This was edited and expanded from one of my forum posts.
I learned to use pen names starting in the 1980s, when someone read an interview in a magazine, in which my street name was mentioned.
The reader and her husband went door to door along my street, until they found me. Of course, it was tremendously flattering because they were such enthusiastic fans, but still… that’s the year I started keeping an unlisted phone number, and began using a PO box for all correspondence.
In the years that followed, I gradually moved away from using my real name in my writing. I adopted pen names — one for each niche I wrote about.
By the mid-1990s, when I started my first website, there was never any question in my mind about pen names. 99% of my work, online, is under a pen name… one for each genre/niche. I have never regretted that, and highly recommend setting up privacy firewalls from the very beginning. All it takes is one slightly obsessed fan, and your life can become very uncomfortable. The Internet increased the risks exponentially.
What follows are some unpleasant incidents I usually avoid talking about.
You never know what’s going to dazzle or annoy someone.
In my real (offline) life, overzealous fans have caused most of the awkwardness.
Before I started taking major privacy precautions, one young man kept leaving personal messages — and sometimes recordings he’d made — in the mailbox outside my house.
Later, another fan — who got a job at my hometown post office — stole one of my book manuscripts, after I’d mailed it to my publisher; he was caught and sent to prison.
A third over-eager fan contacted a friend, got himself invited to a hike she and I were taking, and the guy showed up with a stack of my books (even PDFs from very early in my career) and asked me to autograph all of them. It was a little creepy.
Then, as he prepared to leave in his car, he “accidentally” hit his accelerator instead of his brake. Fortunately, I moved quickly. To this day, I have no idea if he intended to run me down. I prefer not to think about it.
I think every popular author, and anyone who seems to stand out in the crowd, has to deal with fans that don’t fully understand the importance of boundaries.
However, I’m more alarmed by the angry people who — mostly via comments and email, but sometimes in postal mail — want to blame me (or something I’ve said) for their unhappy lives.
May 2016 update: These days, I’m very glad I’ve protected my privacy (and my family’s) with pen names. I don’t know if it’s the political scene or what, but anger seems to be boiling over in some areas.
In recent months, I’ve received too many vicious, anonymous emails.
Most are crude one-liners. Many suggest ways I should harm myself. All are unsigned. Their spelling is perfect. So is their grammar… as brief as those emails are, anyway.
Yes, they’re a little unnerving at times. I shrug and say, “It’s the Internet.” This may even be the latest incarnation of spam. I haven’t a clue, but I’m glad I use pen names to protect my privacy and my family’s.
(Of course, I save those ugly emails in case I need the routing information, later. I use PostBox as my email client. That service provides a lot of tracking information, to identify where the emails came from.)
So, I encourage people to plan ahead for privacy issues. Always use a pen name!
Here’s another tip: Alter your author profile photo — at Amazon Author Central and your websites — just enough that people can’t recognize you. (Or, that they can’t be sure it’s you, if they see another picture of you, or run into you in real life.)
Another approach: Use a photo taken at an angle that could be… well, almost anyone. (Don’t look directly at the camera. I learned that tip from author Francesca De Grandis, whose early promotional photo was lovely… but no one could be sure it was her, if they saw her at the grocery store.)
If you’re using Facebook or similar services, make sure your privacy is set so other people can’t tag you in photos.
For more complete protection, use a completely fake photo. (http://MorphThing.com is great for this purpose. I’ve used it for several profile photos, and — cleaned up with any graphics software — they’re pretty convincing.)
Of course, the problem with that option is: If you make public appearances — book signings or public speaking — your readers will feel like you lied to them. So, you may want to morph your own photo with two or three celebrities’, so your profile looks sort of like you do in real life.
(Tips for using your own, real photo with MorphThing: Use a photo where you’re looking directly at the camera. If you wear eyeliner in real life, put it on with a trowel for your MorphThing picture, so your eyes are clearly outlined, and wear lipstick. Sure, MorphThing asks you to indicate a variety of points on your face. It still helps to make it easy for MorphThing to find your eyes and mouth, and merge the photos as accurately as possible. You’ll have less photo editing to do, later.)
