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April 17, 2018

Reader Connections, Fake Personas, and Catfishing

Yellow figurine on pile of fake coins with text: When Does "Fake" Become "Fraud"?

Far off in the distant past—oh, a few years ago—authors could expect to write and comfortably remain introverts, holed up in their writing cave. Other than the rare book-signing tour, authors weren’t expected to connect with readers other than through their stories.

However, the expectations placed upon writers have grown over the years:

  1. At first, we were just expected to create and maintain a social media platform.
  2. Then we encountered the additional expectations to market and promote our book.
  3. Now many develop chatty newsletters and private Facebook groups to create a sense of friendship and connection between readers and authors.

There’s nothing wrong with any of those activities in general. Some love social media enough to participate without the expectation. Some authors love marketing and promotion. Some authors and readers love that ability to connect on a personal level.

The problem comes when these activities have to be forced. Some authors hate these expectations so much that they give up writing, which is a tragedy all on its own.

But there’s a deeper problem that can occur with pretending to an enthusiasm we don’t feel. Some “authors” aren’t authors at all—they’re marketing people using ghostwriters and fake personas to trick readers into forming those connections.

Why Are Connections So Important?

Many of us go out of our way to see the latest movie or buy the latest album of our favorite celebrity. We won’t wait for the reviews or care if the previews looked questionable.

Humans connect to each other through stories, so we shouldn't misrepresent our personal stories. Click To TweetWe often feel a connection to—even a sense of “ownership” over—our favorites. In the world of Hollywood-level celebrities, it’s easy to understand the idea that watching these people makes us feel like we “know” them.

If we see them in interviews, we think we can judge their character or know their likes and dislikes, etc. We might feel personally betrayed when they screw up or work on a project we don’t like.

The pieces and parts we think we know about them add up to a story in our mind. And as all authors know, humans connect to stories.

Stories = Connections = Support

So just as much as the stories we hear from our friends or coworkers create a connection in our mind, the more we think we know about the story of celebrities—strangers—the more of a connection we feel to them as well. Then, just as we’re more likely to be supportive of our friends than strangers, we’re more likely to be supportive of strangers we feel a connection to.

In the writing world, those connections between people who don’t really know each other—such as authors and readers—mean that readers might be more supportive of authors they feel connections with. So as authors, we end up with a push to form connections to readers in the hopes they’ll support us through buying our books and spreading the word.

There’s nothing wrong with this process if it’s voluntary and not based on lies. But any support is ill-gotten if the connections—or the stories those connections are based on—aren’t real.

Connections Based on Pen Names Can Be Real

Don’t worry. I’m not talking about the widespread practice of using pen names when talking about “ill-gotten support.”

The writing world has a long history of using pseudonyms or pen names for valid reasons, including:

  • Marketing: fitting in, obscuring gender, differentiating between genres
  • Google-ability: staking out virtual real estate despite an overly common real name
  • Security: adding a layer of obfuscation so a stalker would have to act like a stalker and not just have information handed to them

Being ourselves—just under a different name—still allows us to make real connections. The judgments people make about our character or the ways they feel like they “know” us from the stories we tell about our lives will be just as valid with a pseudonym as with our real name—as long as those stories aren’t misrepresented.

But what if those stories aren’t true? What if more than the author name isn’t real?

Connections Based on Fake Personas? Not Real

There’s a huge difference between using a pen name and faking a whole persona. Pen names don’t require us to become a different person. We can still be “us” and be real, just with a “nickname.”

On the other hand, fake personas, when people pretend to be a completely different person—different personalities, likes, dislikes, hobbies, day jobs, family life, etc.—aren’t real.

Pen names? Okay. Fake Personas? It's catfishing and not okay. Click To TweetDitto for those who use stock photos for their avatars. If we don’t want to reveal ourselves, we can use a cartoon, dog, or celebrity without pretending to be those things. Using a stock (or stolen) photo and pretending to be that person? That’s lying.

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.

With fake personas, the stories they tell aren’t real, so the connections aren’t real either. In the case of a fake persona, who could I (or any reader) connect to?:

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.

Fake Personas “Catfish” Readers

In a statement that should be a duh, authors who value their readers don’t catfish them. What does that mean when it comes to fake personas?

According to Merriam-Webster, a catfish is:

“a person who sets up a false personal profile on a social networking site for fraudulent or deceptive purposes”

Those “authors” who set up fake personas are usually doing it for fraudulent or deceptive purposes. They’re catfishing their readers because they want to…:

  • cover their tracks and get defenders (reader fans) if they’re caught stealing/plagiarizing stories from others
  • create sympathy for faked illnesses or bad situations and ask readers to support them through their trials by buying their books (or simply by asking for donations)
  • gather personal stories from readers to then use in stories “written” by a different persona without knowledge or permission of the reader
  • get more attention (and hope to sell more books) by pretending to be an author from a marginalized community (author of color, LGBTQA+, etc.)
  • cover up the fact that “their” books are all written by different ghostwriters

A Witness from the Inside

Margaret Bates shared evidence of these catfishing techniques being used by groups in her post on Medium. I recommend reading her whole article, as she gets into these fake persona issues, as well as how these marketing groups take over Kindle Unlimited, chasing legitimate authors (often those from marginalized groups) out of the top spots—which means readers of those marginalized groups are exploited as well.

As a ghostwriter, she’s been approached by some of these catfishing marketing groups looking for a quick buck and brings up many of the same points as above:

“I first noticed the change from people who needed ghosts for one real novella every so often, to those who were demanding 50–70k works in under a month…

Female fans can get fooled and led to assume their favorite authors are just women doing “girl talk” or “dishing” when asking invasively sexual stories… This would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that there’s the lack of transparency… I think all readers deserve the chance to know exactly who they are interacting with.

There is also a movement for writers to create fake identities and accounts to pose as gay men and LGBT allies writing LGBT romance (when they’re not either of these things) as well as to seek out white ghosts to write for Urban Lit or pen names presented specifically as African American writers creating African American romance stories.”

Margaret even talks about a fake-persona Facebook account that was up for sale for someone to take over. Again, authors who value their readers—rather than just being in it for the money—wouldn’t catfish those readers for deceptive purposes or trick them into forming connections based on lies.

Authenticity Can’t Be Bought

Unfortunately, this problem of marketing “fake authenticity” goes beyond Amazon, Kindle Unlimited, or the publishing industry. Similar issues have been cropping up in other fields, such as the personal-style “mommy blogs” or recipe sites.

Like authors, the people (usually women) behind these sites form connections with visitors through their stories. Recipe sites lead off each recipe with a story about the history of the recipe or how much their family loves it for special occasions. Family blog sites share stories of their preschoolers or teens, etc.

Regular visitors start to feel that they know the people running the sites, which leads to them spending more time on the site—hanging out with their “friends.” As advertising- and affiliate-based businesses, the bloggers make money by increasing visitation and reader trust.

However, recently, some have been setting up sites, getting them “friendly” and “authentic” looking, and then selling them to someone else to take over. Whose stories are they sharing now? Are they real? Who knows.

How Can Readers Know Who’s Real?

Several years ago, I wrote about this problem from a book bloggers’ perspective: How could a book blogger who wanted to review a self-published author’s books trust the stories weren’t plagiarized?

Many of these catfishing techniques are meant to make it harder to tell, but the original set of markers I identified back then might still be helpful:

  • How long have they been active on Twitter or Facebook or Goodreads? At least six months to a year?
  • Do they interact and engage with others as people, or just in sales mode?
  • Are they friends—real friends—with anyone we know or trust?
  • Have others met them in person?
  • Are there candid shots of them on Facebook?
  • Are they members of a writing group like RWA?
  • Do they have a blog and sound reasonable?

Today, I’d add red flags like:

  • How many books have they released in the past year—ten, twenty, more? (The most novels I’ve heard real authors release is six a year unless publishing schedules delayed several from the previous year. Short stories or novellas can increase that number as well.)
  • What’s their release schedule—consistently releasing a book a month? (We can have back-to-back releases by holding some back, but that doesn’t work month after month except for shorter stories.)
  • What’s their author voice—is it weak or inconsistent from book to book? (Ghostwritten books tend to focus more on plots/tropes than voice, as they can be written by different authors.)
  • Is their subgenre a mismatch—and the writing or cover indicates something else? (Especially if their books are categorized for something “trendy” or marginalized (like multicultural romance).)

Notice that in those questions, I didn’t list anything about numbers of followers or friends. Why? Numbers can be faked. Between sock puppets and buying followers, anyone can look popular with numbers.

This isn’t about popularity; this is about being real.

Obviously, we wouldn’t want to do this style of background check on every author before we read them or buy their book. But we might want to check out our favorites more deeply before forming connections with them.

Can We Fix the Problem of Fake Personas?

This isn’t just a case of yelling into the wind about a “well, it’d be nice to fix” problem. Readers are being deceived and exploited. Kindle Unlimited authors (especially those from marginalized groups) are being harmed and cheated out of their rightful KU rankings and earnings.

If we value our readers, we'll keep our connections real. Click To TweetIn a world filled with cries of “Fake news!” and fighting over which “facts” are true, trust is already in short supply. We should never defend those who use these techniques or claim this is “just smart marketing.” Instead, we should report them to Amazon (and hopefully have those reports taken seriously).

While I love many things about social media, I’ll admit that it can also make it far too easy to feel connected to those who remain—essentially—strangers. Real authenticity and genuineness are things we should all value.

The absolute least any of us should do is ensure that we’re being authentic with those we value and respect. And if we’re professional authors instead of professional scammer-marketers, we should value and respect the real connections with our readers. *smile*

Have you heard of any of these issues before? Have you seen any of these scams? What stories have you heard? Do you disagree with my take (and if so, in what way)? Do you have other thoughts or suggestions of how we can deal with these issues?

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Bran Ayres

Thank you so much for addressing this. Before last month I didn’t realize just how huge a problem this is and how much it is affecting the publishing industry, and especially minority authors.

I’ve always striven to be as authentic as possible with my followers, even though I go by my pen name online. As you stated, I have personal reasons for needing to conceal my real name. I have worried in the past that this meant I’m not being honest with my readers, then I realized that I have never pretended to be something I’m not. I can be personable and authentic without putting my whole life out on the internet.

IMO people, in general, don’t need to know more about me than what I put in my bio. But I worry that some people will think that in order to avoid being catfished that they can demand personal information from an author. I should never have to ‘out’ myself to prove I belong to #OwnVoices (I have a love/hate relationship with that hashtag) and I shouldn’t have to ‘provide receipts’ to prove I belong to certain minorities. This is why I really appreciate your list, Jami. It is the unfortunate circumstance that the responsibility of discovering a catfish falls to the reader, but we as authors can’t do much more than be as honest and genuine as possible.

Thank you so much for such a timely post!

Marcy Kennedy

Great post! This was something I really thought through when I started using a pen name for writing mysteries because I wanted to have real connections with my readers and I didn’t want them to ever feel tricked if they found out it was a pen name. Even though I use a pen name, every interaction I have is still authentically me. When I answer a reader email, I answer the same way I would if I was answering under my real name. I think that’s incredibly important when it comes to genuine authors using a pen name. I want my readers to know me, even if I’m calling myself by a different name for marketing purposes. I don’t agree entirely with the “How Can Readers Know Who’s Real?” section. If you look at my pen name, she has a Facebook page but no profile, you’ll never meet her in person (you’ll meet me under my real name), you won’t find any candid photos of her on Facebook, she’s not a member of any writer groups, and she doesn’t really blog. My pen name communicates with her readers a little on Facebook but mostly through newsletters/emails. It’s a lot of one-on-one with individuals. That takes a bit of time, but I enjoy it more. It feels more personal to me. My pen name doesn’t have all those things that would verify her as “real” precisely because I don’t want to pretend to be someone else. I’m Marcy Kennedy who has…  — Read More »

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thanks, mass volume would definitely be a giveaway. When I started publishing I brought out seven books in one year but they had been stacked and waiting while I got around to independent publishing. I don’t use facebook so I am not aware there are candid shots of me there, or anywhere.

Peter Perdian

Excellent post!

Deborah Makarios

Good grief! I didn’t even know this was a thing. But maybe that’s because my digital territory is limited to my blog, Ravelry, and (most recently) the Fountain Pen Network, so I remain blissfully unaware of anything exploding on Facebook.

Susan Tuttle

Jami, this really opened my eyes, especially about KU. I’ve often thought it was so unfair that those who are selling the most get the majority of the money in KU – I mean, they don’t need it, they’re already selling well. It leaves the rest of us out here in the cold… sigh… I write under my name (started before I knew enough to check my name and see how many others there are out there… a lot, rats!) for my mystery/suspense, and a pen name for my Bible studies and meditations (hard to sell both killing people – on paper – and being nice to everyone from the same name) and will use yet another pen name for my fantasy/ sci-fi once it’s ready to come out. But it’s all still me, and I’m more than willing to let anyone know that. I just think it’s important for readers to know when they see each name they’ll know what genre they’re going to find. I keep trying this social media thing, but it doesn’t make much sense to me. I personally don’t care who the writer is, I just want a good book! A well written book. And so many just aren’t these days. I often find authors who thank their editors and I stare at all the errors in wonder, wondering how they weren’t caught. Did those editors even pass English class?? As for multiple launches in a year, I’m bringing out 5 volumes of Tiny Tales…  — Read More »

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[…] Jami Gold considers reader connections, fake personas, and catfishing. […]

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[…] my post last week about how some authors have created false personas to connect with readers, Bran L. Ayres and I talked about the damage that style of catfishing has done in the LGBT+ […]

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