Pseudonymously Yours

Thursday I published a book under my pen name Robert Carlisle.

Friday I published a book under my nom de plume Robert Graeme.

Saturday I published a book under my alias Robert Carpentier.

On Sunday I woke up thinking “Who owns my copyright?”

I ask this question in all seriousness. As they say in the finer bits of noir, all is not as it would seem. We have all heard of famous authors who are so prolific they have second careers as people you’ve never heard of. Thus, during the day John Banville makes a living as John Banville, writer of gothic novels cherished by seven noble critics, but by night he mounts his dark steed of mystery and rides the roads as Benjamin Black — a remarkable transformation that has given us the magnificent Christine Falls and its sequel, The Silver Swan. And who hasn’t heard of Stephen King’s famous alter ego Richard Bachman (though I have to admit that I’ve never read a Bachman novel and whenever I hear the name I somehow think it has to do with Richard Bachman Overdrive, an orchestra which I’m fairly confident only exists in my head)?

Some authors, of course, use pen names not to hide their overabundance of imagination (i.e., their Anne Tyler-esque inability to stop writing) but to conceal their gender. The most famous example of this is perhaps the Bronte sisters, who published Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and Agnes Grey in the astonishing trifecta year of 1847 as the brothers Ellis (Emily),  Currer (Charlotte), and Acton (Anne) Bell. Their collective fame is only eclipsed by that of the great George Eliot aka Mary Ann Evans, whose genius I was unfamiliar with until I was trapped one long weekend and came across a tattered copy of Mill on the Floss in the sitting room of the stately Gran Hotel de Costa Rica.

Of all the authors who have written pseudonymously, I harbor a particular affection for Scottish author Josephine Tey (real name Elizabeth Mackintosh), who penned her mysteries at the tag end of the golden age of mystery. Bratt Farrar, The Franchise Affair, and A Shilling for Candles are some of the most compelling mysteries ever written, and as an added bonus don’t include any version of today’s standard-issue alcoholic detective obsessed by his past and the wrongs that were done him. Clean, elegant writing and an innate knack for plot and timing drive the books along, with no gratuitous pornography or cultural buzz required.

These days, the only author worth reading that takes the idea of a pseudonym seriously is Joe Hill (author of Horns), who managed to get a book deal for himself without revealing that he was Stephen King’s son, and managed to keep his identity secret until after his novel made a splash.

But to return at last to my original question, please note that you can (and may) publish a novel using only a pseudonym for the claimant name. But be advised that while the Copyright Office will register your book under a pseudonym, if a copyright is held under a fictitious name you run the obvious risk that business dealings involving the book may raise questions about its ownership.

So, word to the wise, don’t go using Alias Smith or Jones as your pseudonym anytime soon. Or you might find your royalty checks addressed to someone who lives in Greenwich and looks a bit like Bono, and doesn’t know you from Adam.

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