Benefits of Using a Pen Name – Should You Use a Pseudonym?

Pen names (or non de plumes in French) are pseudonyms adopted by writers with a long, interesting, and sometimes funny history.  

Similar to a musical artist (whether single/duo/or group) who might employ a pseudonym for purely stylistic purposes – to be catchy, to encapsulate their brand/image, to better represent their alter persona – writers often employ pseudonyms for easy recollection, ease of pronunciation, and, in some cases, for their name to better match the genre in which they are seeking publication (a darker, more mysterious sounding name, for instance, for mystery/thriller-themed books).  

But given that authors write in various historical time periods each with their own set of political, social, and economic mores, the reasons a writer might choose to write under a pen name are often very different.

In reading this article, you will learn about some of these reasons.  

Additionally, you will learn about the various benefits of using a pen name.  

Lastly, you will also better appreciate the virtually limitless creative energy flowing in each and every writer and how pen names, far from being used for a single purpose, can be used to experiment across various genres and potentially unlock hidden writing talent.  

Let’s get right into it.  

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This guide to the benefits of using a pen name covers:

  1. How do pen names benefit writers?
  2. Famous historical pen names
  3. Why do writers use pen names?
  4. The strategic benefits of pseudonyms
  5. How pen names help writers experiment
  6. The branding benefits of pen names
  7. How to decide whether to use a pseudonym

How do pen names benefit writers?

I love the language an article published on the website electricliterature.com used when explaining the various reasons authors have used (or continue to use) pen names.  Noting that some have used them for “political reasons, others for personal concerns, and some simply for the joy of mischief… pseudonyms are a powerful tool for writers, allowing their pens to say what perhaps their mouths couldn’t”

Here are just a few writers whose pens were used to do the talking.

Famous historical pen names

If you’re thinking of using a pen name, you’re in great historical company!

Here are four of history’s most famous pseudononymous authors:

  1. Daniel Defoe, the English writer, journalist, and spy, widely considered to be one of England’s earliest novelists and most controversial writers of his time, having produced more than 400 works ranging from books, pamphlets, songs, essays, and journalistic works spanning many subjects, used 198 different pseudonyms.
  2. Theodor Geisel, the beloved children’s author who wrote under the pen name Dr. Seuss, whose pseudonym resulted from being caught drinking as a Dartmouth undergrad (for which he was forced to resign as Editor-in-Chief of a campus humor magazine) holds the record for the most books written pseudonymously (57).
  3. Stanley Martin Lieber, widely recognized as Stan Lee, who would eventually achieve worldwide literary acclaim as a comic book writer, producing such classics as The Amazing Spider-Man, planned to save his real name for more “serious” literary work such as novels.
  4. Eric Blair, who wrote worldwide classic novels such as 1984 and Animal Farm and whose literary masterpieces denouncing the evils of totalitarian government has instituted a “language of dystopia” – such words as “Orwellian” and “Big Brother” –  wrote under the pen name George Orwell so his family wouldn’t be embarrassed by his time in poverty – an experience he recounts in his classic work, Down and Out in London and Paris.  

For more interesting, fascinating, and sometimes hilarious tidbits of literary history regarding pen names, check out this very artful, historical infographic timeline provided by electricliterature.com.  

Why do writers use pen names?

There are a whole host of reasons an author may choose to use a pen name or not. If you’re here, these might help you decide what name to publish under for your own reasons.

#1 – For anonymity / privacy

Some of the greatest works of literary fiction that would go to achieve much acclaim were, in many instances, scathing indictments on the current political power, economic order, social value system, etc. 

Writers, then and now, needing protection from the government, enemies of one sort or another, chose to write under a pen name for their personal protection.  

In some cases, though, it’s simply a matter of privacy.  Social media being all the rage, if you wish to retain some privacy regarding your thoughts on touchy subjects – and believe you have what it takes to publish a book on such things – using a pen name is definitely recommended. 

Hiring managers no doubt check social media profiles, workplace friends have access to your every thought it seems like, so it’s definitely preferable to make a clear boundary between your public and private life.  

George Orwell mentioned previously, was motivated by both concerns:  he feared what his family might think as he lived destitute in many of Europe’s leading cities and he certainly knew that his writings were taking on the elites of his time.  

#2 – To conceal gender, marketing, and reckless abandon

From England’s Victorian Age up to the present postmodern world of liberal publication, women have penned works under male names for a variety of reasons.  In more historic times, given the male-dominated nature of authorship and publication, aspiring female authors, to be taken seriously and have their works published at all, wrote under a male name.

Combine this social and political climate with literary works criticizing these very norms and it makes sense why  Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (‘Currer Bell’), Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (‘Ellis Bell’), and Middlemarch by Mary Anne Evans (‘George Elliot’) – three of the most celebrated English literary classics – were written under male names.  

More recently, Joanne Rowling, popular author of the Harry Potter Series, one of the best-selling book series of all time, penned her works under the more gender-ambiguous ‘J.K. Rowling.’  In 2013, when she published The Cuckoo’s Calling, she adopted the even more straightforward male name of ‘Robert Galbraith.’ 

In the case of Rowling, because the intended audience of her Harry Potter series were young boys who presumably would not want to read fantasy books written by a woman, publishers decided that she use the more gender-neutral J.K.   

