Monday, August 10, 2009

Managing Your Public Personality

There's a moderately well-known writer whose books I've always enjoyed. I'm not going to name her for reasons which will be apparent soon. We'll just call her the author.

I first read the author's work about five or six years ago completely by accident after stumbling across one of her titles at the library book sale. Good book. Not dazzling, but good enough that when I went to the bookstore, I picked up a couple more of her titles and read those. Also good. And she seemed to be getting better. I started to sense she was a writer on the upswing.

So I visited her website out of curiosity one day, and it was very pleasant and informative. Well-designed, good content, regular updates, all the things we like in a website. It detailed some of her involvement in the writing community, which was how I discovered she and I knew some people in common. Not too surprising. Publishing is a small world.

I reached out to her on one of the social sites. We emailed a couple of times. Nothing major, just networking stuff. Through it all, I formed a positive opinion of her. She seemed professional, upbeat, and generally good at author relations.

But then a funny thing happened.

She stepped outside of her author persona and started getting personal and controversial. She started sending around mass links with political rants, religious diatribes, and even, I'm sorry to tell you, veiled racist remarks. At first I just ignored her rants, but when she started with the racist stuff, I started to pay more attention. Was it a fluke? Had she sent it by accident? No. She sent more, and yet more. She was doing it on purpose.

And she was doing it in public. And that is the sin I can't forgive. The political rants, I mostly laughed at. The religious stuff I deleted without reading. The other stuff had me steaming mad and changed forever my opinion of the author, but after I cooled off, I realized that there was a bigger crime.

You see, I can talk to her about her opinions and show her where we disagree. I can even, if I'm lucky, get through to her and open her mind a bit. But what I can't do -- what nobody can do -- is take back what she already put out there. It's on the interwebz. She can change, but her public words can't. Any fan might be able to stumble upon it at any time.

Yes, we all have a First Amendment right of freedom of expression. There are limits on this right, though. Some are legal (such as the rules limiting access to pornography), and some are common sense. Common sense ought to tell an author, a person on public display, that she stands to alienate a certain percentage of the public when she delves into politics and religion. Common sense ought to tell her not to flaunt her controversial opinions in a public forum because at least some of her readers will take offense.

Common sense ought to tell her that, with so many books to choose from, a reader who used to like and support her might just stop buying her new releases. She might, in fact, decide to move this author's books from the keeper shelf to the trash.

Garbage day is tomorrow around here. Not soon enough.



Julie Harrington said...

Oh. How funny. I just booted somebody off my facebook page for this exact thing today. Huh. And I made a vow that -- by the grace of God -- should I ever get traditioanlly published I will not use my "professional" image to do this. I'm of the mindset that people come to me or seek me out (theoretically speaking) because they care about what I write. Not what I think about Global Warming or whether Navy Blue socks really do go with grey pants. I'm a nobody. Just another person with an opinion. And to be honest? This behavior turned me off and -- unjustly or not -- will affect my book purchases in the future.


PatriciaW said...

I bumped up against this during our recent presidential campaign. More than once. Was surprised at how some publishing folks--authors, editors, and agents--chose to voice their opinions.

Where we didn't agree and had reasonable, intelligent conversations, I came away thinking, "Okay, well we don't agree." In one case, I came away with a heightened respect, even though we didn't see eye to eye. But where some were vitriolic in voicing their positions, with no reasonable, intelligent conversation to be had, it changed my opinion about ever working with or supporting that person.

Everyone's entitled to his or her opinion, but I believe there's a thoughtful way to voice it. I guess I could say I'm glad I know. I'd rather know than not know.

Of course, this plays out differently for those who use their real names professionally and are also very passionate, albeit a bit misguided, when it comes to voicing their opinions in a public forum.

Edittorrent said...

You know, I could have forgiven her if it was just a case where reasonable minds disagreed. I'm not offended by rational discussion.

But there's a difference between that and comments that are offensive to specific demographics. And the only writers who should discuss politics publicly are political writers. Ditto for religion and religion writers.

You just have to remember that your author name is a brand. Like any brand, it must be presented to the public in a way that will, at a minimum, avoid negative consequences.

I mean, some of what I've read recently -- let's just say that no person with a normal allotment of compassion or decency would have ever posted that stuff. I'm pretty hard to offend -- a fact which Alicia can confirm, I'm sure -- but this stuff offended even me.


Anonymous said...

I've always believed that the book was more important than the writer. Until this economic climate. Now, writers have to be more than writers. We have to be visible.

There's a thin line, however, between being visible enough and being in-your-face. I think politics and religion - both - are subjects better left to politicians and bishops than to authors of popular literature.

There's always the Wayback Machine to remind us of our idiocy. (Some of my website designs were just BAD.)

Julie Harrington said...

Exactly, Theresa. I feel and am the same way. So I'll just say ditto.


Edittorrent said...

I keep trying to offend Theresa, but no luck! :)

I have long thought that we should have a penname not so much for our books but for our other stuff, our political rants, our dirty jokes, our Youtube contributions, our religious solicitations... because you're bound to alienate someone with each of them. And like above-- your author name is your brand. Just as Kleenex doesn't connect its brand name with, say, Flat Earth beliefs, so we shouldn't mess up our name with a lot of controversial non-writing related posts. (My antipathy towards dangling participles is writing-related!)

But we all slip up, send a letter to the editor about some pet cause, hit "send" before we realize that our name is attached. I guess it's just best to minimize that.

It's not even WHAT you say. Whatever you say, someone will object. And these days, things escalate so fast and virally that you can't stop it if someone starts circulating your post and your name and initiates a boycott. Hey, it can happen! And you never know what might set someone off these days. So I guess maybe think about not giving them much ammunition? (Of course, there are some people who are so desperate to feel offended that they'll take something never meant to be offensive and use it against you. Groan. Not much you can do about that!!!!)

Edittorrent said...

Alicia, you tried to offend me? Nah. lol

Karen, I agree with you to a point. There are more avenues for visibility now, but literary celebrity has existed in our culture for many centuries. And occasionally, those literary celebrities manage to kill their own careers with their reckless speech. Thinking of the poet Rochester, for example, who managed to piss off pretty much everyone he met.

So we're "more visible" in the sense that we have more ways to reach the public, and perhaps more pressure to do so. But the public nature of the writer's persona is nothing new.


kah said...

Yes, with Twitter, Facebook and all the other social networking these days, it's too easy to say too much. Sometimes less really is more. As Sammy Kershaw says, "Let's talk about anything in this world, but politics, religion, and her."

Linda said...

This happened to me, too, though it was a different story. There was a YA writer I liked to read. She put up a blog, and I thought it would great to read. Initially, it was interesting. Then politics started creeping into her posts. I finally stopped reading in disgust because the political commentary had a vaguely nasty feel to it. I went back after about a year. All the posts are politics now. You wouldn't even know she's a YA writer from the posts.

Riley Murphy said...

Okay, back in the day - when there was no internet and thus, no website to access - I know, I know, hard to believe, right? You had to actually trudge out and hunt down your favorite author, if he/she was doing a book signing, that is.

So there I was - with my favorite book clutched under my arm waiting for my fair princess author to come out to read (this was ancient times guys - when they arrived from behind a curtain and stood at a podium to read their work). She was my most favorite romance author of all time...or well, of all of my eighteen years, so I waited in ninety degree heat for her to breeze in and read her beautiful words with that soft and cultured English accent of hers (that I knew she was going to have)...I pictured her with golden hair and it was going to shimmer in the shafts of afternoon sunlight that beamed in through the auditorium windows. Suddenly, the sweat that dotted the back of my neck and dropped off to trickle down my spine was of little consequence - a dream was about to be born. I was going to meet my idea of Royalty.

My eyes widened and I sat forward in my seat. The curtain moved. She was coming. She was going to step out on stage and I was going to get my first look at the woman who inspired me – the paragon of every virtue I held dear. She had to be just like me. She wrote the words that I wished had come from inside myself. She was a goddess, a princess a....


