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Shop Talk Managing Your Own Author Brand Online
This article discusses legal issues you may encounter while building up your author brand and creating an author website.
Like it or loathe it, most authors have to do a lot of their own marketing and publicity these days. With publishers’ resources increasingly stretched thin, authors have to do more of their own legwork to bring themselves, and their books, to the attention of their potential readership.
While there is no perfect way to ensure your work finds its readership, marketing professionals will stress the importance of being “online,” which can include a variety of venues, such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, an author website, and/or blog.
The good news is that there’s actually not a lot of law to master here, and most of the law is basic contract law: understanding terms of service of the online platforms you utilize and maybe even contracting with a marketing professional. Of course, the things you share online are subject to the same laws as the things you say anywhere else, so you want to be careful to avoid defaming anyone or infringing their intellectual property rights . Other than that, it’s pretty much a matter of understanding relevant contracts.
While this column gives examples of key legal issues for various online platforms, there is no need to be on all of them. You should find what works for you and stick with it, adjusting when necessary if you find the main audience for your work has moved elsewhere.
Websites, Blogs, and Domain Names
Most authors have some version of a website and/or blog. There are many ways to set this up. If you are comfortable with your own designing and maybe a little HTML coding, you can register a domain name and code from there. If not, many companies provide a middle ground, packaging domain name registration and web hosting services. These companies make it simple to manage your domain name and set up a website using easy “drag and drop” type web builders like Weebly and WordPress. Many offer add-on services like search engine optimization (SEO) and associated marketing services.
Search Engine Optimization
SEO is a term that refers to strategies for optimizing reader engagement with your website by ensuring that your online home is prioritized in the search results of major search engines. Google and other search engines use algorithms that attempt to deliver the most relevant results for any search term entered by a user.
Why is this relevant to authors? Well, those algorithms, while proprietary to each search engine, tend to rely on things like domain names, meta-tags , relevant words on a website, and number of times a website is visited to help prioritize search results. So, for example, if you can obtain a domain name that includes your name or pen-name, it will theoretically assist people finding you online.
Depending on how common your name is this might be easier or harder to do: For example, there may be lots of “John Smiths” fighting over similar domain names like johnsmith.com and johnsmith.org. That’s before you even get into domain name speculators or cybersquatters who register names they think will be valuable to someone else with the intent to sell them for a profit.
If someone has registered your name in a domain name with a bad faith intent to profit, there are laws you could theoretically use to fight for the name, but attempting to do so is often expensive and time consuming, and it may be easier to use a different domain address and rely on other aspects of your web presence to ensure prioritization in search results.
Trademarks, Author’s Names and Book Titles
One reason why the law is often not very helpful in securing a domain name that corresponds with your author name is that, generally speaking, domain name laws are largely based on trademark rights, and, under American trademark law, most authors do not hold trademarks in their personal names (or even individual book titles). If you can establish a trademark in your name—on the basis that consumers use it to identify your particular products or services—you can resort to an inexpensive online arbitration under the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution policy if you are trying to get your name back from a cybersquatter.
While you generally cannot rely on trademark law to protect your author name or book title, it is possible to hold a trademark in a book series title like The Magic School Bus series. Of course, if you own a series title, you will likely have the legal backing of a major publisher to help protect those trademarks.
An alternative or additional venue to set up an author web presence is to use a Facebook author page. These pages are publicly available, and anyone can “follow” you without having to send a friend request. Facebook’s terms of service require you to have a personal Facebook page before you can set up an author page, and you are supposed to use your real name or a name you are commonly known by (like a pen-name). Facebook author pages avoid the “scarcity” problem with common names in the domain space because multiple Facebook members can have the same personal name. Those names just map onto individual numerical identifiers that Facebook manages for you.
Twitter and Instagram
If you’re interested in sharing short bursts of information regularly, you may develop a presence on Twitter and/or Instagram. They operate similarly but Instagram is more visual and Twitter relies more on short text augmented with links to visuals and websites. Neither platform’s terms of service require you to use your real name so you can participate under whatever identity you like and you can change your “handle” (the “@” plus string of letters) that identifies you whenever you like. At the moment, I’m “@Jacqui_Lipton” on Twitter, but tomorrow I could be “@Thinking_About_Publishing_Law” if I wanted. (And if no one else has chosen that handle first!)
Marketing and Publicity Consultants
If you are concerned about developing or refining your author brand, you might consider engaging a marketing and publicity expert . Legally, this is simply a matter of contracting for particular services. Publicity and marketing experts generally do not (because they cannot) guarantee any particular results, so make sure you go into these contracts with realistic expectations, and discuss them openly before you sign the contract.
You can spend as much or as little time and effort on your author brand as you want. You can learn from trial and error and from talking to knowledgeable friends. But legally speaking, these branding issues are generally not very complex and are largely a matter of contract law: understanding the terms of service of online platforms, and contract terms with any professionals you engage.
And of course, my usual disclaimer applies. Nothing here is intended as formal legal advice. If you require help with a specific problem, you should consult an attorney or other expert.