This week, authors J Thorn and Crys Cain discuss why you might want a pen name and how to manage it. 


Crys: Welcome to the TASM podcast. I’m Crys Cain with my cohost J Thorn.

J: Hey Crys. How’s it going?

Crys: It’s going good. I think last week I told you that my cowriter and I were going to try to get a book done by the 10th. That has not happened. Big surprise. She’s having a major flare up with her hands and wrists that are just making it very difficult to work. And she does a lot of dictation, but even with dictation, you got to go back and edit stuff. But I have been continuing to write this week, which has been lovely getting back.

Fitting the admin stuff in is always easy because there’s generally someone else who needs something from me, so there’s like that external responsibility. But often the writing, I’m really just responsible to myself, and so that’s a bit more difficult for me to put emphasis on. And I’ve been doing a lot of work and figuring out how to put the emphasis on that because that is my primary work.

How was your week been?

J: It’s been a little hectic. It’s okay. We have some cases of COVID in the house and so that’s been fun to manage. Yeah, you just soldier through it and do the best you can.

Crys: I did some depressing math last night and I think like 1 in 17 people in the US has a reported case of COVID right now. And that is very overwhelming. Oh, we’re not going to discuss that kind of depressing topic.

I brought you a topic right before we hopped on air to record this, and that is: how do you manage having a pen name? Like the logistics of this, and maybe a bit of a quick description before we get into the how’s of having a pen name, as to why we chose pen names. Because I think there’s a lot of people out there who are super against pen names, they’re like, “Don’t do it, be yourself, build your brand under your name. Even if someone else has the same name as you, you define yourself, take it back, earn it.”

That’s well and grand. If that works for you, that works for you. But there’s a lot of reasons to have a pen name, and we chose them for different reasons. And I want to ask you, why did you choose to use a pen name?

J: I just didn’t want people up in my business. That’s the truth. When I was starting out, I needed a stage name before I needed a pen name, because I was deep in the band and we were playing gigs and stuff.

And there’s a bit of marketing to it. Like my given name wasn’t suitable to the genre that I was working in. It just didn’t ring like the way it could have. But even more importantly, like I wasn’t writing anything I was ashamed of, I just didn’t want that added pressure. I didn’t want people looking over my shoulder. When I say people, I mean people in my immediate life, like coworkers and neighbors. Like family’s different, but I didn’t want those sort of layer two connections just with that added pressure and I just wanted to keep that bit of separation.

And what I wasn’t even thinking about at the time, which I think is probably more relevant for women and for men, is the privacy issue. I’m glad I did now. I think about the way since 2009, I think we’re all much more vulnerable online as far as what’s out there, what people can find. And there are some people who have not so great intentions. This is not political, but I was watching the coverage of Fauci in front of the congressional meeting, and he was basically saying he’s getting death threats on his family. That’s an extreme case, but that’s the world we live in now. And so even though that wasn’t on my radar back then, I’m glad that I didn’t put my real information out there.

Crys: Yeah. I was curious, specifically because you were a teacher, was that a bit of an added emphasis of not having those two worlds connected even more? Or was that just still lumped in?

J: To a lesser degree. Because I was teaching at a very liberal school, it wouldn’t have been an issue if I had just been doing it openly. I just didn’t want those prying eyes. And I have since had former students and former parents say, “Oh, that’s awesome. We wish we would’ve known.” And I’m like, maybe, but I just didn’t want that. It was kind of like my thing, like I hadn’t published yet and I didn’t know where I was going to go with it. And I just didn’t want it like open to the whole world when I was still trying to figure out what I was doing.

And so, I never come down a hundred percent in one camp or another, but I think I would really — maybe I’m jumping ahead. I want to hear what your rationale is. But to blatantly say that you should never take a pen name, I think that’s terrible advice.

Crys: Yeah, for the romance I chose one because I knew that wasn’t going to be my genre. First of all, I knew that wasn’t going to be the genre I was going to write in forever. And I knew that I didn’t want that tightly connected to anything I wrote under my science fiction and fantasy. It’s very explicit and it’s so niche focused, like I never step out of the niche under that pen.

So the first pen I may had actually, we had a pen name because my friend and I were writing under one name. So it was a shared pen name and that’s pretty common in romance. And it was more common in older days. We’re such an ancient little industry. And so when we went to a conference representing that shared name, we were very open that we were two authors under this name. But I needed to have another name that I could be other than this author name because I didn’t want to be the face of it.

And this author friend already had like other pen names and stuff. And so I chose one, because my ex went with me to this conference, I chose a name that was close enough to my real name that it would have the same short form, which is Crys, and changed it enough that if he called me Crys in public, then it would still relate to the name. And then when I went off and created my own solo pen name, I just used that name and added a last name.

And when I’ve written in other niche things where I know that name is only going to be for that niche, I’ve just chosen a pen name because it makes sense cause it’s the brand. So on the one case, brand choice.

