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What’s in a Pen Name

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What About a Pen Name?

Have you thought about a pen name? There is a long list of famous, successful, and respected writers who have relied on pseudonyms and pen names during at least part of their career. And there is a wide range of great reasons to use a pen name. If you choose to use one for your own work you will be in distinguished company. C.S. Lewis, author of the seminal Chronicles of Narnia series, also published under the name Clive Hamilton and N.W. Clerk. Sci-fi giant Isaac Asimov wrote his Lucky Starr series for young readers under the name Paul French. In response to limitations from his publisher stipulating one book per year, Stephen King published a number of books under the name Richard Bachman. And the practice is no less popular today. JK Rowling, of Harry Potter fame, wrote crime novels such as The Cuckoo’s Calling under the pen name Robert Galbraith. The name combined the first name of Robert Kennedy with her childhood fantasy name, Ella Galbraith. When her use of the pen name was leaked in 2013 by a friend of her lawyer’s, she explained: “I had hoped to keep this secret a little longer, because being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience. It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation, and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name.” Rowling said she wanted to “take my writing persona as far away as possible from me.”

Why Use a Pen Name?

So it’s clear that among the reasons to use a pen name is to avoid having your writing associated with your existing public persona. And this is not just the case for already established authors. Perhaps you have a professional career aside from writing, that you wouldn’t want immediately associated with the content of your writing. Historically, such controversial subjects as religion, politics, or sexuality led authors to write under an assumed name, and even today some writers may not want such controversy spilling over into a more conventional, established career. The reverse might be true as well. Perhaps you’d prefer that your globe-trotting adventure novels are associated with a mysterious and bold sounding pseudonym, rather than your own identity as a workaday middle-school principal in New Jersey. If you have already published, and you want to crossover into a new genre, a pen name might be a good idea. If you have a following as a romance writer, you may want to come up with something new for your horror series – as Rowling decided to do for her crime novels. On a similar note, if you have been published before but your book was panned by critics, or sales were unimpressive, you may decide to use a pen name to start fresh for your next effort.

What’s in a Name?

Sometimes, the problem is the name itself. Maybe you share a name with an established author, and want avoid confusion. Perhaps you feel that your name doesn’t fit the genre you are writing. Some names have an association that is particularly hard to shake. If you’re unlucky enough to have the last name Manson or the first name Adolph, you may want to think about a pseudonym for publishing your self-help and mindfulness books. Maybe you just don’t like your name, period, or at least don’t want to build a public persona as an author based on it. On a related note, perhaps your name is difficult to spell or pronounce (at least in the country where you are trying to establish yourself as a writer). The easier it is to spell and pronounce your name, the easier it is to remember and recommend it.

Choosing a Pen Name

Once you’ve decided to use a pen name, take some time to decide on one. One of the keys to using a pseudonym successfully is to pick one and generally stick with it, for professional correspondence, conferences, speaking engagements, and book signings. You may not be changing your name for your personal and existing professional life, but you are taking on a new professional persona for your writing. Choose something you will want to stick with, at least as long as you are writing in your genre. Be sure not to choose one that is already connected to another author.

Using a Pen Name

Agents and editors will expect you to use your pseudonym for the byline, and your real name in the information block when sending a query. Mention it if you’ve been published under other names in the past. You will want to copyright your pseudonym. First, do a trademark search in the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) searchable database. Also search for similar names that could be easily confused with yours. Even if you don’t intend to file a trademark, you’ll want to avoid using a pen name that comes up in this database.


When you are ready to file, be sure to use your real name for the “copyright claimant” and your pseudonym under “name of author.” If you don’t want your real name linked to your pen name at all, get some legal advice about how to proceed. If the copyright is held by just your pseudonym, legal issues could potentially pop up later. Also, remember that while copyrights registered to only pen names last 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, trademarks using your legal name last your entire life plus 70 years. Applications are available to download, or to fill out online, on the US Copyright Office website. You will need to send copies of the work that is subject to your trademark, for use by the office as well as the Library of Congress. If it is important to you for your real identity to remain confidential, consider adding protection by creating a corporation or LLC for records. Finally, remember to reserve a domain name, email address, and social media accounts under your pen name! It is an extensive process, but it will provide an important layer of protection and ensure that your pen name is yours and yours alone to use. For many authors, this is an essential step in cultivating a public persona – which in itself is a fundamental part of starting a successful writing career.

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