Thursday, September 6

Should You Use A Pen Name?

Should I Use A Pen Name?

When I stared writing, one of the questions I asked was: should I use a pen name? One of the first people I posed this question to was an enormously helpful mid-list author of spicy romance novels. Her response: Don't do it! She had been forced to take a pen name by her traditional publisher who had then used her real name on the first book in her trilogy and her pen name on the subsequent two. The result: lots of emails from fans complaining they couldn't find her books!

In his most recent blog post Dean Wesley Smith gives the pros and cons of using a pen name.

Why use a pen name?

1. Your output exceeds what your publisher can use
If you're a prolific writer and your publisher will only buy two books a year, writing under a pen name allows the creation of another income steam. Dean writes:
At one point, Kris and I were joking around at a conference and actually counted the career income streams coming into our home at that moment in time. We had nine writers’ incomes coming into the house. That was more than we had cats at that point.

Today we have about that many, maybe a few more, but some are not making much, at least not enough to live on. Luckily the pen-name writers don’t eat much.

The key is the same with all aspects of the publishing industry: Diversity and a lot of product. If you have three or four writer’s incomes hitting your house, it’s a ton better and safer than only one. And nine or ten incomes just makes things much easier.
2. You write in multiple genres
It's a good idea to create a pen name for each genre you write in, that way your fans know what to expect when they pick up one of your books. For instance, if you write brooding vampire mysteries under the moniker Alice Darkbody and then go ahead and write a comedic western under that name your goth readers are not going to be happy.

3. You have a day job and don't want to get fired
If you're a medical doctor, or a psychiatrist, or psychologist, or social worker, and so on, your clients may believe you have used them in your book. If anything can help save you a trip to the courthouse, even if you're sure you'll win, it's probably a good idea. (This was a different kind of suit, but it reminds me of what happened with the Hurt Locker.)

4. Your sales numbers go down and your publisher drops you
I've heard countless stories about book sales tanking even when the book is terrific. What do you do then? Start writing under another name! Traditional publishers use what Dean calls "the produce model". He writes:
In traditional publishing, they have to gamble that your book will sell a certain number in a certain amount of time. Remember the produce model? In traditional publishing, your books spoil, so if they paid you too much in comparison to your sales numbers, you can’t sell another book UNDER THAT NAME.
5. To hide your work from your family
Melinda DuChamp, author of the erotic romance Fifty Shades of Alice in Wonderland, writes under a pen name. Here's why: "My mother reads all of my books, and I decided this one was a bit too spicy for her." (That's from the post Fifty Shades of Alice in Wonderland.) I think that's a great reason! Why make Christmas dinner any more uncomfortable than it has to be? ;)

6. You have the same name as a celebrity
There are lots of folks named Stephen King but only one of them can be published under that name--at least when it comes to works of fiction.

7. You think your book makes Dick and Jane seem intellectually stimulating
Dean writes that if you think your book is awful, publish it under a pen name and let readers decide. Although this advice makes me cringe, I think he's right. (And, of course, Dean has written hundreds of books and knows vastly more about publishing than I do!) I think that we can be our own worst critics. If the book doesn't sell, it doesn't sell. You gained valuable experience writing the book, and no will ever know you wrote it  ... not unless you tell them!

Okay, so, let's say you've decided to write under a pen name. You might have some questions.

- Do you have to keep the name a secret? Only if you want to. If you have a pen name because you don't want your family to find out you write erotica, then secrecy is probably a good idea, otherwise list your pen names on your website so your fans can find your other books.

- Do I have to have separate Twitter accounts, etc., for each of my identities? No! Dean advises setting up a static website for each identity so that your fans have somewhere to go to see what books you've written, how they can get in touch with you, etc., but you don't need to do social media for each identity, especially if the identity isn't secret. Just post the link to your blog and explain that you use a pen name.

- Should I get a separate domain name for each pen name? Yes! The more you use a pen name the higher it will rank in Google, etc., so someone else will buy it if you haven't. It's only about $10 a year, well worth the investment.