Sometimes a flat out rejection of traditional standards of decency and modesty explains female to male name changes.  Speaking about Amantine Lucile Dupin, the famous French novelist and memoirist, Carmela Ciuraru, author of Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms writes: 

“bored by her aristocratic milieu, a cigar-smoking, cross-dressing baroness rejected the rules of propriety by having sexual liaisons with men and women alike, publishing novels and plays under the name George Sand.”

The rationale behind the name change for a more gender-neutral or male-sounding name sounds antiquated but it nonetheless remains true in some parts of the literary publishing world.  Ciuraru, for instance, during a CNN interview, speaking about Rowling’s decision to write under a male name, stated that “Sadly, in certain genres, it still helps to be a man – particularly in crime or science fiction.”  

In the late ’60s, as one example, James Tiptree Jr, a very popular science fiction writer who seemed to have come from nowhere, was actually Alice Sheldon, a former CIA officer, and experimental psychologist.  

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#3 – To change genres or fan expectations

Say your favorite writer of legal suspense decides to write a coming-of-age novel, just how motivated would you be to read it?  Would you be suspicious, maybe even questioning the quality of the book?  

Aside from answering to their critics, many notable authors have big fanbases who, like it or not, have to be catered to.  While book titans James Patterson and John Grisham have been able to “get away” with writing outside of “their genre” the same may not apply to a lesser-known and beginning writer.  

Here’s what even established authors likely consider: 

  • Feeling disingenuous they may wonder, “how can I write a book of poetry if I only am known for romance novels?” 
  • Fearing backlash they may think about fans or even first-time readers coming down hard on them and judging their work extra hard.  
  • As public figures, bad PR might keep them up at night: say the writer writes mainly fictional Sci-fi books and one day decides to pen a non-fictional work on the latest culture war topic.  

These scenarios–internal debates about whether or not to shift genres (and the potential consequences of doing so)–are virtually endless.  

This is where pen names come in.  

The biggest names do it–or have done it.    

  • Nora Roberts becomes ‘J.D.  Robb’ when writing erotic thrillers.  
  • Samuel Langhorne Clemens, when writing across different genres, was known to the world as ‘Mark Twain.’  
  • The King of Horror himself, Stephen King, has penned various novels outside of horror under ‘Richard Bachman.’

#4 – The strategic benefits of pseudonyms

A quick note on King and others like him.  Writers who have an especially large output – such as King and other authors who publish in different genres – are wise to use a different name if they are simply publishing a ton of material – more than a loyal fan base might be able to keep up with.   

So, for instance, in one calendar year, once you have established a regular publishing pattern, one or two books a year, and you still think you can churn out a third, but, say, in a different genre, a name change might work here in terms of sales, marketing, and keeping a loyal fan base.  

Again, the particulars of this will look different for every writer but as an example, consider the following: you establish a great reputation, both in print and on social media, as an expert on the topic of, to use a modern trendy example, the ketogenic diet.  

You’ve written a book or two already, have a great Youtube channel, perhaps even a podcast.  You are firing on all cylinders.  Say, now, you would like to shift gears, and pen something on leadership.  

Here are some things to think about: 

  • Should you go full steam ahead and risk everything by delving into a brand new subject? 
  • What if it flops?  Perhaps the market is flooded with such books already.  
  • Maybe your fan base thinks you are “faking it to make it” by hiring a ghostwriter – your latest attempt to exploit your following by offering something they probably don’t even need. 
  • Worse, they begin to question your previous books and think it was a marketing ploy–using others to manufacture your claim to fame.  

Using a pen name is a strategic marketing decision arrived at after considering your track record, future goals, personal passion, and subject expertise.  

Below follow some reasons why you ought to consider using one.  

How pen names help you experiment

Pen names are beneficial for a ton of reason, many not listed above. Some full-time writers use various pen names in different ways in order to experiment with what’s working and what’s not.

#1 – Pen names are a great way to test the “Writing Waters” and experiment with your craft

Personal journals/diaries detailing your deepest darkest secrets were once the domain of only one person–you, the individual.  But, today, in an internet-crazed world where people are looking for more answers to more and more of life’s complex problems, you very well may have the answers people are looking for. 

Pen names allow you to publish material that you otherwise would not publish–material that could form the basis for a loyal following, people so loyal who could be salivating for your next biggest project–a book-length work that, who knows, goes on to span a fictional series, a memoir based on personal life experiences, a novel that you later sell the movies for, etc.  Most great fiction finds its basis on non-fictional real life accounts, after all.  

Think of it in terms of a question: why do new cookbooks or rock groups come out each year?  

Personally, I think it comes down to the market always allowing for new and unique voices that offer a fresh perspective on a given subject.  What you think is only good enough may very well be great for somebody else.  You may be that special person people connect with.  There’s only one way to test this out: get your material out there.

#2 – The branding benefits of pen names

A Medium article published by the writer S.K. Anthony further elaborates on these above points.  Expounding on her point of what pen names do for a writer’s branding, Anthony makes the excellent point that “there’s no better reason to have a pen name than having flunked under a different name and needing to start over” – a phenomenon she says happens more than people even realize.  

Think of the virtually limitless creative opportunities that you, the aspiring writer, are afforded.  No other creative profession – no profession at all, for that matter – allows for such wondrous potential.  

The lawyer who loses too many cases develops a bad rap;  the athlete who blows the big game one too many times finds it hard to rebound; the musician who plays a horrible note hardly recovers his or her musical prowess; the restaurateur who gets too many bad reviews on Yelp, and on and on…

Not so with writing…

If you fail to resonate with readers after publishing your deepest personal memoir but feel you can give it a shot at short story writing—who can stop you? 

