Q&A: Pseudonyms in Contracts

Question: Is there a way to legally enter into a contract with a literary agent/publisher without revealing one’s real identity? 

There is no problem in entering into a publishing or agency agreement under a pseudonym – it’s done frequently by writers who are prolific, or wish to switch genres, or publish in an genre that would be embarrassing (e.g. erotic), or just want to hide their writing identity from their day job.  (Mystery and thriller writers who have published under pen names are legion – e.g. Steven King, Evan Hunter, Lawrence Block, Dean Koontz.)

You’ll still have to provide contact information, but you can maintain complete privacy by using a post office box as your return address, an unlisted phone number, and an anonymous e-mail address.  However, you WILL have to provide a tax identification number – usually your social security number.  Conceivably, although illegal under federal law, someone might discover you identity through it.  If you don’t want to provide your social security number, you would have to set up an entity as the copyright owner (an LLC, preferably, because most states don’t require any identification of LLC owners), and then obtain a tax I.D. number for the LLC.

Regarding copyright, when filling out a copyright registration form (FormTX), the Copyright Office allows you or your publisher to list either just a pen name or your real name.  The difference in protection is that if you use your real name, protection for the work extends for your life plus seventy years; if you use a pseudonym, the term of protection is 95 years from the publication of the work, or 120 years from the creation of the work, whichever period expires first.  If, however, after filing the original application in a pen name, the author’s identity is later revealed in the records, the term reverts to the life of the author plus 70 years.

I also should point out that some agents and some publishers do have internal policies of requiring a real name of their client/authors, although no reputable agent or publisher would reveal the name of a pseudonymous author without permission. You could, however, emphasize the need for secrecy by requiring your agent and/or publisher to sign a nondisclosure agreement (“NDA”).  Having the right to sue your agent/publisher for damages for violation of the NDA, however, will be of little comfort to you if your goal is to prevent disclosure in the first place.

Likewise, you  could increase your chances for privacy by submitting your manuscript to a publisher through an attorney — attorneys have higher standards of confidentiality than agents.

CAUTION: Although sometimes unavoidable, you should do your best to avoid using the name of a living individual, especially another writer or any celebrity.  Check white pages, Internet search engines, and copyright and trademark registrations before choosing a pen name.

© 2009 Daniel Steven