Pen Names

By Ali Hale

A reader, who wishes to remain anonymous, uses his real name in his writing for a weekly newspaper, but is considering using a pen name for other work. He wrote:

I have had heavy criticisms attached to my birth name, before my professional career [as a journalist] even started, and believe with a pen name I can have a fresh start. My question for you is this: When should a writer use a pen name? Should a writer use a pen name at all?

What is a pen name?

A “pen name” or “nom de plume” is a pseudonym used by an author. Sometimes it’s used to remain anonymous, but authors often don’t mind their pen names being known – they just use different names for their writing in separate genres, to avoid confusing their readers.

Professionals in other creative fields also use pseudonyms, but these aren’t called pen names; for example, an actor taking on a different name is using a “stage name”. The phrase “nom de plume”, as explained by Maeve in French Words for Writers was adapted from the French “nom de guerre” – a fictional “war name”.

Famous people with pen names

Authors throughout the centuries have used pen names. You’ve probably heard of the following authors:

  • George Orwell (real name Eric Arthur Blair)
  • George Eliot (real name Mary Ann Evans)
  • Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson)

And many writers today use pen names. For example, Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum is the real name of Ayn Rand (she wrote the famous novel Atlas Shrugged, examining philosophical and political themes).

Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden, a fantasy author, writes under two pen names: Megan Lindholm for her earlier, contemporary fantasy, and Robin Hobb for her epic, traditional fantasy books.

Why use a pen name?

Authors use pen names for a wide variety of reasons, which include:

  • To remain anonymous (especially if producing a politically or religiously sensitive work)

    This is perhaps less common today, but sometimes occurs if a very personal or sexually explicit work is written. An example is the author Belle de Jour (who writes a blog Belle de Jour: diary of a London call girl and has had two books published based on the blog). Some people see this form of anonymity as a ploy to provoke media interest, as newspapers compete to discover the real identity of such authors.

  • To change or conceal gender

    In the 18th century, many female authors used male pen names in order to be taken seriously. George Eliot is the most famous example, though the Bronte sisters all wrote under pen names too.

    This trend still continues in some genres today: for example, female fantasy or science fiction authors will often use a gender-neutral name (Robin Hobb) or use their initials (J.K. Rowling) as the genre has traditionally attracted more male readers and authors. A similar effect can be seen when male authors adopt a female pen name to write a chick lit or romance novel.

  • To write across multiple genres

    Lewis Carroll also wrote mathematical textbooks under his real name (Charles Dodgson), so adopted a pen name for his children’s novels. Authors today who write in multiple genres will sometimes use a different name for each one, to avoid confusing readers. Others use alternative forms of their real name; for example, the author Iain Menzies Banks writes mainstream fiction under the name Iain Banks and science fiction as Iain M Banks.

  • To recover from poor sales or reputation

    If, as in the question from our reader above, an author’s real name has attracted criticism – it may be worth considering changing to a pen name. Sometimes, the first few novels by a new author don’t sell well in bookshops, leading publishers to reject future submissions: changing to a pen name is often recommended in these circumstances.

    Holly Lisle suggests, in her FAQs about writing:

    Authors whose first three or so books have returns of fifty percent or more are out of the game. Publishers will stop buying from them — not just your current publisher, but also the other publishers you might hope to sell to.… This is where pen names can be useful — more than one author with bad numbers has started over with a new name, in essence becoming a first novelist again and acquiring a clean publishing history in the process.

So should you use a pen name?

If you are trying to build up a reputation in multiple genres, using a pen name (or several pen names) is probably a good idea.

And if your real name (or current pen name) has attracted heavy criticism or negative publicity, switching to a new name could be a good way to recover. Even if people do know what your real name is, you’ll be referred to by your pen name and it’s likely that few people will make a connection with your previous writings.

However, adopting a pen name means building up your reputation again from scratch – which could be a particular problem for freelance writers. You’ll still have all your experience and knowledge, but you may not want to use existing clippings of your writing which were published under your previous name.

If you’re using a pen name in an attempt to remain anonymous, be aware that people are often insatiably curious when they suspect a secret – you may well be “discovered”. In some cases, this can lead to great publicity, but if your client or publisher suspects you of trying to conceal a less-than-stellar past, it may backfire.

Ultimately, only you can decide whether it’s best for you to adopt a pen name or not. Many very successful authors have done so in the past, though, and many do today – so you’ll be in good company if you decide to use one!

If you’ve written under a pen name – or even just considered using one – why not share your experience in the comments or on the Daily Writing Tips forum?

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45 Responses to “Pen Names”

  • Leon

    The following is copied from the US Copyright website:

    An author of a copyrighted work can use a pseudonym or pen name. A work is pseudonymous if the author is identified on copies or phonorecords of the work by a fictitious name. Nicknames and other diminutive forms of legal names are not considered fictitious. Copyright does not protect pseudonyms or other names.

