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Pseudonyms: Using A Pen Name In A Cover Or Query Letters To Agents Or Editors

Pseudonyms

If you’re writing a novel under a pen name—and you’re querying a literary agent—there’s a right way and a wrong way to use your pen name in your query letter and on your manuscript pages. And if you’re writing poems, short stories, or essays under a pen name, there’s etiquette for submitting them under a nom de plume too. So here is Writer’s Relief’s best advice on how to use your pseudonym in your cover and query letters as you try to publish your book, poems, or short prose.

Should you include your real name in a query or cover letter?

Yes. Absolutely. Here’s the rule of thumb: Submit without hiding your real name. Publish under your pen name.

All dealings with agents, editors, publicists, and other industry professionals (like the staff at Writer’s Relief) should be conducted under your real name. Why? Because it’s good business. Think about it this way. “Pen name” is a nice way of saying “fake name.” And there are very few of us who use aliases in our everyday lives—at least, very few of us who are not violating parole.

You wouldn’t introduce yourself at a job interview using a fake name, and since a cover or query letter acts as an introduction, the same rules apply. Using your real name suggests that you’re honest and open—not trying to hide anything. Plus, if your editor or literary agent is going to draw up a contract or write a check for you, he or she would use your real name. So why introduce yourself with a fake name unless you were trying to be cagey? Honesty is always the best policy.

Click to learn more about how you get paid and how you interact with publishers when you write under a pen name.

Writing nonfiction? Learn the truth about using a pen name to protect your identity and prevent lawsuits.

Where in a query or cover letter should you mention a pen name?

One sentence somewhere in the body of a query or cover letter mentioning that you write under a specific pen name should be sufficient, but only if you’ve already published with the pen name. If you do not have any writing credentials with a pen name, it’s best to leave it out and wait to discuss with a lit agent or editor upon further interest in your writing.

Where on a manuscript should you write a pen name?

On book manuscripts, one common practice is to list your real name with your contact information and your real name as your byline. Then, beneath your real name, you will include something along the lines of:

The Best Book Ever Written

by

Jane Doe

(writing as Arabella Von Pseudonym)

Sometimes “writing as” will be abbreviated as “w/a,” but in your query letter you should spell it out. If you don’t want to use the “writing as” approach, you can simply opt to write:

The Best Book Ever Written

by

Arabella Von Pseudonym

The important thing is to be forthcoming about your real name on your letter and with your contact information.

In your submissions to literary magazines (if you’re submitting poems, stories, and essays), you’ll want to include your real name with your contact information on the first page (typically upper left corner) of your manuscript. Then if you’re writing a story or essay, you can do something like:

The Best Story Ever Written

by

Arabella Von Pseudonym

There are no hard and fast rules about pen name format on manuscripts: The important thing is to be sure to distinguish your real name from your pen name—and to always associate with fellow professionals using your real name, but to publish under your pen name.

Confused? Writer’s Relief helps guide our clients through the etiquette of the publishing industry, including issues of pen names. Our submission strategists are here to help!

Photo by LucasTheExperience

30 Responses to Pseudonyms: Using A Pen Name In A Cover Or Query Letters To Agents Or Editors

  1. Two takes–for mystery fiction and young fiction, women writers are much more popular, but for long blockbuster novels (if there are any being written these days) and literary fiction, men still dominate. I believe in playing it safe and if I were to publish under a pseudonym I would pick a name that could be of either sex. Secondly (and of course this isn’t always true) if you want to be visible on the stacks you are better off having a last name starting with a letter from the beginning of the alphabet rather than the end. Am I totally off base here? Also to those new writers who are already thinking about their relationship with their literary agents, let me say it isnt so easy getting an agent. It’s a bit of a vicious (and I do mean vicious) circle, where the publisher wants you to have an agent before looking at your work, and an agent wants to see that you’ve published before checking you out. IMHO that’s why a lot of writers have taken to self publishing and the internet to get their work out, bypassing traditional channels.

  2. Mathieu, there are certainly a number of French authors that were able to be published without using a pen name (Alexandre Dumas, Gustave Flaubert, etc.). We would recommend trying some U.S. markets and joining a writing group for constructive feedback on your writing.

  3. Hello,

    I am interested in using a pen name to change my life. I don’t think it will solve all of my problems, but maybe a couple of them. You see, I write in English, but I have a French name and feel doomed by it.

    Seven years ago, the basis of this insecurity became real. I took a course in copy editing at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. The teacher told me that I would never be able to get a job as a copy editor in any publishing company because my name is French. I felt devastated by that news and did not even bother showing up for the final exams. My main goal in taking that course was to edit my own work, not to work as a copy editor. Still, that insider news hurt. This revelation made me think about using a pen name.

