Online life for authors. The good, the bad and the ugly.

Three unrelated things last week have prompted a series of related thoughts on aspects of life online, particularly for authors. Because while the good is self-evident, in terms of interaction with readers and other writers that’s never been possibly before, it’s by no means an unmixed blessing.

The first thing was an author whom I’d don’t propose to name or link to, posting an explanation for cancelling a particular engagement. Not a guest of honour gig or something like that, just explaining their absence from an upcoming event. Because that author was forced to explain in order to quell successive waves of speculation. Simply saying, ‘unfortunately I won’t be there’ wasn’t sufficient. The author had tried that, only to find people were attributing this absence to a particular controversy tangentially involving them. No, the author said, it’s nothing to do with work, it’s a personal matter. Cue another round of speculation about possible domestic discord and such things. No, nothing like that, but a medical matter in the family. Oh no! Is it—?

At this point, the author chose to explain that a close family member is undergoing a challenging medical procedure that now clashes with the aforementioned event, and the author wishes to be on hand for their relative at that time. And rounds off that blogpost with a fervent wish that those reading this information will now forget it, since explaining has involved giving details about the family member and their condition which would otherwise have remained known only to close friends and relatives.

Which is why I am not linking. If you know the author, you don’t need telling. If you don’t, you don’t need to know who they are in order to think about the level of intrusion that’s increasingly hard to avoid when authors are now routinely expected by publicists and fans alike to live their lives online. Just to be clear, there’s no question that the vast majority of that concern for this author stems from positive motives. People wanted to know what they could do to help, what support they could offer. And that’s by no means a bad thing. All of us will be able to think of instances where online support, whether we’ve been offering it or receiving it, has been invaluable in the midst of some sort of strife, on or offline.

But managing how and when to draw demarcation lines between public and private life is becoming increasingly difficult.

On the other hand, there are some crucial things which an author is very much expected to never go public with. I’ve been thinking about that since last week’s second thing. A journalist contacted me asking what I thought about the Society of Authors campaign for fair and enforceable contracts for writers in their dealings with publishers.

You won’t be surprised to learn I’m all in favour of this. Because, since signing my first contract in 1997, I’ve seen attitudes among publishers to contracts that simply wouldn’t be tolerated in any other industry. By no means all publishers and certainly not all of the time, but things which have been clearly agreed are not infrequently completely ignored, from supposedly guaranteed time for a writer to review edits and proofs through to print runs being cut back or clearly contractually agreed editions of a book being cancelled without warning or recompense. I recommend having plenty of time and strong drink to hand before starting any conversation with an author about their experience of trying to get their rights in a book reverted.

Sometimes a publisher will offer a justification, invariably based on their business interests and unconcerned about the damage to a writer’s career. At other times the protesting author gets the email equivalent of a shrug and ‘if you don’t like it, lawyer up’. Right, because that’s something very few authors can ever afford to do.

And there’s always the implication, mostly unspoken though on occasion mentioned as a barely veiled threat, that an author who goes public with anything like this will be tagged as a troublemaker whom other publishers won’t ever want to work with. Because the book trade is a pretty small world.

It’s getting worse. These days, non-disclosure clauses are starting to crop up in publishers’ contracts, notably for anyone dealing with Amazon’s in-house imprints. This is a very worrying development. How exactly is a new author supposed to find out whether or not they’re being taken for a fool, if they’re not allowed to compare notes with better informed and more experienced writers?

So we’re expected to live our lives online, including sharing aspects which we’d personally rather keep private, as a trade off for the undoubted benefits we get – while at the same time, there are business matters vital to our own interests which we’re very firmly discouraged from openly discussing.

Obviously, writers do chat about such things privately and discreetly, but that’s not much use to anyone outside those confidential circles. And this silence definitely does nothing to help eliminate the persistent sharp practise which most readers would be horrified to learn of.

One way around such problematic aspects of online life is the pseudonym, especially for whistle-blowers dragging bad practice into the light. Except that can be highly problematic as well.

The third of last week’s unrelated things relates very much to that aspect of online life. A blog post went up revealing the real identity of the thoroughly unpleasant person who’s presented herself at various times as Winterfox, Requires Hate and most recently as Benjanun Sriduangkaew. Who has assiduously taken advantage of online anonymity for many, many years, to be calculatedly vile to people, so that’s the ugly right there.

I’m not going to link to that unmasking post – googling will find it for you fairly easily if you’re that curious. Firstly, the post includes serious accusations unrelated to online activity by RH/BS within SFF, about events of which I have no knowledge, or any way to verify, so that’s a cause for concern as I’ve no wish to risk spreading misinformation. Secondly, those who have linked to the post, predictably, have been assailed online by RH/BS and her acolytes with exaggerated and downright false accusations. The RH/BS clique have also done their best to play the victim card with obfuscating deliberations over what does or does not constitute doxxing. I have far better things to do with my time than get dragged into such tedious games.

Lastly if you google the name itself, you only get a handful of not very informative posts. While these serve to confirm her background of significant wealth and privilege, this has long been suspected by astute observers of things she’s let slip. The key identification in this saga has been tying the fake innocently sweet masquerade of Benjanun Sriduangkaew to Requires Hate’s now-well-documented history of spite.

