Should You Be Using a Pen Name?

by | Sep 26, 2014

Pen names, also known as pseudonyms and noms de plume, are more popular than ever. Like brand names, they are designed to be catchy, memorable and suited to the genre. Writers switch genders and nationalities. Plain-Janes leap into exotic personas. X-gens with hyphenated surnames opt for something short.

I am often asked if using a pen name is legal. Will a writer be accused of identity theft and fraud? Will he be sued if he uses the name of a real person?

Using a pen name is completely legal. In fact, it is often a wise business choice. But writers should take a few common-sense steps to avoid confusion and protect their rights.

Why Use a Pen Name?

If you are a surgeon, do you want your patients to know you crank out high-body-count thrillers? If you dabble in bondage fiction, do you want to share that information with neighbors, employers, and your church group? Privacy is one of the main reasons writers choose pen names.

In deciding on pen names, writers try to evoke the right tone, whether it is mysterious, authoritative, or lovable. They may have different pen names for different genres. A writer with an audience in romance will choose a different pen name for a dark, dystopian fantasy. Writers who have bombed under one name start over with pen names.

Avoiding confusion
I recently co-wrote an ebook with Jessica Brown, and we discovered there are at least three other Jessica Browns selling books on Amazon. If a writer has a common name, or the same name as someone famous, a pen name avoids confusion.

The marketplace has changed. More people shop for books by scanning online thumbnails instead of browsing bookstore aisles. Writers are selecting short pseudonyms that pop from the screen.

Two or more co-writers might pick a single name for publication.

How to Choose a Pen Name

Choosing a pseudonym is a creative process, and many writers find selecting a pen name more difficult that naming a character. The e-book Pen Name: How to Create Yours by Jennifer Blanchard lists 31 ideas for generating your perfect pen name and is worth a look.

Once you decide on a short list of possibilities, do the following:

  • Research. A pen name should be unique. Research the internet and bookselling sites. Avoid any name already used by a writer, since that is likely to confuse readers. Do not use the name of anyone famous. If you write a book under the pen name Taylor Swift or Derek Jeter, you may be accused of trying to pass yourself off as the celebrity. I also suggest a trademark search through the U.S. Trademark Office. If you use the name of registered trademarks, you risk getting a cease-and-desist letter. Search for available domain names, because you want to buy a domain for your pen name.Try to avoid using the name of a real person. If you happen to use the name of a real person, you are not committing identity theft. Identity theft involves intentionally acts to impersonate someone for financial gain. But if your writing affects the real person’s life, consider changing your pen name.
  • Claim the name. Buy the domain name. Also file a Fictitious Business Name Statement if you will be getting payments made out to your pen name. I explain the process in my blog.
  • Use the name. Place the pen name on your cover and your copyright notice, © 2014 [your pen name] . Some authors put the copyright notice in both their pen name and real name, but it is not necessary.
  • Be open with your publisher. Usually, you will not be able to hide your real name from your publisher since contracts are signed in your real name. The exception is when you form a corporation, LLC, or other entity (as I describe below), but even then, most publishers want to know their authors.
  • Register your copyright. You may register the copyright of your work under your pseudonym, your real name, or both. Here is the screen shot of the registration application page for identifying the Author.
    (Click to enlarge image.)

    Pen name registration 1 x500

    If you write under a pseudonym but want to be identified by your legal name in the Copyright Office’s records, give your legal name under Individual Author and click on Pseudonymous and provide your pen name/pseudonym as well.

    If you do not want to have your real identity revealed in the Copyright Office’s records, then click on Pseudonymous only and insert your pen name. Leave Individual Author blank. If you fill in your name, it will become part of the Office’s online public records, which are accessible on the internet. The information cannot later be removed from the public records.

    Same choice on the next page of the application. You may identify the Claimant in your pen name or real name.

    (Click to enlarge image.)
    Pen name registration 2 x500

    I recommend that authors register their pseudonymous works under both their real names and pen names. This creates a permanent record of ownership, and few readers are going to research copyright records and find out.

    There are downsides to registering the copyright under a pseudonym only. First, it may prove difficult to prove ownership of the work at a later date. Second, the life of the copyright will shorter: 95 years from the year of first publication or 120 years from its creation, instead of 70 years after your death.

What Not to Do When Using a Pen Name

  • Don’t go overboard in creating a fake identity. Never claim credentials you don’t have. Be cautious about creating a fictitious bio. If you are exposed, your readers may feel betrayed and dump you.
  • Don’t use a pen name to avoid a pre-existing contract. If you have granted a traditional publisher first-refusal rights or have signed a confidentiality agreement as part of a legal settlement or employment agreement, a pen name won’t change anything. You are still breaching your obligations.
  • Don’t expect a pen name to protecting you from defamation claims. Most likely, you will be found out either through legal process or technology.


Decide How Secretive You Want to Be

Most authors find openness easier to maintain than secrecy. At book signings, they use their pen names, but at conferences they use their real names with a reference to their pen names. The web pages for their pen names are often linked. For example, Dean Kootz lists his various pen names on his website.

Some authors are more discreet. They try to maintain their privacy, but not to the point of lying. They don’t put photos on their books and blogs, do not link their websites, and limit public appearances.

Other authors put up roadblocks. They set up corporations and trusts to hold the copyrights and contracts. This is the most expensive alternative and may require an attorney. Even then, someone will know who is behind the corporation, and word may leak out. Remember what happened to J .K. Rowling? She tried to keep quiet about her pen name Robert Galbraith, but it was leaked by, of all people, her lawyers.

After all, there is something quite human about sharing secrets. Isn’t that what writers love to do? I believe it was Truman Capote who said, all literature is gossip.

By the way, did you know that Truman Capote is a pen name? Does anyone know his real name? Let me know in the comments.
Photo: Amazon links contain my affiliate code.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. CR Lemons

    I had a name change, my author name is what my name used to be and I’m keeping it that way. So would this now be considered a pen name? What would I need to update in this type of situation? Since it is a previous name do I need to? I also have a dba (in my old name/author name) as my publishing company. I’m a bit confused on how to proceed.

  2. Andi Johnson

    Question my given name is very common. I go by Andi normally and my Mom’s maiden name is MacDowall. If i chose Andi K. MacDowall would that be too close to the actress to cause problems? shes not an author in my genre so I don’t think that would be a problem? she’s also a good 20 years older than me so I wouldn’t be pretending to be here.

    • Andi Johnson

      oh. and also to add there is a well-established author with both my given name and another with my nickname. and MacDowall is spelled differently too. I’d like to stick to a name that means alot to me. Being a member of the macDowall clan i’m very proud of my roots.

  3. Frederik Kreijmborg

    Hello Helen,

    Thanks for this article. Very concise and full of good stuff.

    It never occurred to me how many people are actually concerned for their privacy when writing/publishing their work. I created a popular pen name generator a long time ago and always thought it was mainly used to diversify genres and the author name that go with it. But obviously there is more to it than that.

    In future iterations of my software I’ll try to accomodate this particular need, so thanks for the inspiration.

    It’s Truman Streckfus Persons, btw. I would’ve changed my name as well, I guess.

  4. James

    I understand using a pen name as a marketing technique in hopes that it will lessen confusion over works that fall into different genres. That makes sense and I could definitely entertain that idea. But I have a different reaction when it comes to people wanting to use a pen name out of feelings of fear. I see the works of art we create as being an indirect interpersonal relationship. In other words, as authors, we have a story to tell that we believe holds some sort of value. Within our creativity, there are insights about the human condition that we should feel are important and meaningful, even if it isn’t acknowledged directly. I can understand the fear of publishing works that may surprise or shock your friends, family, or professional acquaintances, but it seems like a negative assumption to think of that as only being a bad thing. I understand this fear. I have been writing fiction for the last six years, and I will soon begin self-publishing. I write horror and other general fiction that contain very dark, disturbing, and sometimes sexual elements. It is tempting to hide behind a pen name, but I question that motivation. The question being: Why should I give into the fear of what others think of me? Assuming a person values openness and transparency as a valuable aspect of humanity, why separate yourself from something that you conjured from somewhere within you, especially if you enjoyed what you created and feel excitement over sharing it with others. I would suggest letting people in, even if it’s scary, rather than maneuvering to shut them out. I’m not saying this tool should never be used, but questioning our motivations whenever we experience subjective fear is rarely a bad thing. If this fear paralyzes you to such a degree that you can’t get yourself to hit that publish button, then I would suggest doing whatever is necessary at that time to take the step of getting your work out there. But working toward freeing yourself of any shame you feel about your art seems like a very healthy pursuit. After all, those you are close to should be able to respect and honor your creative interests. If they don’t, well, that’s another topic entirely. My point is this: To hell with fear. Force yourself to own what feels valuable to you as a person. Art is subjective. It is guaranteed that some people won’t like or appreciate what you create. Accept that. But if you like and appreciate it, and if you have the sense that it contains something meaningful to you, and if you hope it might be meaningful to another person who is not unlike you, why does it matter that some people might judge you negatively? That says something about more than just the book you wrote. It says something about who you are as a participant in life. If you don’t feel there is anything of personal value in your work, then your fear of others opinions has already limited you. You are already separated and hiding from your readers. You don’t need a pen name to make that happen. And readers can sense a voice that is hobbled by fear.