    I’ve been writing fiction in English for over twenty years. In all that time, I haven’t had any luck publishing anything other than non fiction newspaper articles for university newspapers. I have a B.A. in Creative Writing. Seriously, that doesn’t mean much. I’ve written plays, screenplays, sketches that have been well received by the public. I’m also a singer-songwriter and released an album this year… English lyrics.. Well received and enjoyed by my listeners. But I have had absolutely no luck with getting any of my short stories and novels out into the world. It has been a soul grinding experience, and I understand all writers go through that. But I think my French name might be making things a little harder for me.

    Any basis to that speculation?

  4. I do not use my legal first name for anything creative. I am certainly not running from the law, but was definitely not given my birth name with love attached. Therefore, I have been using what my family has been calling me for twenty-one years now and my legal last name. ‘Everyone’ calls me Gippy–friends and family as well as in the art world. As a professional artist (painter) for many years, I have used this name as well in the last twenty-one years. My bank even told me it’s fine to accept checks with that name as they both begin with a G and the last name is on there. I have that name at my post office as well. So I also write under Gippy.

  5. Joanne, pseudonyms are regularly used to mask an author’s identity, so assuming a pen name is a great way to keep your legal name out of the limelight. Most, if not all, publishing companies would be more than willing to comply in that regard.

    However, even before you are accepted for publication, you would want to mention your preferences to the agent who chooses to represent you. If/when your work is accepted for publication, you, or your agent, would need to speak with the individual publishing company to determine their polocies on readings/public appearances.

    Many agencies and publications have strict policies/guidelines, and it is very important that you determine these specifics BEFORE you enter into a binding contract.

  6. I am writing a childrens fiction novel and if and when it gets published, I would like to keep my identity private (for example, I would not want to do any public appearences or have my real name found out). Would most publishing houses allow you to do that?

  7. Dear Chris, We can’t offer legal advice about whether or not you can use a pen name to publish a letter to the editors. Generally, many publications have a policy that letters to the editor must be published under real names. You’re in a difficult situation, but consider this: If the community realizes that you’re right, you’ll have made a name for yourself. But if you publish under a pen name, any good you might have done will be attributed to this fake persona. That said, you do mention that this is a career risk (FYI, it may be a career risk if someone finds out that you wrote under a fake personality). We can’t give you a clear answer about what to do here. It’s corny, but the answer’s going to be in your heart.

  8. About two years ago in a scientific conference, I came across the work of a senior scientist who has returned to India from abroad after several decades. A look at all the data presented by this group, both in the conference and in some journals, revealed that the data were not always conclusive, the experimental design was poor and interpretation a little shady. This senior scientist had a well established network including journal editors and the reviewers didn’t seem to be asking too many questions that would clear up the problems in these publications. In one case the journal was the official publication of a society in which the senior scientist had held some important positions. I wrote letters to journal editors asking them why they had allowed publication without revision and one has invited me to write a letter to the editor. The editor has not touched upon whether or not I am writing under my own name as no questions have been overtly raised about my not including any affiliation. The senior scientist has been known to act vindictively to cut off funds, deny promotions and generally make it hard for people to work, not just under their direct supervision but also under in institutions where they have contacts. Given this, I had taken on a pseudonym when I wrote to the journal editors. I do not believe that, especially with the kind of vindictive behavior this person is known to display, it would be wise to even trust the journal editors with my identity. My plan is to submit the letter to the editor under my pseudonym through email (which is how we have been corresponding anyway). But I want some advice as to whether I should give them vague information (half-correct but still associated with the pseudonym) and say I am retired so have no affiliation but still ask them to omit my personal information or say that I am not comfortable giving them anything more than my email address (the pseudonym’s). Either way, I run the risk of them rejecting my letter. But what are the consequences of the first option of vague information? I have thought about this a lot and it appears that in spite of the invitation to write the letter to the editor, the journals have gone ahead and published these papers without much review. They probably don’t care much about the criticism and it’s not worth risking the welfare of my dependents to risk retribution by the senior scientist when none of these people are losing any sleep over these papers. What would you recommend?

  9. What if the person you want to protect is your spouse, and a known person in their profession? Can you trust the editors you send your work to will NEVER divulge your real name to anyone? Can they keep that secret?
    Writing to you with my pseudonym,
    Renata

  10. Dear Michael, There aren’t really “rules” about these things. We would recommend you use your pen name on your letterhead/header, but just be sure to indicate your real name somewhere in the text of the letter.

  11. Thanks for this very helpful post! For my letterhead, should I then use my legal name rather than my preferred nom de plume?
    Also, for the ms. header, should it be my legal name or nom de plume?

  12. Beth, It seems that you would be best served by joining your local small business association if you’re planning to start your own publishing company in order to produce and sell your book. Many of the issues you’re bringing up are issues that any entrepreneurial small business owner will face. We’ll tackle your questions one by one.

    How can you use a pen name and get paid if you self-publish an ebook?
    Many writers publish e-books through a pen name. Writers who create their own publishing houses will sometimes create a company to manage book sales (payment would go through the company). Writers who publish through a third-party self-publishing company will deal directly with that company. But every company is different so one must be careful! Many self-published authors will purchase X number of books from the company, then hand sell them.

