1/28/15

Pen Names, Pseudonyms, Nom De Plumes, aka DBAs

News this week is that China is forcing its writers to reveal their true identities, despite the fact that writing under a pen name has been a longstanding Chinese tradition. It’s said to be a part of the Chinese government's attempt to control what happens online.

Some may think that outlawing pen names isn’t that big of a deal; they’d be wrong.
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Charlotte Bronte and her sisters published under pen names using the surname Bell; Charlotte's nom de plume  was Currer Bell.  

Pen Names Give You Power   

Pen names are powerful: they allow writers a level of creative freedom that only anonymity provides. Aside from political freedom, there are several reasons that writers choose to publish under a nom de plume.  For instance:

  • Pseudonyms can be important for professionals (like lawyers) who may not want clients to know that they write steamy romance novels or Louis L’Amour-type westerns. 
  • Also, pen names allow writers established in one field or genre to publish in another area without fear of losing readership. 
  • For prolific authors, using pen names frees them from concern that publishing too many books in one year may dilute their market if they were to publish all under a single name. 

There are lots of reasons to use a pseudonym if you are a writer and pen names are widely used by writers today. How widely used? As for how popular pen names are, I leave it to you to surf the web for all the lists of “famous pen names” both past and present - like the 2013 list that Time Magazine provides in its article, “Famous Authors with Secret Pseudonyms.” 



Writing as a Business

Thing is, when you write under a pen name and you publish that work online with hopes of making a buck or two from it, then you’re going into the writing business. At this point, it’s not just romantic to use a pen name, it’s business. 

Which means you might want to consider filing your pseudonym down at the courthouse as a “DBA” (doing business as). Why?

First, filing your pen name as a DBA provides legal notice to the public that you are using another name to do business which may be important to you in the future for various reasons. It proves that the pen name really is you if you ever need to establish that ownership.

Second, it may help to block someone else trying to use that same pen name - if not globally, then possibly within your county or state. It’s a legal argument that isn’t as strong as copyright law but it’s better than going forward and not having this backup.

After all, establishing your DBA isn’t creating a business entity. It’s just providing legal public notice that you are using a fake name to do business.

Setting Up Your Nom de Plume as a DBA 

Getting a DBA set up is pretty cheap and easy. It’s a service provided in Texas by your local county clerk. Just look up the details online (like these set of instructions for Bexar County or Travis County) or give your County Clerk’s Office a call.

One important caveat: if you are serious enough about your writing business to take the time to register a legal notice of your pen name as a DBA in your public county records, and you’re pretty darn sure that you’re going to be making more than pocket change from your sales, then you may want to consider creating a business entity for yourself.  Writers can register copyright under a corporate name just as they can under their personal legal name.

That’s a decision that may need the help of a lawyer licensed in your state — and you may want to run it past your accountant, too.

Pen Name Fun

Finally, here's a couple of fun links for you, Dear Reader, if you are considering a pen name or are just curious about nom de plumes:

Choose your new author alias here using the online Pen Name Generator.
Go here to take the Oxford Dictionary's Pen Names Quiz.

1/18/15

Write About What You Know -- It's Good Advice, Especially for Lawyers Writing Blog Posts

Whether or not Mark Twain advised us to "write what you know" is debatable, but it's considered good advice by many and you've probably heard the quote and considered its lesson.  (I first heard it as advice given to me by poet Naomi Shihab Nye in an early writing class.)

Those who disagree argue that it's exactly what writers shouldn't do -- instead, they should use their imaginations and creativity to write about what they don't know.  They've got a point.  Maybe it is a bit confining for the fiction writer: how could we have Star Trek or Narnia if writers were kept to writing about only the things of which they know?  However, it is particularly wise counsel when the writer is an attorney who is publishing content online for his or her peers, clients, and potential clients to read and consider.

"Write what you know" has been attributed to Mark Twain.

The Temptation to Write About The Unknown in Law Blogs

Law firms who have blogs for legal marketing purposes are always concerned with how their blawg is going to help the firm make rain.  Some track their analytics to see how many times a particular post link has been clicked; others monitor how often the blog has spurred someone to call the firm for more information or maybe even to set up an appointment.

ROI (return on investment) is important to judge.  True enough.

Thing is, if your blog is working for you as a marketing tool then there's always the temptation to boost what you are doing to get more traffic or more potential clients.  To expand your firm's practice or practice areas using the blog.

Conversely, if the law firm's marketing efforts aren't working and business is stagnant, then the firm may be considering new practice areas as a way to boost business.  Writing blog posts discussing that new area of the law may be one of the first toes they put in the water as they segue the practice .  