    • Lucy

      I think you may be missing the point… at least for some authors, privacy is about not wanting people showing up on your doorstep, calling your relatives, or finding private information about you. I guess that’s not a huge problem with fiction writers, unless you get very famous. For me, a non-fiction writer in the self-help industry, I need to shield myself from curious people that “just want to talk”, people who want to tell me their wholes lives in the hopes that I can tell them what to do, people with serious mental issues that become obsessed with me, people that want to offer me “business opportunities”, and so on. I have a very unique name. If people Google my real name all they get is me. I keep removing my info from these people search type websites, but new sites pop up again all the time. I feel naked using my real name.

    • anonymous

      what you’re trying to say is correct from your perspective but you’re failing to see the perspective of the people who choose a pen name under fear. The fear is not usually about what friends will say or relatives will think, but due to nonacceptance of your thought process and ideas by your own family. What you’re not realising is that some people start writing not because they love expressing themselves on paper or because they are good at it but because they have words trapped inside them, things that are needed to be said that no one will listen to (of course in reference to the people they know). Such people are looking for freedom and until then they opt to write, there situation is not normal. They can not be themselves around people that are supposed to be supportive just because of difference in there opinions and morals and ethics, just because they are not accepted among their kin just the way they are. If they bare themselves in front of them, they may not even be taken seriously. Such people may someday wish to publish their work, what should they do then? Their family might start to question them after reading it, even blame them for various reasons (for example, “where do you get such thoughts from?” or “is this what we taught you?”) and the entire purpose of writing for themselves will be thrown out of the window. Writing under a pseudo-name lets them flourish and discover themselves in numerous ways without creating any tension in their family. I hope I was able to put forth my point in subtle yet structured manner (for that matter even I’m not going to give my name here ;> )

  5. Jodi Shaw

    Hi Helen, thank you so much for this article. I’ve been looking for some answers on this. I’m getting ready to publish several romance books which I’ve written over the past ten years. Now I first thought to use a pen name Jaycee Perry, it’s snappy, memorable and because my real name Jodi Shaw is linked to me being a lifestyle family blogger over the past 15 years. Jodi Shaw is also a muscial artist. I’m not trying to avoid anyone knowing it’s me, just thought it’s easy to use the pen name for my writing life. So here are my questions.

    Should my website be under my pen name? I would assume so because my books are going to be front and center.

    Should my social media be under my pen name? I’m in the process of shutting down my blog after all this time to focus more on writing my romance novels, but thought it best to start new social media accounts for my pen name.

    My worry is that my lifestyle blog readers will see me and be like she’s Jaycee Perry romance author, why is she hiding her name? Or do readers not care? Should my social media state (Jodi Shaw) writing under … penname?

    And finally what do you think of initials? Are they a legal form of your name to use. So my full name Jodi Patrice Shaw. Could I use J.P. Shaw legally as a writing name instead?

    What do you suggest? Your help is appreciated.

    • Lucy

      I think unless you get very famous with your romances, people are never going to find out. Different niches mean different consumer groups. I doubt that people from your lifestyle niche will ever stumble upon the romances, even if you use your real name. If it happened, people would just assume it’s a different person with the same name.

  6. Richard M. Gutkowski

    My birth name is Richard Matthew Gutkowski.

    Awkward surname to some. Can I use any part of it for a pen name without worry? Matthew Rich is the one of interest.

    I already self-published two print on demand books in a series under my full name. A third was just self-published another as a print on demand book and e-book under the author name Matthew Rich.

  7. Gem

    How do I have a book signing event; invite people who know me and at the same time use a pen name? How do I promote my book without revealing who I am? The groundbreaking should be on familiar territory, Right? How do you play hide and seek and have success? I want this book to help people who may have experienced similar things…But I don’t need lawsuit drama. What do I do?

    • Lucy

      I don’t think you need to fear any “lawsuit drama”! Using a pen name is perfectly legal. Many authors do it. Why do you think there would be any legal problem? I do understand the issue of doing a signing and inviting people who know your real name and such, but this is not uncommon. Your family, friends, and acquaintances would probably not think much of you using a pen name. If you used multiple pen names, then they could think it’s weird, but just one name, it’s not uncommon, not illegal, not immoral, or anything…

  8. Les Brown

    It’s Truman Streckfus Persons.

