Secrecy? Privacy? How do authors protect themselves?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne


After a recent situation in which a friend of mine found some of elements of her books reproduced without her permission, I started thinking about the issue of secrecy and privacy for authors. As far as I’m concerned, I follow some pretty straightforward guidelines and don’t tend to get too het up about ‘secrecy’ when it comes to my ideas or works in progress (then again, I haven’t had anyone nick any of my ideas either…) 

Basically, when it comes to my work, I don’t tend to publicize details of ideas or formative WIPs online or in social media – and least not until they are manuscripts out on submission or accepted for publication (or, if I was going the indie route, available as an e-book) and even then I tend to stick to just ‘blurb’ style summaries. I certainly don’t post or publicize online passage/extracts while I’m working on them (though I think that’s probably more out of embarrassment!).  I am, however, fine with chatting to my friends (both author and non-author) about what I’m working on – so I guess in my mind I have a dividing line between what I consider ‘private’ friends who know me on a personal level and ‘public’ friends who know me in my professional guise and who I may have met in person or only online via social media. 

My friend’s recent experience was a little unnerving, however, as it sounded very much like this ‘dividing line’ had become blurred – which also got me thinking about how in this Internet and social media era it is becoming increasingly hard to maintain privacy and secrecy (just look at JK Rowling and how her author pseudonym Robert Galbraith’s anonymity was undermined by a leak).

As a corollary to this, I started to think about just how hard it is to separate out the ‘private’ me and the ‘public’ me when it comes to social media. I also have rules regarding what I will and won’t post in this regard too – especially when my kids are involved (e.g. I don’t put photos up of them on Facebook). But it seems to me that the way the Internet is heading, even when you try to separate out these aspects of your life (personal vs. professional) on-line it can often be very hard to stop one bleeding into the other (just Google yourself and you’ll see what stuff ends up out on the Internet!).

So TKZers, how are you navigating the online and interpersonal landscape when it comes to your writing? Are you secretive about your work? Have you been burned by someone who used your ideas or took some of your fictional elements and incorporated them in their own work? Do you have your own guidelines for how you post things on social media or what you will/won’t say online? How do you keep the ‘private’ you and the ‘public’ you separate – or is this just an old-fashioned division which, in this day and age, is impossible to truly maintain (especially if you want to achieve a connection with your readers)?




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Secrecy? Privacy? How do authors protect themselves?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne


After a recent situation in which a friend of mine found some of elements of her books reproduced without her permission, I started thinking about the issue of secrecy and privacy for authors. As far as I’m concerned, I follow some pretty straightforward guidelines and don’t tend to get too het up about ‘secrecy’ when it comes to my ideas or works in progress (then again, I haven’t had anyone nick any of my ideas either…) 

Basically, when it comes to my work, I don’t tend to publicize details of ideas or formative WIPs online or in social media – and least not until they are manuscripts out on submission or accepted for publication (or, if I was going the indie route, available as an e-book) and even then I tend to stick to just ‘blurb’ style summaries. I certainly don’t post or publicize online passage/extracts while I’m working on them (though I think that’s probably more out of embarrassment!).  I am, however, fine with chatting to my friends (both author and non-author) about what I’m working on – so I guess in my mind I have a dividing line between what I consider ‘private’ friends who know me on a personal level and ‘public’ friends who know me in my professional guise and who I may have met in person or only online via social media. 

My friend’s recent experience was a little unnerving, however, as it sounded very much like this ‘dividing line’ had become blurred – which also got me thinking about how in this Internet and social media era it is becoming increasingly hard to maintain privacy and secrecy (just look at JK Rowling and how her author pseudonym Robert Galbraith’s anonymity was undermined by a leak).

As a corollary to this, I started to think about just how hard it is to separate out the ‘private’ me and the ‘public’ me when it comes to social media. I also have rules regarding what I will and won’t post in this regard too – especially when my kids are involved (e.g. I don’t put photos up of them on Facebook). But it seems to me that the way the Internet is heading, even when you try to separate out these aspects of your life (personal vs. professional) on-line it can often be very hard to stop one bleeding into the other (just Google yourself and you’ll see what stuff ends up out on the Internet!).

