Traditional Publishing

Pen Names: Don’t worry, you can deposit the check

By G. Miki Hayden
Instructor at Writer's Digest University online and private writing coach – Monday April 1, 2019

One of the topics I see some jawboning about is whether and why to use/not use a pen name (aka a nom de plume). Since the topic seems to fascinate, and many folks before they’ve even written the book seek out a name to write it under, I thought the subject was worth some air time.

I write under my own name—almost. I changed my name just a little bit when I sold my first book, Pacific Empire, and then sold foreign rights to Japan. But I knew before I made either sale, that the book was perfect for the Japanese market. So I found a Japanese style name that dovetailed nearly completely with my own. That’s the name I use for most of my writing—mystery, science fiction, and nonfiction writing about writing. My business writing I do under my original name.

Many authors write in a number of genres under a single name, perhaps their own. Many other authors use several names and have more than one website to promote their writing. For instance, those who write for both adults and young adults may split their websites and their names because they don’t want the kids reading their adult novels. But other writers also write for these same markets and deliberately seek out crossover readers. They want the adults to read their young adult books and the kids to read their books for grownups. As you can see, the practices regarding which name authors write under can be varied.

I have more than 50 pages of comments on pen names here in front of me, which is way too much material for the triviality of the topic. Let me summarize these authors’ thoughts here, however.

Pen names can be used when writing from the point of view of the opposite gender so readers aren’t disturbed by a viewpoint other than the one they expect. 

Similarly, authors may use pen names for different genres so as not to confuse readers who expect historical romance and get a science fiction thriller instead.

Professionals often use pen names so they aren’t embarrassed in the middle of a court case they’re prosecuting or belittled by narrow-minded fellow academics. Certainly some professors and some attorneys write under their own names and aren’t bothered when comments are made. In fact, they’re glad for the publicity once a book comes out and they see an article about them in their subject-oriented newsletters.

Romance writers worried about being stalked by men in jail (who do read romances) will use pen names.

What Name?

Choosing a pen name can be as difficult as choosing a title for your book. Often people use names similar to their own, a maiden name, or an ancestor’s name. Or some people choose a name that they think will wind up at eye level in the book store. Bear in mind, too, that the longer the name, the smaller the type when it appears on the book jacket.

Check out the potential pen name using a search engine such as, well, Yahoo (okay, Google, if you must) to see who out there has the same name and if you want to be associated with that person. One reason why many authors change their names, actually, is that other writers are already publishing under their own legal names. This happens more than you might expect it to.

Certainly in deciding whether to use a pseudonym or not, you might consult with your editor and your agent to see what they think. Don’t immediately become too attached to the pen name you’ve chosen because your editor might tell you that it’s not a marketable moniker. In the past, editors would pick the pen name and then write into contracts that authors couldn’t take names with them to another publishing house. That’s the type of clause for which we read contracts.

If you’re famous for something under your legal/birth name, you might not want to change your name for writing at all. Remember, too, your pen name will be the name you use in promotion. You’ll want to strut the glory that you earned under your original name. People will often find out your real name, anyway, because the book will most likely be copyrighted in that name, and that name will often be on the copyright page (though the choice of name on the copyright is yours).

Do be sure to make your legal name known on the copyright form for a longer copyright that protects your estate.  Big name authors, of course, copyright their books in the name of their corporations.

And come to report, one author was reunited with her brother after many years because he saw her name on a book. So if you have long-lost relatives...

All your submissions should be in your legal name alongside the notation “writing as” with your pen name added. However, this needn’t apply if your pen name is simply a variant of your legal name, such as “George Alex Barnes” versus “G. A. Barnes.”

Can you retrieve your money when you receive a check made out to your pen name? Well, you can ask for checks to your “real” name or you can endorse with both your pen name and the name in which you maintain your account. However, that’s for the infrequent checks made out by someone buying a copy of the book from you, such as at an event. Checks from your publisher will go to your agent, who will make out her check to you using your legal name. In the case of split checks, the checks will still be issued to your legal name, as that will be the name used in your contract.

Come take a class with me at the Writer’s Digest online university. Next up is 12 Weeks to a First Draft, starting on 4/4. And buy a copy of my award-nominated Writing the Mystery: A Start to Finish Guide for Both Novice and Professional.

About the Author

G. Miki Hayden is a short story Edgar winner. She teaches a mystery writing and a thriller writing and other writing classes at Writer's Digest online university. The third edition of her Writing the Mystery is available through Amazon and other good bookshops. She is also the author of The Naked Writer, a comprehensive, easy-to-read style and composition guide for all levels of writers.

"Holder, Oklahoma Senior Police Officer Aaron Clement is out for justice above all, even if he irritates the local hierarchy. Hayden in Dry Bones gives us nothing-barred investigation and plenty of nitty-gritty police procedure—which makes for a real page turner." — Marianna Ramondetta, author of The Barber from Palermo