(you have to imagine my jaw dropping to my knees while I watched her stalk across the stage)

There had to be some mistake. I looked around and sat back in my seat. Was I the only one who was disappointed? Maybe I was being too judgmental. So, what if she wasn’t the prettiest present under the Christmas tree. I was never one to be seduced by shiny paper. I took a deep breath and decided that today plain brown wrap was good enough. I fully intended to close my eyes, determined to let her beautiful voice - carry me away as she read her beautiful words surely then I’d be restored.

Long story short...there was no English accent when she opened her mouth and started to read. Nope. Truthfully, a seasoned cook at a truck stop diner screaming out orders for pick-up, probably sounded more cultured than the screeching harpy at the podium. I wanted to cry – but then I thought, is it her fault that she looks like a cave dweller with an uneven fake tan? (Insert shuddering with the recall, here) Is it her fault that her voice was better suited to cattle auction house than reading the words that I loved so much? No. And with that in mind I suffered through her reading. I ignored my overwhelming disappointment and waited in a line to get her autograph. I was confident. She was going to be the best. I just knew it.

But I was wrong. She turned out to be a snotty bitch who pushed her coke bottle glasses up on the bridge of nose, barely looked at me and sniffed: “Name?” When I didn’t say anything, she was forced to look up me. “How would you like me to sign this? To--?”
She left this belligerently hanging like she was giving a hint to an idiot and that made me mad. After my valiant effort to find some redeeming quality in the woman this is what she does – she judges me?
I gave her a bright smile and said cheerfully: “Could you put it to: I’m sorry to have lost you as a reader...

Murphy (who is a firm believer that the Wizard should sometimes stay behind the curtain).

Edittorrent said...

Murph, I have always tried NOT to learn about my fave authors just for that reason! I never read biographies of writers. What if they're total dicks? What if they treated their spouse or children badly? I'd rather just enjoy their books and ignore them.

But there are many readers who do like to know the author... how disappointing for them to find out the truth... most authors are pretty boring! (And that's the best-case scenario!)

Wes said...

Murph (I can't believe I'm still talking to you), a member of my critique group has published scores (yes, I mean scores) of romances with one of the major houses. Her bio portrays a kicky (that's not a typo) babe who hits the slopes 100 days a year (we live in Colorado), but she's anything but that. However she makes her living writing bodice-rippers, has a marvelous personality, is funny as hell, and fun to go drinking with after critique group. I wish I could write as well as she does.

Gayle Carline said...

Before I figured out I am a writer, I was a software engineer (yes, a damn good one, thank you). I learned to always treat my co-workers as if they were co-workers first, friends second. Emails were tactfully worded, voicemails were polite, and the "Should I Say This?" filter in my brain was ON all the time.

This training is serving me well as I try to establish myself as The Debut Novelist You Must Read. Polite to readers, polite to reviewers, polite to other writers, tactful and gracious when I'd like to pound someone. My political views are probably apparent (geez, I'm married to a black man - how liberal do you think I am?) but they are not force-fed to anyone.

Unfortunately, I'm not the dulcet-toned beauty of legend when people meet me at a signing, but hey, I'm funny and pleasant. That's gotta be worth something.


Andrew Rosenberg said...

Admit it. The author is question has been dissing Editors. That's your real beef. :)

Seriously, there have been a few writers (and actors) who have put out some racist thoughts, and I stopped reading or watching their work. If you don't draw the line then anything goes and it becomes acceptable.
There have been a few Facebook friends I've unfriended because they posted stuff that made me not want to be friends, online or IRL.
Be careful what you say, unless it's promoting your book which better reflect what you're talking about.

Robin Lemke said...


It sounds like the emails you're talking about were pretty awful. I'm very careful to avoid politics and most of religion on my blog and fb and twitter. Mostly because I think those are subjects that require deep discussion and aren't served well with flip oneliners.

But I'm curious, would you have crossed the writer off your list if you were *aware* of political or religious beliefs because of her internet presence? For instance, if her fb info page said: Politics - Liberal and you weren't. Or if they posted a link about child sweatshops. Or she mentioned on her blog that she went to church or temple?

I feel like I'm careful not to offend. (OK, I do rant about so you think you can dance; I have strong convictions), but I still am who I am and I think it comes through and I'm just wondering if you think even that much personalization is too much.

Unknown said...

