Pen names, pseudonyms, noms de plume… Like most writers, I’ve considered using one for my work, hiding my identity and writing what I want. But I got to thinking recently and wondered: why wouldn’t authors who write famous pieces of literature not want the credit for the piece? Why would they use a pen name? The answer is a lot simpler than I thought. Helen Sedwick, a writer for The Book Designer, cleared up all of my questions in her article Should You Be Using a Pen Name?
Let’s start with the benefits of using a pen name. A pen name is an author’s chance to somewhat create a new identity suited to the genre they’re writing in. I picked out Sedwick’s three reasons that appealed most to me and seemed to be the most relevant in today’s writing world:
- A pen name gives the author a sense of privacy. You’ll be able to write about (almost) anything that aligns with your passions without worrying if it will have any personal affect or backlash.
- Worried about whether or not a piece of work will actually succeed? Write it under a pen name. If it takes off, you’ve got a solid foundation for the reputation you’re building with that name. If it bombs, don’t worry! Just scratch that pen name off the list and start over with a different one.
- If you have a long name, you may want to consider writing under a shorter pen name. As the marketplace changes and stores start shifting to online platforms, a short pen name will stand out better on the screen. A lot of people nowadays will just skim what they read on the internet, usually skipping over longer names and words. If your pen name is short and sweet, it will stick in the minds of the audience.
I bet you’re interested now, aren’t you? So, let’s talk a bit about how you can choose your pen name. Research, research, research. I can’t emphasize that enough. As an author, you want your pen name to be unique so you can stand out in a crowd. Compile a short list of names you think you’d like to use—with your most desire at the top, of course—and start browsing the internet, online bookstores, and any possible bookselling sites. Make sure the pen name you pick out isn’t already in use by another writer, as that could confuse your audience. The same goes for choosing the name of someone famous. You’re likely to get accused of trying to pass yourself off as the celebrity—and we all know that won’t go well. Sedwick even suggests searching through the U.S. Trademark Office to avoid accidentally using the name of a registered trademark.
But once you’ve done your homework and have settled on a name, claim it. Make it yours. Buy the domain and file a Fictitious Business Name Statement (Sedwick discusses that here) if the payments for your work will be made to your pen name. Then all that’s left to do is let your publisher know and register the copyright, which you can do under your real name or your pen name.
Then what? It’s obvious that once choosing a pen name, you write with it. But with a pen name comes responsibility. Sedwick brings up three main things you should avoid doing when choosing to write under a pen name:
- Be careful not to overdo it. Don’t claim to have credentials you don’t have and be cautious when you create a fictitious bio. If any of the false claims you make come to light, your audience may feel hurt and boycott your work. You could suffer severe backlash that you never wanted.
- Never use a pen name to avoid an existing contract. If you’ve given a traditional publisher first-refusal rights or signed a confidentiality agreement as part of employment, a pen name won’t make a difference. It’s still a breach in the contract.
- Don’t expect a pen name to protect you from defamation. Because of the internet, the media, the legal system and any technological thing you can think of, it’s impossible to keep something completely secret forever. It’s likely that, at one point or another, you will be discovered.
In the meantime, decide how secretive you want to be. Many authors find it’s easier to be open than to keep secrets. They’ll use their pen names at book signings but their real names at conferences, making brief references to their pen names. Some, however, would rather be more discreet and keep their privacy but avoid lying. They won’t put photos on their books or blogs and they limit public experiences. And on the far end of the spectrum we find authors who prefer to put up roadblocks—setting up corporations and trusts to hold copyrights and contracts—which is the most expensive alternative, possibly requiring an attorney. But even that still holds potential for one’s cover to be blown. All you fans of J.K. Rowling’s work may remember her pen name, Robert Galbraith, and how her identity was given out by her lawyers.
I think it’s safe to say that pen names come with both pros and cons, but thanks to Sedwick I can understand the appeal that comes with them. To all you aspiring authors and writers out there, consider your options when you go to publish. Is it the type of work you want credit for? Or would you rather play a game of mystery with your audience? Maybe you feel like your name doesn’t suit the type of work you’re doing and want a new. Let yourself explore the realm of choosing a pen name. Who knows, you may fall in love.