Pen Names, Pseudonyms, Nom De Plumes, aka DBAs

News this week is that China is forcing its writers to reveal their true identities, despite the fact that writing under a pen name has been a longstanding Chinese tradition. It’s said to be a part of the Chinese government's attempt to control what happens online.

Some may think that outlawing pen names isn’t that big of a deal; they’d be wrong.
Charlotte Bronte and her sisters published under pen names using the surname Bell; Charlotte's nom de plume  was Currer Bell.  

Pen Names Give You Power   

Pen names are powerful: they allow writers a level of creative freedom that only anonymity provides. Aside from political freedom, there are several reasons that writers choose to publish under a nom de plume.  For instance:

  • Pseudonyms can be important for professionals (like lawyers) who may not want clients to know that they write steamy romance novels or Louis L’Amour-type westerns. 
  • Also, pen names allow writers established in one field or genre to publish in another area without fear of losing readership. 
  • For prolific authors, using pen names frees them from concern that publishing too many books in one year may dilute their market if they were to publish all under a single name. 

There are lots of reasons to use a pseudonym if you are a writer and pen names are widely used by writers today. How widely used? As for how popular pen names are, I leave it to you to surf the web for all the lists of “famous pen names” both past and present - like the 2013 list that Time Magazine provides in its article, “Famous Authors with Secret Pseudonyms.” 

Writing as a Business

Thing is, when you write under a pen name and you publish that work online with hopes of making a buck or two from it, then you’re going into the writing business. At this point, it’s not just romantic to use a pen name, it’s business. 

Which means you might want to consider filing your pseudonym down at the courthouse as a “DBA” (doing business as). Why?

First, filing your pen name as a DBA provides legal notice to the public that you are using another name to do business which may be important to you in the future for various reasons. It proves that the pen name really is you if you ever need to establish that ownership.

Second, it may help to block someone else trying to use that same pen name - if not globally, then possibly within your county or state. It’s a legal argument that isn’t as strong as copyright law but it’s better than going forward and not having this backup.

After all, establishing your DBA isn’t creating a business entity. It’s just providing legal public notice that you are using a fake name to do business.

Setting Up Your Nom de Plume as a DBA 

Getting a DBA set up is pretty cheap and easy. It’s a service provided in Texas by your local county clerk. Just look up the details online (like these set of instructions for Bexar County or Travis County) or give your County Clerk’s Office a call.

One important caveat: if you are serious enough about your writing business to take the time to register a legal notice of your pen name as a DBA in your public county records, and you’re pretty darn sure that you’re going to be making more than pocket change from your sales, then you may want to consider creating a business entity for yourself.  Writers can register copyright under a corporate name just as they can under their personal legal name.

That’s a decision that may need the help of a lawyer licensed in your state — and you may want to run it past your accountant, too.

Pen Name Fun

Finally, here's a couple of fun links for you, Dear Reader, if you are considering a pen name or are just curious about nom de plumes:

Choose your new author alias here using the online Pen Name Generator.
Go here to take the Oxford Dictionary's Pen Names Quiz.