Reader Question: Using Pseudonyms as a Freelance Writer

Yesterday I received a reader question about freelance writers using pseudonyms. Given the nature of the topic, I agreed to only refer to the reader as CP. Here's the email I received:

I am in the process of transitioning into the freelance writing world, and getting my sea legs. I intend to use a pseudonym (as I have a separate, unrelated career), but am unclear about some of the business and protocol issues surrounding pseudonym use.

One method of working with a pseudonym I have read is to always use your real name with editors/clients, have them use the pseudonym for bylines (if any), and have all payments issued to the real name. The up side of this method is simplicity. The down side is editors/clients could identify me in my other career (as I have a small web presence), and slip ups can occur (and one did recently).

If instead you use a pseudonym for all communications, beginning with the initial contact or query, you avoid the above problem, but doesn't the client need to have the writer's real name and SSN at some point for 1099 reporting anyway? It's easy enough set up an email account and a DBA for the pseudonym (for payment via PayPal/check etc.), but when and how would you then reveal your real name (assuming you must)? Will clients feel misled if you have already been working with them using the pseudonym? Do they even care? What do you think is the best way handle this?

Currently the only pseudonym I use would be my initials. In my case that's an issue of not wanting certain articles to rank for my own name above other work because they're not in my traditional niches (I have one client where I occasionally venture outside of business and social media topics solely to write controversial pieces -- business purpose as opposed to business topics). It's not an issue for me in that case because I'm not really worried about hiding my identity -- only search engine rankings. I still link to a profile where my sites can be found and I can be identified, and that's okay. And the client certainly knows who I am.

On my own sites I take the approach of either writing under my real name or publishing no name at all (again, generally a niche issue and not wanting a side project to overwhelm my primary work in search engine rankings).

This is an issue I've thought about quite a bit though. For starters, I plan to get married someday and I don't plan to keep my last name. Yet I've built my entire personal brand around that name. I've also considered publishing my fiction under a different name as not to detract from my more business-related work. Ultimately, my plan is to do this:

  1. Use my first name and married name for everyday life.
  2. Use my first name and maiden name in business (with clients, the bulk of my own sites, etc.).
  3. Use my middle name and married name for fiction (or choosing another last name if I don't get married for whatever reason down the road).

If you didn't mind a publisher knowing you real name (as I won't), then I'd suggest taking the route of doing business with them under your real name and simply using the pseudonym as your author name. However, you do. And that does make things a bit trickier.

Now I'm not a legal expert and rules are different around the world (so please check with a legal professional before doing this), but I'd say the DBA (doing-business-as) route could be your best option. This is likely what I'll have to do with my maiden name if and when I do get married and legally change my name.

When you register your business under a name, that's the legal name for your business. You can therefore conduct business under that name (your pseudonym). You should be able to open a bank account under that registered business name for example, so publishers or clients can send a check to your pseudonym and not to you with your real name.

As for the SSN issue, when you're a registered business you can apply for an EIN (employer identification number). This essentially works just like your SSN, but for your business. In my case, I already have one of these associated with my registered business name which is based on my maiden name. That number can be used by your publisher or clients for their tax records -- after all, they're doing business with you as if you're a separate business, maybe a sole proprietorship, rather than you as an individual. And that number is associated with your business name (pseudonym), not your real name. DBA issues can vary by state in the U.S. so check with your local or state officials for more information about it. The EIN application is free and takes just a few minutes (when I applied I could do it over the phone -- painless).

You can even register your copyright under your pseudonym. Some of the terms are different if you do though, so look into that.

You can also brand yourself under your pseudonym and build a platform under it that would attract publishers. You can hide your real name on your site's domain registration by ordering privacy protection that keeps the registration anonymous, or list the company name (your DBA name) instead of your personal one.

The only area where you might run into problems is in signing contracts. It could be considered fraud to misrepresent yourself there. Keep in mind that when signing a contract people don't sign their company's name. An individual is authorized to sign the contract on the company's behalf, under their real name. This is one of those issues where you'd definitely need to consult with a contract attorney. You might very well have no choice but to let the publisher know your real name in order to sign your contract.  That said, there's no reason you can't negotiate a clause to that contract stipulating that the publisher (or agent, or client) may not reveal your true identity. I've also read that some courts have upheld abbreviated signatures as valid for contract signings (do some research on this in your state, as I believe contract law can vary in that sense). If that's acceptable, you might be able to sign using your initials or your first initial and last name, as opposed to having your full real name tied to the contract. But again, this is where lawyers are your friend.

No matter what route you choose, best of luck!

