How do you promote yourself with a pen name while keeping your 'real' name as private as possible?
August 15, 2012 3:36 PM   Subscribe

How do you promote yourself with a pen name while keeping your 'real' name as private as possible?

I'd like to put my art, and eventually a comic I've been writing, up online. However, because I'll probably end up writing about things I don't necessarily want an employer to know if they google me, I'd like it to be as separate from my real name as possible- at least until I'm either secure in a career field where I know they won't care or am a Highly Successful Freelancer and Artist (yes, I know. hey, I can dream).

But (because I tend to overthink things) I'm getting caught up in the intricacies of using a pen name. I imagine at first it's not really going to be an issue, but if I start getting money for things- I guess I can set up a DBA, but what if (probably a long way down the line) I do get a job offer on some project? If I'm applying for a job and using my work as a portfolio, do I... say, hey, this is under Jamie Smith, but my real name is Alexis Simpson? When do you bring that sort of thing up?

And then there's the issue of appearing places in person- for instance, some friends of mine are talking about getting an artist's alley table at a con, and I want to join them and do sketches for people, but... do I register under a pen name? Or just hide my name badge when people ask for a sketch? Should I ask people... not to take pictures of me? (It's unlikely that people would want to take pictures of *me*, but I'd be sitting next to a friend who is rather Internet Famous.) I suppose I could wear a mask at Comic-con, but that seems like it wouldn't fly everywhere. :P

I'm also considering setting up a 'safe' website with my more inoffensive art (still lifes and portraits) under my real name to show to parents and relatives, but then that creates an online identity to connect me to, and... I don't know, not that I *expect* people to try to hunt me down, but I see a non-zero number of people- especially women- getting harassed by people who've found their address or place of work. Should I worry about using something to mask my IP, or is that paranoid? How private are privately registered domain names?

I dunno, I'm probably overthinking things? But I'd really like to hear about the sort of practical, day to day ways of managing a pen name, especially from people who use them. Any sort of thing at all, even if it's tangential to what I've mentioned here. How much effort do you put in to keeping your alternate identity secret?

If there's something you don't want to post in public, you can also e-mail me at

Thanks in advance!
posted by anonymous to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe use your first name and a fake last name? You'll rarely use the last name and you won't have to deal with the awkwardness of responding to a name that is not yours. It has the added advantage of the easy explanation to future employers that "oh, yeah, I go by Alexis Rainbows online." In a portfolio, or resume, you just list all the work you've done and "(as Alexis Rainbows)" as appropriate. The same way someone would have list a maiden name, really. It's not uncommon.

If your main issue is employers googling, then just keeping your pen name and real name separate will be quite sufficient!

Conventions - You can register with a fake name, although your billing address will probably need a real name. If you get a badge with your real name, just tape over it and write your fake name on it. No one really cares! If you're super worried about people recognizing you, just changing up your personal style will make a huge difference!
posted by sawdustbear at 4:13 PM on August 15, 2012

First things first, assuming you are hoping to eventually make a living off your writing (and you don't just love love love your day job and plan to keep it forever just for funsies), a lot of this becomes less important as one becomes that successful of a writer. You're not going to need to worry about getting fired from your job if you're doing in-store appearances or whatever.

Second things second. You start out by saying that you'd be using a pen name to protect yourself from an employer finding out. Then suddenly you're talking about your family finding out. If you plan to make a career out of your creative work, or even make a substantial part-time hobby/source of secondary income out of it, your family is going to have to know.

If a lot of it revolves around things they wouldn't approve of, you're probably going to have to tell them "Hey, I've been writing this comic about a heroin dealer who kills puppies in her spare time. I know you guys don't want to see that, but just in case you ever run across it, yeah, it's me, and no, you don't ever have to read it if you don't want to."

A pen name is not for hiding stuff like this from close relatives.

I do get a job offer on some project? If I'm applying for a job and using my work as a portfolio, do I... say, hey, this is under Jamie Smith, but my real name is Alexis Simpson? When do you bring that sort of thing up?

Yes, presumably employers who hire writers and illlustrators are aware that not everyone works under their own name. They're at least familiar with it, and might have systems and policies about how that works. Surely the HR and payroll departments will be aware that this is a thing.

