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.