Pseudonym, pen name, nom de plume, literary double—whatever you you call it, there are many reasons for using an alternate name when you publish your writing. A few big reasons are to reserve your real name for other works, maintain some level of privacy, general marketability, and to have a fresh start (for established writers as well as fledgling writers).
Reserving your Real Name
Stan Lee is probably the biggest name in comic books. He co-created Spider-man, the X-Men, and many more beloved comic book characters. The relatively recent success of Marvel movies made him more of a household name and exposed his sunglasses-wearing face to countless moviegoers through numerous cameo appearances. Anyway, I bring up Mr. Lee because “Stan Lee” started out as a pen name. Born Stanley Martin Lieber, the comic book legend created the pseudonym of Stan Lee because he wanted to use his real name for more serious, literary work (as opposed to comics). After immense success as a comic book writer, Lee eventually legally changed his name to match his pen name.
Some folks simply want to be able to go about their lives without being tightly tied to their pen name and its related works. Most authors don’t have a problem with people recognizing their face in public, though sometimes their ID or credit card might give away their identity when they’re out and about (e.g., bouncer in front of a club checking your age, or paying with plastic). A pseudonym would solve this problem. However, when you’re super-famous (i.e., your work spawns hugely successful film adaptations) like J.K. Rowling or George R.R. Martin, people might recognize you on sight; paparazzi even start following you around. Your pen name won’t help much at that point.
Of course, many of us would gladly trade away some privacy for such success.
Let’s face it. Not all writers have names that are easy to market. There’s a very real possibility of bias based on gender, ethnicity, or just funny-sounding names. J.K. Rowling took
her pen name for Harry Potter because she felt her intended market of younger males wouldn’t give her book chance if they knew she was a woman. Whether she was right or wrong is up to debate.
Writers who are already somewhat established can use pen names for a fresh start. As Francine Prose points out, “[w]ell-known writers have [used new pen names] with mixed results. The very popular [authors] tend to do very well, especially when their fans learn the truth. Those with waning reputations, not so much.” As many book nerds probably know by now, Robert Galbraith is another pseudonym for J.K. Rowling. Rowling took the new name to so critics and readers could enjoy The Cuckoo’s Calling, a crime novel intended for an adult readership, without a Harry Potter-related bias. As Prose notes, however, the work under Galbraith received “some good reviews but sold only modestly until [Rowling’s] identity was disclosed.”
A fresh start can also be useful for relatively unknown writers. There’s somewhat of a danger in our industry where authors may rush into self-publishing manuscripts before the work is thoroughly polished. Though this may be partially remedied by use of a new pen name (or publication of a revised version), it may be best to be careful with the quality of our work before any publication. See various thoughts on self-publishing by Chuck Wendig on his blog, and David Vinjamuri on Forbes (“I noticed that books were getting cheaper, but the writing was getting worse”; overall, thinking indie-publishing is a good thing).
Under U.S. Copyright law, a work is considered to be under a pseudonym if records use a “fictitious name.” A nickname or “diminutive form” of a legal name don’t count as a pseudonym. For example, if your legal name is William Wallace, but you go by Bill Wallace, you are not using a pseudonynm because Bill is a diminutive form (a short form) of William. However, if your name is William Wallace but you went by the pen name Tybalt Wallace, that would be considered a fictitious name and a pseudonym.
While using a pseudonym on your work, you can still opt to use your legal (real) name or your pseudonym on USCO records. However, if your fake name is the only name on copyright records, “business dealings involving the copyrighted property may raise questions about its ownership,” meaning you’ll probably have to take extra steps to show proof that the copyrighted work is actually your own.
See the USCO’s blurb on pseudonyms here. As usual, consulting a lawyer is a good idea.