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Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, consultant, and indie author. She runs numerous websites & blogs including All Freelance Writing, Freelance Writing Pros, NakedPR, and Kiss My Biz.

Jenn has 25 years' experience as a professional writer and editor and over 20 years' experience in marketing and PR (working heavily in digital PR, online marketing, social media, SEO, new media, and thought leadership publication). She also has 19 years' professional blogging and web publishing experience (including web development) and around 18 years of experience as an indie author / publisher.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names and is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.

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14 thoughts on “Reader Question: Using Pseudonyms as a Freelance Writer”

  1. This is an interesting issue, Jenn. My really old writing clips are in my maiden name (Sharon Hurley), but I started freelancing after I got married, so I did everything business related in my married name. From a publishing viewpoint it can be useful to distinguish the different types of writing with different names, so I’ve also thought of using a variation of my name for any fiction I publish (if I ever get around to it) while keeping my real name for non-fiction and business.

    I’ve also been thinking about the issue of branding in relation to social media and networking sites. I’ve got a few accounts under my original online username, but only started using versions of my real name a few years ago. I sometimes wonder whether I should standardise them on the accounts that matter to me. What are your thoughts on this?

    • The social media branding issue is another complex one. I’d say if you want the accounts associated with your real name, a standard format is the way to go. Of course if you’re highly active in a community and they won’t pick up on the name change, you risk doing more harm than good there. So it might depend on how active you are in each community.

      The more complicated issue I think comes from the time it takes to work on personal branding when using multiple names. It can take a lot of time to build one solid platform, let alone two (or more). So in that sense you would need to look at what kind of time you have available, and figure out if your personal situation would allow for effective branding of two names, or if you’re better off consolidating into one.

  2. I write under a pen name for certain niche sites that I own where I’m not writing for someone else. For writing clients, I use my real name. I run everything through my corporation as I’m not big on giving out my social security number to people I don’t really know online. It has never been an issue for the client to conduct business with my corporation instead of me personally.

    • It’s important to note that you can get an EIN with other business types, just in case a solo author for some reason prefers not to register as a corp. Of course that’s yet another decision to talk to a professional about — taxes, legal liability, and all that fun stuff. Yay!

  3. I never changed my name after I got married, so worrying about a transition wasn’t an issue for me. (In fact, it was one of many reasons I didn’t change it.)

    I use Lola Goetz so much online that I’ve thought about using it as my pen name. But it’s easily traced back to me since I use it on every social network that I’m a part of. It could come in handy though, if I need to use it.

    • You know, even with your gravatar photo being familiar from Twitter, if you hadn’t mentioned “Lola Goetz” I probably wouldn’t have made the connection. I’m awwwwful about names like that.

      • Haha – no worries! On sites such as yours, I tend to leave my name & regular link, instead of Lola. Yes, it’s confusing. But I haven’t yet figured out how to merge them when Lola is so prominent in my social media profiles.

  4. Thanks, Jenn, for taking my question. Your comments are very helpful.

    I will set up a DBA, get an EIN as a sole proprietorship, and create a complete platform/profile for the pseudonym (a family name to keep it simple). I doubt I’ll be working with too many contracts, and anyway, it’s not terrible if my actual name is known to a client or two. It’s mostly about keeping two unrelated industries as separate as possible, both online and in my head!

    Stacey’s comment about not handing out an SSN to potential clients online is a good one, another reason for an EIN.

    • Not a problem! Pseudonyms are such a personal thing. And as long as you’re not completely put off with giving names to clients occasionally for contracts, you probably won’t have any problems.

  5. Wow. This is becoming my new favorite freelancing hang out. Great articles and great responses!

    Allow me to throw out to things:

    1) Get an EIN whether you use a pseudonym or not. When you were an employee giving our your SSN to a company was required. As a freelancer / contractor, you should not be giving anyone your social security number. Not all of your clients will be Fortune 500 companies, you never know where that info will end up.

    2) Consider a pseudonym for anywhere you write things that can be republished elsewhere. I wrote a handful of things for eZine Articles for linking (I don’t recommend that, BTW) and the places they got re-published, I would rather that they did not have my “real” or “business” names on them.

    Good luck.

  6. Very good, informative article. I’d suggest an LLC over a DBA/Sole Proprietorship, however (and an EIN can still be used). An LLC provides liability protection, as well as tax benefits, that a Sole Proprietorship doesn’t. Here’s a website that explains the difference if more detail is needed:

    • Yep, LLCs definitely do provide more protection. The potential issue in this case though is that the business name would need to be a person’s name — no inc, llc, etc. included in that official name when doing business. It’s one of those situations where writers need to look at it from all angles, take the pros and cons of each, and figure out what will work best for them.


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