Wednesday, April 18, 2012

P is for Pen Names and Privacy

I’ve really been looking forward to this post. I’m hoping to get some opinions/insight from you guys, so please, the more advice, the better.

For those who didn’t know, Tobi Summers is a pen name. I made the decision early on that I wasn’t going to publish under my real name. I have an unusual name, the kind of name that there’s only one of when you run a Google search. So every result that pops up is me. That can be kind of cool (I actually really love my name), but it also comes with a lot of responsibility. I have to be extra-careful what goes online, not just because I’m terrified someone will find me and kill me (and, oh, there’ll be more on that later), but also because any future employers who choose to perform even the most basic internet search will receive all that information about me.

So I have an almost obsessive fear of putting personal things online. Or rather, identifying information online (because clearly I have no problem writing down my personal thoughts and feelings). Writing the other day that I live in New Jersey made me break out into a cold sweat. I combed through that post to make sure even that information was a vague as possible. See, we got the internet when I was in middle school, and I was conditioned from a pretty young age to NEVER GIVE OUT PERSONAL INFORMATION ONLINE. People would find where you live and stalk you and kill you. Obviously, keeping my information offline is no longer even remotely a possibility, but every time I put my real name or address into some website, I can hear the voices of every adult I’ve ever known yelling at me.

This has led to some interesting results. At this point, I actually have three personalities online. There’s my real one, which I try to use as little as possible. There’s Tobi Summers, which I’ve started using just in the last few months and which will only be used for writing purposes. And then I have a third identity.

I set up my super-fake alias in high school, back when it was still VERY WRONG to give out personal information online. Originally she just had an email address (Hotmail, because that was the cool thing to have). Then eventually she needed an address. And a phone number (the Pizza Hut in Beverly Hills). And a birthday. And a photo (which I pulled off Google images and probably needs to be updated). In the decade or so since her inception, she’s almost become a full-fledged person. Which is equal parts funny and creepy as hell.

So, right, bringing this back around to the pen name. Because I’m so focused on protecting my identity and my privacy, I have to wonder if there’s ever a point where my real name will become part of my writing life. Like, if I go to a conference, will I introduce myself as Tobi? I mean, that’s the only name almost everyone on here knows. Do I put it on my business cards? If I started talking to other writers in private, at what point should I tell them my real name? Does Emily Post have a guide for this?

Most of the other writers I know don’t use pen names, or they do the J.K. Rowling/E.B. White initials thing. There are probably websites devoted to this topic, but I haven’t looked hard enough yet. Just figuring out how to submit to magazines under a pen name was difficult enough. I’m half-tempted to see about getting Tobi a social security card and a driver’s license.

I have a feeling a lot of the advice will be things like, “Do what feels comfortable,” and that’s cool, but if there are other people who use pen names, what do you do? Or what have you heard about others doing? Like I said before, the more advice, the better.


  1. I have said this a few times today - because lots of people are talking about pen names - but Kyra Lennon is not my real name. I am not cool enough to be a Kyra Lennon LOL

    I chose to have a pen name after I'd been freelancing for a while, and I kind of like having that barrier that protects me from the world a little. If, by some freak chance I did become famous, I am sure my real name would come out, but I quite like the way things are at the moment. :)

  2. Privacy is a huge deal! But for me I'd just feel stupid to have people call me by something other than my name. Veera Snokleboggin? I'm too big of a dork to come up with something serious, lol!! Btw, I tagged you on my blog! :D

  3. Oh man! I am particularly intrigued with your 3rd identity! Love it! I have a pen name too! Although privacy wasn't the main reason why I chose to do it, it's a huge bonus! You can't be too careful these days. I do love "Tobi Summers" though. That's a great pen name! Good choice! :)

  4. I can't add to the 'do what works for you' advice. I really hate my real name and have never used it, which means friends and family already know me by a nickname. So I guess I've had a nom de plume by default.

  5. This is my real name. Although it may not sound particularly graceful, I hadn't ever seriously considered using a pen name. Because writing is such a personal thing, if I ever become successful I want people to know my real identity and not an alias, because it's *me* that's gone through all the hard work, if that makes sense? But I can understand the whole privacy thing. Anyway, regarding advice. I think Tobi Summers is a great name and catchy. If you like using it, stick with it! :)

  6. So funny, I just commented about this very thing on someone elses blog. Angela Cothran is my real name :) I can see the value in a pen name if you are worried about privacy. I feel like Nick does. I want readers to know the real me. But I do love your pen name.

  7. I use a pen name because I always hated my real forename, Anna. It's so boring and overused, and my surname is always being mispronounced. For some reason, people see my Slovakian name and think there's a Mc or Mac in the front. My surname is extremely unusual, to the point where the only people in the U.S. who have it seem to be related to me. When I search my name, I only find myself or my great-grandma, whom some people assume I was named for.

  8. I use a pen name, too. We all have our reasons. I teach elementary school and write about sex. People have been fired for that kind of stuff. :shrugs: