Skip to content

Staying Out of Hot Water: Developing an Appropriate Online Presence

Today’s visiting professor is well known among the romance community because she truly cares for and champions this genre. Michelle Buonfiglio is best known for founding Romance B(u)y the Book and her romance blog on the Barnes and Noble site. We are delighted Michelle was willing to share her incredible knowledge about the online world with our readers.

Good morning, Michelle!

Thanks, Kelsey, for allowing me to visit today, and to learn along with the rest of your RU students.   

Kelsey: Lately, I’ve seen advertisements for media liability insurance. What is MLI and should authors take out this type of insurance?

Michelle: Now, this’ll sound like a commercial off the bat, but whether you’re a blogger, site operator or author, discuss the need for media liability insurance (MLI) with your attorney. Please don’t make a decision based upon my info/opinions.  Now, the quick/dirty. MLI started out as what it sounds like: policies purchased by traditional broadcast/print media companies to protect them/their employees, etc., against legal allegations which include, but aren’t limited to, libel, copyright infringement, defamation of character, erroneous/under-reporting, or info dissemination that leads to financial loss.

With the advent of new media – for our purposes, digital forms of networked communications for info sharing like blogs, websites, social media platforms – MLI has become even more important. Wildly simplified for sake of space, this increases the potential number of online viewers of digitized trad media publications who could bring suit.  Large-scale new media companies need MLI because of this potential.

Now, you’re a blogger with a small book-talk site, for example.  Do you need MLI?  Probably not, especially if your M.O. is writing your opinion about books, the industry, etc., and you’re sticking to facts and your creative, subjective thoughts. However, if you decide you want to brand yourself as the Perez Hilton of romance commentators, for instance, and choose to create content that regularly includes commentary which might be viewed as arbitrary, in which you play fast/loose with facts about authors’ success or, heaven forbid, launch what seems like a campaign to discredit an author/book, you might consider MLI.  Just because nobody’s taken a rom blogger to task for something like this, doesn’t mean they won’t.  Do I suggest you should rush to score MLI just in case that happens? Nah. But it might not be a bad idea to give your attorney a ring, or get yourself one to talk to about it.

Should authors buy MLI?  Pubbed authors should check contracts and w/publishers to see what they cover in terms of copyright infringement, IP challenges, etc.  Then, if you’re driven to blog about or lay down commentary for posterity that could fall into the latter area of the last graph, have a chat with your attorney.  You’re a businessperson in the public eye and will want to protect yourself. But the best way to protect one’s self is to make decisions as part of your marketing plan about what kind of commentary you’re going to produce online, and get right with in advance what you’re prepared for in response to any piece of info you publish online.  If you think you may need to prep for suit based on your comments, you might want to decide whether it’s worth it, and whether that kind of commentary will further your career as a writer.

Kelsey: Do you recommend that authors maintain separate personal and professional presences? For example, on Facebook, Twitter, etc.?

Michelle: I’d suggest yes, but it depends on your goals, how much time you spend banging on social media, and how strongly you try to separate your personal and professional lives.  First, if you’re using social media as part of a marketing strategy for your career, then you probably should be thinking, well, strategy, as in: How do I want potential and current readers/industry professionals/colleagues who want to be my friends/tweeps, etc. to see the brand that is me? And what do I want them to know about me?

In that case, you’ll probably want to gather and accept into your community folks who are likely consumers of your product, who understand or will enjoy how you see the world, and are comfortable with the information you’re going to disseminate.  Whether you’re an author of Christian novels or erotic romance, ‘know your audience’ is a better phrase to keep in mind than ‘Can’t wait ‘til I have 2,000 friends!’  Through response to what you’re posting, you’ll figure out what the community expects from you, whether it’s down-home quips, direction toward content you produce or something else that engages them.  There is no hard/fast rule on this, despite the latest survey you may read.

If you simply adore spending time communicating via social media and feel you’re killing two birds, etc., then combining personal/professional contacts may work for you.  If you don’t care whether your editor/potential editor/publicist/agent knows that your sister is pissed off at your mom, by all means, invite your family into your community.  And, yeah, your readers will enjoy every bit as much as you do those photos of you from high school posted by that best friend you haven’t heard from in 25 years.

Kelsey: Should pre-published authors try to incorporate a “brand” into their online presence? What if s/he is still developing that brand?

Michelle: Absolutely. But again, what’s the initial strategy?  She’s not published yet, but she wants to take advantage of the community of industry folks who gather online, who read blogs and participate in social media.  And she wants to forge relationships with potential consumers and connected super-readers.  I’ve seen many women move to published status with a small fan base in place because of “smart” time spent online.

Any author’s name is her brand, and her brand is her business.  While I’m a believer in vigorous promotion, I’m not fond of gilding the lily, so I want to see an unpublished author’s site be clear about the fact that she’s “on her way up.”  The goal of developing a pre-pubbed brand is to build excitement about your talent and potential, and to encourage folks to come along for the ride – the “I knew her when” reward.

