Writing Under a Pen Name

Too few people have checked out my recent post on book advances. You should! The more you know!

In the meantime, I wanted to do a quick post on writing books under a pen name — writing under a pseudonym, or with a nom de plume. It’s all the same! Some people are vehement that they want to publish under their real or legal name, and that’s fine. But what if you don’t? Why write under a pen name?

Here are a couple of reasons why you might write under a pen name:

  • You have a very common name that’s indistinguishable from another writer — or multiple other writers.
  • You have a name that’s difficult to spell, and want it to be easier for people to find you. If my name was Jane Simth, for example, a lot of people might read that as Jane Smith, their autocorrects might go to Jane Smith, and so on, so maybe I write as Jane Simthian.
  • You have a name that’s very, very long (the sort of long where you run into problems with online forms, standardized tests, etc.) and worry that publishing systems might not recognize your full name, or even recognize your name consistently.
  • You might have several last names, which could take up a lot of space on book covers, and you’re concerned that some might be listed as middle names and/or that you won’t be consistently identified correctly.
  • You have a legal name that could convey incorrect information about your identity, or that doesn’t match with your gender.
  • You want to keep your writing and work life separate; maybe you’re a renowned speaker on investing by day and a horror writer by night (and maybe you don’t want your boss and colleagues to know what’s up in your free time; I’ve anecdotally heard of people being passed over for promotions or picked for layoffs because their bosses thought they had lucrative writing careers…when writing isn’t always very lucrative).
  • You are writing in two or more distinct genres or age categories that don’t have much reader overlap, and want to help your audience find the books of yours that they’ll like without stumbling into what they won’t.
  • You’ve had a hard time getting traction under the name you’re currently using and want to wipe the slate clean as far as your sales record — and start over.
  • You require privacy due to the topics you write about, because you have or could have a stalker, because your family should be sheltered from the media, and other similar concerns.

To be clear: Just because something presents difficulties in the current system, that doesn’t mean you have to have a pen name. If you’re writing in the US and your name is unusual to some readers? Let them learn! Have a last name that isn’t your own heritage? Say so in your author biography — done! Long name tricky for designing book covers? It’s the designer’s job to come up with solutions! Have the same name as somebody else? You’re allowed to have that name too, so long as you don’t infringe on someone’s trademark (and it’s probably a good idea to have a distinct author biography so you don’t get accused of fraud or impersonation of a famous person — in this scenario, consult a lawyer).

Moreover, you can write under a pen name and not keep it a secret. Perhaps you’re Jane Simth writing as Jane Simthson, and when you write newspaper articles, it’s J. Simthsian. That’s the easiest way, of course. You can specify that your copyright registrations go under a pen name to your publisher, who may need to know your real name to pay you (depending — your agent may handle all of that, but then your agent needs your real identity, and there are options like LLCs that can shield your privacy…again, consult a lawyer) and will definitely need to know if they arrange any travel for you with an airline or hotel that requires an ID to check in. If you’re concerned, ask that your name only be shared as is necessary, and go by your pen name in all other meetings and correspondence; it’s likely that no one will know you as anything other than Pen Name unless they look up the information! This last bit is getting into the weeds, and really requires a post of its own, so I’ll leave off now.

Finally, you don’t have to have a pen name to query agents or publishers, but you will need to let both know as soon as you know your pen name — preferably before you go on submission to publishers, or before the contract is signed, as the earlier everyone knows, the fewer chances there are for human errors to crop up. If you’ve been thinking about one, now’s a good time to use search engines, Wikipedia, book retail sites, and more to figure out if there’s one that could be unique to you. Don’t forget to make sure that name is available on social media and purchasable as a web domain, too!

But don’t let this search distract you for too long. You’ve got a book to write!

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