Ask the Book Doctor: Are There Special Rules When Using a Pen Name?

Question: I am simply a hobby writer. I do get the occasional “how-to article” published in magazines; however, I want to write some western fiction novels. One problem, as I see it, is my surname. It is of eastern European origin and sounds strange to most Americans. If I write under an alias, are there any special rules that might apply to using a nom de plume, like getting paid under the assumed name, copyrights under that name, et cetera?

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Answer: I’m not an attorney, but as I understand it, pseudonyms are not a problem in the publishing business. Your publisher will know your real name and send your checks to your legal name. Once you produce a written piece of work, the copyright automatically belongs to you (under your real name) until and unless you sell those rights, and the rights will belong to you no matter what pseudonym you choose to use when publishing your book.

What would you like to ask a book doctor? Send your questions to Bobbie Christmas at This article republished from the Self Publishing Advisor archives.

Ask the Book Doctor: Are Book Titles Protected by Copyright?

Q: I’m considering a title for my novel that is already being used on another book. Can titles by copyrighted?

A: Titles are not eligible for protection under current copyright law (a search on Amazon will often reveal many different books all sharing the same title).  However, titles can be trademarked if used to cover more than one item in a series, such as a cluster of seminars based on a book of the same name. Or try self-publishing a book with “Harry Potter” in the title and get ready to hear from some lawyers.

<Image of Harry Potter not shown below, due to copyright…>

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While you can legally use a  book title that has been used by someone else, a better idea is to change the title and make it different, so people who search for your title will find only your book, and not others.  This is your chance to come up with something memorable and unique, and you’d be a muggle if you didn’t take advantage of that opportunity.

Bobbie Christmas, book doctor, author of Write In Style (Union Square Publishing), and owner of Zebra Communications, will answer your questions, too. Send them to Read more “Ask the Book Doctor” questions and answers at This article republished from the Self Publishing Advisor Archives.

From the Archives: “The Book Doctor talks ‘Copyright’ Protection”

Welcome back to our Tuesday segment, where we’ll be revisiting some of our most popular posts from the last few years.  What’s stayed the same?  And what’s changed?  We’ll be updating you on the facts, and taking a new (and hopefully refreshing) angle on a few timeless classics of Self Publishing Advisor.


[ Originally posted: June 2nd, 2010 ]

Self-publishing affords author the advantage of 100% content and property rights control, which makes copyright protection an important element to consider when choosing your publisher. Bobbie the “Book Doctor” Christmas shares some helpful tips…

Q: When I send my manuscript to readers or agents, should I put the copyright c in a circle on the title page, on every page, or anywhere at all? Should a date be there also?

A: I tend to trust people and therefore do not put a copyright mark on my manuscripts, because the laws of copyright protect us—that is, we own the rights to all our intellectual property the moment we create it. Also, agents and publishers who see a copyright mark may think the person who sent the manuscript is un-knowledgeable or paranoid, because it is not necessary to officially register the copyright until the work is laid out and ready to be published in book form.

If, however, you feel more comfortable marking your manuscripts with a copyright mark, the traditional method for showing a copyright is to use the symbol c in a circle or write the word “Copyright.” Either form should then be followed by the year and your first and last name, all on one line. It should appear on the title page only, and because it is not standard to have a copyright mark on a manuscript, there is no standard for where on the title page to put it. I would probably put it two lines below the name of the author on the title page.

Do not, however, go to the trouble of registering the copyright with the government until the book is about to be published. The content will no doubt change between the time you write it and it gets published, so wait until the book is in its final form before paying to register the copyright.

– by Bobbie Christmas

I’ll be honest with you here:

After decades of working in the self-publishing industry–as an author myself and as an advocate for other authors–copyright is still hard.  And messy.  And confusing.  For Americans at least, it shouldn’t be–the basic principles of copyright were determined (and governed) by the United States Constitution and other international copyright agreements, and have therefore been around a while.  For the the most part, after all of my experience, I feel like I can muddle along on a day-to-day basis, repeating the basic definition to myself:

Copyright is a legal right created by the law of a country that grants the creator of an original work exclusive rights for its use and distribution. This is usually only for a limited time. The exclusive rights are not absolute but limited by limitations and exceptions to copyright law, including fair use. A major limitation on copyright is that copyright protects only the original expression of ideas, and not the underlying ideas themselves.

(Thanks, Wikipedia.)

The thing is, despite having a fairly solid understanding of what my own “original work” and “intellectual property” looks like, there are a swarm of details like the one Bobbie addresses above that end up being so complicated I can’t memorize all of the details.  And because copyright laws are serious–and I want to respect both my own work as well as the work of others–I want and even need to have full command of the necessary information to honor copyright requirements.