Kelsey: What’s the best use of an author’s time and effort when it comes to online presence/promotion?

Michelle: I think the lion’s share of an author’s time should be spent writing a great book.  That said, hanging online can be fun, inspiring, educational… It also can suck time, distract and – perhaps worst for many writers – be terribly ego-debilitating. Have a plan re how much time you’ll devote to online brand building and where/why you’ll spend it.  Create your discrete brand presence by slapping up a free/inexpensive, self-maintained blog or site.  If you do nothing else to promote online, you must do this.  Make sure it has your contact info and book-purchasing info.   Then, observe various online communities and find a few to become part of daily.  Do not believe for a second that all authors who are everywhere on the web are dynamos of successful promotion; they just spend a lot of time online.  Successful online promotion is concentrated, methodical and should energize you and your work, rather than sap your energy.

Kelsey: Do you recommend authors develop relationships with certain online “personalities” (such as you or others)?

Michelle: I can only speak for myself and say, sure. I’ve been pleased to watch women who became RBTB community members four years ago move into published status, and impressed to see some of them move easily back/forth between roles as author and community friend.  I’m always happy to make professional connections with authors at any career point, and jazzed when I can give somebody ink for a great book I might not have known about if they hadn’t reached out.  But here’s something good to remember: It’s important not to treat any blogger or member of the media – no matter how large or small the blog/site – as if they’re your flack or promo secretary.  And certainly understand most of us in the media don’t for a second believe you’re our new best friend; be honest about the relationship you want to develop, and try to offer symbiotic support in return for what we’re fronting  you.  If appropriate, friendly relationships develop in the process, that’s icing.

Kelsey: We often hear that what “goes on the ‘net, stays on the ‘net.” What can authors do to keep themselves out of hot water online?

Michelle:  Seems some folks don’t want to accept the reality of the indelible digital. You simply can’t retract once you publish online. For example, I recently hired an editor who googled me before our interview not only to see what I’d written on the record, but what’s been written about me. It’s all there, ad infinitum.

How do you want your current/potential readers, editors, agents and the publishing community to see you as a commenter and commentator? Do you care? Can you afford not to?  Think about that when you plan your professional online presence, because I assure you most everybody in the industry reads blogs and facebook and tweets, etc.  You want to stay out of hot water?  I believe most everyone knows in her heart when she’s heading there and must decide whether she wants to be “heard” in the moment – or to write and sell books. Step back and accept that your online presence furthers your career most when you stick to the business at hand – building your brand and professional persona.

Kelsey: What should authors do if they find themselves in trouble with something they’ve done or said online?

Michelle: Depends on what you mean by trouble.  If someone’s threatened or brought suit against an author because of something she’s written online, the best first step – before making any comments on- or offline to anyone — is to consult an attorney, preferably one who specializes in new media.

If “trouble” comes in the form of hoards of villagers at the gate demanding you respond to their anger over something you responsibly blogged or commented about, I suggest sitting by the fire with a favorite re-read until they go home or their rush torches burn out.  That said, some folks feel their voices are silenced if they don’t fight back or at least make a statement, and they should do so, understanding they’ll sustain the drama and may end up feeling frustrated. I believe greater power is shown and retained when one chooses not to respond and simply finds the courage to stand by one’s opinions.

My best advice: As with all online communication done in your professional persona, understand your goals for communicating online before you begin, or go further.  Put the pencil to paper and sketch out ideas about whom you want to communicate with and, especially flippin’ important, why.  Plan how deeply you’ll delve into  your personal opinions at your site/blog/s and others’ site/blog/s concerning hot-topic issues like criticizing your fellow authors’ work, politics, industry dilemmas, etc. – and how much you want to encourage others to do so.  Decide whether you’re spending time online in your persona for entertainment or branding, because the latter can be fun, but it’s really about business: If you work it right, everyone will want to get right in yours, and have a great time doing it.

Michelle, we appreciate the time and effort you spend promoting romance authors, in addition to your useful advice on how to develop and maintain a professional online presence!

RU crew, do you have questions for Michelle about the dos and don’ts of blogs, websites or social networking?

Michelle’s Bio:

Michelle Buonfiglio created and writes’s “Heart to Heart” romance blog, and contributes weekly to’s genre-fiction blog, “Unabashedly Bookish.”  She’s a nationally recognized columnist and advocate for the romance fiction genre, its authors and readers.  Since 2005, she’s worked to “define, not defend” romance by bringing it before the broadest audiences possible, syndicating her features at 80+ TV websites like, and Lifetime TV’s myLifetime. A summa cum laude grad in Writing/Fine Arts – as well as a former Miss PA and Top Ten Miss America finalist – Michelle draws on her diverse life experiences in her work, especially as the founder and creative force behind