    If you write under a pseudonym but want to be identified by your legal name in the Copyright Office’s records, give your legal name and your pseudonym on your application for copyright registration. Check “pseudonymous” on the application if the author is identified on copies of the work only under a fictitious name and if the work is not made for hire. Give the pseudonym where indicated.

    If you write under a pseudonym and do not want to have your identity revealed in the Copyright Office’s records, give your pseudonym and identify it as such on your application. You can leave blank the space for the name of the author. If an author’s name is given, it will become part of the Office’s online public records, which are accessible by Internet. The information cannot later be removed from the public records. You must identify your citizenship or domicile.

    In no case should you omit the name of the copyright claimant. You can use a pseudonym for the claimant name. But be aware that if a copyright is held under a fictitious name, business dealings involving the copyrighted property may raise questions about its ownership. Consult an attorney for legal advice on this matter.

    Works distributed under a pseudonym enjoy a term of copyright protection that is the earlier of 95 years from publication of the work or 120 years from its creation. However, if the author’s identity is revealed in the registration records of the Copyright Office, including in any other registrations made before that term has expired, the term then becomes the author’s life plus 70 years.

  • Diane Pena

    I want to self-publish and use a pen name? Conceal my real identity but need to set up an account and get paid in my real name for book sales? How can I get help to do that.

    Don’t have websit yet

  • JD

    What a helpful, well-timed article, thank you! I have considered creating a pen name for some time. I am a writer, student, business professional, etc., in process of establishing two-websites/businesses. I’ve written many articles, which will eventually be published ont these sites, coresponding blogs. I’ve even have a few book ideas, with a lot of content already written.

    One of my reasons for considering a pen name, like so many others, it to maintain a degree of anonymity/privacy. We live in a society of those who would seek to capitalize on our past misfortunes. Additionally, my last name, while all that bad, has in the past had a former, unrelated, criminal associated with it.

    I want my readers, visitors, etc., not to have see my name and automatically ask themselves “I wonder if he is realted to ____.”

    So, yes, I am very happy to find this article and see comments of others, in similar situations. It is not my intent to deceive people in any way, but just not give them reason to pause or turn away, before seeing what good information, knowledge, know-how, experience, etc., that I can bring to them.

    All the Best,

    JD

  • will

    If you write with a nom de plume and have the copy write held by a company you own you can avoid the problem of banking checks since the account you open will be the business account. However if anyone does a check on the ownership of the company many times this is a matter of public record and may reveal your identity and even your address. If you become a Pty Ltd and sell your rights to a Pty Ltd then your address can become your accountants as many companies use their accountants offices as their public address’s and while directors names of companies may be of public record their dealings with other companies are not.

  • Anna

    To be blatantly honest, I’m incredibly private and oversensitive, and I have snotty, judgmental ‘friends’ who would mock the hell out of the things I write: the genre I write in and the writing itself. I hide behind a pseudonym out of cowardice, pure and simple.

    This isn’t something I’m proud of, but I wouldn’t be able to write at all otherwise. I can only deal with criticism if it’s anonymous.

  • collie

    I want a pen name. I am considering the one I used to post this comment. Any suggestions? Thanks! My book is called Bluebell, if I can ever get in stores.

  • NeverMyRealNameAgain

    I have written a fair bit (under my real name) (fact-based reports, editorials, and expert opinion in my field) and I can’t say I enjoyed many positive results. With the advent of the Internet, there are lonely, sad, and mentally ill people who delight in harming others via the ‘net.

    While my writing did win me a certain amount of respect, it also led to needlessly-vicious detractors, who either didn’t agree with one or more of my opinions or (more commonly, it seemed) were jealous of my growing credibility. (i.e. people in the same field, whose expertise was not requested for publication.)

    So, while one might say my success was a win for me, it led to some surprising lessons about human nature, vindictiveness, and how right I’ve always been to avoid seeking notoriety.

    Without detailing every evil thing that’s happened to me in this regard, let’s just say it culminated with one of these Internet freaks knocking on my door, one day. (Regrettably, I happened to be the one to answer the door. Quickly realizing something was amiss, I disavowed all knowledge of the person being sought. I was relieved when my husband walked by, a few feet behind me, giving the caller the once-over. My husband is quite imposing, being just shy of seven feet tall and weighing over 300 pounds.)

    Over the course of several years, I saw GROWING evidence of strangers trying to find out where I lived, and other private information. I saw how supposedly trusted “publishers” included personally-identifying/private information with my writing, at times.

    My goal, if I’m to continue making a career of writing, is to publish all new works under a pseudonym so private, only the tax man coud make a connection.

    Since I’ll be writing in a new genre, I’ll also be seeking a new publisher. I hope to keep my “real” identity completely secret. If I have to incorporate or even “work for” my husband (I never changed my last name…so there’s no crossover between him and my real name), then I’ll do it. I guess my first stop is a local bank (not mine, of course) to see what they say about DBA, signing over cheques, or any other solution for getting paid via a nom de plume.

