Pen Names Versus Doing Business As (Things to Consider)

Why would a writer use a different name?

I asked this question the other day in class. The middle school students were exploring the author Hector Hugh Munro (better known as Saki) and his experiences in WWI.

For a brief moment, the topic of name-changing turned into a more general discussion.

People use pen names because...

  • They don’t want people to know who they are in real life.
  • Their name is hard to remember.
  • Their name is hard to pronounce.
  • They want to try something new and not lose their reputation.
  • They are writing something others disagree with and don’t want to be thrown in jail.

Thank you, savvy students, for some clever brainstorming!  You summed up some thoughts I’ve been having.

(Related Article: Anonymous Blogging: Three Pros and Three Cons)

Pen Names: Mystique or Tax Confusion?

Apparently, if you don’t mind a publisher knowing your real name, you don’t have to do anything legally to write under a pen name. You simply tell the organization you are writing for your real name for the sake of getting paid correctly and having the payment linked to your social security number. Then you plainly request they use your pen name in your byline.

If it’s your mission to not even have a publisher know your real name, that’s when you need to create a separate business identity and file a “doing business as (dba)” status. This can be complicated of course, but several people do it once they are taking their business seriously. They also do it for several reasons other than anonymity.

Why Is Savvy History Looking Into This?

I have some ideas bubbling up that I’ve been wanting to write about in-depth. I’m trying to decide whether to flesh out these ideas on the blog or pitch them to others for freelance writing opportunities. 

My thinking was recently augmented after watching this interview on Kristin Wong’s channel with Paco de Leon. It's about when to do a DBA (Doing Business As) versus LLC (Limited Liability Company).

For me personally, after one year of writing articles instead of songs, I like the idea of building up the blog, keeping ownership of the subject matter, and frontloading Savvy History with well-researched articles that belong to me (before turning the spotlight even more on business history and songs about inventors). 

At the same time, I’ve always been drawn to the idea of freelance writing for established publications. Since I was a freelance musician before ever hearing about the “gig economy” or freelancing, I have an honest sense of what freelance writing would entail. A lot of pitching, a lot of negotiating, a lot of follow-ups, and a lot of patience.

Savvy History is a Published Poet

Whatever I decide to call myself while blogging or freelancing (or both), I’m trying to come to terms with my real name. Savvy History could be a stellar first and last name (and I recently published a poem with Z Publishing House under this name), but I don’t think anyone will buy it as my real writing name in the long run. In fact, I’ve heard many publications refuse to publish work by someone who doesn’t have a NAME name.

I’ve found it interesting to read on Reddit about publishers who seek out new writers to publish.

As far as Z publishing, they contacted me first, it was an easy submission process, and I only make money if I (or the other poets in the series) sell the pieces of work and sign up for their affiliate program. Therefore, they didn't need my real name except if I registered with PayPal to be paid. (It sounds harmless to me but I probably won’t set up anything through PayPal with them at this time. I’m simply happy to be published by someone other than myself.)

Pen Name Exploration: Turning to History!

My first name (Michelle) is out in the open. It doesn’t irk me very much. It’s my unpronounceable last name that seems to be an unwise creative business decision. It has no ring to it. Plus, I like the idea of maintaining an ounce of anonymity. 

While beginning to write for others, I think it would be wise and interesting to look up pen names chosen by people in the past.

From Silence Dogood (Benjamin Franklin) trying to sneak around his judgemental brother to Olivia Wilde (Olivia Cockburn) liking playwright Oscar Wilde during a theatre performance, I’m enjoying the research for next week’s post. Stay tuned!

What do you think? Do pen names prompt creative freedom? Do they look pretentious? Or do they signal someone in the midst of an identity crisis?



8 Replies to “Pen Names Versus Doing Business As (Things to Consider)”

  1. First, congrats on being a published poet – very cool! For me, I’ve always chosen to use a pen names for any of my creative endeavors both as a former music writer/now blogger as well as all of the bands I’ve played in and I’ve changed them with each project. I’ve done this for two reasons specifically. First, I’d like the creative work to be judged on its own without any attachments to the creator. It seems more honest that way. It also allows me to freely engage in mediums and styles without dragging the past creations about. Second, it’s just plain fun. It provides an opportunity to step away from being me for a bit. Plus all my pseudonym personas are all way cooler than I actually am in real life.

    1. Those are some great reasons, Mr. Fate. Thanks for sharing! Pen names are freeing for the imagination while definitely creating needed separation and identity formation specific to a piece of work. I think people who engage in creative activities naturally understand the use of pen names while it appears a little odder if you haven’t gone down that path.

  2. i used a pen name because i would be mentioning my employer which is a huge company. they might not be thrilled even though i’m not sharing anything proprietary but more along the lines of the dilbert-like corporate info.

    i recently stopped at the post office to have them add my pen name to my physical house address. i ran a couple of running races under the blog name and was waiting for one group to send me my t-shirt they ran out of on thanksgiving.

    1. I didn’t know you could add your pen name at the post office. That is good to know if I ever start writing with some old school publications who send things like contracts via snail mail. (I don’t think I’ll need to worry about that too much though.)

      You are always full of interesting and surprising info. Freddy. Good luck with your shirts and your races!

    1. Pen names make sense for a lot of people! I think it’s interesting how some people use pen names to be anonymous to the people they know in real life and others use pen names to protect themselves from the wider world (or being tracked down on the internet). I’m more in the later category. I don’t write anything too personal or controversial at this point.

  3. Like you, I only use my first name for my blog. I just feel uncomfortable putting out my whole name out there for the internet world to see. But at the same time using only my first name or pen name provides me some freedom in terms of providing how much I spend on a monthly basis and to put out some of my family happenings. It just provides me to put out some authentic thoughts on my blog. Even more so, I am considering exposing more of my financial info later this year.

    1. Hey Kris – that makes sense as a financial blogger who discloses a lot of personal info. I think anonymity is wise from an emotional angle and security angle.

      I take on broader topics and don’t talk too much about my own personal situation. As I mix my music with my blog, I will definitely lean further away from specific numbers (unless I’m talking about how much a painting cost or the cost of an album, business costs, etc.). Those net-worth people? They are bold!

      I have a few posts coming up where I talk about specificity (or lack thereof) with numbers (if you’re interested). Stay tuned! Thanks again for stopping by the blog.

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