Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Privacy and the author

Janet Reid wrote about it yesterday in her post, Fan mail. Jody Hedlund also wrote about it yesterday, asking How Personal & Vulnerable Are You In Your Writing? Nathan Bransford wrote about it last week: Can Authors Balance Publicity and Privacy in the Internet Era?

I think most of us wish we could switch our privacy on and off, like that latch in the airplane lavatory. We'd like to be available for our friends and family and fans... and maybe not-so-available for the naysayers, the people who pretend to be your friends so that they can ask an inappropriate favor, and, of course, the bill collectors. But with all the social media out there, it just doesn't work that way. More's the pity.

Janet pointed out that today's writers will likely not have the luxury of choosing not to read any of their mail (as J.D. Salinger did), and asked "How do we... help these young authors with this modern burden?" My gut response to this is pretty cold: DEAL. If you're old enough to write something provocative, you're old enough to handle the reader response. As a child actor, I started dealing with the weirdness of low-level celebrity at about age 10: among other things that included signing autographs, being recognized on the street, getting free stuff because I was famous (yeah, because the kid who was in a movie is really the one who needs a free ice-cream cone), and having a kid I'd never met call my home phone to invite me to her birthday party (I guess she thought I'd be the entertainment). I managed. Now I get emails and find myself talked about or pictured on the internet, and, yes, a very small percentage of these emails and internet references are overly-familiar or creepy in some way. I still manage. So can authors. Deal.

Nathan asked whether sacrificing privacy is the price an author has to pay for reaching an audience. Maybe... it depends what kind of audience you hope to reach! And, of course, how wide.

I think Jody hit on something when she said:
What I find ironic about the privacy question, however, is that regardless of how much of ourselves we expose in cyberland, by nature as writers we’re already pouring out our deepest, most intimate thoughts into our writing. In other words, our books disclose much more about us than we share in short bursts on Twitter and Facebook, or even on our blogs.
I think this must be why readers crave more details about their favorite writers... and it's also why some fans reach out in inappropriate ways. Because they think that, on some level, they know the author. They understand that something very intimate happened in the writing of the book... and either they want to learn whatever additional information the author is willing to share (good) or they start thinking they have a right to more information about the author based on their existing "connection" (bad).

I think we're in a transition stage, where we're all still learning the depth and breadth of our internet communications, and that makes things difficult. (That photo's going to be in Google's cache forever? CRAP!) We're also learning that in some situations etiquette has changed more than we thought... and in other situations it has changed less than we thought. (This is why I'm less worried about the younger authors, in fact... a greater percentage of their lives has included the new etiquette. They know the difference between being a real friend and being a Facebook friend.)

But we'll muddle through. Respect and courtesy are still the same, even if our social interactions take new forms.

And, just FYI, if someone ever calls your home phone with a death threat, don't dial *69, that's caller ID, which doesn't reach blocked numbers. You want to dial *57, which does a full trace of the last incoming call.

New technology. Ain't it grand?

What are your hopes for internet interactions with your readership, and how do you plan to protect your privacy?


  1. This is a great topic. I really have a hard time putting my name out there. I think when I read books I always suspect that the text has been edited and smoothed by various people (editors, proofreaders, agents, etc) that it's less of the author's voice than it used to be, but after reading your post I think that's probably untrue.

    I guess for me it comes down to the fact that if you want to be published, then you have to accept what being published is: putting yourself out there. It's selling your art. Once you sell it, it's in the hands of other minds.

  2. Wow, great post! I think that's interesting about how we pour our souls out onto the paper, but then we get worried about what we say on our blogs. Very interesting! I think it's important that, yes, we deal. If we want to publish our work, we're publishing a part of ourselves, and must therefore take what comes with that. Thanks for some great thoughts here!

  3. For me, my concern regarding privacy is not for myself. It is for my daughter. I am making the choice to publish and to put myself out there. She is three and new baby is still a fetus. They don't get a vote, nor could they even understand the implications of such a decision. So, I do my best to limit her exposure to any publicity. Since I have yet to actually, publish, this is pretty easy, but I am hoping the unpublished part will eventually be remedied. :) While I am sure they will deal, as a parent, my instinct is to protect them in every way I can.

  4. I enjoyed Jody's fine post as well and you have taken it a step farther. Good job. I agree with what you have said.

    Authors are putting themselves out there in the public eye and need to recognize their fans. The Salingers are an anomaly in this day and age--it's hard to hide if you want your work (which is you) to be known.

    Yesterday I wrote about self-promotion which has a great deal to do with putting yourself out there. Most of us are not going to write something that resonates so hugely with the reading public that we can hide away and never do interviews or establish a relationship with our public. If we want to sell product, it helps if our customers know something about us and are interested in what we are doing.

    Personally I don't use my real name in my writing, but I have revealed so much about myself in my blog and elsewhere that it wouldn't be difficult to figure exactly who I am and where to find me. I'll deal with it.


  5. Great post Carrie (not trying to be too weirdly familiar)

    My thoughts relating to this were, when someone psychoanalyzes my writing what will that say about me?
    There is a nervousness there but at the same time, it has to get out so...