Who will know you – the real you – failed?  

If the funny punchlines that you thought could form a humor book fall flat and get bad reviews on Amazon but think you can write the latest Sci-Fi book, what law exists to prevent you?  

How do you make such drastic genre changes you still be might wondering?  

You change your ‘name’!

Perhaps you need reminding from a daring historical figure who stopped at nothing to accomplish greatness – Thomas Edisons’ timeless quote: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

The only difference is his failings were made public; yours will remain private.  Talk about a win-win!!

The beauty of writing is that you can control the extent of your privacy; nobody sees you in the privacy of your home formulating your craft, nobody even has to know the person behind the name…too shy to engage with your audience live?  Do it through a personal fan page where you interact digitally until you announce your “coming out” moment.  

Not to go too far with my point here, though.  I guess I’m just pointing out some additional benefits to being a writer who dares to experiment and who, perhaps too shy and introverted, wishes to remain anonymous.  

How to decide whether to use a pseudonym

Here are some pointers to keep in mind regarding pen names.  I provide some examples – some hypothetical, some real-world–on when pen names are appropriate and ways you might be able to further brand yourself:  

Keep these six points in mind when thinking about pen names:

  1. It seems that very famous writers, like celebrities, can “get away” with certain things based on how successful and loved they are; nobody questions when a celebrity of any field decides to write a book (that is standard practice), but when a writer decides to enter a new genre – write a screenplay, launch a videogame, invent an app – they can only do so if they have truly proven themselves
  2. To give an example of the previous point, the creator of the Rich Dad Poor Dad series, Robert Kiyosaki, has been able to successfully brand his international hit, the Rich Dad Poor Dad book, into many successful follow up books, a board game, popular website, speaking engagements, popular seminars, etc.  Keep in mind, his second book (you may not score big on your first)–which to this day remains a huge hit–allowed not only his writing career but his broader entrepreneurial brand to really take off.  
  3. NOTE: There was no need for him to use a pen name because his books and larger brand centered around personal finance, investing, business, self-help, etc.  If he ever wanted to brand himself outside of this world, it might make sense to use a pen name.  
  4. Genre-hopping requiring a pen name, to be clear, need not even happen for you, the aspiring writer.  If you truly find your niche and can keep building it up through follow up books, seminars, a game, a movie, consulting, etc…why rock the boat, right?  Consider the biggest brands like Star Wars and Harry Potter and the immense scalability they both wield across the globe.  From the first HP book to movie adaptations, LEGO sets, action figures, various toys, video games, etc.  THINK BIG.  
  5. No matter where you are in your personal/professional life you likely already have a powerful story to share–and you need not even have to use a pen name, no matter how deep and personal.  I love the story of Matthew Crawford, the “philosopher-mechanic,” whose New York York Times Bestselling Book, Shop Class as Soul Craft, became an instant bestseller.  Here was a Ph.D. in political science working as the Director of a think tank who made the occupational change to a motorcycle mechanic who wrote a book – a very powerful thought-provoking one – to tremendous acclaim.  Imagine what his next move might be – speaker, consultant, follow up book on a similar topic.  No need for a pen name.  Judging by the reception of his first book, people likely want a second.  
  6. Long complicated, difficult-to-pronounce name, too ‘soft’ of a name for a ‘strong’ subject you are tackling—these are situations where a pen name may work.  Again, many musical artists do it.  When they want to sound fun, upbeat, and energetic, they pick a name accordingly.  Think of the countless rock bands that pick names connoting danger, death, and what have you.  The literary equivalent for a writer would be picking a mysterious-sounding name for a suspense-themed book.  Many artists –including writers– “Americanize” their name, if, for instance, the name is too long/difficult to pronounce.  However, the opposite works too. To get in touch with their roots (and their potential readership) writers will use their foreign names to great effect.  Two such examples of works dealing with strong ethnic themes that have garnered much literary acclaim are Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah.  

You literally have unlimited freedom when it comes to choosing a pen name. Whether or not you choose one comes down to a consideration of factors that this article hopefully helped to frame for you. Self-Publishing School can certainly help with this important decision and more. What are you waiting for?  

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How to Break a Publishing Contract With a Traditional Book Publisher

This is an incredibly unfortunate (but common) position to be in—taking steps to break a publishing contract with a traditional book publisher because, among other reasons, your hard work and dreams of book publishing aren’t going as expected.

Maybe you’re unhappy with the publisher or maybe you decided to pursue self-publishing your book because you learned of its vast benefits.

Either way, you’re in great company!

Many authors embark on this mission to break their contract in an effort to take more control and see more success through self-publishing or through new opportunities.

Today, we’ll take a look at what it takes to break a publishing contract with a traditional book publisher, as well as the advantage to pursuing your writing career with self-publishing.

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(Note: Before we dive in, let’s make something clear: We are not lawyers and so, any information you find here is to be taken by suggestion only. Every publishing contract has its own stipulations, clauses and restrictions based on an agreement between the publisher and author. It is therefore recommended you always read your contract carefully and adhere to the binding agreement. We also strongly suggest you become familiar with the US Copyright laws.)

Depending on where you are in the process—you may be exploring what it would take to break a publishing contract before you’ve even signed, or you may be beginning to initiate the “break up”—use the links below to jump around sections of this post… though we’d like to think the whole thing is worth reading :).

