Pen Names, Privacy, and Polarization

We need to talk about pen names and privacy. That’s especially true if you’re writing nonfiction in some niches.

And, with some potential “fast books” opportunities based on recent headlines — from rectangular moon theories to “NASA is Hiring People to Protect Earth from Little Green Men” to 19th century books about Baron Trump — this is a very good time to talk about fanatics (the origin of the word “fan”) and your privacy.

It’s not just a nonfiction issue. Fiction authors can be taken too seriously, too. As a fan of Disney World’s Pandora, I’m reminded of people who became suicidal after seeing Avatar.

Anyone who achieves even moderate success is likely to attract some unwanted attention. If you write about “fringe” topics, you should probably plan for critics and trolls.

From my experience, fame is likely to reach you faster than an income that will finance privacy buffers such as staff or an entourage.

Plan ahead. I’ve spoken about this before, particularly the topic of pen names.

These are some basic precautions:

  • DisguiseUse a pen name. If you can’t think of one, click through some pen name generators until you see a name you like.
  • Build a firewall around everything related to that pen name. No exceptions.
  • Be sure your family (kids, parents, doting grandparents, ambivalent cousins, etc.) don’t share your pen name with anyone. If necessary, just don’t tell them your pen names. (Family & friends are your weakest privacy link. Remember that.)
  • For snailmail, use a post office box or another mailing address that is not your street address. (Best practices include an address that’s not in your hometown, either.)
  • Avoid posting your actual photos on your author profile at your Amazon Author Page, Facebook, Twitter, G+, etc.

Insulate yourself from the time you launch your first pen name, and you’ll also insulate your family and close friends from problems.

What the Trolls Say

From my experience, if you use a male pen name, you’re accused of being a predator, a deviant, ugly, or you’re involved in a cult, psyops, or mind control. You’re also making up for certain anatomical deficiencies.

If you use a female pen name, you’re a witch, you’re fat, you’re ugly, you’re a lesbian, and you’ll never find a husband. (I’m not saying that those are bad things. They’re just examples of what are thrown at me as accusations.)

And if you use a pen name that’s not gender-specific (Blake, Chris, Dana, etc.), you’ll double the range of verbal attacks.

Another way to increase how many people are furious with you is to write a book related to celebrity conspiracy theories. Apparently, some people take those theories very personally, pro and con. (If you’re going to write about those topics at all, niche research is important. Choose celebrities whose fans actually buy and read books.)

Far too many people with time on their hands (and a phone or keyboard within reach) are venting their frustrations in unhealthy ways, or otherwise obsessing.

(I’m reminded of that Canadian mayor’s bathroom wall photos. Like that’s not creepy, right…? But, hey, you might get a book or two out of weird obsessions of famous-ish people. That is the kind of book that’s sold well for me, in the past.)

Worse, being a troll can be profitable. People build five- and six-figure incomes using YouTube and other ad-supported platforms to rant about the actors, musicians, and — yes — authors they choose to demonize.

Those attacks can be vicious and deeply personal.

It’s why celebrity like Leslie Jones and Ed Sheeran close their Twitter accounts. Others — like Adele — respond directly to the accusers.

Have I scared you enough, yet? My intent is not to terrify you out of writing books, even polarizing, controversial ones. (Controversy does sell.)

Instead, set up privacy protection from the start. Think of it as a precaution, like using the lock on your front door or a password that isn’t “123456.”

Privacy and Your Author Profile

Use a pen name. You could start with a generic surname, and add initials for the first and possibly middle names. That makes it easier to find a matching domain name. To keep an even lower profile, consider a gender-neutral name.

(In addition to my articles & advice about pen names, see Dave Chesson’s article & resources at How to Choose a Pen Name.)

If you create an author website, consider hosting it separately from your other (real name) accounts, and anything that could be traced back to your real name.

When you’re starting (and on a limited budget), is a good option. So is Blogger, etc. Just make sure you’re using a unique account/email when you set up that pen name’s website.