Which is why having the right resources on hand to turn to is important.  A good copyright resource, like the Owl at Purdue for grammar and academic writing requirements, will be detailed and thorough, easy to navigate, and always just one click away.  It really does take a load off when you’re in a pinch and need to know the answer right now.

When it comes to resources on copyright, I have a few recommendations:

  • Poets & Writers has a website dedicated to “Copyright Information for Writers” which strikes just the right balance between simplicity and responsiveness.  You have the option of starting a “Topic,” or essentially posting your own query to the P&W community for responses.
  • UW Copyright Connection may just be the most successful resource at breaking down the various complexities of copyright for authors looking to answer specific questions. The Connection looks and feels much like a Wiki–only it’s dedicated to authors, so there’s no need to skim through the white noise of irrelevant information to find the answers you need.
  • The Book Designer has a series of good posts about copyright, including one titled “Self-Publishing Basics: The Copyright Page” that specifically addresses, well, the copyright page.  It addresses Bobbie’s comments above, and then fills in some of the white space around them.
  • The Huffington Post is also getting into the copyright game by addressing the self-publishing author’s unique relationship with copyright.  Check out the article, “Legal Issues in Self-Publishing: What Authors Need to Know” for more information.
  • Wikipedia.  It’s less of a cop-out than you think, trust me, especially if you’re looking for the historical background to certain copyright restrictions.  Sometimes the why is buried in the how it came about, and knowing the reasons for a restriction often make it easier to live within. Wikipedia also has a page dedicated to Authors Rights.

Thanks for reading.  If you have any other ideas, I’d love to hear them.  Drop me a line in the comments section below and I’ll respond as quickly as I can.  ♠

KellyABOUT KELLY SCHUKNECHT: Kelly Schuknecht is the Executive Vice President of Outskirts Press. In addition to her contributions to the Outskirts Press blog at, Kelly and a group of talented marketing experts offer book marketing services, support, and products to not only published Outskirts Press authors, but to all authors and professionals who are interested in marketing their books and/or careers. Learn more about Kelly on her blog,

From the Archives: “The Book Doctor on Poetry and Publishing”

Welcome back to our new Tuesday segment, where we’ll be revisiting some of our most popular posts from the last few years.  What’s stayed the same?  And what’s changed?  We’ll be updating you on the facts, and taking a new (and hopefully refreshing) angle on a few timeless classics of Self Publishing Advisor.


[ Originally posted: July 1st, 2010 ]

Q: How would I go about publishing an original one-hundred-page poetry book? Generally how much would the profit be from such a book?

A: You have quite a few options and potential paths when it comes to publishing. Before you decide to self-publish or try to sell a book to a publisher, first you must know your goals and assess your abilities. My fifty-minute seminar on CD called “I Finished My Book; What Should I Do Next?” covers the decision-making process, so you’ll know which way to go, whether you want to self-publish or attempt to find a publisher, and if you self-publish, whether you want to use a traditional printer, print-on-demand (POD), or a company that helps in the publishing process. I crammed the seminar with information and included many pages of supplemental printed material, so you can understand why I can’t answer your question in detail in only a few paragraphs.

Here’s a little information to help, though.

If you already know you want to self-publish, your next step depends on whether you want to handle all the pre-printing details, such as editing, internal and cover design, ISBN numbers, and finding a printer, or whether you prefer to rely on a company that handles those details for you—for a price. Read a good book on self-publishing and learn all aspects of it before you make your decision. Also carefully scrutinize the company you choose as a printer or publisher—know there is a difference—and carefully ensure that the services the company provides are the services you need.

You also asked how much profit to expect. Let me first ask a question: When did you last buy a poetry book? If you are like most Americans, you have not bought a single poetry book in the last ten years. Although millions of people write poetry, not many write it well, and even fewer buy poetry books. Poetry books rarely make any profit at all.

Although few Americans make much if any money from poetry, it is the highest form of literary art. Once writers master poetry, they can apply those skills to their fiction and nonfiction and increase their chances of making money with their prose.

My news should not discourage you, however. If you put a great deal of time and effort into marketing, you might make some money after all. At least one poet I know used POD for his books and travels the country giving readings. He writes excellent poetry and performs it well, and he has sold close to a thousand copies of his book. He chose POD, which gives him less profit per book than if he had chosen a traditional printer, but he did not have to invest a huge amount of money up front or store thousands of books, so the tradeoff suits his needs.

As you can see, the answer to both questions—how to go about getting a poetry book published and how much you might profit—are the same: It depends on what you are willing and able to do, and none of the paths are simple. Educate yourself first and then decide what works best for you.

When Bobbie Christmas (author of Write in Style, printed by Union Square Publishing, and owner of Zebra Communications) first wrote this question-and-answer post for us back in mid-2010, the self-publishing market was still young enough that authors could rely on readers to purchase the big “staples” of the book market––meaning fiction, and especially genre fiction––but the so-called “niche” markets and genres were still somewhat a) underdeveloped, b) undiscovered, or c) the data wasn’t available to analyze their profitability.

