Information on the practice of using a pseudonym.
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The last several newsletters have dealt with general writing advice, mostly pertaining to technique and the craft itself. What I'd like to do this week is to focus on a business-related writing topic... the use of a pseudonym. Whether you call it a pseudonym, pen name, nom de plume, alias, alter ego, stage name, or whatever, a pseudonym is defined as "a fictitious name used by an author to conceal his or her identity." For the sake of simplicity, we're just going to focus on pseudonymous names, not handles or nicknames.
First, let's look at some of the key reasons why someone might want to use a pseudonym:
To protect the author. Sometimes, a particular piece of writing is of an incendiary, outrageous, or confrontational nature and the author may use a pseudonym to conceal their true identity in order to avoid persecution or criticism for the writing. This is a common practice among exposes, true stories, scathing editorials, and "edgy" genres like erotica or horror, where the writer has a story to tell, but doesn't particularly want anybody and everybody to know they were the ones who wrote it, as Anne Rice did when she published her now infamous "Beauty" erotica series under the pseudonym "A.N. Roquelaure".
To avoid bias. Occasionally, an author's name alone might incite some kind of positive or negative bias about the work. In the 19th century, writing was a predominantly male profession, and women would occasionally write under a male pseudonym to avoid the biases that came with a woman trying to make a living in a "man's" profession, as Mary Ann Evans did when she was published as George Eliot. Romain Gary, on the other hand, was a well-known and acclaimed French author when he decided to start publishing books under his pseudonym Emile Ajar, to see whether his later work could stand on its own without the aid of his reputation (which it did). Some authors on WDC even have ASAs (Authorized Secondary Accounts) for a variety of reasons, including the ability to write in a genre (like erotica) they don't wish to be attributed to their main account... or to conceal their identities, as some moderators and senior moderators do, so their status on WDC doesn't influence their readers.
To disguise output. There are particularly prolific authors who publish work under a pseudonym to disguise just how much they actually write in a given period of time. Both Stephen King (as Richard Bachman) and Nora Roberts (as J.D. Robb) have published works under a pseudonym, at the request of their publishers who couldn't keep up with their output but still wanted to publish their work each year. I'm not going to pretend to know why that is... so if anyone has had the experience of being asked to write less, or write under a pseudonym to disguise how prolific you are, please let me know!
To avoid confusing readers. Sometimes, an author writes in more than one genre... and sometimes, that can be confusing for readers trying to locate their work. WDC conveniently allows us to modify our own ports, so we can create the necessary sections to feature different types of work... but in a bookstore, it's out of our hands. Nora Roberts is a very well known romance writer, and she adopted the pseudonym "J.D. Robb" for the suspense novels she started writing somewhat later in her career. There were surely other reasons for the decision, but think about how easy it is now to find her books in a bookstore. If you want her suspense writing, you can find J.D. Robb in the appropriate place in the Mystery section... and her traditional romance writing under Nora Roberts in the Romance section. Imagine if she published every book as "Nora Roberts". You'd have to know the exact genre of each book, otherwise you'd have to do some hunting to figure out whether Black Hills was in the Mystery section, or the Romance section.
To consolidate credit. At times, a decision may be made to publish work under a pseudonym to consolidate the credit of multiple authors. Perri O'Shaughnessy, for example, is actually the pen name for sisters Pamela and Mary O'Shaughnessy. Frederic Dannay and Manford Lepofsky credited both their pseudonym and their famous main character as Ellery Queen. In addition to personal or preferential reasons, consolidating credit can sometimes be done so that a collective pseudonym is used by a variety of authors in order to avoid confusion... as was the case when Leslie McFarlane, Harriet Adams, and later authors published The Hardy Boys series of books under the collective pseudonym of Franklin W. Dixon. (Carolyn Keene of Nancy Drew fame was also a collective pseudonym.)
