First, you might be wondering – are pen names even legal?
Rest easy knowing that, yes, using a pen name is completely legal.
It might even be a wise business move. Say, for instance, if you’re a male writing romance novels. Trends show female names often sell better in that market, so it could be to your advantage to take on a female pen name.
But if you do use a pen name, there are a few things you’ll need to decide and a few important steps to take to make sure you’re using a pen name legally.
1. Aim First to “Do No Harm”
Once you’ve chosen a pen name and you’re sure it’s a good one, make sure you won’t be doing anyone else harm who might have that name as their real name.
It’s not identity theft if you use a pen name that is shared by real people, as long as you’re not impersonating them for financial gain. But you don’t want your writing to affect the real person’s life.
So, at the very least, highlight differences. For example, if there’s a Violet Willow (our example pen name) living in small-town Normal, Illinois, make sure your contact address and books are set in other states. Draw concrete distinctions.
But you may discover that your desired pen name already belongs to a public figure or other person whose reputation is important. In this case, it’s best to find another pen name to use.
If you write books under the same name as them, your identities could easily get mixed up and you could inadvertently damage their reputation, particularly if you write about a controversial topic.
You can avoid this situation altogether by going back to the drawing board and choosing a different pen name.
2. Don’t Use a Trademarked Name
Consider a visit to the U.S. Trademark Office, or the trademark office in your local country, to double check you’re not using a trademarked title as your pen name.
You can land yourself in some legal hot water if you use a trademarked name or title, so make sure your desired name is not already taken.
It’s unlikely, but definitely worth checking before you base your entire author marketing platform on that name.
On the other hand, if you find out your ideal pen name isn’t taken, you may want to trademark it for yourself. This can give you greater confidence as you build your author’s platform knowing that no one else can use your pen name.
3. Decide Who Will Know the Inside Scoop
Right off, you need to decide who will know the truth behind your true identity.
Are you going to put it out there, loud and proud? Many authors happily do this on their websites and at conferences.
But in many of those cases, their pen names signify writing a separate genre from the one associated with their given names, or whatever career is tied to their given names.
Even if you’d like to keep your true identity secret from the general population, it’s a good idea to at least let your agent and editor know, or anyone else on your business team.
This prevents confusion and makes life easier on everyone involved, especially if contracts and checks will be issued in your legal name.
4. Don’t Expect to Maintain Total Secrecy When Using a Pen Name
Even if you opt to keep your pen name secret from your true identity, your real name will appear within the copyright information on the first few pages of your book.
There are ways around this, such as incorporating your pen name so that name appears instead. Or, you can set up a chain of corporations and do business that way.
But be aware that if you want total secrecy around your real name, you will likely have to take some extra steps to distance yourself from your pen name.
5. Check If You Need to File a DBA
Depending on where you live, you may need to file a “Doing Business As” (DBA) form if you plan to receive payment under any title besides your given name.
This is also known as a Fictitious Business Name (FBN) statement.
You’ll need to check with your municipality, county, and state as to whether you need to make filings related to your pen name. There may be an associated cost, but it should be less than $100. For more details, check out these tips on setting up a pen name.
Also, according to Helen Sedwick, author of Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook, it’s worth setting up a DBA or FBN statement if you also want to set up bank accounts and credit cards in your pen name.
Overall, this can simplify keeping track of related expenses and income.
6. Using a Pen Name Doesn’t Allow You to Lie About Yourself
You can publish your work under a pen name, but you can’t create a “persona” around that pen name who doesn’t really exist.
It’s illegal to claim that you have qualifications, experience, or education that you don’t have in real life. Clearly, this would be considered misleading and fraudulent.
Although, if you want to write about a topic where you have no qualifications, this can still be done ethically and legally. Find an expert in the field you want to write about, and ask them if they would be interested in co-authoring a book with you.
They can act as a consultant for the book, or actively participate in the writing itself. Either way, including their name as a co-author will provide real authority for your book, without getting into any issues with using a false pen name.
7. Know that a Pen Name Is Not a Form of Legal Protection
Not that you would, but don’t think a pen name can cloak you from fraudulent activity.
If you’re guilty of defamation, plagiarism, making false claims, or other illegal activity, your pen name won’t protect you.
Similarly, you can’t use a pen name to get out of a pre-existing contract. If you signed a confidentiality agreement with a publisher, or you’re committed to writing only for one entity for a certain period of time, your pen name won’t change that.
8. Ditch the Guilt Regardless
As long as you put thought into it and decide to use a pen name for honest reasons, don’t feel bad if you also want to keep that pen name under wraps.
We live in a world where impressions are everything, and the persona you want to share with your readers may not jive with the person you are in everyday life.
For example, I know a lovely lady who arranges church bake sales and writes erotica on the side. She’d rather not have those lives cross.
Or, imagine a doctor who dabbles in thriller fiction with lots of physical torture… not something she’d want her patients to know about!
So, don’t feel guilty or dishonest if you use a pen name and keep it secret. Just be sure to keep it honest. And, of course, legal.
To your successful writing,