Pen Name Tips
You don’t need to register a pen name. You just can’t pretend to be a famous person with the same name. (Even the guy who conned/catfish’d Manti T’e’o wasn’t charged with a criminal offense… not as of this writing, anyway.)
I’m not an attorney, so this isn’t formal legal advice. However, the following information — just my opinions and others‘ — may help you untangle confusing copyright questions.
IMPORTANT: Copyright laws seem to be changing as fast as I write related articles. So, don’t take this as the final word. Check with someone who, y’know, actually knows what she or he is talking about.
In the U.S., you can legally trademark your pen name. Usually, that means registering it with your state’s trademark office for a small fee. (In NH, that’s under $100.)
Or, you can register your pen name with the federal government at a considerably larger expense… but greater protection.
Whether you do that or not, your writing is protected (in the USA, anyway) by copyright laws as soon as you write whatever-it-is, even before your name is on it. Most western nations have similar laws.
Pen Names and Copyright Laws
If you copyright your work under your pen name — meaning that the copyright notice in your book is only in your pen name — it’s protected in the U.S. for 120 years from when it was created, or 95 years from when it was published, whichever is shorter.
If your book’s copyright notice includes your real name, or you formally file copyright protection with the U.S. copyright office (not required), your work is protected for at least 70 years after your death.
(Note: If you’re interested in U.S. copyright laws, they’re a little difficult to untangle. Two good resources, especially if you’re working with public domain material: http://librarycopyright.net/resources/digitalslider/ and and http://copyright.cornell.edu/resources/publicdomain.cfm )
The only major problem with using a pen name that’s not registered as a trademark or with a government copyright office is: Your heirs may have a challenge, proving that they have the rights to your work after you’re gone.
Choosing a Great Pen Name
Marketing tip: If you’re writing for a particular age group, look up baby names that were popular when your readers were born. (For example, click here for a list of baby names popular in 1977.) Use a popular given name related to your audience’s age group, and your readers will feel a closer identification with you.
Or, choose an exotic name that sounds interesting to your readers. That’s especially true if you’re writing sci-fi and fantasy, but it works in other genres and niches, as well. For example, click here for a list of heroic baby names. Some of them would suit specialized niches, quite nicely.
If you’re publishing nonfiction in print, aim for a surname that starts with A, B, or C. That way, when your books are in bookstores and the niche is organized by surname, your books will be among the first that shoppers see.
(Also, if your book is mentioned in someone else’s book’s bibliography, listed alphabetically by author, your book will be near the top of the list. If a reader starts at the top of that list, to see which books might be interesting or worth buying, your book/s will be among those he or she considers, first.)
If you’re writing fiction and your books will be in print, choose a surname very close to your favorite author in that niche. For example, mystery author Joyce Christmas’ books are almost right next to mysteries by Agatha Christie.
Even More Pen Name Tips
If you need a good pen name, here’s one of my favorite resources: http://www.fakenamegenerator.com/ You can pick a gender, a country, and so on. Of course, you may want to go to “baby name” sites to select a given name that matches your reader demographic, but if all you need is a generic pen name, the Fake Name Generator makes the process fast & easy.
As author Ryan Leonard pointed out, the additional information provided by that website might be useful. If you’re writing fiction, it’s a great shortcut to building a character for your book.
For very solid-sounding surnames, I like this website as well: http://www.britishsurnames.co.uk/lists/English+Surnames
Privacy Precautions = Fewer Worries
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to make anyone paranoid, or deter them from publishing wonderful, successful books.
However, you probably keep your front door locked where you live. You probably lock your car when you park it, too. Today, that’s considered common sense, but your grandmother (or maybe even your mom) will tell you that only paranoid people took those kinds of precautions when she was growing up.
In the modern world, a pen name and a general privacy firewall are very good ideas.
If you set all of that up when you begin your branding in a genre or niche, you’ll never have to think about it again.
I’m kind of a crusader about this, but that’s because it’s so important. I also think it’s kind of liberating. By separating those pen names from who I really am, I can craft each profile to more closely match my reader demographics.
And, when people say scathing things about me and my work, I can shrug it off.
After all, it’s not really me.