Now that we know the reasoning behind the decision, let's say you've chosen to publish your work under a pseudonym. For whatever reason, you do not wish to have your real name on the byline of that book, short story, article, or whatever. How do you do that? Well, I'm glad you asked, because there are actually three ways to establish a pseudonym:
NOTE: Before I go into the three methods, I want to clarify that there are really two issues here... the author's name (or pseudonym) as it appears on the necessary bylines... and the copyright claimant's name as the legal owner of the intellectual property (copyright). Don't worry, all will be explained, but I wanted to differentiate between the two components of authorship; your name as an author, and your name as the legal owner of intellectual property. Remember that nearly every publication lists a name in at least two places... the byline (on the cover, at the beginning of an article, etc.), and in the copyright notice.
The "surface level" pseudonym. This is the most basic pseudonymous form, and really doesn't require any special legal or copyright work. When you sign a contract for intellectual work (my expertise is in the screenwriting field, although I'm confident the same is true for publishing), there should be a clause that addresses the issue of credit. If my legal name - which is probably what's used for the contract itself - is Jonathan Doe, but everybody calls me John... there should be a credit provision in the contract that merely states you will be credited as whatever you decide (John Doe) everywhere except the official copyright notice. Thus, I would be John Doe on the book cover, on the title page, on the listing at Amazon.com... but at the front of the book in small print on the first page, it would say (c) 2010 by Jonathan Doe... and it would list Jonathan Doe as the author and copyright claimant at the Copyright Office. Since this issue has nothing to do with copyright, you could also credit yourself as a completely different name. Your contract could specify your name appear as Dr. Awesome if you want it to... and all relevant appearances of your name will appear as such, except on the copyright notice.
The "general purpose" pseudonym. If your reasoning for using a pseudonym is in some way related to protecting your identity, having yourself listed as the author with the Copyright Office may not be the most secure way of insulating yourself. Here's where the Copyright Office comes in. On the registration form when you're registering the work (the all purpose Form CO), Part 2 is for Author Information, where you enter the name of the person to be credited as the author of the work. (You can find a copy of the form here, for reference: http://www.copyright.gov/forms/formco2d.pdf.) You'll notice that item 2g allows you to check a box for "pseudonymous". That way, the Copyright Office knows that the "author" credited with the work is really just a pseudonym. You would then enter your real legal name into Part 3, where you enter the Claimant Information. This establishes the "author" of the work as your pseudonym... but still means the Copyright Office has a record of your real identity as the legal owner of the work, should you ever need to establish that connection. In this particular case, your real name is used only in copyright notices and filings, and even then is listed as the copyright owner, not the author. For example, David John Moore Cornwell registered The Mission Song under his more well-known pseudonym (John le Carre)... so the copyright registration lists "David Cornwell" as the copyright claimant, and "John le Carre" as the author on the application. While the copyright notice would still be attributed to your legal name, the "author" on file with the copyright office would be your pseudonym.
The "iron clad" pseudonym. This is the option you want to choose if you really don't want anybody to know you're even associated with the work. On the registration form, you fill out the "Copyright Claimant" information as your pseudonym. There is no legal requirement to use your real name on a copyright registration form, and registering the copyright claimant as your pseudonym means your pseudonym would be identified on all copyright notices and credited instances where the author's name appears. You are, in effect, establishing that your pseudonym is the legal owner of the work. You have the option of leaving the "Author Information" blank (in which case there's no evidence whatsoever that it's a pseudonym)... or you can fill out the "Author Information" section (also as your pseudonym) and select the "pseudonymous" option in 2g, which would list your pseudonym as the copyright claimant, but also denote that it's a pseudonym... with no indication of your real name anywhere. For example, Anne Rice registered Beauty's Punishment in this fashion, so "A.N. Roquelaure" appears as the copyright claimant and is noted as being a pseudonym. This means that her pseudonym is also on the copyright notice of the actual book. IMPORTANT NOTE: If you choose this option (using a fictitious name as the copyright claimant), you should be aware that business dealings, lawsuits, and other instances where legal ownership must be established can become problematic if you haven't clearly established elsewhere that the fictitious claimant is, in fact, you. Before going forward with this option, you should consult an attorney to help you understand what needs to be done to preserve your legal ownership of the material if someone fictitious is registered as the copyright claimant (typically additional legal documentation that must be recorded).
When it comes to deciding whether or not to use a pseudonym, your reason for using one will probably determine the way your register your work with the Copyright Office. Hopefully this editorial has taken some of the mystery out of the process and given you some ideas about your registration options when you're at that point with your work.