I agree with you Theresa. Careers can be instantly killed with a few stray emails and too much personal opinions being expressed. Or even a bad attitude as Murphy pointed out.:) Cave dweller? Brilliant!

em said...

I'm one of those readers who wants to know everything about an author I like. I don't have to agree with their politics to continue to read them. Unless, like Theresa suggested they were too offensive to be ignored. So far that hasn't happened.:)

Edittorrent said...

Lots of great points being raised here. I feel a follow-up post coming on. :)

Mystery Robin, my friends come in all persuasions. I don't rule out contact with people because they belong to a particular demographic which might be different from mine. How boring would life be if everyone thought exactly the same way?

My concern in this case was the level of discourse. It was ugly. And inappropriate in both tone and content, regardless of whether I agreed or disagreed with the underlying message. Plain old good manners and basic human decency should have prevented her from clicking send.


Edittorrent said...

Just so you understand what I am talking about, I will tell you that one of the offensive posts included the face of an African-American public figure pasted onto the body of a tribal character dressed in reeds and shells, with captions making fun of the person. It was disgusting and offensive, and it passed the limits of decent conduct.


Riley Murphy said...


Obviously this person didn't have the handy note to self I carry with me at all times, that reads: Don't piss Theresa off!:D

And what was is it that my Mom and Dad always quoted to me...? Oh yeah, you can't fix stupid.

This is usually my response to someone who has behaved in a thoughtless and ignorant manner. Dimes to dollars they have some equally idiotic reply when you quote that truth - and that's the perfect time for your casual rebuttal of: “You see?” When they pause to think about that for a second - you hit ‘em with. “Oh, you poor thing - you don’t do you?”

And that’s the truth!

Lilly Cain said...

"You can't fix stupid" - that pretty much sums up this sort of thing. Also "You can't argue with Drunks, politicians or zealots."

I think dumping her books, and your following of her is about all you can do. You're quite correct in that what this author has said is out there forever, and that is unfortunate to say the least, as it will encourage those with similar viewpoints to follow this person and invite her to continue.

Throw the books out, wipe them off your links and forget it, as best you can.


Leona said...

Wow, this is intense. It's interesting to think of the lines being drawn and if they can clearly be seen. I'm sure I'll make more than one mistake, but I hope I'm never so insensitive as to think something like that to be funny or okay. I don't know the author being spoke of here, but I'm glad I missed it.

Murphy, OMG, you are usually good for a laugh. Thank you. I'm struggling here in Texas as the good things that were supposed to happen haven't and a myriad of problems that weren't supposed to happen have. Your comments are something I look forward to seeing along with this blog :)

Edittorrent said...

Wes, I remember for awhile my bio said that fencing was my hobby. Well, yeah, a couple decades ago I did take a fencing class, but abandoned the sport because it hurt my shoulder. (I would've been Olympic grade, trust me on this. :)

There is a certain friend who never forgets anything (not Theresa, who might remember but is too nice to remind me) who never fails to ask me how my fencing is going. :)

Anyway, those bios-- well, parts of them were probably true at some point!

Here's a real author bio:

Amy Author spends most of her time at a computer, to the detriment of her butt muscles. She tells everyone she's writing, but she really mostly checks her email. When she says she's researching, you can find her on Youtube, comparing various versions of the Archies' greatest hits. She has a husband who's only sticking around because she does bring in a lot of money, and three neglected children.

Riley Murphy said...

Hi Leona!

