By Any Other Name

Ballpoint pen writing. Streaks of ink are visi...
Ballpoint pen writing. Streaks of ink are visible on the ball, indicating the direction of rotation. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One doesn’t becomes a writer simply by the expedience of writing. It is only when you begin to contemplate letting that writing waddle out into the cold, cruel public eye that questions begin to arise–or not.

One of the first questions to arise is usually about the use of a pseudonym or pen name. Writing under a pseudonym is a time-honored tradition although certainly not required. Many successful writers are happy to publish under their own names for their entire career and never even consider the subject. It is just a matter of personal taste.

There can be many reasons a writer chooses to use a pen name, some more compelling than others. If your name is Mary Smith or Jane Doe, you might feel it lacks a certain “reader drawing power”. You may choose instead to write as Evangeline Schwartzkpof, thinking it looks better on a book cover.

I write under a pen name for several reasons. you didn’t think Rion Wilhelm was my real one did you? When I first started considering writing as a career, I was writing Military Sci Fi. Why? Well, my family was predominantly male and we have had a professional military man in each generation. That was what I heard around the dinner table each night and that was what I knew. During one of my first conventions, I attended a panel discussion on writing for publication. At that time, the bulk of writers in speculative fiction were male but this panel contained three female authors that I respected greatly; Andre Norton, Leigh Brackett and C.L. Moore. Of course, the question came up almost immediately following the one about the difficulty of women breaking into print. As I said, this was many years ago when 100% of publishing (or at least what was considered “professional” publishing) was done through “brick and mortar” publishing houses and the term “digital publishing rights” usually brought a perplexed frown to one’s face.

I can’t remember which of the ladies (for some reason I believe it was Andre Norton) said it, but one of them remarked that if a female writer did not want to be initially labeled as a writer of “young peoples Science Fiction”, they might want to use just their initials (as did Catherine Lucille Moore) or an androgynous
first name (Leigh could be either male or female). The “powers that be” in publishing had a very different take on things at that time. I heard that and it made me go “hummmmm”. Even so, it wasn’t until several years later that I was actually provoked into making the change.

My marriage had broken up at that time and I was facing a life of single parenthood with my son and having a difficult time of it financially. I had just been hired as the Senior Accountant by a treatment center for troubled juveniles but they did have a couple of reservations that needed to be addressed. One was my tattoos (I only had two at the time). Although I didn’t have a lot of contact with the students there were concerns that they might be encouraged to want a tattoo if they saw mine(!!!). So I agreed that I would always wear long sleeves while at work. The other issue was the fact that I was a writer, which I had put on my application under “hobbies”. They asked what kind of writing I did and when I said it was Science Fiction and Fantasy, they said that would never do because some of the students had problems separating fantasy from reality. That was when I hastily said that I didn’t write under my own name. I got the job and kept it for three of the most miserable years of my life. Although it put food on the table, I’m still not sure it was worth it.

There can be many other valid reasons why one might choose to write under a pseudonym. Maybe you are writing a story based on a true incident from your childhood or neighborhood and do not want your neighbors to recognize the author as you. Perhaps you are a third-grade teacher who writes erotica and the parents of your students might be a little curious about your research methods. Or possible you are writing about a controversial topic and don’t want the hate mail and picketing protesters. Maybe your name doesn’t seem to match the genre you are writing in, or you have started writing in a genre you are not known for (did you know that J.D. Robb is Nora Roberts) and you want to keep the association of the two genre’s separate. As I said, there can be many valid reasons. Whether you use a pen name (or several) or not, it is entirely up to you.

But what about the ramifications of doing so? What about the legality?

There are pros and cons to almost anything and this is no different. You can legally use any name you want as long as you do not intend to defraud. This does not mean you can use it to escape your debts, use it to avoid any legal processes that may be pending or use it to escape an existing contract. Please see the disclaimer at the bottom of this page.

If you decide you want to use a pen-name (or two …or three)

You should:

  • Research it well. Google it. Does someone else have the name? This may not be a big deal unless that person is also a writer, or singer or some other professional or well-known person. Then you could be accused of trying to trade on that person’s fame, which will earn you a “cease and desist” letter. If it is used by someone else, perhaps you might want to pick a different first or last name. Check with Books In Print and US Trademarks Office. Some authors have their pen names trademarked in which case you could be charged with Copyright Infringement.

Once you decide on your pseudonym, you should:

  • Use it consistently on the Internet. This is your brand. This is the name you want to be associated with. Help people make that association
  • Buy the domain. Buy it immediately. This is your brand! If “JoeBlow.com” is taken, perhaps you can buy a derivative domain like “JoeBlowWriter.com” or “AuthorJoeBlow.com”.
  • Place the pen name on your manuscript or book cover and your copyright notice, © 2016 [your pen name] . Some authors put the copyright notice in both their pen name and real name, but that is not necessary
  • If you are not self-publishing, you must communicate that you are using a pseudonym with your publisher. Place both your real name and pseudonym on your manuscript. Use the name you want to publish under for the byline and use your real name in the information block. The same holds true for queries. Contracts are signed with your real name so your publisher has to make the connection.

The “gotcha’s” you have to remember.

  • How are you going to be paid? If you receive your checks in your real name there is no problem. If your checks are payable to your pseudonym your bank may not accept them. You could set up an account under your pseudonym but be aware that banks have strict requirements to do this. Most involve:
    • Filing a Fictious Name Statement otherwise known as a “DBA” (doing business as) and keeping it on file with the state you live in. The bank will have to have at least that to set up an account.
    • File for an EIN (Employer Identification Number) with the IRS. This is used as a Social Security Number for your pseudonym and is what the Federal Government uses to link your two identities. Incidently, this can go a long way toward proving that you really are your pseudonym should you ever have to do so.

    Check your state laws. I live in California. Depending on which state you live in, there may be some differing laws.

    The author is not a legal professional and this article is not intended as legal advice. You should consult with an attorney familiar with Intellectual Property laws in your country.



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This article is copyright © 2017 Rion Wilhelm All rights reserved.

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