    Do you list your pen name as the author and your real name as the publisher for the copyright and ISBN?
    Some authors that we know of have their pen names listed on the page with their copyright information. Others have their pen names on the cover and their real names on the copyright page. You’ll have to consult a lawyer about the legalities. And, again, some authors will create their own publishing company under another name entirely and use that to copyright the material.

    Can the publisher be a pseudonym as well?
    We may have already answered this question above.

    Is there a need for the self-publisher to have a business license?
    You’ll have to check the laws of your state, etc. You may want to proceed as a corporation or an LLC. If you’re not planning to work with a third-party self-publishing company, you’ll essentially be starting your own business. Consult with your local small business organization.

    What about the need to establish a separate bank account for payments? Which name or should both names be on the bank account…or PayPal account? Are on-line payments made to your real name or pseudonym? This seems to be the real tricky part.
    If someone writes you a check, it must be to you (your real name) or to your real name with a “doing business as” note, or to your business/company name (in which case you would need a bank account for your business). Visit your bank for details.

  13. How can you use a pen name and get paid if you self-publish an ebook? Do you list your pen name as the author and your real name as the publisher for the copyright and ISBN? Can the publisher be a pseudonym as well? Is there a need for the self-publisher to have a business license?

    What about the need to establish a separate bank account for payments? Which name or should both names be on the bank account…or PayPal account? Are on-line payments made to your real name or pseudonym? This seems to be the real tricky part.

  14. Simone, Good question.

    A good rule of thumb is that you want to be sure agents and editors know the name they should use to write you a check.

    If you’re just making a minor tweak to your real name, you may or may not consider that a pen name (depending on how much was tweaked). We have some clients who go by a name like “Joe Smith” but who write under the pen name “Joseph Middle Name Smith.” In these cases, the label “pen name” really isn’t important.

    That said, some people spend their whole lives formally going by names that are NOT their “real” names. Some people go by their middle name (like when “Lulu Jessica Jones” goes by “Jessica” instead of “Lulu”). Some people go by a married name even though their legal name hasn’t changed. Deal with publishing professionals the same way you would deal with any professionals when it comes to your real name. Then, be sure to note “I write as A. Rich Writer.”

    Hope this helps! Thanks for asking the question!

  15. I honestly hadn’t thought about the name issue. I write under the name Simone Ludlow, but that’s more of a shortening of my full name because it is way too long to type a lot and it’s a bit of a tongue twister. Would that be considered a pen name?

  16. Robert, Great question. Honestly, we don’t feel that there will be a discrimination issue here. If anything, you might just have an advantage because so few men are writing romance publicly (consider how well Nicholas Sparks is doing with his subject matter that is marketed to women). A good literary agent will be able to help you approach publishers and craft a strong author identity. Good luck!

  17. I’ve written a romance novel, but I’m hesitant about approaching an agent with my obviously masculine name. I can’t find any romance books out there with a male author’s name!
    So, I’ve created a pseudonym that evokes a female writer. I want to be open about who I am to the people I’d be doing business with. Should I worry about being discriminated against because of my gender?

  18. Sarah, We know of a few writers who go by only a first name or a last name. We also know writers who publish under a made-up word/name, like an avatar or screen name. Happy writing!

  19. Hi,

    Do you need to have a first and last name as a pseudonym? Let’s say, for example, I wanted to write a book under the name Ninja JZ… Is that allowed?

  20. Petra, Don’t be afraid that your last name will be a problem–we can’t imagine that a good agent would ever reject a manuscript because of a last name!

    Always use your real name in letters to agents and editors. You will appear dishonest if you have to “come clean” later on about your real name. Mutual trust is key to agent-writer or editor-writer relationships.

  21. I have a question concerning agent or editor possiblly negative responses if I use my real name when querying. I’m Croatian, and my last name does sound quite foreign to English speakers. I feel hesitant to query using it, should it cost me any business proposals considering my manuscript. The manuscript itself is written in English.

    Is there any need for concern?

    Thank you.

  22. Maddy, Thanks for your question. No matter what, you do need to be honest with an agent. Eventually, your agent will find out the truth, so being honest from the start is the best policy. (FYI, the fact that you already know what a literary agent is means you are already ahead of the curve!).

  23. Hey, I’ve kind of got Sarah’s problem, sort of. Obviously you eventually need to be truthful to an agent about your age, but should you advertise it in your query letter? Or would seeing a query letter written by a fifteen-year-old immediately turn an agent off?

  24. Sarah, You certainly can write under a pen name if you want to, but you’ll probably need to work closely with your parents in order to get your book published since you’re not 18.

  25. So, Writer’s Relief, is it a good idea to use a pseudonym… if you’re only thirteen? Just wondering, because, well, I’ve written a novel, and I want to be published, but I think I might be too young. Thanks.

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