Going forward, I am going to write under more of my legal name. But I didn’t choose like the full form of my name. So it’s still like if someone searches Crys Cain, they’re only going to get my author, editor, teacher persona. They’re not going to get necessarily my legal persona. Even though Cain was my maiden name, it will be my legal name again at some point. But I kept a little barrier of searching, like anyone who’s got ill intentions will absolutely be able to figure out the whole rest of my name with no problem.

But the reason I went away from a pen name in doing this, is that I have so many people in my life who cross levels of the author persona and the real-life persona. And for me, it then just became far more simple to have my name, my identity, be the same on both sides. With friends who have pen names, like you or my co-writer, and I know their real name, I 100% stick to their pen name, even when we are with their family who is all calling them by their legal name. Because I never want to get in the habit where I might mess it up in public.

J: Yeah. And in my case, I’m not super secretive about it or anything like that. People call me Tim, that’s my first name. It’s not a big deal. But I feel bad when I hear people being pressured into using their real name as if they’re trying to hide something. And I think that’s wrong.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using a pen name. I think, especially when you’re thinking about branding and marketing and especially when you’re just starting out, you don’t know what you don’t know yet. And you can use a pen name to experiment with genre, and the kind of story you want to tell, and the kind of readers that you want to get, and then you can just pick a new pen name. It’s almost like a product line, it’s almost more of a business decision.

Crys: We didn’t even talk about that emotional buffer. I’ve said one of the best unintentional benefits of having the pen name is whatever that quality is of me starting out, I was able to say, okay, one, it’s not me, cause it’s not under my name, but two, I’ve felt more freedom to not hold back on what I write and to mess up, because I have the chance to go forth and change. It’s a lot more difficult to change your legal name than it is a pen name.

J: Yeah. Yeah. And I have several friends who started out with their legal name and they’re doing fine and it works for them, and that’s wonderful. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I just don’t think the pressure should be the other way either.

Crys: A hundred percent. So logistically, what did you have to do to start writing under a pen name?

J: You know, for me, I think our situations are a little different here because I have virtually no crossover between my real life and my author life. Like virtually none. Most of the people who I interact with now are from the author side and everyone else is family. I don’t have a lot of like longstanding friendships. I have a few. So that was never an issue for me.

Logistically, the other thing that I’m probably very different, is I don’t have a social media presence under my legal name. The only social media I’ve ever had has been J Thorn. And I haven’t really done much of that in the past five to seven years. So for me, it was not difficult at all. There’s some things around like registering copyright that you have to be aware of and there’s some little nuances, but it was not an issue for me whatsoever. And because I use my middle initial, I didn’t have any issue of people calling me J and me not responding, because I’d incorporated that persona anyways by that point.

Crys: Yeah. Yeah. Logistically when you’re first starting out writing a pen name, like all you do is just put the pen name when you upload the book, especially just to Amazon. And that’s it, you’re writing under your pen name. That’s very simple.

J: You don’t have to register or anything, you don’t have to tell anybody, just stick your pen name on it.

Crys: One mistake my co-writer and I did when we pick that first name is we just picked a name and we didn’t go search if there were any other books under it. And then we found that someone had the exact same pen name, so we added a middle initial to it. But they weren’t currently publishing, if they were currently publishing, we would have tried to change the whole thing. But they hadn’t published in like two years and so we just added a middle initial and just claimed that.

That’s a logistic. Check and make sure no one else has that pen name. Because if you’re picking a name, might as well be unique, then it’s just less fight.

J: Exactly. And whether it’s a pen name or your real name, there’s nothing unethical about using one that someone’s already using. There are people in the world have the same name as you, like that’s totally fine. But you’re right, if you’re creating it from scratch, yeah, you don’t want people finding the wrong persona. So you absolutely should try and make it as unique as you can and look to see if any exists on the platform before you do that.

Crys: Now, did you have the LLC already when you started writing or were you just having everything paid from Amazon to your personal bank account? Like how did you have that set up when you started?

J: We’re not lawyers. This is not legal advice. We don’t have any qualifications.

When you first set up your account on KDP you don’t need any business entity whatsoever. You can, and all of that’s kept private. So if you go into KDP, you do what’s called a tax report, and they’ll ask you for your legal name and your social security number and your legal address, because your royalties show up as additional income on your US tax return, which means you’ll get a 1099 from Amazon or Kobo or any other place that you publish. And so all of your tax records and all of that information is kept just with them. And it has no bearing whatsoever on the name that goes on your book or in your LLC.

Much later I formed an LLC. And much like a pen name, you can make up any name you want for an LLC. It doesn’t have to have your legal name. And again, like on the business side, if you’re structuring your LLC, you can set it up in a way that what’s front facing is what you want people to see. Like you don’t necessarily have to have your home address linked to your LLC. That’s public.

Crys: Yeah. I also started out having everything go to my personal bank account. But I very quickly, and my personal suggestion, again, emphasizing I’m not an accountant to people, and this is just from how my brain works, is once you’re making more than like a hundred dollars a month, it might be wise to at least get a separate bank account that all of your revenue goes into. And that could be a personal account or it can be a business account.