Here’s what we cover for how to break a publishing contract:

  1. Finding a Good Book Publisher
  2. Pitfalls to Publishing Contracts: What to Know Before You Sign
  3. How to Avoid Signing a Bad Publishing Contract
  4. Making The Decision to Break a Contract With a Traditional Book Publisher
  5. How to Break a Publishing Contract With a Traditional Book Publisher
  6. Hiring a Literary Lawyer
  7. Breaking a Contract With a Vanity Publisher

Finding A Good Book Publisher

Every writer has a big dream…to become a published author and see their books being displayed in bookstores across the nation. Even if you haven’t envisioned your success to this point, let’s be honest: The thought of it is exciting. So, when it comes to making choices about how to publish your book, it comes down to this: Should I seek out a traditional publisher? Or, take the self-publishing route?

Many authors have chosen the traditional route for publishing their book, only to realize that, after months of frustration and hard work, they have gotten nowhere. What initially looked like a great deal to start with has become your worst nightmare.

Or, maybe this isn’t the case. You could have a good relationship with your publisher but feel that you want to have more control over your books creativity. Whatever reasons, you have decided that you want to break free of your publishing contract, but…you signed a binding agreement

[RELATED: Publishing a Book: Traditional vs. Self-Publishing]

Now what?

Pitfalls to Publishing Contracts: What to Know Before You Sign

First of all, every contract is different, so there isn’t a magic formula for authors to navigate through the various pitfalls and obstacles in contracts. But knowing the basics of what to watch for can help you to make the best decision for your writing career.

TV and Film Rights

Do you hold the rights to your material for film, TV, and any and all media based contracts? Don’t sign over your rights unless you are being paid for it, and paid well. A publisher should not have exclusive rights to all TV and/or film rights. This includes digital media and world rights

Competition Clause

Selling books is just one avenue for authors to build their brand and earn income. There are also [as mentioned above] film rights, online video and/or audio courses, audio books, coaching, or software the author has created to support the material.

If there is a competition clause that prevents you from upselling, this would be a serious hindrance to your growth as an author not to mention income loss. This is one reason many authors are turning to self-publishing. They can do all of these things without any restrictions and receive 100% of the profits.

Break Clause

Books do go out of print or become less popular as time goes on. In this case, if your book actually becomes out of print and the publisher is unwilling to do anything more with the manuscript, a break clause ensures that all rights are reverted back to the author.

You want to make sure that the publisher does not hold your book ‘hostage’ for years after it goes out of print or is remaindered. There should be a time frame here, 3-5 years, and if there isn’t, make sure that they implement this.

Right of First Refusal Clause

If the publisher has a clause stating your next book [and subsequent books] must be submitted to the publisher first before you can submit anywhere else, be sure to check the details carefully.

This is a standard clause but, there needs to be a term specifically stated such as 60 or 90 days. The publisher has until the end of this term to either accept or reject the book. This could work against your favor if your relationship with the publisher has not been good to begin with. Your book is tied up with them until the end term and holds you back from submitting elsewhere.

Early Termination Clause

Let’s take a situation: You have decided to move on from your publisher and separate the ties.

break publishing contract

But, in your contract there is an early termination clause that states you are to pay a specified sum to the publisher in the amount of XXX dollars before in order to terminate the agreement.

Although a publisher may have reasons for placing this in a contract, in most cases it only benefits the publisher to squeeze more income from the author before parting ways.

Now, if your contract does have a termination clause, this doesn’t mean you should walk away. But, be aware that if you do, you’ll have to pay to get out of the club.

Termination fees could range from a hundred dollars to thousands. Check the print. Make sure of what your rights are if the contract is terminated early by either the author or the publisher.

Copyrighting: You or the publisher?

Be sure the book is copyrighted under your name and not that of the publisher. If the publisher copyrights under their name, they own it.

Red flag here. Only legitimate publishers will copyright under the author’s name.

In addition, be sure to register your name with the U.S. Copyright Office even if the publisher doesn’t do this.

[RELATED: How to Copyright a Book]

Termination & Reversion of Rights

To elaborate on what we said above, your contract should have a Termination & Reversion of Rights clause. This is not only for author but protects the publisher as well. In the event that book sales are weak and the publisher desires to terminate the contract, they can do so with full rights reversing back to the author.

In the event of bankruptcy, the rights of publication may revert back to the author after a period has elapsed. Ideally, this is what you want, but be sure to check the print. If you are not sure, consult with a lawyer. You don’t want your book tied up for years if it isn’t selling or has been remaindered.

Non-Negotiable Contracts

Flexibility is an important part of doing business. If the publisher is offering a contract that is non-negotiable, you might want to think twice.

Although you may not agree with everything in the contract, if there is something slight that you want changed and by making this change it has no negative impact on the publisher. but they are unwilling to change it, chances are you’ll have more problems down the road.

Non-negotiable means “take it as it is or walk away”, so, they may not value the relationship with the authors who sign up.

Think Before You Sign

Contracts have many causes but, just because it is there doesn’t mean you need to accept it. Be aware of the red flags and clauses set up that tie you up or force you to pay high fees for breaking a contract. Publishers are not known for being flexible with the contract terms.

So, if there is anything in the contract that you are uncomfortable with, and the publisher is not willing to change the terms you find inappropriate, best to walk away and look for a better deal.