    My book isn't even released yet but I made sure I have my e-mail and public e-mail options, so I can screen things a little more. Vanity being what it is I wouldn't mind having some interaction with fans of my work-but then I haven't had any expiriences yet that burned me.

    I can't imagine the full context of weirdness some people have probably pushed at you.

  6. Outstanding post! This is a truly interesting topic, and I appreciate the links to other posts that are similar. :-)

  7. The idea of having fans is a sort of strange one to me. I'm in the query stage of my first manuscript, trying to find an agent. I've set up 'business' emails, website, and blog; all in anticipation of being required to be 'reachable' as Janet put it.

    But the idea of having 'fans'... weird. I hope that I get published and that people will enjoy my story and care about my characters as much as I do, but I don't understand the new concept of interacting with readers on a daily basis through the internet.

    The first time I saw an author's webpage that listed FAR more about a stranger than I would want to know, I scoffed at her for being self-important. I'm old school like that, I suppose.

    A website with links to work, a pic or two, a Q&A about random things -I understand that. But maintaining a presence everywhere so that a person is not seen to snub their fans defeats and takes precious time away from what the entire purpose was: to write more stories to read.

    One writer's website is all about her latest favorite song or movies she enjoys, or if her book had a soundtrack, what she would want... and it just seems to me that she is selling HERSELF to be a celebrity instead of promoting her writing and attracting readers.

    I'm all for booksignings, conventions, interviews, that sort of publicity where you can personally interact with readers is amazing. But through the internet when a person cannot hear your tone of voice, understand your motivations, or disconnect from your writing because they don't have the same personal opinion as you do in regards to government, social issues, favorite bands (yes, I've seen arguments begin over such a minor thing), and the like... I think it does more harm than good for a writer to have that much in-your-face feedback from readers.

    But that's just my opinion, and I'm usually wrong.

  8. This is a really important subject. It helps to get advice from somebody who's been there, Carrie. Yes, we have to deal with it, but we also have to be wary. There's a lot of good advice on privacy protection in the comment thread in Janet Reid's blog.

    Most of us are so eager to get our names well known that we don't think about the possibly icky side effects.

    But you don't even need to be famous. A woman in my writing group had an awful wake-up call this week when she started getting overtly sexual, threatening letters from prison inmates who had read her locally published memoir and somehow got hold of her home snail address. (Used bookstores and libraries often donate their unsold books to the prison system.) It's not just about unwanted birthday party invitations.

    Protecting your snail address, having a dedicated email address and developing a thick skin helps, but sometimes things can get seriously out of hand. We need to be aware of the dangers.

  9. I'd careful about assuming that the younger generation has any more of a handle on the new etiquette than the older one. In fact, I’d like to suggest they see less of a difference between online acquaintances and real life ones. We’re talking about the people who arrange cross-country road-trips to go to a gaming con with people they only know online, or the unfortunate sort of mindset that leads to tragedies like the Megan Meier incident. I imagine we’ll still be molding the new etiquette for quite some time. The sense of having a “right” to know more is just as ingrained in non-reader/writer interactions as it is in the reader/writer interaction phenomenon you’re making note of.

    In that respect, we’re still far from done with our muddling and groping to find a balance between rl and ol interaction.

  10. Deal. It's kind of what we all have to do, isn't it? We want our books to sell, so we start a platform/blog/Twitter account/whatever, and put ourselves out there.

    But the strange thing is, as silly as I am on the internet, in comments, on Twitter, my fiction--and I mean my serious fiction, not the flashes I tend to post on my blog--is something akin to yanking bits of my inside out and throwing them on the page. At least I get to moderate the self-revelation in online forums.

    So the eventual readers of my work will get the whole story, I suppose. That's more frightening than any internet stalker. I'll deal. What else is there?

  11. Great post!

    I haven't had any real privacy concerns, although I know some authors who've had a few problems with some stalker-like behavior. But I think that's a whole separate issue.

    My only concerns are protecting the privacy of my family members...who don't write books.

    Occasionally I'll come across someone really odd online...it doesn't happen often, though. And I'm diligent about answering my emails and comments.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  12. Hey, Carrie! Thanks for continuing the thoughts on this topic. I think it is really something we all just need to deal with! It's a fact of life and so we need to accept it and then figure out what works best for ourselves and our families. Thank you for making me think some more! I'm tweeting your post!

  13. Great insight. What I really like is that you tell us that the younger generation already understands the difference between a real friend and a facebook friend. Nothing replaces real life relationships. And, for good or bad, no one truly knows everything about us - our thoughts our desires our pain our joy.

  14. Interesting post. I'm not famous for my writing (or anything else), but my wife already laments that I use my real name in my writing.

    Never been to this site before, but I saw the topic mentioned in one of Jody H's tweets and thought I would check it out. Love the one-eyed daruma on your blog. I have one on my writing desk.

  15. This is something I actually think about a lot. I've tried to tell only things that I wouldn't mind people knowing AFTER I'm a published writer. I think I handle it the same way you do. I don't post pictures of my kids or their names. I'm fine with people knowing me, but I'd rather they didn't know too much about my kids.