So when I was ready to open a business account, I went ahead and registered my LLC very soon in everything, and switched my Amazon KDP account over to my LLCs, started a business bank account under my LLC. And that for me was just to make, when I did accounting, so much easier. I wasn’t having to sort out what was a personal expense, what was a business expense. Like I paid myself out of that account, just transferred however much money, and then I also paid for author bills for covers and editing and all that out of the business account. That made it so much easier.

J: I did the same thing from day one. So when I first started, I didn’t have the LLC early on, but when I started uploading to Amazon and when I got the first check, I went and opened a very basic business checking account and linked everything to that. And I think too, not even so much legally, that’s a good idea legally to do that and especially once you start making a hundred dollars a month or more, but even from a mindset perspective, it’s good to have that separation.

It’s good to be able to see like, okay, I have $300 in my account, I need $500 for a cover. So when I see $200 more show up, then I know I can pay for the cover. As opposed to not paying close attention to it, using a credit card, and getting yourself into some debt. That’s not a good idea. A business checking account would be really good from the start and also a business PayPal account.

Those are both very minimal or are no costs. But again, it’s good to have that little bit of separation. So if you had a PayPal account, a business checking account, and may be a credit card that was a business only, if you just did those three things, that would take care of you for most of the legal stuff.

Crys: Yeah. One of the things I really liked about having a business PayPal account, which I also have, was that no matter how many pen names I write under, when I use the business bank account, it simply says the business name. It doesn’t say my name, it doesn’t say any individual pen name. It keeps things very simple.

J: Yes. And come tax time that’s going to be helpful because even if you have an LLC, you might get the 1099 sent to you personally, and when you have to file your return the government knows how much you’re being paid. And so if you can account for that on your end if you’re ever audited, it’s great to have that documentation.

Crys: Oh, so more logistics. So anything that you put on the backend with your legal identity of most of the vendors is never shared anywhere, that is simply for tax and payment purposes. The only glitch that I have ever seen with this is that sometimes when you’re publishing directly through Apple, at least in the past, I don’t know if this is currently happening, they would sometimes put your legal name as the publisher name. And so if this is something you’re trying to keep private, that’s something to watch out for. I’ve never had this issue because I have always pushed to Apple through D2D. So that’s when we can make sure that doesn’t happen if that’s a concern for you.

And then on Amazon, you have to set up your author profile and you can do that for as many pen names as you have, and that links to your Amazon account. You’re supposed to be able to have three pen names on one author central account. I’ve never figured out how to do that. And every time I’ve read it, I’m like, this should be simple, the boxes should be here. I never figured it out. So I have one email, like one brand new Gmail account and one new author central account for every author name I’ve published under. And it’s annoying as pieces, but that’s how I did it.

J: Maybe this question will be a good way for us to wrap up. Let’s get at it from the other angle. What would be a scenario where you would encourage someone to use their legal name?

Crys: Nonfiction for certain. That’s about one of the only times that I feel like you should absolutely use your legal name. And that’s for most people. We fiction authors are a different brand because we build a big identity under our fiction brand that most people know us as. And if we’re also building a non-fiction identity around writing and editing then people often want to know the link between our fiction and our nonfiction.

So like it’s us and actors, basically artists in general, are about the only ones where it makes sense for you to write non-fiction under your not legal identity. But just about everybody else, the legal identity is part of the power in the writing, or in the marketing at least. I think that’s about the only times where I’d push somebody to be like, yeah, this is the way you ought to do it.

J: Yeah. I would say if you have an existing business and you are writing a book as a lead generator, then you might want to use your legal name. But yeah, I agree. I would not strongly encourage people to use their legal name. In fact, I would sway to the other side and say by default, pick a pen name unless you have a really good reason why you want to use your legal name. Because even in my case, there’s a disconnect. So if I had relaunched my author services under a different name, then people would always be stumbling along like, well, wait, who is that?

And this way, you’re a practitioner. So if you are interested in my author services, you can go and see the fiction I wrote and it’s under the same name and it’s all linked together. And I think at one point I thought that was a detriment to me, but now I see that as a strength, so people can go and see like, am I walking the walk? Am I doing what I’m saying? And if there were two different names, I think you’d make it more difficult for people to do that.

Crys: Yeah. And another suggestion for anyone who is starting out with a pen name and you know you’re going to write in your pen name and wondering like how you go about it, I think one of my best recommendations in practice is start going by that in your social writing groups because that gets you in practice of using it. And also you start building kind of your social connections as your author name, if you only intend to write under one author name. If you’re going to write under multiple, then there’s other considerations in that, but that’s a whole long other conversation about how you manage that.

My question for our listeners is: do they intend to write under a pen name or have they thought about it? And what has been their thinking around it?

If you would like to join this conversation in real time, we’d love for you to pop over and check out what The Author Success Mastermind is all about.

We have an active Slack group where we’ve got genre groups, we’ve got focus groups on productivity and business and craft, and just a lot of people really interested in learning and walking the author life.