So TKZers, how are you navigating the online and interpersonal landscape when it comes to your writing? Are you secretive about your work? Have you been burned by someone who used your ideas or took some of your fictional elements and incorporated them in their own work? Do you have your own guidelines for how you post things on social media or what you will/won’t say online? How do you keep the ‘private’ you and the ‘public’ you separate – or is this just an old-fashioned division which, in this day and age, is impossible to truly maintain (especially if you want to achieve a connection with your readers)?




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Promotion versus privacy

The importance of online privacy is an emerging issue for the public at large, including writers, read more about why that is here. Recently Newsweek ran an article about American authors, including J.D. Salinger. A photo of the famously reclusive writer shows him in his bedroom. As the article points out, the viewer can’t help noticing the industrial-strength lock on his bedroom door. The image of the lock underscores the way Salinger guarded his privacy ferociously for nearly a half century.

I don’t know whether Salinger owned a computer (we’ll probably find out in the upcoming biography, The Private War of J. D. Salinger, by Shane Salerno and David Shields), nor do I know what he thought about the way most authors go the opposite way today. We typically court publicity (and sales) by using social networking, publicists, and other self-promotion strategies. But I’m sure he would have frowned on the loss of privacy that follows in the wake of becoming “known,” even to a small degree. Before their first published book hits the store shelves, authors are often advised by publishers: Get a web site; get on Facebook and Twitter; start a blog (The Kill Zone, by the way, is one byproduct of my being given that advice by my own editor).

What is the privacy downside of all this online activity during an age in which almost everyone has a “public” face? For children, the threat of Internet predators is an obvious concern. But what about the rest of us? I’ve had my own minor brush with the downside of posting too much information online. A few years ago, someone reached out to me via my web site’s email; we exchanged some pleasantries. Then, the day after Christmas, as my family gathered in the living room in the traditional post-holiday food coma, the doorbell rang. A messenger delivered a package–inside the box was a gigantic, framed portrait of me. It turns out that my “friend” had commissioned a painting based on a web photo of me, and had it delivered to my daughter’s house(!). As we put the thing on the couch and gaped at it in all its life-sized  glory, my brother-in-law said, “That’s just wrong.”




With that incident serving as an alarm bell, I started reducing my online footprint. I haven’t gotten to the point where I lock my Facebook and Twitter posts, but I’ve tried to raise my awareness of the unintentional information that can be mined from online activities. One thing I’m grateful for is that my pen name is different than my married name, so there’s a slight privacy firewall between my social and professional identities.

Whether you’re a writer or not, here are some things everyone should consider when posting online:

According to the NY Times, burglars have targeted houses based upon people’s Facebook updates.

When you upload a photo that was taken with a smart phone, people can determine your location. For a demonstration, see I Can Stalk U. (You can turn that GPS function off, but many people don’t know it’s there.) This one’s really scary to me. If you click on the “Map It” link, you can see where the people posting their Tweets work or live, and they probably have no idea.

Sometimes one social network can “out” your identity from its sister site without your knowing it. In one example, people who thought they were playing music privately online were actually broadcasting their musical selections to their entire network.  More here. So imagine if all your cool friends discovered that you actually listen to Neil Diamond. The horror!

The most recent privacy-scare story I heard came from one of my friends: He joined a service that was supposed to manage all his social networks from a single point of control. His wife was linked to it, and as soon as it was turned on, all his past Tweets, plus every message he’d ever posted to chat boards, started scrolling before her on the screen. These missives included several to women that she considered to be…questionable. The poor guy had to endure a lengthy, detailed grilling about each and every one of them. He never unsubscribed from something so fast, he said!

How about you? Have you had any funny, odd, or horrible stories related to online privacy? Is privacy a big concern of yours?

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