    Happily, I’ve slowly “disappeared” (like Sandra Bullock’s character in ‘The Net’). We switched to VOIP several years ago, so our “home” number is not listed. (We chose an area code different from where we live, anyway.) My cellular phone is listed in my husband’s name, as are all utilities. We own several properties, and I’ve moved a lot, as well. …Meaning, I coud be anywhere, at any given time. Other than my past writing, I barely exist online. I’ve never come across an Internet directory with my information.

    In fact, it was my husband who first planted the seed of a pseudonym. His foreign last name is all but unpronounceable to native English speakers. (That’s partly why I didn’t change my name, after marriage.) As a result, he’s long used a fake last name, for unimportant things like dry cleaning or dinner reservations. I became Mrs. Fakename, and marveled at the possibilities.

    I suppose it goes without saying that my intent is purely to protect myself, rather than using a false name for the purposes of crime or malevolent deception.

    I like to write, and like to get paid for my work. I have, and have always had, ZERO desire to be known, much less famous. I can’t think of anything more repugnant.

  • Missy

    I have ran a small business before using a DBA name. It’s really simple and I would assume that’s how you’d establish legal ownership of a pen name and accept checks made out to it.

    You register your pen name as a DBA thru the appropriate state agency. You can then open a business checking account with your bank and cash checks made out to it. Your DBA is public knowledge and can be searched for in the state database, so it will not work for absolute anonymity, but will allow you to exchange money and keep cash flow separate for personal book keeping.

  • Stacey

    I work in a library and I’d like to point out Nora Roberts/J.D Robb as an example of cross-genre and gender neutral.
    Some of “J.D Robb’s” books also have Nora Roberts on the cover which I believe she chose to do when she became famous under both names to avoid confusion.

    @ J.B You may want to look up Nora Roberts, you may find some information on how to deal with the “two name publishing”.

  • Kendal Eaton

    will no one answer the crucial question?!

    pen names have no legal security and cannot be copyrighted. the ONLY legal consideration for establishing the TRUE identity behind a pen name is for verification of work and PAYMENT for it.

    as soon as you write /create something and state your ownership of it, it is copyrighted in any verifiable form. you should never pay for this. it used to be you needed to send a registered package of the product to yourself, left unopened in case of any legal suit. with computers, every created file is date/time stamped, copyright is covered as long as any file identifies the data owner.

    legal copyright would usually be taken care of by a literary agent, on signing you, or publisher. but with self/e-publishing on the increase as soon as any publishing / retail contract has been signed identifying the real owner with the pen-name, this should be proof enough as long as there is identifiable evidence of the original ownership on the original files. remember, though, possession is always nine-tenths of the law. always back-up and don’t sell on your computer without erasing the hard-drive.

    as for any other legal option it is purely down to any form of proving ownership. but the question of banking money under a pseudonym has been unanswered. millions of authors already do this but through the conventional old process, through agent/publisher. this new question needs addressing – other than registering your author name as a trader with companies house (in the UK).

    all internet retailing/publishing companies need to assure anonymity on this score. but i’ve not been able to find a single straightforward article on this subject yet.

  • Rio

    Great post! How do you adopt a pen name if you want to become a freelance writer? Do you use a pen name? Or, do you legally change your name first?

    I’m amazed by the amount of #1 Best Selling authors that use multiple pen names. I’m also amazed by the number of historical figures, actors and actresses who’ve changed their names.

  • Ann Hamilton

    I once read that to choose a pen name, try using your middle name as your first, and the name of the street you grew up on as the last name. I can see how some names would end up sounding ridiculous using this method, but it worked beautifully for me.

    I write and blog under a pen name, but for my sole published work which was an unpaid short story for an online magazine. My goal is to maintain anonymity.

    I write under my pen name for a web content site that allows me to use it, but have the PayPal account that is linked to the site for payments set up in my own name. I am wondering, as some of you are, how to legally use my pen name in other areas. I can’t seem to find answer to that question anywhere.

  • Eric Fox

    I had no choice. I’ve had to use the pen name Eric Fox because too many people have misspelled and mispronounced my real last name. In high school the kids always made fun of my last name. If people would spell it right and pronounce it right than it wouldn’t be a problem.

  • gene corpus

    I noticed that many in hollywood have very catchy names… some are wacky….and some sound so common that they sound good or have a sort of ring to them…..my question is….how do they come up with thier names……???….are they given choices by thier managers that were preselected somehow…or are they given full reign by making thier own choices….is there a technique that they use….how do they come up with them….?

  • Raymond

    @J. B. you said “who do I give credit for my past writing? Myself or my pen name?” I would think anything you have published would stay with your real name. All other work by deafult would stay with your real name too unless say your pen name wrights si-fi and you want your “yet to be published work” to be under that pen name than you can give credit for all the si-fi work to your pen name to give it a bit of a head start.

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