor or agent is
likely to associate your name with previous failures, it might be wise to
try a different moniker. Just don't try to reissue those "flops" after
your new name becomes successful!
- You have the same name as an existing author. If your name is
Stephen King, Anne Rice, or J. D. Salinger, your publisher may require you
to "change" it to avoid confusion. Sometimes you can get away with a
variation on your name -- for example, by writing as S. B. King or A.
Gloria Rice (presuming those are actually your middle names).
- You are writing a collaborative work. Often, collaborative
authors will invent a pseudonym to convey the impression that a book was
written by a single author. For example, Robert Silverberg and Randall
Garrett collaborated under the name "Robert Randall."
- You are using a publisher's "house name." Some pseudonyms --
such as "V. C. Andrews" -- are owned by the publisher. In this case, the
pseudonym is generally a trademark. Authors who write under such house
names are usually creating works-for-hire (i.e., you won't be able to claim
such a work under your own name at a later time).
- You hate your name. Under some circumstances, having a "rotten"
name can be reason enough to use a pseudonym. For example, if your name is
Lila Latrine or Barnaby Backhouse, you might want a more literary nom de
plume. The same might apply if your name is difficult to pronounce or to
spell (and therefore difficult for readers to remember or "ask for" at the
bookstore); for example, Dennis Max Cornelius Woodruffe-Peacock sensibly
chose to write as "Max Peacock."
- You write for competing publications. After reading this article in Inklings, Carolee Boyles points out that another good reason for using a pen name is when writing for competiting publications in the same field. "I'm well-known in a very small industry, and the trade magazines in this industry are very competitive. I write for one magazine under my own name. About a year ago, another approached me about writing for them, but because my name was on the masthead of the first magazine, I had to turn them down. They went to my original editor and asked if it would be OK for me to write for them under another name. So I'm Carolee Boyles (myself) at one magazine, Marjorie Sessions at another, and I'm about to become Max MacKenzie at a third . The editors all know what I'm doing, but I don't mix topics between the magazines, and I keep the names separate. It all works out to everyone's benefit."
The Logistics of Pseudonyms
Often, writing under a pseudonym is as easy as putting the phrase "writing
as" on your manuscript. For articles, short stories, and poetry, you can
simply put your real name in the upper left corner of your manuscript (or
on the cover page), and list your pen name as your byline beneath the
title. However, to ensure that your editor publishes the work under the
"correct" name, you may want to remind the editor in your cover letter that
you are "writing as" your pseudonym.
The Copyright Office offers several ways to register pseudonymous works.
The first, and safest, is to record your legal name under "name of author,"
followed by your pseudonym (e.g., "Mary Smith, writing as Marianne
Carmichael"). You should also check "yes" to the question, "Was this
author's contribution to the work pseudonymous?" If you don't wish to
reveal your identity, you can either provide your pseudonym only and
identify it as such (e.g., "Marianne Carmichael, pseudonym") or leave the
author space blank. You can also use your pseudonym in the "copyright
claimant" line, though the Copyright Office warns that using a fictitious
name here could raise legal problems regarding ownership of the copyright
and suggests that you consult a lawyer first.
Unfortunately, it is no longer as easy to keep your real name a secret from
your publishers. In the past, one could often use a pseudonym for all
editorial correspondence, and simply make an arrangement with one's bank to
have checks deposited under one's pen name. Now, however, publishers are
required to inform the IRS (via Form 1099) of payments made to writers,
which means that they must have your social security number and your real
name. However, if you are using an agent, you may be able to handle such
payments through your agent and not reveal your identity to publishers.
The final thing to keep in mind when using a pseudonym is that it will not
protect you from any legal action that might result from your writing. A
pseudonym has no existence as a "legal" entity; no matter what name you put
on your work, the ultimate responsibility for that work always rests on
Find Out More...
- Everything You Wanted to Know About Pen-Names - and Weren't Afraid to Ask! by Moira Allen
- Pseudonyms: 10 Questions to Ask Before Choosing a Pen Name, by Adrienne deWolfe
- Using Pseudonyms (survey), by Dawn Copeman
- Author Pseudonyms
- Library of Congress Copyright Office
- Go to this page and look for "Pseudonyms," then click on the PDF link to download the fact sheet on using pseudonyms. Or download the file directly at http://www.lcweb.loc.gov/copyright/fls/fl101.pdf.
- Pen Names
- Information on the legal and copyright issues involved in using a pseudonym.
Copyright © 2001 Moira Allen
This article may be reprinted provided that the author's byline, bio, and copyright notice are retained in their entirety. For complete details on reprinting articles by Moira Allen, please click HERE.|
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.
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