  9. Tabitha

    I have a name picked out and am looking in to getting my book published. I would like to copy rite my Pen Name. Is there a direct link to the page needed for the application or is it under a specific Form name?

  10. Lucille Messina

    Helen, To protect me from personal liability in the unlikely event of being sued (memoir) I have formed a LLC for my publishing company. And to protect myself as the author I plan to copyright it under the LLC and use my personal name as the a pseudonym name. Is that a correct way to proceed?

  11. Helen Sedwick

    Lucy, I understand your anguish about writing about family matters. For now, separate the writing process from the publishing process. The legal risks don’t arise from writing the book, only publishing it. And if you worry about those now, you will never get the book written. I discuss all this in more detail in this post.

  12. Helen Sedwick

    Maggie, The easiest approach is to use a variation of your real name, such as a nick name. middle name, married or maiden name. If that won’t work, I suggest you take a look at the names of authors already selling in your genre. You’ll want something short, easy to read, and cute may work just fine. It’s a marketing decision really. Have fun with it.

  13. Maggie

    Thank you, this was helpful!
    I work in academia and am already published under my real name for very esoteric journals and papers. I want to keep my real name with my more formal career (even if academia pays terribly). But I’d like to write a children’s book targeting the 3rd or 4th grade reading level. This would be seen as “silly” writing within my professional field, and having a nom de plum seems like a great solution. My question is – how on earth do I create one? The ones I come up with are a little over the top and fantastical, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing (jump off the page, yay!) or a bad thing (comically fake, boo!)? How do I come up with a nom de plum that is a good fit and doesn’t sound ridiculous?

  14. Lucy

    So.. The book I want to write and the story I want to share is my life. However, there is some very sensitive information.. stuff that would tear apart my family thread by thread and hurt a lot of people in the process. I know my story could really make a big impact and I want to share it.. just not with me or my family being attached to it. I wouldn’t sign books or make any appearances. Is that possible? Or am I dreaming?

    • Nanami Suzuki

      That my friend is up to you.

    • Carol

      Hi Lucy,

      Just my 2 cents… The problem I see with publishing “memories” is that the public is not interested in reading a random book about a random person’s life. There must be a marketable reason for people to buy AND read a book. With memories, you’re either advertising the autobiography of a famous person or the interesting life of someone who is not famous, but had something happen to them that people want to read about (like people who were abducted and lived in captivity for a long time, for example). In any case, the person who is subject of the book (if not famous) must actively participate in marketing it, otherwise, people will not feel compelled to read it. Biographies are different than fiction where people will buy a book because they are interested in reading a “story about something” – still, it’s VERY hard to sell fiction! Non-fiction is easier because people buy non-fiction because it teaches them how to solve a problem (how to manage your time, for example) or explores a theme that they are interested in (a book about politics, for example). It all comes down to the reason why. People must have a reason to buy a book. So you need to ask yourself. Why would someone buy my book without knowing who I am or why my story is interesting?

      One way to solve your problem is to disguise your story as pure fiction and publish with a pen name. By packaging it as autobiography, it turns readers away because they want to know the reason they should read YOUR story and they won’t find one because they don’t know who you are.

      • Cynthia Jacobs

        Hi Carol

        I want to write about a terrible event that happened to my family and tore us apart. My aunt ended up in a home because of nervous breakdown, my daughter ended up with PTSD as did I. I was planning on writing it as fiction based on a true story. Names and places changed. Would this be the appropriate way to go about it.

        • Lucy

          This was a few months ago, but I hope you find my comment. I do agree with Carol that “packaging” it as an autobiography will turn readers away, even if the story is very interesting. The best is to write it as fiction based on a true story. I’m guessing (not a lawyer) that you can even shield yourself better against lawsuits this way.

          The focus of the autobiography is “why you should read about this person”, while fiction is about “why you read this story”. If the person is not famous, then the fiction route is safer to market the book.

  15. Helen Lockley

    Hi! I’m thinking about using a pen name for my book, mostly because I don’t want my actual name out there. I don’t want to be in a library and see my name (which is not Helen Lockley, I made that up when I was in sixth grade and use it for all things that I post online), just because I want my privacy. My question is, if I want to come out and claim my book at some point (which I probably will) how would I prove that it was actually me? Easily, I mean, without having to take out some legal forms and show them. I don’t want to be that private, and I want to go to book signing things, I just want that to be separate form my real life. What are some tips for people who might not believe me?

    • Helen Sedwick

      Helen Lockley, The best way is to register your copyright with the US Copyright office in both your real name and your pen name.



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