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Pen Names II

In a previous article we listed the various reasons writers choose to adopt pseudonyms or pen names. These varied from having a difficult-to-pronounce name to maintaining privacy, to distinguishing oneself from another writer with a similar name. In this article we’ll go over some of the other implications of choosing a pen name, including legal issues and other questions from writers. 

Is there a directory of pen names?
Do a search on the Internet to find the latest directories of pen names and see if someone else is already using yours. Also, use the Google search engine to see who else is out there with the name you’ve chosen. It could be a problem if there’s another author by the same name (or a prominent proctologist).

What about copyrights?
Can you copyright a pen name? According to the U.S. Copyright Office: “A pseudonym or pen name may be used by an author of a copyrighted work. A work is pseudonymous if the author is identified on copies or phonorecords of that work by a fictitious name (nicknames or other diminutive forms of one’s legal name are not considered ‘fictitious’).

As is the case with other names, the pseudonym itself is not protected by copyright. If you are writing under a pseudonym but wish to be identified by your legal name in the records of the Copyright Office, you should give your legal name and your pseudonym when filling out your application.”

Do publishing contracts use pen names?
Most publishing contracts grant the publisher the right to use your pen name in conjunction with your work and marketing efforts. Sometimes a publisher creates a pen name for the author in anticipation of future work under that alias.

Make sure the associated contract is clear about both the rights and restrictions of the author and the publisher. (As with all contractual issues, consult an attorney who specializes in these matters.)

How do I get paid if I write under a pseudonym?
Anytime you submit your work, whether to a literary agent or an editor, make it clear what your real name and pen names are. If you’ve landed a publishing contract, your publisher should have a record of your real name and your social security number, and they should issue checks in your real name. The IRS will squawk if the author’s name and social security number do not match.

Because payment can get messy if you’re writing under a pen name, be sure you know the etiquette for using a pen name in a query or cover letter

What if I want to freelance under a pen name while under contract with my real name?
Suppose you have landed a book contract that limits the number of outside projects you can work on. You still have bills to pay, so you take on outside projects under a pseudonym—without letting your publisher know.

This puts you at risk for breach of contract and civil suits, not to mention harming your reputation as a professional. Instead, try to work out a compromise with your publisher and keep it legit.

Can I expose my boss if I write under an assumed name?
Defamation of character, libel, and slander apply no matter what name you choose to adopt. Exposing your boss’s secrets is likely to get you in serious trouble whether you go by Marty Fishbone or Truman Truthteller. Learn more about how to protect yourself when writing nonfiction

What about taxes?
Some folks think that using pseudonyms can reduce their taxable income. For example, Mary Smith has a regular day job but writes romance novels on the side under the name Mari Chevalier. She only reports her Mary Smith earnings to the IRS. Can you say tax fraud?

Using a pen name can also complicate matters of advances and royalties, as well as the sale of reprint and subsidiary rights. Again, consult a tax attorney for legal advice.

At Writer’s Relief, we’ve been working with writers who have pen names since 1994, so when issues arise, our submission strategists know how to advise our clients on the best course of action. If you would like help submitting your writing to editors or literary agents, contact Writer’s Relief.

16 Responses to Pen Names II

  1. I am considering using a pen name and I was wondering are there times when you would reveal your real name? Let’s say you are doing a speaking engagement, do you go by your real name or pen name? What about in your website bio or in your “about the author” section of your book?

  2. Amanda, We are not lawyers, so we do not have any expertise in this particular area. Our advice would be to speak to a lawyer familiar with the legalities of your question.

  3. I have been publishing website content and working in copywriting for about a year under the last name Foxcroft. I recently got married and changed my legal last name to Taylor, but I want to continue writing under Foxcroft, as my website is in that name, and Foxcroft is beginning to be recognized.

    My question is, should I set up a DBA (doing-business-as) under Foxcroft, so that clients can continue to cut checks to that name, or is it better to instruct my clients to “pay to the order of” my new legal name while using the original name in all correspondence and bylines?

  4. Hi! I was wondering, what if I did an online research about the pen name I chose and at that time I found out that nobody was using this name. However, later it turned out that somebody was already writing under this pen name and I somehow couldn’t find it out during my research. Can this person take any legal actions towards me?
    Thanks in advance.

  5. Hi Angela, it’s fine if you copyrighted the work under your legal name—it’s when you copyright it ONLY under your pen name that you run into problems. If, for any reason, you need to defend your copyright in court, your legal name is what really matters.

    A solution to your problem may be to simply contact the copyright office and ask to update your information. Let them know that you’ve since adopted a pen name, and they should be able to attribute it to the copyright.

  6. I copyrighted my book under my given name 2 years ago but have since decided that I only want to publish the work under a pen name. Based on your article, I didn’t know I should have given both names to the copyright office at the time I requested copyright. Will this be a problem when/if it is published?

  7. Hi Kaycei. I am unaware if there is such a list. Aptly, part of what makes pen names so useful is that they are used to mask the true identity of the author. In this sense, it would be difficult to determine who has pen names, since you wouldn’t know if it was a real or fake name! I wouldn’t worry too much about your name being “taken.” Many authors have similar names, and choosing whatever you believe will be best for your career is what’s most important.

  8. Where do I find “directory of pen names” so as to find out if the name I would like is available? I tried Googling the term, but nothing on point came up.

  9. Dear C.W., There is no way of formally claiming a pen name, so the way that you establish one for yourself is just by writing, publishing, and using that name. Hopefully it’s not already taken. Good luck!

  10. Hi!
    Please write me exactly how I would go about establishing a

    pen name. You know: step one, step two, etc. Thank you.

    C.W. Blacklock

  11. A rose is still a rose. Legally, it doesn’t matter what name you use to sign something. What matters is that you signed. If it becomes an issue in court, they might ask you to acknowledge your signature. If you do, then it’s validated. Individuals can use as many aliases as they choose. Any name you become known by is a legally valid one.

  12. Dear pluto5, Thanks for your comment! Many writers have more than one pen name.

    You can’t stop anyone from taking on your particular pen name; however, we feel it’s unlikely that someone would steal your pen name letter for letter. Writers strive for names that will set them apart. They do not want to be associated with a writer of a similar name.

    We’re not certain of what you mean by “steal my work through this,” but suffice it to say, that if someone is going to steal your work, they will do it regardless of your pen name.

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