And then there's the issue of appearing places in person- for instance, some friends of mine are talking about getting an artist's alley table at a con, and I want to join them and do sketches for people, but... do I register under a pen name? Or just hide my name badge when people ask for a sketch? Should I ask people... not to take pictures of me

Two questions. A) what are you worried about actually happening and B) what kinds of drawings are these? I think that if you're appearing in public at a family-friendly sci-fi/comic convention doing drawings in public, chances are what you draw is probably going not going to be anti-semitic donkey porn. It is probably OK to be seen in public doing them. Are you worried that a coworker is going to see you doing this, notice that the name you sign the drawings with is a pen name, and then go home and google up all the 50 Shades Of Grey furry porn comics you write under that name? Again, this is not really what a pen name is for.

There are probably going to be people who vaguely know that you do this sort of thing in your spare time, and you're going to have to trust that they're going to treat it in a respectful and collegial type manner, unless we're talking about criminal activity or something that could get you straight up fired, and then I think pen names are not really for that.

A pen name is more like a branding device. For example. A former coworker of mine is a TV writer who also writes romance novels under a pen name. A lot of us at work knew this about her, and knew what the pen name specifically was. It was not a secret. The pen name was to separate her professional romance novel writing from her professional TV writing. Because the two were not similar at all, and the TV writing was enough of a priority for her that she wanted to put her real name on that* and have the romance novels as a side gig to make ends meet.

You should not put any art out into the world that you wouldn't be willing to stand by, when all is said and done.

*Keep in mind, too, that pseudonyms are "done" in some fields but not others. It's is completely anathema in screenwriting, for example, but I think it's an unwritten rule that your name has to be Oriana McRae in order to publish a romance novel.
posted by Sara C. at 4:17 PM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Legally, it's perfectly fine to apply for things under a pen name. Been doing it for years, even getting paid under my pen name (which, granted, is a variation of my legal careful with checks). You can register for conferences under a pen name. In fact, according to the law, you can declare yourself Captain Underpants today and introduce yourself as Captain Underpants to everyone you meet from now on. At some point you just become Captain Underpants.
posted by Miss T.Horn at 4:35 PM on August 15, 2012

You might want to read this story about a psuedonym-using author who had to come out of the closet about it. I'm not sure how doable your plan is in this day and age.

"Then, just like in the comic books, supervillains appeared. Inger was socked into a new reality. About nine minutes after the second book came out, Bear Stearns collapsed. The ripples of the ensuing crisis ate at the foundations of publishing, as well as many other industries.
At the same time, the technology of reading was changing, too. I'm not even going to talk about all the hand-held computers or the Internet. But by 2010, it became evident that Inger couldn't carry on in her happy aerie. If she wanted to keep going, someone needed to speak for her, and seeing as she was nonexistent, I got the job."

posted by jenfullmoon at 4:52 PM on August 15, 2012

I just reread your question and realized that the appearing in person thing is maybe more about a photo of you getting online, and maybe showing up for google results of your name?

Again, unless what you do is so socially unacceptable that you could be fired just for someone finding out that you do it, I wouldn't worry overmuch about this, especially if you're going to the con under your pseudonym.

Because in that case the real fear is that someone is going to see a photo of you sitting next to Kate Beaton or whoever, wearing your Ophelia Havisham nametag, and put two and two together. This is not going to happen during the hiring process, aside from some insane fluke that is probably less likely than accidentally going to the interview naked.
posted by Sara C. at 4:54 PM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

In the case of Inger Ash Wolfe? Maybe don't include in your bio that the name is a pseudonym, and that you are totes a famous celebrity. Just a hint, there.

People who get into real hot water about this stuff (see also JT Leroy) usually get into trouble because they're trying to create buzz via "controversy" about the author's true identity. Which, don't.
posted by Sara C. at 5:04 PM on August 15, 2012

I think it'd help if you'd clarify WHY exactly you need a pen name, like are you doing something that'd be potentially offensive or embarrassing or politically dangerous and you NEED to go deep cover or if you just want to work under a different name, because I think that's two separate sets of advice. If we're trying to protect you from ninjas or CIA assassins or stalkers or something, I think that's a little more serious than "my boss might find out I draw naked pictures." Which is still serious, but you get the idea.

I write under a pen name and all of the places I deal with have, basically, a section for "Okay who do we actually make out the check to?" when we're setting up payments, especially if they deal with writers, artists, and creatives. When you invoice, you'd just have your name/DBA name at the top, then a SEND PAYMENT TO: Your Real Name if you didn't have a bank account under your alias/DBA name. (Though my payments just come to me, personally, since the only way that'd get out is if the biz in question leaked its finances for some reason, then I'd be screwed either way, right?).

