Theodor Geisel had three. Lawrence Block had six. At last count, Dean Koontz had 11.
Then again, Samuel Clemens had only one, but it”s among the most famous.
We”re not talking about spouses, sports cars or prize-winning spaniels. We”re talking about pseudonyms or, as they”re popularly called, “pen names”not nicknames or abbreviations, but phony bylines.
Why do authors sometimes use assumed names? Are there advantages to adopting one? Disadvantages? And how do you get one?
This article will offer some answers. (As for answers to who is really whom, check out www.trussel.com/books/pseudo.htm, which cross-lists thousands of authors and their pen names.)
My article offers reasons for using pen names. But some writers adopt them for the wrong reasons. If your motivation for using a pen name is any of the following, think again.
Even if your reasons for using a pen name are sound, there are still potential drawbacks:
Processing your advances and royalties gets complicated. You”ll need a trusted agent or friendly bank.
Pseudonyms can complicate the sale of reprint and subsidiary rights, as well as the administration of your estatecollecting your literary assets and transferring title to your heirsafter you die.
Consider the effect of a pen name on your ability to market your book: How will you attend readings or signings, or appear on Oprah, if you don”t want the world to learn who you are?
A major reason for writing is to see your name in print. Do you want to endure the frustrations of a Clark Kent or Peter Parker, unable to tell your friends that the superhero writer is you, or unable to convince them it is you after you confess? In short, though it can be fun to use a pen name, and often a smart thing to do, be sure your reasons are sound and offset any drawbacks.
Why writers use pen names
As you”d suppose, authors use pen names to disguise who they are. Why would you want to do that? There are several reasons:
Speculation abounded. Introducing a collection of Tiptree”s fiction, science fiction superstar Robert Silverberg praised Tiptree”s writing and argued that one thing was clear from his distinctive voice: Tiptree was surely a man.
Actually, as became known soon after, Tiptree was a former CIA intelligence agent and doctor of experimental psychology named … Alice Sheldon. No stranger to disguise, Sheldon had decided to hide her gender within the male-dominated field of science fiction (as had C.L. Moore and Andre Norton before her).
Thus, one reason authors use pen names is to conceal the fact that they”re writing in the “wrong” gender for their field. Authors sometimes use pen names to hide other personal traits, such as their age (sometimes you”re “too young” for the air of authority you need to adopt; sometimes you”re “too old” for the readers you”re targeting).
As the emphasis shifts from books/literature to authors/celebrities, however, this may be changing. In 2001 James Patterson, known for his Alex Cross mysteries, published Suzanne”s Diary for Nicholas, a romance, and John Grisham, revered for legal suspense, published the coming-of-age novel A Painted House … both in their own names.
These famous writers each have published under a pen name. Who is who?
a. Richard Bachman
b. Rosamond Smith
c. J.D. Robb
d. Ellis Hart
e. Leigh Nichols
The answers can be found at the end of this article!
In 1969, the Edgar Award for best mystery novel was won by Jeffrey Hudson … a Harvard Medical School intern whose real name was Michael Crichton. Two decades earlier, a young writer and Ph.D. candidate defending his chemistry dissertation worried he might be rejected because of a humorous essay published under his real name, despite asking his publisher to use a pseudonym. Fortunately, he was too talentedas both writer and scientistto be turned down, and so he became “Doctor” Isaac Asimov.
How to do it
Suppose you decide you need a pen name. How should you go about adopting one?
First, find a name that”s available. Check white pages, Internet search engines and U.S. Copyright Office records to avoid choosing the name of a real person, particularly another writer.
Second, decide how critical it is to keep your true identity a secret: It is harder to keep your publisher from knowing who you really are, and to block readers from discovering your true identity, than to simply have your work appear under an alias.
Third, states often require persons doing business under assumed names to register with their municipality (though few I”ve spoken with seem interested in having writers do so). Whether this applies to you depends on the extent of your use and where you live, so consult your lawyer, or city or town clerk.
|1. b (Joyce Carol Oates is Rosamond Smith, but she has also published under the name Fernandes). 2. e (In addition to Leigh Nichols, Dean Koontz has also published under 10 other names). 3. a (Richard Bachman is Stephen King”s most famous pen name, but did you know he has also used John Swithen?). 4. c (Nora Roberts is J.D. Robb, but would you have guessed her if we listed her other pen names, Sarah Hardesty or Eleanor Wilder?). 5. d (Harlan Ellison has the record among our famous five here with more than 20 pen names, including Ellis Hart). These answers are based on information at www.trussel.com/books/pseudo.htm|
Fourth, decide how to handle copyright matters. Copyright Office rules allow you to register copyrights under a pen name, with or without disclosing your real name. What you do here affects your copyright term, however: Copyrights ordinarily last for the author”s life plus 70 years, but for works published anonymously or pseudonymously, the term is the shorter of 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation. So publishing a work pseudonymously typically extends your copyright if you die in less than 25 years and shortens your copyright if you live more than 25 years. Fortunately, you can fix the latter by recording your true identity with the Copyright Office. For more details, see Copyright Office factsheet FL101, available on the Copyright Office Web site, www.copyright.gov.
In short, there are often good reasons for adopting a pen name. If they apply to youor if you”re just feeling mysteriousbe sure you: Choose a name that won”t get you in trouble; comply with legal requirements; arrange for payment through your publisher, agent or bank; keep detailed records of your true name and pen name literary assets; and act wisely to assure the longest protection for your copyrights.
This article appeared in the June 2003 issue of Writer”s Digest.