By Ben Cameron, Jan 24 2018 03:10PM
By "Gareth Williams"
There are many reasons why you might want to write under a pseudonym: you may need to protect your own identity if you’re writing non-fiction about something particularly sensitive; or if you want to write books in different genres then you may want a name “brand” for each type of book; or you may associate certain kinds of limitations with your name: you may just not like it, or for publicity and marketing purposes it may be difficult to spell or pronounce, or possibly you may not want to be identified as a particular gender.
In my case it is a combination of the first two. I have written and just published an account of my work in various household name international development charities (and other rather obscure ones) over a twenty-year period, but I am bound by an extremely tight thirteen-point confidentiality clause in the employment contract of my last major job in that sector, which covered three years of some of the most interesting work I had undertaken.
Last year I looked at obtaining legal advice to help navigate my way around the confidentiality clause, and after saving up the necessary cash (this kind of advice doesn’t come cheap), I engaged media and communications legal specialists with the brief that I wanted to make the minimum number of changes necessary to the text of my book, whilst staying on the right side of the law in terms of privacy, defamation and confidentiality.
The resulting advice recommended name changes for the confidentiality-obsessed organisation and all the individuals working for it, and also that I use a different name when referring to myself in the text and as the author, so adding a further obscuring layer between the eyes of the reader and real identities. So ultimately using a pseudonym has freed me up to write in more precise detail using more “real” information than if I had used my own name.
There is also the second reason why for me using a pseudonym is desirable. My international development charity work represents the first employment phase of my life, and I am now embarking on a second career very different to this, and I want to keep these two identities separate, so they don’t clash with one another.
I had thought that making the necessary changes to the text would be the end of my concerns, but at nearly every stage of the pathway to e-book publication I have had to have my wits about me to avoid my identity from being disclosed. Firstly, when compiling the information for the book preamble, I needed to put my pseudonym, ‘Gareth Williams’, as the publisher, and for contact details I put the bare minimum so that they would not easily lead back to me: an old but still functioning gmail account which didn’t contain my real name.
Next, it wasn’t until I was looking at the second draft of cover designs I had commissioned that I realised the designer was using my real name on the cover rather than the pseudonym I had given him to include; so that required a re-draft. Then, more damagingly, the distributor I contracted to load my e-book onto the Amazon, ibooks and Kobo retail platforms included my real name under ‘Product Details/Publisher’, despite the very explicit brief I had given them.
For a few days therefore, my real identity was exposed online until I happened to notice, and sent a stiff email to my distributor demanding they make an urgent correction. I questioned their competence at the time, but looking back on the experience more charitably, I think it just reflects that writing under a pseudonym is a rarity, and therefore publishing industry professionals are not always attuned to meeting such specific requirements; the accidental unmasking of J.K.Rowling’s alter-ego Robert Galbraith being a case in point. Checking someone’s work, even when you’re paying a fair amount for it, would always therefore seem to be necessary.
In my case there were other potential pitfalls: I bought my own ISBN number from Nielsen’s so that I would legally be recognised as the publisher of the material, but once I had registered I needed to advise them that I didn’t want my real name and contact details made available to the industry; I have received a confirmation from Nielsen’s that they are suppressing the data. Similarly, as the publisher, I was responsible for depositing the e-book with the British Library, so I needed to identify my pseudonym as the publisher, to avoid my real name appearing on the British Library catalogue.
Whatever publicity and marketing you are planning to undertake will also need to be “pseudonym-friendly.” In terms of social media, using your own Twitter, Facebook and other mediums will obviously give you away, so you are faced with either foregoing these publicity channels or setting up book-specific accounts solely for the purpose of plugging the book.
In my case I chose to engage Cameron Publicity and Marketing to launch the book via NetGalley and to promote subsequent reviews via its own social media platforms. Whereas most authors would relish the opportunity to give interviews, in discussion with Ben Cameron we decided to treat this with caution, not proactively offering interviews, but being prepared to consider requests on a case-by-case basis, perhaps undertaking them by phone, audio-only Skype, by email exchange, or face-to-face if the professionalism of the interviewer is assured.
Using a pseudonym can therefore help an author to disclose material which it may otherwise be inadvisable to write about, but you need to keep your eye on the ball with any people who are providing a service to you along the pathway to publication, and any publicity and marketing work you do directly may have to be a bit convoluted to protect your real identity. Alternatively, employ an industry professional, but be clear with them what you are - and are not - prepared to do to publicise your book. Good luck!
About the Author
Gareth Williams worked for NGOs and volunteered for campaigning organisations from 1984 until 2001, after which he undertook work on a consultancy basis for NGOs internationally from 2002 to 2005. From 2006 until 2014 he worked in the British trade union movement in the areas of international development and environmental sustainability, and is now pursuing a second career as an environmental historian.
Get his book, Collection Tins, Grenades and Rock 'n' Roll: Twenty Years of Trying to Save the World on Amazon here