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January 19, 2016

Writer Dilemma: Private Life vs. Public Figures

Man pointing a camera at viewer with text: Are Authors Public Figures?

Much has been made of the next generation’s expectation of privacy. If kids grow up putting their whole life on Facebook (or whatever comes next), if they record (and share!) everything with cellphone cameras, will privacy become meaningless?

For the rest of us, we often still struggle with maintaining a sense of privacy. Maybe we need the quiet of private, unshared thoughts to figure out who we are and what we want. Maybe we’re introverts who can feel like we’re giving away pieces of ourselves with public interactions. Or maybe we just like to control what leaves and enters our inner life.

Personally, I value privacy. I don’t share specifics about my family online, and I don’t post pictures of me at home or on vacation. So I get the desire to hold strangers at a distance for safety or privacy reasons. *smile*

Yet being a writer requires us to reveal ourselves to the public. In many ways, we are “public figures.”

Our stories often reveal deep truths about our worldview that we hold close to our heart. Our social media feeds will include our personal thoughts if we share more than just “buy my book” messages. Our email inboxes must be accessible to agents, editors, other writers, and readers/fans.

That means we have to find a balance between privacy and public sharing to be an author. We might all find a different line on that balance scale for where we feel comfortable, but sometimes a wrong choice might endanger us or our career.

So let’s take a look at some of the privacy issues we might run into in our writing life…

Real Name vs. Pen Name

There’s no “wrong” answer here. Some use pen names for marketing reasons (fitting in, obscuring gender, differentiating between genres). Some use pen names to stake out virtual real estate they can’t access with their overly common real name. And some writers have valid and important reasons for protecting their real name.

While using a pen name doesn’t provide the security of the Witness Protection Program, a pen name can add a layer of obfuscation so a random person can’t show up at an author’s front door (this really happened to an author I follow on Twitter) unless they’ve done research. That is, using a pen name requires a stalker to act like stalker rather than just having the information handed to them.

The more we want to share about ourselves online—personal pictures, kids’ names, specifics of where we live or work, etc.—the more important it might be to add protections in other ways.

However, for that layer of privacy to be effective, we’d have to be careful. Did we use our real name and address when purchasing our domain name? (That’s the www.something.com.) Domain registrations are public and easily accessible.

Did we start interacting in our writing life as our real name? When a friend changed from using her real name to a pen name, I took the time to update references here, but most places wouldn’t do that.

That’s why my recommendation has always been that before we start work on our platform (website, blog, social media, commenting on writing forums or sites, etc.), we should decide on our author name.

Real Picture vs. Fake Picture

Notice that I didn’t say “picture vs. non-personal image.” I understand the hesitancy in sharing our picture online. If we’re private, an image can feel very personal. So I don’t judge those who use a flower, celebrity, or cartoon likeness as social media avatars.

That said, there’s value in allowing people to see us as real. Book bloggers and reviewers are rightfully suspicious in dealing with new-to-them authors, and real pictures can tip the scales in earning trust among our connections.

But there’s a wrong way in trying to earn trust, and that’s by, well…not being trustworthy. That’s why, to me, there’s a huge difference between using a pen name and faking a whole persona.

As I stated in that above-linked post:

“In the case of a fake persona, who would I be trusting?:

The fake persona that doesn’t exist?
Or the person behind the persona who I know nothing about?

Um, no thanks. I’ll say neither.”

So I don’t trust those who use stock photos for their avatars. We all know a cartoon, or dog, or celebrity isn’t really what one of our connections looks like. Using one isn’t lying.

On the other hand, using a stock (or stolen) photo and pretending to be that person? That’s lying.

Just last week, I received a proposal for a guest post that I thought might be a good fit for my blog, but I wasn’t familiar with the author, so I searched her previous work. Oh look, a Google image search on her avatar at all those posts “she’d” bragged about proves she’s using a stock photo. *deletes email*

Yes, we all hide aspects of our life. It’s normal to not reveal our address, phone number, bank account number, etc. But hiding is different from lying and pretending to be someone else.

Besides, if we’re ever going to do book signings, visit reader events, or attend conferences, people are going to encounter the real us. Would we want our readers to not believe it’s really us in those situations?

