Monday, July 02, 2007

The purpose of a pen name

I'm always clicking on headlines that mention writers in the news. A couple of weeks ago, I ran across an article about a writer and her problems with her pen name. Basically, Laura Albert's pen name (JT Leroy) was about more than just anonymity or privacy -- it was an alter ego, a separate identity that she used to give her traumatic childhood a voice in her art.

Unfortunately, Albert didn't respect the usual boundaries of a pen name. She used this false identity as the author's real name, instead of using her legal name. As a result, she is now being sued under the premise that a contract she signed as her alter ego is in fact void, because JT Leroy does not exist.

I found this interesting, not because Albert ignored the rule of pen names -- always correspond with publishers under your legal name -- but because it seems Albert's pen name was for the purpose of hiding. In fact, the article reminded me of an exchange I had with a writer some months ago, regarding her desire to use a pen name.

Basically, this writer -- we'll call her JD, for Jane Doe -- wrote to me because she saw that I had successfully published under a pen name. She has had problems getting published under a pen name, she said, and she wanted to know how I had done it.

At first, the questions were pretty normal. She wanted to know if I introduced myself as Katharine Swan, or with my full legal name. I explained that I always communicated under my real name, so that publishers would have my legal name for contracts and payment purposes. I suggested that she do what I do: just put her pen name in the byline, with a brief note about it in the accompanying email if it's the first time she's published anything with them.

Well, when I got a response back from her, the exchange got even stranger. Besides the fact that she abbreviated everything (supposedly because of an injury -- but you can't be a writer if all you do is abbreviate!), she started sounding rather combative. It was clear she didn't like my approach:

I rec'd a very negative email re this subj from the manag. ed. of a newspaper. I guess I am skittish b/c I don't wish to call up too many editors w/ideas, broach the idea of a pen name, and then have them reject both me and my idea and give the idea to another writer.

In fact, in trying to research this issue before, I had sev'l haughty emails from writers suggesting that by using a pen name I am "hiding" etc. etc. I do have privacy concerns, as I think many single woman w/an ususual names whose work may end up appearing on the I-net may share.

At this point, I started understanding what was going on. JD was including her demands of a pen name in her queries, instead of simply putting it in the byline like it was no big deal. Well, no wonder writers said she was "hiding" -- she obviously was! And there's nothing that makes an editor more nervous than a writer who is militant about not concealing her identity. I'm sure every one of them started wondering what she was hiding from... and whether it would ultimately mean a lawsuit for them!

I'm going to reprint my response to her here. It's rather long (as is this entire post), but I think it is valuable advice for anyone who wants to publish under a pen name, so that they don't end up like JD.

First of all, I can see where the writers you mentioned got the idea that you're trying to "hide," and perhaps even why the editors were negative toward you. The thing is that it seems the pen name is more important to you than the writing.

I personally think that you have been introducing the subject of the pen name way too soon. Get the job first, and then just submit your manuscript with your pen name in the byline, like it's no big deal. Having a website that promotes your writing services using your pen name might also help, as it would reassure the editor that this is the name you are known by (even if it's not true -- yet). Regardless, publishing under a pen name should never be a big deal, but I think the fact that you are demanding an answer on it so soon is coming across as combative to editors, and perhaps giving them the idea that there's some strange reason why you're so anxious about this.

Ultimately, you may need to decide which is more important to you: your writing, or your privacy. Writing IS the act of submitting your words, thoughts, and identity to the public at large. Even though I use my pen name, my real name is out there, and I could easily be found by someone who really wanted to find me. Really, though, this is no different than anyone else, who can be found by searching phone books or even by going through a background search service online. Complete privacy and anonymity is impossible in this day and age. The only difference is that writing (or acting or running for president) is introducing yourself to more people than would know you otherwise.

If you really want to "break in," I suggest getting the jobs first, and just putting your pen name in the byline on your manuscript as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Don't give the editors anything that might make them suspicious as to why you're making such a big deal about it.

JD's response was shorter:

I wd rather broach the issue up front so I don't spend time/energy writing, only to possibly learn that the publication won't accept pen names. Since I'm new @ this, I just believe in laying things out on the table @ the beg.

That was the last communication I had with JD. I gave her my advice and she rejected it, so I washed my hands of her. I don't mind giving newbie writers advice, but I can't stand the ones who then pull an attitude and tell me I'm wrong.

Personally, I don't think JD is going to ever have much success as a writer. She clearly knows nothing about how to sell herself, and approaches editors already on the defensive because she is assuming from the get-go that they will turn her down. By demanding a pen name before she even gets the job, she not only comes across as a little suspicious, but also rather belligerent, which is not going to get you into any editor's good graces.

My advice for writers who want to publish under a pen name: Don't worry about the pen name until you get the job. A reasonable editor won't turn down a pen name request if it's reasonable -- and made at the right time. But don't get so worked up about the pen name that you forget why you are pursuing a career as a writer in the first place. It really isn't the end of the world if your real name appears in the byline by accident, or if an editor balks at the idea of printing a pen name. I mean, when it comes down to it, the reason for writing is get read, right?

Personal identity and privacy are funny things. We can take all the precautions we want, but the simple fact is that there are hundreds of sites online that sell people's personal information. Furthermore, no pen name has the power to render you completely anonymous -- Laura Albert's situation proves that. Writing under a pen name can be a professional decision -- such as not letting your marketing clients know that you write erotica on the side -- or a completely personal decision, such as the reasons why I chose to publish under Katharine Swan. Regardless of what you decide or why, though, don't forget what part of this is most important for you -- whether it be your career, your income, or simply the pleasure of putting words on a page.

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