Dos and Donts with Pen Names

“Michael, what are your dos and don’ts when it comes to using a pen name? I am publishing a book under a pen name. I do not care to register my book with a copyright, because then you have to list your real name.

“I would like to get a mail address for the pen name, but it looks like I need to file a DBA (‘Doing Business As’) under that name first – and then it’d only take a quick computer search for someone to find out who I am. Do you have any suggestions for someone who wants to remain anonymous?”

– Michael V.

Pooler, GA

Dear Michael,

There are many good reasons to use a pen name.

1. You don’t like your name or believe it might hurt sales… or simply like some other name better.

In admiration of the pen name used by steamboat captain Isaiah Sellers, Samuel Clemens began using “Mark Twain” as his own. Says Twain in Life on the Mississippi, “I was a fresh new journalist, and needed a nom de guerre; so I confiscated the ancient mariner’s discarded one, and have done my best to make it remain what it was in his hands.”

2. You are a successful person in one area and are writing a book in another.

You want to maintain the distinction. (Romance writer Nora Roberts writes erotic thrillers under the pen name J.D. Robb. Science fiction author Robert Heinlein used pen names when writing outside the sci-fi genre.)

3. You don’t want fans phoning you or coming by your house.

Joe Klein, author of Primary Colors, used a pen name to avoid publicity and being publicly linked with the book.

4. You are writing a series of books or a column that is meant to last longer than your involvement.

Ann Landers, Abigail Van Buren (“Dear Abby”), and Prudence (“Dear Prudence”) have been pseudonyms for many different writers.

When I began writing business advice in 1999, I used a pen name for all of those reasons. I was at the end of a very successful career as a private businessman and had no interest in becoming a best-selling business author. I had long ago learned that any amount of fame was a burden. More important, I had already started a career as a poet and short story writer using my given name, and I wanted to keep that separate.

My publishers liked the idea of my using a pen name because they were creating products (for AWAI and ETR) that were meant to springboard off me, my story, and my ideas. But the ultimate goal was for them to get much larger and go beyond me. If they tethered their businesses to me, it would be a big loss if and when I retired.

We considered using “Mr. X” for a while, but that seemed hokey. So Paul Hollingshead, one of the founders of AWAI, chose the name Michael Masterson. Everybody liked it, and we went with it – first with AWAI and then with ETR. When I began writing business books, we continued with the pseudonym because we had already established a considerable base of potential book buyers using that brand.

Those are the benefits of using a pen name. There are no negatives, really, except that some readers – ignorant of how common pseudonyms and pen names are in business – may foolishly conclude that you are trying to hide something. You can avoid that minor problem best by ignoring it.

To publish a book, you need a legal business name, and that business name needs to be on the copyright page. You don’t need to list your real name. Look at business books on your bookshelf and you will see what I mean. If you use a legal business name as the copyright holder (i.e., the publisher), there is no reason for a DBA.

Here’s what Matt Turner, Agora’s top legal counsel, has to say on the subject:

“If you prefer not to use your real name on your writing – for whatever reason – no problem. Simply set up a legal entity. Using a legal entity (like an LLC) is easy – and the filing documents do not require you to reveal the owner(s). A person does have to sign as ‘incorporator,’ but that person does not have to be you. It can be an attorney who is privileged not to reveal the owner. Then you write your book and the copyright is in the LLC’s name. And if anyone steals your book, you can still sue them via the entity. There you have it.”

– Michael Masterson

[Ed. Note: Send your questions to Include your full name, your hometown and state, and the ETR team may answer you in an upcoming issue.] [Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]
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  • Mary Jones

    Hi, my situation is not mentioned in the above article

    Let’s say in my country of origin my name is Mary Smith. I am an American citizen as well and here, let’s say my legal name is Mary Jones (after marriage). I still use my maiden’s name Mary Smith to sign my art and I even have the domain name marysmith (dot) com. My question is this: could it be a problem to use my maiden name marysmith (dot) com to create and promote my art on my website and online galleries when there’s another artist with the same name when my legal name in the US is not Mary Smith and hers is?