Luckily, we have on board our Tuesday “From the Archives” vehicle a time machine which allows us to jump five years forward from 2010 … to 2015.  (Please allow me to pretend there’s actual time travel involved!  It’s a Tuesday, after all.)  And when it comes to self-published poetry, we have a great deal more information at our fingertips today than ever before.

First, I might point you to the experience of Mirtha Michelle Castro Marmol, whose book of poems (Letters, to the Men I Have Loved) has not only done moderately well––it has done so exceptionally well as to remain on Amazon’s bestseller lists for months.  MMCM published through Outskirts Press, a hybrid publishing company based out of the Denver area, and OP ran a feature and interview piece with her on their official blog.  “The most rewarding part [of being published] is and will always be the ability Letters has to touch people,” says MMCM. “It’s crazy because I didn’t think people really read books anymore. But for me, having these girls go and buy my book, and spend their twenty dollars or so on Letters––it’s amazing, that someone believes in things still.”  Readers have been snapping up copies of her book, both in physical and digital forms, at such a rate as to firmly prove that people still “really read books”––including poetry.

Secondly, I might point you to this blog post by self-published poets Terri Kirby Erickson and Michelle True.  (Every day there are more and more useful online resources like theirs that are sent out into the aether, and now the greater struggle is not just to find information, but to determine which information is actually useful.)  This particular post is handy, not because it provides a template or how-to guide to put you on a path to success (though it might also do that, in a sense) but because it provides an anthology of the ways in which these two self-published poets have already found ways to sell their books.  If you needed affirmation that you can be a poet, and a self-published poet at that, and find your readers––well, take a look.  Articles like the one Denise Enck wrote for the Empty Mirror is much more prescriptive, and may help fill in the gaps.

Lastly, I might also point you to a bit of anecdotal evidence: Yesterday, I was in my local library, browsing the new additions, when I overheard a patron talking with one of the librarians at the front desk.  “Where would I find the poetry?” she asked.  “I don’t see much of it here.”  The librarian pointed out that the poetry was mixed in with poetry, nonfiction, and even young adult, junior fiction, and junior nonfiction.  “But why?” asked the patron.  “All I want to read is some poetry.  It’s the only kind of book that I actually enjoy!”  The library did happen to have a section dedicated to local authors, many of whom were self-published.

What Bobbie Christmas wrote back in 2010 still holds true: “none of the paths are simple.”  But today we have the benefit of knowing that, while writing remains a highly personal and sometimes borderline crazy endeavor, writers of all types and creeds and genres and niche markets are finding success, finding readers, and finding their true voice.  Keep writing, dear readers.  And keep publishing! ♠

KellyABOUT KELLY SCHUKNECHT: Kelly Schuknecht is the Executive Vice President of Outskirts Press. In addition to her contributions to the Outskirts Press blog at, Kelly and a group of talented marketing experts offer book marketing services, support, and products to not only published Outskirts Press authors, but to all authors and professionals who are interested in marketing their books and/or careers. Learn more about Kelly on her blog,

Book Reviews and Editing

Q: Can you tell me if reviewers ever judge based on editing/style? So many authors/editors do things differently that I guess they just look for consistency. What I was not sure about was use (or overuse) of commas. Can you tell me if commas should be in these sentences?

“That’s what I thought,” Mark said with a smile. (comma before “with”) and “Yeah, such a storm we had..” Mark said sarcastically.

Is it just preference? If so, would it look bad if the author put commas for some, and not for others?

A: Most reviewers consider everything about the book, including the cover, content, editing, writing style, plot, characterization, flow, resolution, and more.

The volume of commas is not important; what is important is that the commas must be used correctly. How can you know where the commas go, when we were taught one style in school, newspapers use another style, and book publishers use yet another style? Book authors (or their editors) should follow Chicago Style, which book publishers follow, because it dictates punctuation, capitalization, abbreviation, when to spell out a number and when to use a numeral, etc. Once that style is followed, commas will be in the right places and the volume of them won’t matter.

As for your specific examples, the first example is fine, but the second one has two periods and no comma before the attribution. It should be written this way:
“Yeah, such a storm we had,” Mark said sarcastically.

If the attribution were a stand-alone sentence, the example would be punctuated this way:
“Yeah, such a storm we had.” Mark spoke sarcastically.

Self-publishing Advice Guest Post: Ask the Book Doctor

Bobbie Christmas, book editor, author of Write In Style (Union Square Publishing), and owner of Zebra Communications, will answer your questions, too. Send them to Read more “Ask the Book Doctor” questions and answers at