For the purposes of this discussion, the fact of this unmasking is sufficient. For me the question’s never been if the prime mover behind RH/BS would be revealed, but merely when? Because even someone as diligent in deleting their internet history is going to leave some traces, and when someone’s behaviour is as sustained and vicious as hers has been, sooner rather than later, someone who’s been on the receiving end is going to be sufficiently provoked to do the necessary investigation and circulate their findings as widely as possible.

And unfortunately, that goes both ways. There are plenty of instances of people acting with the best of motives, for whom online anonymity has been a vital protection, who have been unmasked by those with hostile intent, with serious consequences for them personally and professionally.

So what do we do? How do we allow people the privacy they should reasonably be able to expect and the protections of anonymity which individuals may sometimes need, as well guarding against the consequences of people being pressured into silence and defending those subjected to anonymous malice?

Because at the moment, the balance seems skewed and the Internet’s not going to go away any time soon…

Thoughts and comments are invited and welcome, though please do not post links to either of the posts which I’ve chosen not to link to.

15 comments

  1. It is difficult. It’s as if we are living in the glass-roomed building in the novel of Logan’s Run, watching everyone and everything around us, being watched in turn, in random waves. There are moments of darkness and peace, and then suddenly a bolt of light shows us off to the world…

    …and if we try for privacy, then the whispers and assumptions start. That author isn’t going to that event because of THAT, and the only way the author can defuse that erroneous thought is to reveal something extremely painful and personal. It was disturbing that the author was forced to do it. But if the author didn’t? The assumptions would have flown heavily, damaging that author’s brand.

    I don’t know what answers there are

    1. I think we can start with awareness and perhaps a greater willingness to put up a (virtual) hand and say ‘this [particular thing] is unacceptable’.

      The greatest journey starts with a single step, so we could see how far that approach gets us?

  2. I don’t know how the reclusive writer would cope nowadays. Trying to be Salinger or Tiptree would be impossible. Of course Tiptree was eventually outed. Obscurity isn’t even protection when a thousand or so readers feel entitled to even more because they’re all that keeps the career going. It’s fine for the outgoing Neil Gaiman types who seem to adapt quite happily to living in public, though he’s an open target for abuse from everyone who objects to anything he writes or does. A lot of writers like the job because they _don’t_ have to interact with people.

    1. Quite so, Julian. And even if an author is an outgoing person who takes all this in their stride, their spouse or children may very well not.

      My husband is an intensely private person as it happens. So we were neither of us particularly pleased when someone added his name to my Wikipedia page.

  3. The issue of privacy for authors is an exension of the the issue of privacy for anyone in the public eye for whatever reason. I don’t think we have a right to know anything more about public figures private lives than they choose to reveal until that figure starts making pronouncements on say family life. Anyone in the public eye who does that, but particularly anyone commenting on legislation affecting the family, politician or not, is laying themselves open to investigation. Commenting on political issues unrelated to the family should not lay you open to that sort of scrutiny, but if you are going to pontificate about family values while having an affair I think I have a right to know. Otherwise I do not think I have a right to know anything an author does not choose to reveal, although I know this is an unusual view. To me it is a matter of good manners. But I would feel that as I choose to keep my life compartmented to a certain extent by the use of a pseudonym.

  4. “For the purposes of this discussion, the fact of this unmasking is sufficient. For me the question’s never been if the prime mover behind RH/BS would be revealed, but merely when? Because even someone as diligent in deleting their internet history is going to leave some traces, and when someone’s behaviour is as sustained and vicious as hers has been, sooner rather than later, someone who’s been on the receiving end is going to be sufficiently provoked to do the necessary investigation and circulate their findings as widely as possible.”
    Her stalker who outed her isn’t her victim. He’s a guy she met on an internet forum whom she interacted with literally several times, who started stalking her without provocation on her side.

    1. So she says? I don’t know why we’re expected to believe this, from someone with such a history of bad faith and calculated deceit. Oh yes, and her own track record of cyberstalking with malicious intent.

      And I’m not saying whoever outed her is a victim – I have no knowledge of this individual, which is one reason I’m not linking.

      What I am setting out are my reasons for expecting her to be outed, sooner rather than later. I considered this would most likely come from a victim.

      But let us suppose for the purposes of this discussion that this claim of a stalker is true.

      My point stands: that sustaining anonymity/pseudonymity online is extremely difficult and the longer-established /more high profile someone’s web presence is, the harder it becomes.

  5. Re Contracts – Yes, there are some horrific contracts out there. Surely the answer, at least in the UK, is to join the Society of Authors (first timers can join as soon as they are offered a contract) and use their free contract vetting service. They will at least tell you if there is anything really egregious. If you’ve not yet signed it, you should not feel bound by any non-disclosure clauses. On the other hand, given how difficult it is to get published nowadays without an agent, why aren’t agents doing more to protect their authors?

  6. I think this connects into a far wider societal issue. Openness about information, identities and motives helps us to do things better as a species, but as individuals it leaves us exposed to attack. The traditional response to this has been defensive, to hide ourselves by keeping secrets or at least not shouting our lives from the rafters. But that’s increasingly impossible for anyone to do. It means that we have to confront and tackle harmful patterns, whether that’s prejudice, hateful behaviour or just the hoarding by a few people of information that would be valuable to everyone if it was shared. That’s probably good in the long term, but painful for many people along the way.

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