Friday, April 19, 2019

Common Questions Authors Get

Every author who gives talks at libraries or speaks to someone thinking about writing gets similar questions. In most cases, I say people should use their best judgment and do what applies best to them. However, there are some common considerations in making those choices.

Should you use a pen name? 
Before he settled on Mark Twain, Samuel Clemons used pseudonyms such as Thomas Jefferson
Snodgrass. I’m glad he settled on Twain. There are reasons to use a pen name—maybe you plan to write fiction and nonfiction, and you don’t want to confuse readers. Maybe you want to write racy sex scenes and you don’t want your boss or grandchildren to know you penned them.

Nora Roberts writes romances with her real name, but she publishes her mysteries as J.D. Robb. Clarity for readers. Do as you want, but if you choose a pen name, make sure it’s unique.

Who copyrights a book? 
When you write a book, you establish your copyright, automatically, according to U.S. Law. The copyright is valid until 90 years after the author's death, and cannot be  renewed. You can choose to register the work with the U.S. Copyright Office in the Library of Congress. Check out these fact sheets.

Do you need an ISBN?
Not necessarily, but it helps. Amazon assigns an ASIN to each book, and it has become a commonly accepted book identifier. Other sites (Smashwords for ebooks, Amazon KDP or Barnes and Noble for paperbacks) provide free ISBNs.

I began buying ISBNs as Lifelong Dreams Publishing in 1995. The process is managed by Bowker and means your work is in Books in Print. One costs $125 (!), ten are $295, and one-hundred are $575. Don't spend money you don't have, but buying ten could be a good goal. It may sound flippant to say have a rummage sale to raise $295, but it's worth considering.

Should you get a Library of Congress Preassigned number for paperbacks? 
While buying ten or more ISBNs is optional, doing so is important if you want to sell (or donate) to libraries. Publishers (those who buy ten or more ISBNs) can get a free Library of Congress Preassigned Control Number, (PCN) which helps libraries catalog books.

The PCN program enables the Library of Congress to "assign control numbers in advance of publication to those paperback or hardcover titles that may be added to the library's collections."
Publishers (not authors who buy only one ISBN) apply to participate in the program, and they submit an application for each hard copy (not ebook). The process is seamless – and free.

What is the impact of earning money on taxes or Social Security Income? 
No legal or financial advice here. You do need to declare your book income on taxes. If you collect Social Security at age 62 (or between then and your full retirement age), there are limits to income you can earn without getting your Social Security payments reduced. There is information at or, or you can consult an accountant.

Are family secrets yours to display? 
In a word, no. Not unless you have permission of others involved. If you are the child of a Hollywood star or politician, you could argue that they are public figures so you can expose whatever you want. The fact that your Great Aunt Tillie had a child out of wedlock is none of your business—in terms of publishing it. Good luck getting to know the cousins you just learned about. Any doubts about telling family secrets or using names of real people in your writing, consult a lawyer.

Can you base fiction on real events?
There is certainly true crime writing, and you’ll see disclaimers such as, “Inspired by the events of xxx, but all characters and actions are works of the author’s imagination.”

Ideas pop out of the newspaper every day. One of my books came about because I read that police who seized hydroponic growing equipment turned it over to local schools. That led me to wonder what would happen if seized computers had information hidden on them.

If you can only structure a story based on actual events, or you think of all your characters in terms of people you know, you may be limiting your imagination.

You could also be limiting a character by thinking, “Great Aunt Tillie wouldn’t really do that.” Fictional characters have no boundaries—though they do need to be consistent (most of the time).
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