In addition, publishing contracts are not forever. Be aware of contracts that try to tie you up with “Perpetual Renewal” clauses that continue indefinitely. Other factors to consider are:

  • Will you receive any free review copies?
  • Is there a publication date for the book, and is it an accurate date? If you are publishing a book on the best clothing to wear for this winter season, you don’t want it coming out in the beginning of spring.
  • How often are royalties reported?
  • Are there subsidiary rights? If so, what are they and is it written in easy-to-understand text?
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How to Avoid Signing a Bad Publishing Contract

While the scope of this post covers how to get out of a publishing agreement, let’s take a look at how we can avoid buying into a bad agreement in the first place. This could also help you if you get out of one contract and are looking into signing on with another publisher.

You might be at the stage right now with an offer from a publisher and you’re not sure if you should sign or not. A bad book deal would be classified as a contract that favors the publisher in most ways. As an author, we have to be aware of the pitfalls that are out there. Before you sign, do the research

Ultimately you, the author, have to decide if it is a good deal or not. You have worked hard on your book, and now it needs to opportunity to be handled carefully.

Here is a list of red flags to watch for and how to avoid buying into a contract that you later regret. Keep in mind every contract has clauses and contract terms. The question is, are these clauses acceptable? Do they favor the publisher and not the author? Are any of the clauses considered red flags [aka danger zones for authors]?

When reading over your contract, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I retain the rights to my book if I terminate this agreement?
  • Is there a termination fee if I try to break this contract?
  • Is the publisher locking me into a long term contract that benefits them financially for years to come?
  • Is breaking this contract going to hurt my career as an author?
  • Is the copyright under my name or the publisher?

If there is anything you are not sure of, ask a literary lawyer to review your contract—we’ll talk about hiring one later in this post.

Take a week to review the contract details and fine print. Do your own research before you sign anything. Even though you are an author and the business side of the publishing industry may be new territory, it is time to think of writing as a business because, for the publishing companies, that is exactly what it is. Business. They are in business to make money from your work, and yes, so are you.

When to Make the Decision to Break a Publishing Contract With a Traditional Book Publisher

The reasons you are considering breaking your publishing contract:

  1. The publisher has not provided the support they said they would.
  2. The author lost control over most of the creative process of the book.
  3. The author still has to market and promote the book with little to no financial backing from the publisher.
  4. The publisher has proven unreliable with communication or working with the author to make the book successful.
  5. The author has decided to sign on with another publisher, or, publish the book themselves.
  6. The author has decided to self-publish instead hoping to have better success.

If you are seriously ready to try and break your contract with a traditional publisher, there are several things you have to consider before taking action. Keep in mind that publishers are in the business of making money from author’s works. This means they are in it to protect their own interests and in most cases, consider the needs of their company before that of the author.

The best scenario you can look for is a publisher interested in forming a working relationship with the author. What this means is, a contract that benefits both sides equally and protects both the author, the works, and the publisher.

There are many authors out there who unknowingly jumped into a contract with a publisher before researching all of the legalities involved. In haste to get a book published and start a new and prosperous career as a writer, you may be in that situation now.

Realizing that the situation isn’t what you had hoped for, you are a crossroads: Stick with the publisher and hope things improve. Or, make an attempt to break the publishing contract.

You could be looking into signing on with a publisher in the future, and have yet to make that big leap. If so, you need to consider carefully the risks as well as the rewards.

The Critical Question

This is the critical question: Is it time to break your contract with your publisher, and the reasons for doing so. Here are several reasons why authors have decided to make the break.

  1. The publisher has stopped investing in the book. It could be that your book is out of print or remaindered and now being squeezed to the back. You feel there is potential here for more growth but the publisher is not willing to invest anymore in the book.
  2. The publisher hasn’t followed through on book marketing or distribution. This is when reading the contract carefully will pay off later. Many publishers will not state specifically what their intentions are for marketing the book. For this reason, authors may find themselves in a situation where they are responsible for handling most of the marketing side.

This could also include paying for it out of their own pockets. In some cases the publisher will allocate an allowance to the author to spend on marketing as they see fit. But without any support from the promotional side of things, the book is really going to struggle to sell.

Be clear on the marketing strategies from the beginning and, it should be in writing. If not, you are leaving yourself vulnerable.

  1. The publisher has proven difficult to work with. Every publisher is different with respect to flexibility and agreeing on terms. Even after the contract is signed, and both parties appear to be satisfied, problems can emerge. The author is dissatisfied with the way the book has been handled. Or, the publisher expected more from the author.

If you feel that an ongoing relationship with the publisher is only going to harm your writing career and bring harm to your book’s success, consider breaking the contract. You can find another publisher or, do what many previous traditionally published authors have done and taken the self-publishing route.

Whether you are considering signing with a book publisher, or you have already done so, you need to know everything in the contract. There are so many minor details written in such a way that you could overlook something that could cost you thousands [or even millions] further down the road.

The bottom line is: Know what you are getting into. To move ahead a step further, if you are already under contract and you want to break the agreement, know what you could be getting into by doing so.

  • Are there any penalty fees?
  • Will this ruin your chances of getting picked up by another publisher?
  • Will your book survive the transition?

There are lots of things to consider, but if you are absolutely certain breaking your contract is the thing to do, the next sections in this post will be immensely helpful.

Hiring a Literary Lawyer

If you decide to hire a lawyer to look into your case, we would recommend you find someone who specializes in copyright law and matters involving publications works. A lawyer could provide you with another avenue to take and steer you away from potential risk imposed by the publisher.

These specialized lawyers, also known as a literary attorney, can examine the minute details in a contract that an author or an author’s agent are not trained to spot. Bear in mind the publishers have lawyers draw up their contracts and in legal terminology most people are not experienced with. So, it only makes sense you should seriously consider having a lawyer on board as well.