Being Accessible vs. No Contact

There are many reasons why people might want to contact us in our writing life. An agent or editor might come across our writing and want to work with us. Reviewers or other authors might need to talk to us about business issues. Readers might want to send fan mail.

Yet I never cease to be amazed by writers who lock down their accounts and information so tightly that contact is impossible. I’ve even seen problems when the writers supposedly want to be contacted, all because they use screwy settings their email.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch has shared stories about existing editors and writing friends being unable to reach writers—even for issues where others are trying to give them money:

“Opportunities knock—when they can find the door.”

It’s far better to be accessible and potentially get a spam message here or there than to lock down methods of contacting us so much that we miss communications we want to receive.

Here are just some of the problems I’ve seen with attempting to connect with authors:

Website/Blog:

Every author’s website or blog should have a contact form, as that’s the default way for those potential agents, editors, or others to make contact. Contact forms are also a way to remain accessible without having to post our email address anywhere.

As recently as two years ago, about 50% of sites I visited didn’t have contact forms, and the percentages are improving too slowly. Also, when we upgrade the contact form software, we should make sure the form still works.

Email:

As email is our main form of contact, we need to be very careful about locking down our email too much. Spam-prevention technology can make mistakes and shouldn’t be trusted too far.

Many of my blog readers subscribe to receive my posts by email, so I see first-hand how email systems can screw up behind our back. Every day a post goes up, my inbox is flooded with “bounce notifications” from valid subscribers.

Now, I don’t pretend to think that the information I send out is life-or-death important. After all, I’m not sending out offers of representation or publishing contracts. *smile*

However, if I see messages bounce due to bad technology that should make it through my subscribers’ email systems, I wonder what other valid emails they might not be receiving.

  • Example #1: Spam Detection based on Content
    The technology often assumes that emails with multiple links are spam. (“This message looked like spam.”) I’ve had resource-filled blog posts and email replies with links to answer a reader’s questions all bounce.
  • Example #2: Whitelists of “Approved” Senders
    Most email systems maintain blacklists of known spammers, but whitelists accept messages only from “approved” email addresses. That means people contacting us out of the blue with offers of representation, publishing contracts, invitations to anthologies, etc. are rejected with a “This user only accepts email from approved senders” message.
    Too often, writers with this setting forget they have it. I’ve received messages on my contact form asking for advice, and then my reply bounces because they forgot to add me to the approved list. *head desk*
    Worse, this technology also suffers from tons of false negatives. Even if an email address is on a “safe” white list, the system’s filter will frequently refuse the email anyway (as I see when a newsletter makes it through some weeks and not others).

As I mentioned, I see issues with these two technologies every week. If you’re signed up to receive my blog posts by email and don’t receive an email from me every Tuesday and Thursday, chances are your email system is blocking emails without your knowledge.

While we might not care about missing a blog post, these issues are possibly affecting our ability to receive email from others too. And most likely we’d never hear about it, as the blocked senders couldn’t easily let us know.

I wouldn’t recommend using white lists at all—how can we know who might want to contact us? And spam-detection works best if the message is flagged for us to be aware but not blocked completely.

Twitter:

Some writers mark their account to private so no one can see their tweets and others require TrueTwit validation. Either way defeats the point of Twitter, which is to connect to others.

Facebook:

Similarly, I don’t accept friend requests from people who have a blank FB Timeline, often because they’ve set everything to Friends Only. If I can’t figure out from their profile why someone might want to friend me, I don’t accept the request.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, it’s understandable to want to maintain some sense of privacy despite the need to be a public figure. The trick is in finding the balance.

Some things we can hide: our real name (if we wish), our personal information (address, phone, etc.), our politics or religious beliefs, etc. Some things we may need to reveal gain others’ trust (real picture, some Facebook posts, etc.). And other things we must open ourselves up to in the course of conducting business (Twitter account, email and/or contact form).

The right choices can help us feel secure and safe, but the wrong choices could affect our career. Hopefully, these tips will help us find the right approach for our situation. *smile*

Do you worry about privacy online? Do you struggle with the privacy vs. public figure line? What choices have you made to maintain your privacy? Do you disagree with any of my perspectives? Have you seen other issues related to privacy in your life or in interacting with other writers?

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What do you think?

42 Comments on "Writer Dilemma: Private Life vs. Public Figures"

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Davonne Burns

This is definitely something I worry about. I do write under a pen name to protect my identity (I’m not out to relatives). Though I’ve struggled with keeping my real name and my pen name separated since I do go to book signings and conventions. It has been an adjustment but I think it’s worth it.

Most people who interact with me online know me by brohne, which is a name I’ve gone by for ten years now. I’ve been told it was a mistake to not put my real name on my twitter and other places, but I’ve not seen any problems with it. I just tell people it’s what I go by online and so far no one has had an issue with it. I suppose I’m making it harder for people to remember me so they can buy my books since they don’t constantly see my name. But I know for myself I don’t often look at who tweeted what, just the content of the tweet (same goes for other sites).

Though I could be doing this completely *ss backwards too. 😛

Ashley
Ashley

Davonne, I’m so curious about how you do this. I will probably use a pen name, but like you, I don’t intend to “come out” to relatives and friends, which I think makes this question SO much more complicated than if you’re just trying to maintain a bit of distance from the public. How do you ensure you keep your identity separate when you go to appearances? And have you ever thought about what you would do if, for instance, you hit it really big and magazines wanted to do profiles and your books got made into movies – at which point it seems like you would pretty much have to choose between having your real picture out there, or adopting a persona as a “famously reclusive” author?

Janet B
Janet B

I know many authors use pen names. But the latest issue is Facebook trying to delete fake accounts and is locking out authors using pen names.

Celia Lewis
Celia Lewis

As a newby writer (retired finally), I’m soaking up everything I can find to help me write romance. This blog post hits the pros and cons of the writer’s life dilemma of privacy issues. Love it.
And thank you once again for your detailed helpful posts! Along with your various templates, I’m learning a new way of thinking and planning about story. Cheers.
(note to self – get a domain name with a proper email address! mine has my grandma name Winky in it. Sigh.)

Christina Hawthorne

Well done, Jami. I, too, don’t understand writers who make themselves inaccessible to their followers. I’m sure in many cases it’s oversight or ignorance, but often its fear and on occasion it’s ego. I came across someone who gave knowledgeable advice on a topic (not fiction writing). You could subscribe, but couldn’t contact the blogger via email or comment (it was explicitly stated). Now the person, who still doesn’t allow contact, is offering classes. Yeah, I don’t think so.

Who I am is central to what I write so I’m relatively open to the public. I’ve developed issues with FB culture over the last year, but still maintain a presence (still working that out). Even so, I’m on FB, WP, Twitter, and Pinterest and people are free to message me via all those sites. What people don’t know is that my real name and my pen name are the same. 😉

Anne
Anne

Jami,

I’ve pondered the questions you discuss for years now. I’ve owned my domain name since the late 90s, but there’s nothing there because I don’t know WHAT to put there yet.

I struggle with the whole Twitter/Facebook/other social media stuff. I’ve got a Twitter account I can’t seem to get back into (frustrating, despite my use of LastPass to hold my passwords!). But I’m too long-winded thus far to really make Twitter work for me. On Facebook, I’m friended to just a couple authors. The more prolific and unrelated to their books it is, the less I read it. (Actually, FB is such a time-sink for me these days, I tend to avoid it 4 days out of 5, if I can!)

I am not convinced a modern author needs to do ALL the social media outlets. If they do, I always wonder if someone else is actually doing it for them. Is there a guide on “what to tweet about if you’re an author”? 🙂

You might like the example of Kim Harrison/Dawn Cook (http://www.locusmag.com/Perspectives/2009/05/kim-harrison-secret-identity.html) when talking about writing under multiple names. She’s been “out” about the dual identity since 2009.

I’ve still not decided whether I’ll publish as “Anne” or with initials like Rowling, Stirling and so many others. But, *blush* I have gone to the bookstore to see which author my books would shelve close to.

Anne.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
A pen name sounds fun, but as you said, I already started participating in writing forums and groups with my real name, lol. Oh that’s a good idea to have an author site with a contact form, so we won’t need to share our email with strangers. I should do that and probably put the link to it on my Facebook account. Yikes! Haha yes, I not only limit almost all of my posts to friends nowadays, I usually limit them to only friends I trust with certain posts. (Honestly I probably use FB’s custom filter function much more than the average person does, haha.) Well I don’t really write inappropriate stuff, but I know there are some interests of mine that others may dislike, even if they are harmless interests. Like you know I’m a great Pokemon fan, and many of my posts are about Pokemon, but unfortunately many people think Pokemon is “only for children”. -_- But really, Pokemon is one of the most amazingly complex fictional worlds I have ever encountered (that there are now more than 700 different species is just the beginning), so I wouldn’t say it’s “childish”, haha. And sometimes I might post about some dreams I had; there isn’t anything “improper” about the dreams either, but I still wouldn’t want everyone to know about my dreams. :O Anyway yeah, I often write about things that, while they are harmless, I wouldn’t want certain strangers (and friends) to see them, lol. But it’s a… Read more »
Marcy Kennedy
This is an ongoing struggle I have. I’m a very private person in my real life. I squirm at every family event because I know my brother is going to pull out his phone for pictures and post them online without asking. It’s not just him though. It seems like accepted practice now that people take photos and tag you (specifically on Facebook), so we have very little control over certain elements of our own privacy. Photos of us are out there whether we want them to be or not. It’s not just pictures, though, that I struggle with. It’s the “how much” in how much of our lives do we share online considering that, as writers, we are technically public figures and it seems to be expected of us to share openly. One of the pieces of wisdom we hear about blogging is to be vulnerable and share our lives. (When I say “blogging” here, I mean blogging as fiction writers in the hopes of attracting readers rather than blogging about a non-fiction topic like writing.) I share some elements of my life on my blog, but I limit it quite a bit because I’m just not comfortable with sharing my private life on the internet. And then I feel like I’m failing because I’m not creating those great “connecting stories” with my blog readers. I haven’t yet figured out how to balance it all in a way that I’m comfortable with that also helps me build a readership.… Read more »
Deborah Makarios

Oh, isn’t it awful when people plaster you on the internet? Apparently these days you even have to ask people not to do this at weddings! I have a simple solution, though: I don’t have a Facebook account, so Facebook refuses to tag me in photos. It decides I’m just part of the background 🙂
Of course, if you love Facebook that might not work for you so well, but I feel I’m maintaining my online presence with my blog, so I can live without it. And this way I have more control of how much of my life is public and how much stays personal.

Logan Grey

My problem is that I picked a pen name based on the fact that I like androgynous names and also X-Men! My first novel was a paranormal romance that featured a love triangle between a succubus and two humans. There were plenty of religious easily offended family members that I didn’t want reading my supernatural sex scenes. So I was vague about the name of the book, it’s content and my name!

Logan Grey was an homage to Jean Grey and Wolverine from X-Men, but no one told me it was also the name of a famous Georgia football player! Ugh. Now I have a published novel with that name, a twitter, blog, facebook, google plus, linkedin, etc. I’m not sure how to fix it and I don’t want to give up my name. I’m not trying to hide from anyone anymore. If people are offended by my words they’ll just have to be offended. I’m not going to alienate myself to possible readers by editing out all the good stuff, but do have any suggestions on how I could distinguish myself from other Logan Grey’s?

Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins)
The only issue I have with using my real name is that my first name has a zillion different pronunciations, Aside from that< I just wanted to be real. While I didn't have a profile photo of me in the beginning, I now have one (though I hope to get a nicer pro-level one one of these days-selfies have their limitations, BTW) Before I post anything on social media (esp. on Facebook) is ask myself if I can live with the potential outcome. If yes, I do. If no, I don’t. Or I’ll tweak it so it’s still honest, but less negative or dramatic. Something I sometimes I have a hard time with you, as you know by now, Jami.(LOL) Since I don’t just leap into any new (or not so new) social platform right away, I learned from others fumbles and came in less rough around the edges. While sometimes that makes building platform on a specific site, you at least keep your early errors to the barest possible minimum. I also keep certain things about my family private since I respect their privacy. I also don’t talk about politics or other touchy subjects. Sometimes there are exvaptions that I can’t avoid, and frankly want to speak to, but otherwise there are some things I won’t share online. This is especially important for someone like me who gets so dramatic and passionate about everything. It can come off to others as being rude or hopelessly (and unmeaningly) negative. I’m… Read more »
Tracy Campbell

Hi Jami,
I also think it’s a balancing act to ensure our privacy (or private) life is protected. When I first starting blogging I used one of my art designs as the Gravatar. I now have my photo which allows others to know I exist in some way. I also try not to friend those who have no connection with me or through other friends on FB. Sometimes, I’m fooled. All that to say, thank you for food for thought. 🙂

Kelly
Kelly

Wow! So much to consider – and more to learn about. (It’s endless!) I am a newbie author and have a pen named picked out, but haven’t begun to use it. I have FB, Twitter, Instagram, etc., and still have my personal accounts for those – except I’ve switched to kellybwrites for Twitter from a previous one. I guess I better figure this out soon.

This was my first email from you and I look forward to the next. Thank you, Jami for such excellent information and a friendly and informative forum.

Kelly
Kelly

That’s Kelly Burch, btw. Talk about being secretive.

Glynis Jolly

I have a FB account. In fact, I have two. Both were set up many years ago when hackers weren’t as numerous and people generally were civil on the social media sites. I should probably get rid of the account that is secondary — one less headache. I rarely am on FB anymore because of the aforementioned problems. However, I do have my blog set up to automatically post my entries on FB. I guess I’m using this social media site as kind of a bulletin board like the ones you may see at the grocery store.

I also have a Twitter account but I do pop in there on occasion as well as having my posts broadcasted there. The people at Twitter keep their communications not only civil, but are usually kind and friendly — much more enjoyable.

Sure, I’m probably missing out on “fans” because of my inactivity at FB, but I also don’t have the rude comments and spam either that is so prevalent at FB.

Lara Gallin
Lara Gallin

This is a pen name as my real name is a pain in the ass (Lolita comes with far too much baggage). I bought my domain a few years ago (no website set up as yet) but what I didn’t realise was that the registration details were public! I was doing a Google search on my name and was horrified to see my postal address, email address, home phone number AND mobile number all listed for the world and his missus to see! I soon got that fixed :-p

I do use a genuine photo of me on Twitter although it was taken when I was 11 months old! I hate photos of myself beyond about 12. Something went horribly wrong and I became very unphotogenic 🙁 I do intend to do a selfie at some stage, I’m just waiting until I’ve shed a few more pounds and am having a good skin day!

Annie Neugebauer

This is something I’ve given a lot of thought to, and something I’m constantly weighing and balancing in execution. Ultimately, I find that many of my lines are sort of arbitrary. For example, I publicly post pictures of my office, but not other areas of my house. I think of the office as part of my job, but the rest is part of my family. Random? Yes, but it gives me some boundaries that make me feel good. Likewise, I’ll mention my husband in tweets and blogs, usually by nickname, but I don’t post pictures of him. Is telling an anecdote about him really less personal than people knowing what he looks like? Maybe not, but, again, the line I’ve drawn in my head makes *me* feel like I have some privacy left, and that not all of my life is available to anyone who stumbles across me online. It’s always a tough balance, though. Important subject and thoughtful post, Jami!

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[…] can be a double-edged sword. Jami Gold discusses the writer’s dilemma of balancing being a public figure but keeping a private […]

katje
katje

I like compartmentalizing and yet I also love busting out of boxes I create, so I have two twitter accounts (private and author) and end up posting almost everything on my author twitter anyway.

Fail. 🙂
I go by a pen name (Ekaterine Xia), partially because I write fantasy and it fits better than my “real name”. It’s complicated by the fact that my legal name is a transliteration from my Chinese birth name, but my Chinese legal name has since changed and I’ve never bonded to my English legal name…
My family knows about my pen name and my parents have gone around giving everyone copies of my first book (horror), but it’s in English and most of them only speak and read in Chinese so disaster averted. Suffice to say that I’m not keen on my traditional family reading about my thoughts on non-traditional configurations of love…
That said, if I publish anything more explicit, I will definitely be using another pen name that I will not be telling anyone about.
It is all in my mind though. My friends know my pen name, but as far as I know, none of them have actually read my books and I don’t think my family has either. Or if they have, they haven’t said anything about it. At all. I don’t advertise it and I don’t shove my books at them, so it really is very much a non-issue for the moment.

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[…] are often introverts, yet we must appear in public to sell our books. Jami Gold examines the writer dilemma of private life vs. public figure, and Kathryn Craft describes how finding your tribe can change your writing […]

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