The Dos and Don’ts of Your Online Presence

You’ve heard it before: Fake it ’til you make it. In a larger sense this means that if we want to be viewed as professionals, we need to act like professionals. In this particular instance, we can use it as a guide toward how to comport ourselves online. Eventually we are going to make that first sale, and a proud editor is going to google our names. What is she going to find?

First of all, most importantly, please, authors, HAVE an online presence. This really isn’t even optional anymore, with free Blogger accounts, website hosting costs of $4/month and scores of free WordPress themes. It is really frustrating to Google a writer and find absolutely nothing. (This happens more often than you might think. Just last night I had cause to look up a number of aspiring writers, six of whom there wasn’t a trace of on the internet.)

Your website
Your website is your resume. It is an editor’s first impression of you, the person behind the story they’re about to buy. It will be your fans’ first impression, too, so let’s make it a good one. So, what does a professional author’s website look like? What should we include? Possible even more importantly, what should we exclude?

Bio
Have an “about the author” bio on your site—something short and to the point, the kind of thing that you might expect to find in the back of a book. The editor who buys your story may look this up. Yes, she’ll also ask you to provide one as well, but we’re curious about our authors. Having a more personal bio is great, too—something that talks about where you came from as a writer, and your background growing up—but it should not replace the “about the author” bio. If you’d like to have the personal bio on your site, include both.

Publications/Biblio
If you’ve got it, flaunt it! Have your list of your publications prominently placed on your site. Let editors and readers know where they can find your work. If they’ve looked you up, it’s probably because they liked something of yours they read. Make it easy for them to find more.

One of the most exciting editorial moments I’ve witnessed was an editor discovering that the author he’d just bought a story from had never submitted to a genre magazine before. Editors love to discover new talent. You become Our Authors, and that starts with us learning a little more about you than what your signature looks like on a contract.

If you don’t have any publications yet, are there any other ways in which you’ve been active in the community? Have you done any volunteer work, or joined any organizations? It’s always great to see what people are involved in, and that can lead to new connections.

Events
If you’re going to be attending conventions or doing any readings, this is another great piece of information to have available. Editors love meeting writers at conventions, and if we know to look for you, all the better.

Contact
Have a page where readers can find out how to contact you: via email, Twitter, Facebook, etc. Email is especially important–what if you miss out on an anthology invite or an interview opportunity because you didn’t put your email address on your website? (Only list services you actually use; it’s of no use to anyone if you link people to a Twitter account that you never use.)

Blog
Blogs are awesome things. They’re a wonderful way to let people know who we are, to share our journey toward publication and through life, with all of its ups and downs. Hell, they’re a great place to post pictures of your cat. There are many great and noble uses of the blog–chronicling your every rejection is not one of them.

I don’t mean that you shouldn’t ever mention rejections on your blog. They’re a fact of the writing life, and we can gain strength from each other when we share the low moments of the journey. It’s an issue of tact and moderation, key components of professionalism.

I know of a case in which an editor bought a story from a new writer. After the contract was signed, the editor looked up the author’s blog. It was a monument to rejection–the author had a running rejection count posted, and included the text of rejection letters and the author’s outraged reaction to each. The author gave a detailed account of which stories had been rejected by which markets, and the story in question had been rejected several times already.  There was no mention of the sale that the author had made.

What goes through an editor’s mind at that moment is something like “Maybe I’d better read it again, if none of those markets thought it was worth publishing,” and “Why were we the tenth market to see it, after Unknown Publications Quarterly?” These are not the thoughts you want to inspire in the mind of your new editor.

In fact, I’d suggest leaving the names of editors and markets out of your posts entirely (unless they are triumphant Victory Posts about the awesome sale you just made and how much you love working with the editor, or about how great it was to meet them at a convention.) You won’t do yourself any favors by posting your outrage at how unhelpful their form rejection letter are, and wailing “What do I have to do?!” Editors do see those posts. You will come off sounding like an amateur, and someone they won’t want to work with. I’m not saying you should suck up–that’s pretty transparent, so I wouldn’t bother trying–I’m saying don’t alienate the people who have your professional future in their hands.

And let’s not forget the established authors we’ve seen go down in flames after posting impassioned opinion pieces on their blogs. We can take a lesson there in what not to do. Restraint of pen and tongue (and keyboard) can go a long, long way toward not blowing our reputations and alienating future publishers and readers.

So what should you post on your blog?

Just about everything else is fair game. I personally read the blogs of 41 different authors, both established and new. (Yay, RSS feeds!) They each have a different view of the world, and I love getting in on whatever part of their lives they want to share. I love seeing that they’ve finished a new story, and totally sympathize during the low points of their journey. (Let me know in the comments if I should I add yours!)

Twitter
John has written about using Twitter before, and I’ll add my voice to the pro-Twitter chorus. I love finding our authors on Twitter. I’ve even followed several authors whose stories the Overlord ultimately didn’t publish, but whose submissions I really liked. I enjoy getting to know them, so that when we meet at a con it’s more like running into an acquaintance than being introduced to a stranger.