You may be weighing the cost of hiring a literary attorney but consider this: How much would it cost down the road if a misunderstanding occurred between you and the publisher? Suddenly you are facing the publisher and a legal team that could have been avoided if the contract had been understood completely from the beginning. In some cases, while the publisher may be at fault for breaching the conditions, many cases the author was not fully aware of all the minute details and fine print.

Should you decide to break from your publishing company, as we have discussed, you may be in need of a literary attorney to navigate through the legal channels you are not familiar with.

For more information and a contact list, epic fantasy novelist Laura Resnick has compiled a directory of literary lawyers.

Understanding Copyright Laws

It is important that you have a strong grasp on copyright law. The publishing companies do and they may not always share the legalities with you. It is up to each individual author to protect his or her own rights.

Agreement of Termination

If everything goes well, you will have the opportunity to sign an Agreement of Termination. This would effectively end your contract with the publisher and restore your book rights. The publisher would then remove your works from all published platforms, including Amazon, the publisher’s website, or any social media promotion sites.

How to Break a Publishing Contract With a Traditional Book Publisher

Here we are. If you’ve read through the entirety of this post, and have still found yourself wanting to take action to break your contract with your traditional book publisher, this action plan will help you take next steps.

Use this brief action plan to move forward the right way.

(Regardless, if you feel uncomfortable or unsure of the proper actions to take, we recommend consulting with authors who have been through a similar experience and a literary attorney that can provide counsel.)

  1. Understand the terms, clauses and conditions of the contract completely. It is important that you understand everything you have agreed to in the contract. Most contracts have a termination clause. If you are stuck on the legal terminology, get help. Many grievances with publishing houses occur because the author was not fully aware of all the minute details listed.
  2. Termination Clause. If there is a termination clause and you are asked to pay a sum in order to be released, consider paying it if that is what it takes to be released. This could involve paying a termination fee. Depending on how much that fee is, it could be worth it in the long run for your writing career to pay it and get out if you can. If there isn’t a termination clause, you can request to be released. The publisher may grant you this request if they would rather not keep someone under contract who is not happy.
  3. Wait it out. If the contract cannot be terminated, and the publisher is unwilling to let you go, ride it out, keep writing, and focus on moving past this when the term ends. As every contract varies in terms of the clauses and fine details, be aware of what you can and can’t do during the term you are still obliged to stay with the publishing company.
  4. Seek support and feedback. Chances are you know a lot of authors in the business. Ask people for advice and sign up with an organization that can protect you. This is something I encourage all writers to do before they get into trouble. In this post we have listed various groups such as the Authors Guild or Griefcom that authors can contact for legal advice regarding publishing law and ongoing support throughout the grievance process.
  5. Don’t be discouraged from trying again. As a writer, you must find another way to get your story out there. If it didn’t work out with a publishing company, take what you have learned and move forward. If finding a traditional publisher is your thing, now you are better prepared than before. Or, if you want to try self-publishing, many authors today are having great success with this path.

To learn more about copyright laws, you can visit: www.copyright.gov

Breaking a Publishing Contract With a Vanity Publisher

There is another type of publisher that landed on the scene about a decade ago when writers started to figure out self-publishing was becoming a big thing. Now, these “publishing companies” are often mistaken for traditional book publishers.

Although they do have similarities, many authors have unknowingly fallen under the umbrella of a vanity publisher.

These publishers have one interest only: To take a writer’s money.

They charge exorbitant amounts for editing, cover design, and a book marketing campaign. Worse yet, they lock authors into a long term contract that could last for years. In other words, they hold your book hostage, blocking you out of any decision making. You lose control over most of the rights of your book. You can’t even buy your own author copies unless you pay the full retail price.

If you have found yourself in this situation, with a vanity publisher that is taking more and more, terminating this contract would be in your best interest. Many authors have learned a lesson from this and started successful self-publishing careers where they had full control over their brand and products.

Breaking away from a vanity publisher can have its difficulties just as a real book publisher has. The same rules apply here. Do your homework and know what you are getting into.

If it is the case where you are already signed and ready to break, get legal help if needed and look at your options to terminate. If doing so would cause legal harm or could prove to be costly, your alternative solution would be to abandon the book to its fate while it is under contract.

Remember: it is the book that is under contract, not you. Write another book and take it down a new publishing road. You can self-publish next time. You can find a legitimate publisher that offers up a fair contract deal. They are becoming harder to find, but they are out there.

Consulting Legal Counsel and Support Groups

In some cases seeking legal counsel may be the only solution to breaking your contract. Keep in mind that the majority of cases are rarely won unless the publisher has broken the agreement or failed to deliver on the agreement.

In this case, hiring legal counsel would be a strong option. If you must take this route, be sure to choose a lawyer that is experienced or specializes in copyright law. They can help you to find the loopholes that you missed on your own.

There are several groups that can help authors with support when it comes to dealing with the legalities of the business:

  • The Authors Guild is the oldest and largest professional organization for writers. As a member of the Authors Guild, you’re entitled to legal help, web services, access to all seminars, and member events. This is a great place for support.
  • The National Writers Union handles grievances for writers. The grievance officers have handled grievances against global publishing houses, newsletters and institutional house organs, and local and regional newspapers and magazines. They have also taken on literary agents, subsidy presses (including scam artists), and vanity publishers.
  • The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America [SFWA] is running Griefcom, a service for writers. They can help with onerous contracts and intercede on behalf of the author. As the website states, what they can also do is successfully mediate non-monetary, non-contractual disputes with publishers; get non-publishers in the SF&F world to pay monies legitimately owed to authors; and in short, get people to respect copyrights

Your book is important to you and your readers. Be certain to do everything you can to protect your rights, the copyrights of your works, and avoid signing into a bad situation by hiring the right kind of experienced people who can navigate through the less-obvious pitfalls.