Inexpensive hosting services like Namecheap and HostGator offer small-scale hosting accounts, sometimes for less than $1/month (look for sales & coupons).

If you’re building an author platform and plan to make public appearances, use an old photo, or one that’s not a full-face picture. Or, hire an artist to create a very stylized sketch or portrait of you.

If you hire artists at Fiverr or similar site, be sure they don’t post your real photo and their artwork, side-by-side, as an example of their work.

Why take such precautions? If fans or critics can recognize you in the produce department at the grocery store… trust me, they will want to start a lengthy conversation. Usually, it’s when you have frozen food in your grocery cart and need to rush home before the kids arrive home from school.

If you’re not going to make public appearances and need an author photo, I recommend combining photos of at least three celebrities at MorphThing — or hire someone at Fiverr (etc.) to do the same kind of work. Be sure the photo is cleaned-up so it’s not an obvious morph.

Use a separate email for that pen name. Do not use an email forwarding service (to your usual email account) and then reply/send emails from your main, personal email account.

Instead of a formal mailing list, consider using a free service like — with a unique email account, when you register — and consider add-ons like FeedFlare.

(Planning to email your new subscribers a pre-planned set of sequential emails, or instant, sign-up freebies? Feedburner can show you a list of your sign-ups. That step can mean a little more work for you, but Feedburner’s advantages can make this worthwhile.)

Social Media and Trolls

At the moment, I’m too busy to deal with daily social media maintenance. I’m not ready to hire a PA (or VA), either.

(Personally, if I’m going to hire an assistant to monitor my emails and social media comments, I want to interview that person, in real life, face-to-face.  And, I want them to live near enough for regular meetings, not just via my phone or monitor.)

If you’re using a Facebook Fan Page for your pen name, and you want to avoid spam comments and troll comments, here’s a tip: At your fan page, go to Settings > Page Moderation. Then, add the top 10 (or 20) common English words to the list, plus the usual NSFW words.

Spammers and trolls (and their FB friends) will still see the comments they leave, and you’ll see them (in light gray), but no one else will see them, unless you approve those comments.

I recommend deleting spam/troll comments at least once a week. That’s especially true if those comments spawn others and it starts to look like a free-for-all scene.

On many other social platforms, you can select privacy/comment settings that meet your needs.

Blocking rarely works. In fact, it can make things worse. They just change usernames and return. And tell all their angry little friends to comment, as well.

Real-Life Privacy

woman in grocery store aisleAre you making public appearances? If so, the most fervent fans and zealous opponents may (later) recognize you when you’re shopping. Or at the county fair. Or whatever. That’s true even if you wear heavy makeup for appearances, but your daily routines rarely involve makeup.

(Also, the fans who recognized you on a bad-hair day, when you’re wearing no makeup, and are recovering from a bad sunburn after a day the beach or on the ski slopes…? Yes. Those are the fans who will plead for a selfie with you. For the entire Interwebs to see. Just say no… politely, of course. I am not kidding. Learn from my mistakes.)

If you’re not making public appearances, but someone recognizes you anyway (overzealous fans may spot your voice/accent from podcasts & radio shows), consider denying everything.

The best response if you’re uneasy…? Blink and ask, “Who?” Or, say “Yeah, I get that a lot, but I’m not [pen name],” or “No, sorry, I guess I should be flattered.”

Do not take out your driver’s license or passport to prove that your name is not Nancy Jane Author. (If they see your real ID, they’ll see your real name. Sooner or later, they may connect the dots.)

If this is a steady problem (or your fans/critics are persistent), I suppose you could get a convincing fake ID to prove your point. (Even my most rabid fans haven’t pushed me to that extreme.)

Start Now

I don’t want to scare you so much, you don’t write books. Instead, I’m hoping you’ll plan ahead for success and the visibility that comes with it.

Set up your privacy firewalls as soon as you create the pen name.  Once your real name is linked to your pen name, anywhere online, it’s too late.

Illustrations courtesy of

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