Saturday, January 9, 2010

Free and Instant Publication! The Joys of Hosting Your Own Website...and then Navigating the Minefield of Online Freedom

Okay, so I don't get to publish exactly for free...I pay like $6.95 a Month...but it's still my own website, and I can post whatever strikes my fancy.  And this, perhaps, can be a problem.

One of the major strengths of the internet is the way we can access simply vast amounts of information at the click of a button.  Yet, for all the convenience this offers, we also face the terrible specter of abuse.  Information is often misrepresented online - just look at the way some businesses will fill out their own customer ratings to give themselves more "I loved this place!"-type reviews.  Worse still, many individuals use the internet as their own hunting ground - I recently saw a poster at a bus stop here in Baltimore stating that one out of every five children is solicited online.  Now, I don't know how they came up with the numbers (are 20% of American children online often enough to be solicited?  Are 20% of our children visiting websites that would allow pedophiles access to their attention?  I don't know...)  However, we do know for fact that useful sites like craigslist and eBay have been used to sell nonexistent merchandise and even lure people out of their homes to be murdered.  We do know that some children have been solicited online - an even just one child is one too many.  And this is despite continual oversight by both the websites themselves and the authorities.

So what, then, should we think about the rest of the internet, the ones that fall in that middle ground somewhere between famous and utterly irrelevant?  Places like  No one will punish me if I post bad writing advice.  I could post outright lies, actually, and no one could do much - I don't offer services or require physical meetings which could endanger anyone's life, limb, or property.  About the only thing illegal I could do would be to accept money for classes which were subsequently never taught - it's a possibility, certainly, but credit card companies do a good job of stopping that kind of behavior very quickly.  (Not to mention I wouldn't be able to sleep at night - accepting someone's money is a bit more than a promise to do something, I think).

Money aside, though, how should we approach this freedom of the internet?  Thomas Jefferson once wrote that "ignorance may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it" - and I believe very strongly in this.  It is, perhaps, the ultimate defense of free speech.  But how do we know this works online?  How do we know that reason is combating ignorance?  Do they have a little button on Google you can press to defend yourself?  I'm thinking something along the lines of a link to "Combat Ignorance Now!" - maybe even make it a complete widget, with advanced tools like "Reference Wikipedia" and HTML code for "Fire Claymore."

Unfortunately, such automated functions will never exist.  Or, if they ever do, they'll never work in the ways we require - by the time technology is advanced enough to provide such wonderful toys, we'll need something still more advanced just to keep tabs on the technology.  (Terminator fans, anyone?)

As writers, we are particularly vulnerable to the lures of the internet.  Although we have many websites to protect our rights (SFWA's Writer Beware is a great example), the vast majority of writing websites are assembled by individuals like myself.  For the most part, we're small-time or part-time writers looking to claim a bit of online real estate, build up a following, maybe even get our names out there.  No one really checks up on us - no one needs to.  We aren't dangerous - we're writers (lol...)

This decentralization mixed with the very portable nature of our work (an entire novel can be attached to a single e-mail of less than one megabyte...) makes it very possible for scams to weave their way among our numbers.  Although the vast majority of writers, writing coaches, editors, and agents are legitimate, it only takes one bad one to ruin your year.  You might find yourself paying hundreds (or possibly thousands...) of dollars for online workshops or editing services which aren't worth either the time or the money.  You might even find yourself reading a website which tells you that everything you've ever thought about writing is absolutely wrong - that you should quit now and never write another word (note: even free advice can be bad advice).  Or, in the true nightmare for the unpublished author, you may actually find someone to steal your manuscript and sell it as their own.  (Please note: I have never heard of a single instance of this happening.  But I know it's one of my nightmares.  I know that other writers share this nightmare.  In my opinion, most people dumb enough to steal a manuscript wouldn't be smart enough to market it.  But it remains a compelling sort of nightmare...)

So what do you do?  Well, I have a few suggestions.  And I think these are focused just as much on keeping your sanity as protecting yourself:

1. Go to Real Live Writing Conferences
Online, it can be hard to know who you're talking with.  At a real live conference, though, you can meet people, shake hands, exchange business cards.  Many of these people have legitimate websites, and they offer very helpful services.  Or they have friends who do.  There's no better way to come in contact with reputable help than through word-of-mouth.

2. Talk to As Many Fellow Writers As Possible
I already know of a counterexample to Number 1 above - a friend of mine once paid very large amounts of money to a reputable writer for feedback that wasn't helpful.  Meeting people in person is great, but it's best to meet lots of people, if possible.  And this is where the internet is even more useful.  If you see a writing website that looks interesting, and you really want to check it out, then there's a good chance that others have already visited and commented on it.  Go ahead and Google the site you're interested in - you'll probably find feedback about the site (whether good or bad) that you can use to decide if it's a reputable link.

3. Use Your Own Judgement
In grade school, our biology teacher told us that when you get a bad feeling about something, there's probably a reason.  And I believe this is very true online.  If something seems too good to be true, or if the website just doesn't look the way you think it should for the services promised, then try to figure out what's up.  It might be nothing, but you never know.  A big giveaway, though, is spelling.  If you're visiting a website that promises writing or editing services - and yet the site itself is filled with misspellings, typos, or grammatical errors - then there's a good chance that something is wrong.

4. Beware Those Fees!
On the internet (as in life), know what it is you're paying for.  Any reputable vendor will let you know up-front what your money will buy.  If someone offers a workshop or editing services for a fee, feel free to ask them how much you can expect for your money.  My friend mentioned in Number 2 above would have been much better off had the reputable writer provided an estimate before doing the work.  And this lesson should apply to your entire writing life, especially when you seek publication - be aware of the fees a typical agent will charge versus the fees your prospective agent will charge.

5. Always Know You Can Walk Away
If a website just doesn't provide what you want, don't feel obligated to use their services.  If they're genuine, they'll understand.  If they start sending you lots of e-mails promising "Oh, just give us one more try" or "you should think twice about passing up our Deluxe Service," then that's all the more reason to walk away.  (Honestly, anyone who abuses your e-mail should be ignored.  All reputable vendors I know of will offer you the opportunity to be removed from their e-mail lists).

6. Tell Others About Your Experiences
Nothing can be more helpful - or more damning - than word of mouth.  If you've had a positive experience with a website, let your friends know.  If a website provides an exceptional service, post that on your own website.  Likewise, if you are dissatisfied with a website (e.g. "Those F***ers totally S****ed me!), then you should post this to online forums somewhere.  And it doesn't matter where - whenever most of the links to a site say "Don't go here, these F***ers will S**** you," then people tend to stop going to that site.

(You'll note that here on I provide links to sites like HostMonster and and Storm the Castle.  This is because these websites have made my own site possible.  For full disclosure, though, I do receive a commission from HostMonster if you click their link on my site and then sign up for a website through them.  It's the same with all the Amazon books listed on the site.  I still recommend them, of course, but you have a right to know where I'm coming from.)

I hope this article has been interesting and helpful.  If you have comments on it, or you'd like to relate some of your internet writing experiences, please feel free to comment below.  Of, if you prefer, you can visit our homepage and then follow the links to contact me directly.

Happy Writing!

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