Alliance of Independent Authors. This is a non-profit organization for self-published authors but is a good group for getting alerts on shady promotions and support from the writing community.

The Self-Publishing Route: Is This For You?

After terminating your contract with your book publisher, or making an attempt to, you now have a new path to pursue in building your writing career. Regardless of what happened with the traditional book publishing route, self-publishing could be your thing if you decide to keep on writing and build that platform you have been dreaming of.

Authors have switched over to self-publishing after years as traditionally published authors with great success. If you decide to take this path, self-publishing may work out in your favor if you learn the ropes of how to DIY. I have been self-publishing for several years and I love the creative control I have over my work. Maybe you will, too.

You have no doubt heard of Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform and the massive success it has been with authors around the world?

There was a time not too long ago when a writer would have to submit manuscript after manuscript to a traditional publisher. After years of getting rejected by agents and big name publishers many good authors gave up writing or just kept writing without being published.

Well my friends, not anymore.

Now, Amazon has cut out the big gatekeepers and provided authors with massive opportunity to write the books of their dreams. The best part is, an author has control over all of the creative aspects of their books, from the writing to cover design. For many, this is a huge advantage.

With self-publishing, nobody is paying you a huge advance for your book but, for most authors, the dream to be published and hold that book in their hands is the golden ticket. If it goes on to become a big bestseller with millions sold, that is an additional bonus.

The great news for authors is, Amazon has positioned itself as an aggressive player in the publishing industry. Traditional publishers are scared. Writers now have options that didn’t exist before. The big New York publishers held all the cards and called the shots.

There is a long list of self-published authors who have proven that you can make money with your writing without the “big publishers” getting involved. Look at Mark Dawson, the bestselling author of the John Milton action series. Dawson published his first book, The Art of Falling Apart, with a traditional publisher back in 2000.

The book completely bombed. Casting aside the traditional publishing route, he published The Black Mile selling over 50,000 copies after giving it away for free, followed by the John Milton series books that have sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

Amanda Hocking, a writer of paranormal fiction, had written 17 novels while working full time only to have them rejected by publishers. Giving up trying to catch the attention of traditional publishers, she self-published on Amazon’s website and has since then become a million copy global bestseller.

So, you can decide to publish with a publishing company, or, take the path of a self-publishing authorpreneur. No matter the journey you take, I am certain you will succeed if you don’t give up.

Are You Ready To Publish?

Now, after reading this post, you may still be on the fence about pursuing a traditional publishing contract, or, trying it out yourself the self-publishing way. The good news is, even if you get rejected a hundred times by agents and publishers, having the door slammed closed too many times, there is one door you can always open and see your dream of publishing a book come to fruition.

Keep in mind that publishing contracts vary so widely that it’s up to each individual author to read the contract terms carefully and, if you are unsure of anything, ask the publisher for better clarification. If you have to seek legal counsel, do that, but don’t sign until you are ready.

All the best with your publishing journey!

Stay Informed

For up-to-date information on author rights and a list of bad publishers to avoid, visit the following sites:

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Writing Memoirs—What You Need to Know to Avoid Being Sued

Everyone wants to avoid being sued. Litigation is expensive, time-consuming, and incredibly stressful. Most writers don’t have much to worry about. The odds that they’ll end up in a courtroom for something they wrote are fairly low. Our First Amendment right to free speech offers significant protection to write freely. One exception to this rule is the world of memoir.

The reason the memoir genre is compelling is because it’s fascinating to read the dirty details of others’ lives. Memoir authors usually don’t write about rainbows and sunshine, they write about the salacious. Abuse, sex, addiction, and family drama—it’s the Sturm und Drang that people want to read about. This is the primary reason why memoirs open the door for lawsuits.

memoir avoid being sued

There’s a fine balance when you’re writing your memoir. Of course, it’s your story, and as such, you want it to be told without barriers. Yet, you need to consider those you’re writing about. They may not want to be part of your story. And, in some cases, if you violate the law, they may have the right to retaliate with a lawsuit.

We can all agree that there are better things to spend your book royalties on than exorbitant legal fees. Read on for tips to avoid going from published author to professional despondent. (Note: Our first disclaimer—this article does not constitute professional legal advice. For real legal advice, consult your real live counsel, rather than looking things up on the Internet.)

1. Case Study: Running with Scissors

Since we’re discussing legal issues, it seems fitting to start with a case study on the issues of memoir, defamation, and invasion of privacy.

Critically acclaimed author Augusten Burroughs published the best-selling memoir, Running with Scissors in 2003. In his book, he recalled his time living with the fictional “Finches.” His book recounted abuse, drug use, dysfunctional family behavior, living in squalor, and other unsavory details any family wouldn’t want blasted all over printed pages.

Burroughs claimed that while he did change the name of the family (in real life, the Turcottes), the harrowing details of his time spent in their care were true. The Turcottes filed a defamation and invasion of privacy torts suit against Burroughs and his publisher. The family asserted that Burroughs fabricated facts and violated their privacy.