If you're doing appearances, you'd do them as "professional you", for lack of a better term, so the pictures would be captioned as "professional you." Now, someone could theoretically go "Hey that 'professional you' guy looks a lot like 'real you'", dunno how big of a deal that'd be for you. Fortunately for me, I fit a generic type, so there's 10,000 people that look like me. If you have purple hair and a unique tattoo, maybe you'd want to blend a bit more. This isn't something I've dealt with, so I'm just spitballing here. For cons specifically, they may make you show some ID, they may not, I'd check with the con and maybe ask them first. I've been to some where they were super hardcore and I've been to some where they handed you a blank badge and you wrote your own name or whatever. If murderers or ninjas aren't after you, maybe wear a hat or something you wouldn't normally wear? People can be pretty oblivious. But lots of people have doppelgangers out there. I go to the gym with a guy that looks like the Evil version of my old CFO and an Evil version of an old coworker (goatees, natch).

In terms of day to day managing, I keep, shall we say, Whip the Ghostride's identity in a separate browser that I only use for WTG's activities, so I know if I'm in Browser B, that's going to be a Whip The Ghostride tweet rather than my personal tweet. I keep my domains behind a service like Domains By Proxy, which any decent registrar should have. I host through Tumblr and point my domain to Tumblr, so the only thing that anything is connected to is Whip The Ghostride's entirely separate Gmail account. WTG has separate accounts for every service I'd use with a different password, so I could screw up and let the cat out of the bag, but I would have to be catastrophically stupid. Which I don't rule out, but there's a point where I have to get work done.

Now, the companies I work with all have my legal name and address on file for payment purposes, but if I wanted to be really paranoid, I'd set up a DBA, biz bank account, and box at UPS Store or something (I find UPS Store boxes to be more useful than PO Boxes because they can accept non-postal deliveries). Likewise, I just use different browsers, but if I wanted to be super-paranoid, I'd use my laptop for Sekrit Identity work and my desktop for Real Me work or vica versa.

In terms of how to put it on a resume or something, I'd just put something like "Super Sekrit Project As Whip The Ghostride".
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 6:02 PM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

And in some fields this is not a big deal, like the writer Heather Graham Pozzessere writes under Heather Graham and Shannon Drake and even has separate sections of her website devoted to each identity.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 6:20 PM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Very simple recommendation that a surprising number of people forget about: when you buy your website, as you should--don't register it under your own name to your home address. Use a business name and a PO box, whatever. So many would-be anonymice get doxed from a simple Whois search. And many more anonymice get doxed in the first place from the Streisand effect of "NO ONE CAN EVER KNOW MY NAME," making the indifferent curious and the already-curious even more curious to the point of trolling for the hidden prize of info.

And don't underestimate the grand literary tradition of writing under your initials a la JRR Tolkien and J.K. Rowling!
posted by nicebookrack at 7:18 PM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Lots of authors use pen names and publishers are quite used to dealing with them. As for preventing anyone from linking the two names together, I suggest if a prospective employer comes across something saying "Marjorie Featherbanks writes under the name Marjorie Fanshawe" (a) they're unlikely to pursue the possibility that you are the Marjorie Featherbanks being referred to; and (b) you've already done the discreet thing and it would arguably be a breach of ethics on their part to pursue it. Unless your comic is about How To Steal From Your Employer, I suppose.

I hope this is sufficient because it's pretty much all that is possible: using a business name isn't much of a shield against someone committed enough to find out who owns the name or company behind it. And visual anonymity is going to get less and less practical because computers have become amazingly good at identifying people from photos and so forth. If you've gone to cons before then your name and photo may already be out there and it would only take a quick search to identify you. But all this presumes that someone is committed to unmasking you, but I don't think an HR department would go to all that trouble.
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:01 PM on August 15, 2012

One way your current employer finding out about your online persona would be if a third party linked your online name with your real name and a search for your real name would reveal the online name in close proximity.

One thing I would do would be use a fairly common (i.e., plausible) assumed last name with my first name. If I say that my name is Paul Doohickie, you wouldn't believe me and as a fan, wonder, and maybe search to try to determine who I really am. If I said my name is Paul S. Reynolds, you would accept that as my real name, and wouldn't go nosing around.

And if my fans didn't go poking around, it would minimize the chance of exposing my pen name to my current employer.
posted by Doohickie at 1:20 PM on August 16, 2012

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