Should You Use a Pseudonym?

secret-identityAs 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:

  1. “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.
  2. “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.
  3. “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.
  4. “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.
  5. “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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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!
  5. 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).
  6. 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.”
  7. 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).
  8. 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.”
  9. 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 you.

Moira Allen is the editor of and the author of more than 300 published articles. Her books on writing include Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer’s Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals (Second Edition), and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests.