In an age when both working and aspiring writers are expected to be “out there” more than ever before, privacy has become a luxury unaffordable to those of us not named Stephen King or Dan Brown. Sure, writers have always had to be visible at book signings and the like, but your role at those events is well defined—no one expects you to share your e-mail address or photos of your kids. On Facebook, though, when readers “friend” you, they may expect all that and more. They expect access. Privacy? What privacy?
This is the writing world we live in. Publishers and agents say we need platforms before we pitch, and having a platform means learning to love Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, blogs, the works—and the blurred line between our public and private selves that comes with them.
As writers, we’re right to be concerned about our privacy—for both personal reasons and professional ones. But being too cautious can also backfire. How can editors discover us if we never share our successes? How can we benefit from other writers’ expertise if they don’t know what we’re working on? How can we build a platform if we’re reluctant to reach out to readers any way we can?
Therein lies the conundrum. In the oversharing age, our privacy is being sacrificed at the altar of freelance assignments and book sales. Social media’s rise has made it easier to connect, yet demands more of us. We have to work at privacy if we want it. With that in mind, consider these guidelines.
1. Remember who’s reading.
Michelle Goodman had been using Facebook for close to two years when her writing life and her personal one first clashed on the site. A Seattle-area freelancer and author of The Anti 9-to-5 Guide and My So-Called Freelance Life, Goodman was writing a piece for a college friend, an editor at a major magazine covering the media business. “The story was very involved and took a few days to report and a couple of days more to write,” she says.
Hours away from deadline, Goodman took a break from her writing to post something innocuous on Facebook. Her friend noticed, writing “hey, focus!” in reply. Goodman was mortified. “I felt like I did something bad,” she says.
Her friend would later say she was only teasing, but the damage had been done: Goodman changed how she was using Facebook. She divided “friends” into lists to control what they saw on her feed. “I don’t want people to see me on Facebook when I’m supposed to be busy,” she says.
While Goodman and many others like her struggle to manage their private lives online, freelancer Ron Doyle believes that for writers, the pursuit of privacy on the Web is futile. “Privacy is dead, we’ve just refused to bury it,” he says.
It’s an interesting take coming from Doyle, a Denver magazine writer who also blogs for Psychology Today. He says he’s lost work by being too open. Months ago, he let it slip to editors from local magazine 5280, a regular client, that he hadn’t been getting out much. “These editors know me as someone who knows what’s going on around town, yet I reveal to them that I haven’t left the house in weeks,” Doyle says.
Shortly thereafter, Doyle began using the location-based social network Foursquare to “check in” during nights out. When 5280 editors he’d befriended on Facebook saw where he’d been via the Foursquare feed,
an assignment followed.
While Doyle credits Facebook for helping him redeem himself with 5280, he’s aware there are both pros and cons to the network. It’s tricky to navigate because unlike public Twitter feeds and blogs, which anyone can see, Facebook connects friends while redefining what it means to be one. “I have a lot of friends on Facebook that a part of me wonders if I should [have],” Doyle says.
Goodman says even though she’s divided her Facebook “friends” into lists, she still sometimes feels trapped by her account, a mashup of actual friends, colleagues and clients. She knows that her lists aren’t really boundaries, but simply filters that control what certain users can see when it comes to her activities on that one network. They offer not so much privacy but a chance to help define ourselves in the eyes of those who watch us. And managing that definition takes awareness and effort. Altering our online identity for different groups can lead to a sort of digital schizophrenia. “We turn ourselves into a house divided,” Doyle says. For this reason, many writers find they prefer to lose some privacy in order to keep their sanity.
2. Focus on your brand.
Doyle’s strategy is based not on being cautious about what he posts, but on maximizing his career opportunities through what he posts. He thinks of himself as a brand, and of social media as his arsenal for developing it. “We have to define our brand on our own, and make our definition the one that is most accepted by the public,” he says. “The only way to do that is to lack privacy.” Consider how he uses Foursquare. In revealing his sometimes-unusual travels around Denver, he’s established credentials for covering the quirkier aspects of the city.
How far should you go? Doyle draws the line at the parts of his life that are wholly separate from his writing: He won’t dish about his wife or kids. But everything related to his freelance career is fair game. Sharing that information feeds his platform and reinforces his identity. “Carl Jung said if there is a truth, it’s a concert of many voices,” Doyle says. “When it comes to the truth of my personal brand, I want to make sure I’m the loudest voice in the chorus.”
Both Doyle and Goodman say there’s a benefit to using social media for brand building. They’ve both been assigned work through Facebook and Twitter.
Lydia Dishman, a veteran freelancer who writes from Greenville, S.C., broke into national markets thanks in part to relationships built on social media. I should know; she and I were partners in #Editorchat, a weekly discussion between writers and editors on Twitter. Today, she’s writing for BNET (bnet.com) and Fast Company, among others. Freelancers who’ve had similar success on social media have found a way to reveal information that editors want to know—and to their advantage. Any sacrifice of privacy along the way very well may have been worth it.