Twitter can be tricky, though, because it’s so immediate. It’s designed for us to post our thoughts immediately, and that can sometimes get us into trouble. Easy ways to get unfollowed are use of excessive snark, general negativity, twittering disrespectfully about other people, over-promotion of your work, and frequent political rants. (But that’s just me. I like to keep my Twitter stream positive.) Oh, and please, again, don’t call out specific markets in angry rejection tweets. (I hope Twitter some day adds a Beer Goggles feature like Gmail Labs has–where you have to do a math problem before you can post–in order to give ourselves a moment to cool off before we click “Send!”)

Imagine your place on Twitter as being seated at the biggest Thanksgiving dinner ever. You don’t want to insult someone a few chairs away, and sometimes you just have to keep your mouth shut so you don’t piss off your crazy uncle and create a scene. Doing so can cost you your seat at the table (the other person’s Twitter stream.)

Facebook
Personally I haven’t found Facebook particularly useful in my writing and editing life (though I did use it once to contact a notable author about a narration I was doing of his story.) It’s typically where I keep in touch with my extended family and local friends. Your mileage may vary, however, and I’d love to hear about it in the comments if that’s your online home. How has it worked for you?

So, let’s review.

DO:

  • Have at least a rudimentary website
  • Let people know a little bit about you
  • Give people a way to contact you
  • Blog about your life and interests

DON’T:

  • Alienate your future editors and fans
  • Create a digital monument to failure
  • Be an unwelcome dinner guest on Twitter

What are some other “dos” and “don’ts” of the internet? Let us know in the comments.


Many thanks to editor John Joseph Adams for his input on this subject!

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  • Very useful article! I enjoyed it a lot. Good to see that I (think) I do some of the things in the “do” column. I’ve written about rejections or bad publishing experiences before, but I try to be very careful to not obsess over it or name publications/publishers specifically. Most of the time I try to focus my blog on writing updates, thoughts about genre, etc. Ya know, positive stuff.

  • I’ve got all of this down except the alienation part. I have alienated fans and continue to do so, through politics and swearing and who knows what else. That’s my choice. Don’t do what I do.

  • I get a lot of sales people (I’m a marketing director at my day job) asking me about Twitter and Facebook. I explain it like this:

    Twitter is a cocktail party. There are a lot of people all around you having conversations. You can jump into any of those conversations or you can stand back and politely listen. You can also start a new conversation that other people will listen to or join in on, but once you’re done, the conversation goes away. It’s really hard for people to rollback to a conversation from two days ago, for example. I get replies on occasion and I have to go back through my own feed to try and figure out what the heck these folks are trying to talk to me about.

    Facebook is better for long term thoughts. You post something on your wall, come back two days later and it’s still right there, front and center. It’s excellent for telling people about an upcoming event, for example. On Twitter, you would need to tweet a link for the morning crowd, another for the afternoon, evening and late evening crowds or else run the risk of it simply being swallowed up by the cocktail party. Facebook seems designed for that sort of thing. Place your event on there and people will find it in their streams for days.

    My two cents.

    ~P

    @atfmb:twitter

    • Christie Yant

      Great analogies! I think that makes it much clearer. Thanks!

  • Christie Yant

    Matt, I hear you on the politics and swearing. I do it too (and am trying to do it less.)

    For what it’s worth, at some point either in the past or present, I have got every single one of these points totally wrong. I’ve added a bunch of things to my to-do list as a result of thinking about this post!

  • Maryturzillo

    Thank you. Terrific post with helpful and uplifting suggestions. My husband (Geoff Landis) and I use Facebook to contact our poetry buddies in the local scene here, but I also think one can get lost in FB meanderings and just waste time that could have been put into LiveJournal, a website, or (just think of it!) writing.

    • Hi, Mary! I have trouble with facebook in a big way. There are (yikes) games over there and thousands of people to talk to about everything from ferrets to government document editing.
      Good post, Matt. Thank you.
      http://www.kathleengabriel.net
      (edited to add link)

  • ccrlygrl123

    Love this! I very much agree with the differences between Twitter and Facebook, and I’m pretty strict with limiting my Facebook interactions to the personal. Not that I won’t blatantly plug my work from time to time, but my friends and family don’t seem to mind. For me, especially lately, I’ve been using my blog to develop my humor and ability to think outside the box a bit. I don’t get much traffic, so if you’d like to check me out and perhaps follow, this is me: http://simplystick.blogspot.com/ Thanks so much for the tips. All useful information and support is appreciated!

  • After reading this, a couple of ways of retooling my webpage have occurred to me. Thanks for (re)opening my eyes to these questions!

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  • Thanks for a very useful article!

    One point I’ve been mulling over with regard to my online presence is whether, if you’ve published a fair bit of non-fiction over the years (journalism of various sorts, mostly), and already have a personal web site that includes a lot of that plus info on the various areas you tend to write about, it would be better to have a completely separate professional site focusing on fiction. Part of me thinks this would be a good idea, and part of me thinks it would be complicating things unnecessarily, particularly given that I haven’t been all that regular at keeping up my existing site…

    Any thoughts? How narrow/focused should a writer’s site be?

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  • PS: Patrick – that’s the best explanation of Twitter I’ve read; and the best explanation of the difference bet. Twitter and Facebook I’ve read too. Thanks!