I'm sorry to hear things are tough. I'm listening...I feel like Frasier Crane - but I don't have the PHD in psychology. Hey, now that I think about? Neither does he. (insert shrug here) But that's okay. I’ve got something that I think will cheer you up. You know what I did today - well, really about a half hour ago? I asked my honey to stop off at the grocery store on the way home from work.
I can hear you saying: "No!"
To that I say: "Yes!" just as emphatically.
I asked him to pick up an eggplant. Here's the ensuing conversation:
"Eggplant? What's that?"
"It's a vegetable."
"It's that yellow round thing you can't cut right?"
"No, it's not a squash. It''s kind of waxy looking - it's shaped like a bell and the color of it is purple."
Silence over the cell...
"Are you there?" I ask.
"Yeah. Are you shitting me? It's purple."
"I swear." I say, and he knows that I'm telling the truth. With me that's a sacred line I never cross.
"Mmkay, do we need anything else?"
"So, I'm going to the store for a purple wax bell?"
"Pretty much, yeah."
"Do I even like to eat this?"
"Of course, we had it last week. You loved it. Trust me." Now you see here, how I subtly snuck in the phrase trust me? Well, he really shouldn't because truth be told we hadn't had eggplant for a while. (heheheh)
"Okay," he caved. "But if I can’t find it, too bad you get what I buy. I’m not going to phone you when I’m in the store looking. I hate those guys.”
To which I say... “I understand.” (Hey, maybe I am Frasier Crane)

I'm so excited! He should be here any minute and I'm dying to see what he brings home. My guess? It will be those funky looking Japanese eggplants. Either that or it will be a rutabaga. Yup, that's what I'd put money on. Did I mention he's color blind? But on the off chance that he gets this right - I swear I'll stay out of his head for at least a, what am I saying? Five days...four...Three for sure. Yes, he'll get three days of peace and quiet from me - I promise...;D

Jami Gold said...


Color blind??? Oh you are in trouble...

Jami G.
(cracking up...)

em said...

Murphy ROTFL!!!! I was having such a bad day and I got on the blog and you made me laugh! Thanks! :) :)

Leona, I hope your day gets better:).

Leona said...

Murphy! What a crack up! I laughed so hard I had to share with the people I'm staying with.

I, of course, had to relate the past story of his shopping disaster. I am still laughing! Hopefully he doesn't come home with "the yellow round one" because it's cheaper. Or the rutabaga. If he does, I'll help you hide the evidence. (insert evil laugh) If he comes back with the right stuff, tell him we are proud of him :) lol

Thanks Em, hope your day goes better too! Or at least doesn't get worst so tomorrow can be its own day.

Murphy, what are some of your titles? I really want to read your work, but I don't even know your name (K tongue in cheek here. started sounding like a country song, so had to finish:)

But seriously, I don't know your last name or titles of your work. As I'm typing this, I thought of a way to check. Red Sage maybe? LOL Okay, I'll look there, too.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Theresa. Offensive opinions would always affect my decision to pick up a book and buy it.

Riley Murphy said...

He came home with a freaking zucchini! Not even two of them - just one. I took one look at the sorry ass thing, and demanded: "If this were a bell, where would I hide the chimes?"

(You have to imagine that the vegetable in question is stuck out between us - actually under his nose as he's somewhat taller than me - but I was holding it in threatening manor :D).

"Chimes?" He stared down at it. "It's a vegetable for Cripes sakes. Quit being so melodramatic. I'll eat it. Who else are you worried about feeding?"

....he had a very valid point there. I really hated that...but after all was said and done? It was delicious -, when I asked for purple, but delicious none the less... Green, and I'm just

danceluvr said...

we should have a penname not so much for our books but for our other stuff, our political rants, our dirty jokes, our Youtube contributions, our religious solicitations

I agree. I have some opinions I'd love to post somewhere but I KNOW they'd really make it impossible for me to sell any books after.

word ver. budgulag

gulag -- that's funny!

Leona said...

Okay, Murphy, you are the queen of managing your public personality. I mean, I certainly would have had dire threats for said man. But you, oh no, you keep your cool and ask him where to put the chimes. Or was that tell him where to put the chimes? LOL

I thank you for this conclusion as all in the household who had heard the story were asking me for the end of the Purple Wax Bell cliff hanger. :D

Riley Murphy said...

Hi Leona:
I hope things are getting a little more settled for you. I've got my fingers crossed.
Take Care,

Unknown said...

In a way it depends on what you're after, as a person. And your survivability.

As someone once said "The only bad publicity, is no publicity." At least when you're at the end of your career and you need a boost, risking public controversy is probably worth it. If you want attention, even if it's for remembered for something bad, you might as well try for it.

For the average person, I'd say you'd get away with minimum damage IF you're polite and don't lose your temper, etc. That way shockjocks or rude commentators will be remembered for stepping over the line, not you.