3. Consider what readers want.
For all the freelancers who’ve been assigned work through Facebook and Twitter, there are as many or more authors who use those services but haven’t sold one extra book as a result. Literary agent Rachelle Gardner says “sales aren’t very different” for many of her longtime author clients who are active on social media. So the good news is that if you’re writing or aspiring to write for the bookshelves, you might not have a compelling reason to risk posting anything beyond the minimum you’re comfortable with.
That said, you’re not totally off the hook. Publishers are increasingly demanding authors maintain some form of online presence. A study conducted by Toronto consultancy Syncapse found that people who declare themselves fans of a brand on Facebook are willing to spend $71.84 more every year for that brand’s products than people who don’t declare themselves fans. If writers are brands, as Doyle asserts, then the more we’re on social media—the more we’re known—the more salable our work becomes, whether or not that translates into instant sales. “To say that you don’t want to have any kind of Internet presence—that you want to be invisible—is now kind of a radical thing to say,” Gardner says. “A publisher isn’t necessarily going to take kindly to it.”
She recommends focusing your online activity on what readers need to know about you to form a connection. Unless you’re a memoirist, you don’t need to (and probably shouldn’t) treat the Web as a confessional. And what you had for breakfast doesn’t matter to your Twitter followers—unless, that is, they follow you because you’re a food writer. “The bottom line of social media is not to sell and promote books, but to create relationships with readers,” Gardner says.
Of course, readers can cross lines—and the only one who can set and maintain boundaries is you. Novelist Elise Blackwell says that while her publisher has never pressed her to forfeit her privacy, readers pursue her all the time. “A couple of people pushed me to post more information about a recent trip to Spain, when what I really wanted was to get away from everything,” Blackwell says. Call it a side effect of readers wanting to know her better.
Literary relationships aren’t much different from any other bond. The strongest ones are built when writers reveal themselves in ways that both relate to their readers and are germane to the work. A sex columnist might blog about her sex life because she’s writing a book about sex, and because her readers expect advice on how to improve their own sex lives. By contrast, readers of my financial coverage at The Motley Fool don’t need to know about my rolls in the hay, nor would they be interested. My stock portfolio is far more interesting.
Privacy, Gardner asserts, is relative to what readers want to know. Consider this when weighing the risks against the potential benefits of any revelation you find yourself questioning. It can help you know when the price of your privacy might be worth it, and when it’s just an unnecessary cost.
4. Err on the side of caution.
On the other hand, Gardner says, publishers appreciate writers who are careful. The instant nature of today’s Web makes it more like face-to-face conversation, and flippant or rude remarks are not only harder to take back—the Library of Congress now documents tweets—they’re harder to fix.
“I look at social media as a great salon,” author Bethanne Patrick says. “Whatever image you choose to present, consider each foray into social media as part of that image.”
Take writer Catherine Connors, who got caught posting what was meant to be a hidden rant about her mother-in-law. She’s still apologizing for the essay, which appeared on a friend’s blog. “Posting it was not my most prudent move,” Connors writes in a retrospective at the AOL women’s site Lemondrop.
In this case, Connors did more than reveal herself. She allowed others a look at her mother-in-law, without her consent, in what might be considered private moments. And that had a cost.
Participants on social media are only human, and even the literati can be guilty of disrespecting privacy. Jon Clinch, author of the novel Kings of the Earth, says he’s witnessed authors suffer at the keyboards of those who ignore privacy rights. He describes one thread on a private writing site in which he objected to praise for a literary agent who’d blogged about an unpublished writer whose correspondence she hadn’t liked. What followed, he says, was a storm of venomous posts directed at the writer. “I found out that I was nearly alone in believing the aspiring writer in question had any right to privacy whatsoever, and that struck me as a very unfortunate sign of the times,” Clinch says.
5. Don’t underestimate its power.
Like it or not, sacrificing privacy can work to your advantage. Reality TV shows remain popular, as do books like comedian Chelsea Handler’s Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea, which stayed 62 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list thanks to reader interest in the unfiltered descriptions of her partying and bedroom conquests.
In the entertainment world, privacy is for sale, and writers are part of that world. Doyle cites as an example not just his own freelance success, but that of authors like Alisa Bowman, who once confessed during a TV interview that she wished her husband could find her G spot.
On the blog Project: Happily Ever After, Bowman details the ways she and her husband have strived to improve their marriage and sex life. Her wide-open writing has led to a related book, forthcoming from Running Press.
“She’s going to have a bestseller,” Doyle says. In the oversharing age, it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising.
This article was written by Tim Beyers
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