Burroughs’ defense hinged on his assertion that the facts, as he wrote them, were true; therefore he had not broken any laws. The parties settled out of court. As part of the settlement, Burroughs changed his acknowledgments to say the Turcottes had “conflicting memories” of the described events. Burroughs was legally obligated to amend his book acknowledgments to read as follows:

I would like to thank the real-life members of the family portrayed in this book for taking me into their home and accepting me as one of their own. I recognize that their memories of the events described in this book are different than my own. They are each fine, decent and hard-working people. The book was not intended to hurt the family. Both my publisher and I regret any unintentional harm resulting from the publishing and marketing of Running With Scissors.

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2. Understand the Concepts

The best defense is a good offense. In litigation that means don’t do anything that will get you sued. Before you publish your memoir, it’s important that you understand your rights to free speech, as well as defamation and invasion of privacy issues.

First Amendment Protection

The First Amendment protects your right to free speech. This protection applies to both the spoken and written word.

Defamation

In short, defamation is when you ruin a person’s reputation. Black’s Law Dictionary defines defamation as, “The taking from one’s reputation. The offense of injuring a person’s character, fame, or reputation by false and malicious statements.” The term covers both libel (written) and slander (spoken).

Only living people can sue for defamation, so someone can’t file a lawsuit against you for defamation through an estate or relatives.

Invasion of Privacy

Invasion of privacy lawsuits hinge on public disclosure of private facts. Private facts are sensitive information that the average person would not want to share with the general public; for example, medical records, adoption records, abuse, alcoholism, etc. Just as with defamation, an invasion of privacy suit can’t be brought by an estate or relatives. Even if what you write is 100% true, someone can still bring an invasion of privacy suit based on public disclosure of private facts.

3. Preventing a Defamation Cause of Action

The best defense against defamation is the truth. Suppose you write that your neighbor was convicted of axe murder. He can’t bring a defamation suit against you if he was, in fact, convicted of axe murder. But if you write, “my neighbor could be capable of axe murder because he’s crazy,” then you’ve got some defamation issues.

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Practical Tips to Stay Out of Courtroom:

If your facts will not hold up as 100% true in a court of law, you can open yourself up to defamation. Before you write, make sure to check your facts. You want to know that if you’re writing about something controversial, that you’re not fabricating the truth.

The second tip to avoid defaming your memoir characters is to frame controversial statements as your opinion. Opinions are (*usually) legally considered “protected expression.” That said, there are parameters. You can’t simply state that blatantly false statements are opinions and get away it. Writing, “In my opinion, Sara Smith is a prostitute”—when Sara Smith is an upstanding mom and doctor—will get you in trouble. Your opinion needs to be balanced by evidence and supported by actual fact.

The third tip to avoid defamation issues is to change any identifying information about your book characters. In order to prevail in a defamation case, the defamed must prove others are able to identify him from your writing. A caveat: This doesn’t mean by name alone! People can claim defamation if one could reasonably identify them through their actions, clothing, quotes, physical appearance, address, or any number of identifying points.

The fourth tip is that defamation rests upon subjective principles. When in doubt, err on the side of caution about disclosing details that may or may not be true. If you can’t defend the truth in a court of law, don’t publish it.

The final tip is to print a disclaimer in your preface, intro, or acknowledgements. Simply by stating your memories are imperfect but you’re sharing to the best of knowledge and that you’ve changed identifies can stave off legal woes.

4. Avoiding an Invasion of Privacy Cause of Action

Just as with a defamation lawsuit, an invasion of privacy lawsuit turns on subjective opinions to be decided on a case-by-case basis. This means that the individual facts of each case will decide the outcome.

Common sense dictates that there are certain private facts, which a person would not want shared with the public. If a good friend had given up a child for adoption, and you were the only person she told, then disclosing that in your memoir would open the doors to an invasion of privacy lawsuit. The same would apply to sensitive information such as private health matters, abuse, addiction, or any information would not be readily accessible to the public.

Certain public or high profile individuals may have less protection against invasion of privacy. The legal theory is that because they have opened their lives to public scrutiny, then the bar is lower for privacy protection. If unsavory facts can be classified as public interest, then you may be able to disclose certain things about public individuals. The crux of this issue would turn on whether your facts are related to a matter of “public concern.”

Practical Tips to Stay Out of the Courtroom:

There are several ways to avoid invasion of privacy lawsuits. Our first tip is to get written permission from your characters. If you obtain written consent, they can’t later file a suit stating you’ve breached their privacy.

Our second tip is the same as with defamation: Change all identifying characteristics. Give your characters a different name, different job, different wardrobes—anything you can change to prevent them from being recognized by your words affords you a degree of protection. Some writers like to create an amalgam of characters to mix up identifying facts.

Our third tip is tell the truth. Don’t lie (or even embellish). It’s unethical at best; at worst, it can get you in legal hot water.

Our fourth tip is carefully weigh the impact of disclosing inflammatory, sensitive, or embarrassing information. Are such disclosures essential to your story? If so, tread carefully and use our rules for how to proceed with caution. If you’re on the fence, it’s always wise to run your concerns by a lawyer to head off any issues before you publish. Paying for an hour or two of legal time is far better than being a defendant in a court case.

The best memoirs are brazen, open, and honest about life, even when the facts are tough to write about. Your obligation as a memoirist is to tell your story and honor the truth. By considering the impact of those in your real life and making efforts to protect them, you’ll avoid legal troubles down the line.

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