Dean's parting advice:
So when deciding about which name to publish a book or story under, think first of your readers.

Then think about your readers some more.

And then decide which name would be best for them. And which name you can live with the rest of your life.

And then have fun.
Sounds about right to me! You can read Dean Wesley Smith's article here: The New World of Publishing: Pen Names

Other articles you might like:
- Stephen King's Latest Book: A Face In The Crowd
- Are You Writing The Right Book? 5 Ways To Find Out
- Fifty Shades of Alice In Wonderland: Sales Peak At $1,000 Per Day

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  1. Hi Karen

    I decided to use a pen-name on an ebook I plan to publish, what would you recommend using on the copyright statement - my pen or real name? Do authors generally use their pen-name or their real name?

    I have set up a publishing company - could I use that as the copyright owner on the copyright statement? I know that allows authors to upload ebooks under pen-names but does not give any advice on this part of the setup.

    Your advice will be greatly appreciated.

    1. Hi Jay, for what it's worth, I use my pen name on the copyright statement.

      I register my copyright, though, and when I do I include my birth name and my pen name, so it's all there in the paperwork. Then on my book I just copyright it under my real name.

      I called the copyright office and they said to do it that way, so that's what I do!

      About listing your publishing company as the copyright holder, you could do that too.

      Hope that helps. :)

    2. lol, whoops!

      I meant, "Then on my book I just copyright it under my PEN name."

  2. Hi Karen,

    What happens if you are, for example, asked to attend an interview? Do you 'pretend' to be your pen name, or do you have to admit to who you really are?


    1. Hi Adrian, good question.

      As far as I can see, the answer is: It's up to you.

      I think a lot depends on why a person writes under a pen name. For instance, some authors like the anonymity that a pen name gives, the ability to try new things and, perhaps, fail spectacularly without tarnishing their reputation. In that case, they would probably stay in-character.

      Other authors use pen names as a way of branding their work. For instance, Nora Roberts also writes as J.D. Robb because (originally) her publisher was concerned that the fans of her Nora Roberts books wouldn't like the kind of romantic suspense she wanted to start writing.

      This is from "Nora Roberts" over at Wikipedia:
      "Roberts had long wanted to write romantic suspense novels in the vein of Mary Stewart, but, at the urging of her agent, she concentrated on classic contemporary romance novels while she built a following of readers. After moving to Putnam in 1992, the publishing company quickly realized that they were unable to keep up with Roberts's prolific output. They suggested that she adopt a second pseudonym so that they would be able to publish more of her work each year."

      In this case the author makes it clear that she is writing under a pen name and that information would probably be displayed on both her main website and the website she set up for the pen name.

      Dean Wesley Smith and Kris Rusch both write under pen names. Kris does this, I think, mostly to help brand her books.

      Wikipedia has an interesting discussion of pen names:

      I hope I've answered some of your questions, or at least meandered done some interesting alleyways. All the best to you whatever you decide. Cheers!

  3. so it's okay to just use the pen name on the copyright page as long as you register the work with the Copyright Office and list both legal and pen names? If I were to work with the small family press, should the (c) stay with the pen name or list them as publisher?

    1. Hi Robyn, good questions.

      "so it's okay to just use the pen name on the copyright page as long as you register the work with the Copyright Office and list both legal and pen names?"

      If you're asking whether it's legal to do the above then--and I'm not a lawyer and this is in no way intended to be legal advice--my answer is that it seems to be.

      This is from the U.S. Copyright Office:

      Library of Congress

      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.


      Here's another article that seems helpful:
      How to copyright a book with a pen name

      You also ask:
      "If I were to work with the small family press, should the (c) stay with the pen name or list them as publisher?"

      My understanding (and, again, I'm not a lawyer and this isn't intended to be legal advice) is that, depending on what you want, you can do either. For myself, when I use a pen name, I put the copyright with the pen name.

      I hope that helps! Congratulations of having your book published; all the best. :-)


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