There's also the reality that after awhile, the blogger runs dry on things to discuss and is searching for ideas and themes for new blog posts.  Maybe new practice area issues or blog themes will be easier to write.

My suggestion:  please don't decide to write posts discussing a new and untried practice area.  It's one thing for a savvy personal injury lawyer, for instance, to decide to focus efforts on a new type of PI theme, like delving into the product liability area.   It's another thing for that personal injury lawyer to decide to market in criminal law just because he (or she) thinks that criminal trials would be exciting, different, fun, or profitable.

Here's why.
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Write About What You (or Your Law Firm) Knows

Most blogs aren't taken as seriously as more traditional publications, like your Bar Journal monthly magazine, or even blogs like HuffPo.  Your reader is going to be taking your post seriously, however.  And so will your State Bar should they decide to review your stuff.

It's just smart to write about the practice areas you know and within which you have experience.  If you are an injury lawyer or law firm who would like to venture into criminal law, great!  Go get that CLE and learn your criminal rules of procedure and insure that you are competent to practice criminal law before you start writing posts on your professional law blog about criminal law issues.

Moreover, if you're a personal injury lawyer who writes a blog post (or a series of posts) about criminal law matters, then you are putting yourself out to the public as a criminal attorney just as if you were to buy advertising on a local radio station or an advertisement in the telephone directory.  There are ethical considerations here (and disciplinary rules) that need to be considered when lawyers are blogging.

Bottom line, if you are a lawyer writing about a legal issue on a law firm blog, either have a personal professional depth in that topic via education and/or experience, or may sure to quote your law firm expert who practices in that area as part of your coverage of the topic.  Don't be what my Uncle Billy would call "a man with a hat and no cattle."  It can get you in trouble with readers, potential clients, and the disciplinary authorities.  
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11/1/14

Computer Glasses Really Do Work

Around two o'clock every afternoon, I'd start to notice it.  My eyes would itch. Vision in my left eye would become blurry.

First, it was a mild distraction.  Then it became a real annoyance.  It was interfering with my day.  My work.

I began to understand why there were so many "dry eye" commercials on television.



So, doing what most of us do, I began surfing around for information on eyestrain. The Worry Wart part of me whispered that maybe I had serious eye problems — had I infected my eyes with dog germs, absent-mindedly scratching the head of a pup while working and then rubbing my eyes without thinking?

Maybe I had an illness. A tumor. Ye Gads, maybe I was going blind!

Am I the only one who has that Chicken Little voice whining inside their head?

Meanwhile, I reassured myself that I'd been doing just fine, ThankYewVeryMuch, with taking care of my eyes since I spend so much time staring at the screen.

 I know that I need to look away periodically. So I do.

I know I need to adjust the brightness of the screen. So I do.

I take breaks. I even have these special computer eye-drops that are very refreshing. (Got that idea from Penelope Garcia using them in an episode of "Criminal Minds.")

None of these were enough to solve the problem. You almost set a clock by it: at two o’clock, two-thirty at the latest, my eyes would start demanding my attention.

Then, surfing around looking for a pair of cute readers, I found tinted computer glasses. Maybe you’ve known about them for years. Not me. A real eureka moment here on the Planet Reba. Ordered them immediately.

I’m an Amazon Prime member, so I got the speedy two-day delivery. Love that. And Wow. WOW.



These things are fantastic!

I didn't buy the cutest ones. I didn't buy the most expensive ones. I bought a pretty basic pair off of Amazon.com, as a test run, and boy howdy are they a game changer.

I'm sharing this with you, Dear Reader, because if you spend any time at all staring at a computer screen, and then getting yourself appear of these inexpensive tinted computer glasses might be a wonderful thing to do for yourself. 

My eyes don't itch. Blurry eyes are gone. I haven't had a headache since I started using them. I'm wondering how I ever lived without them!  Maybe they might help you, too?

(No, I'm not getting paid one red cent or anything in barter here.  I'm just sharing something that's made a big difference in my daily life in the hope that it might be helpful to others out there who work at a computer screen all day long.)

8/28/14

Google Authorship is Over - Now You Need to Know About the Google Knowledge Vault

Big news out of Google today -- they're ending Google Authorship.

Image:  Peggy Webber in The Screaming Skull (1958)
If you want details, go read all about it from Google's John Mueller or  Eric Enge (Search Engine Land) or Marc Traphagen (Google+ post).

Now, don't panic.  This isn't all that big of a deal to you.

What Does the End of Google Authorship Mean to You? Not That Much, Really


It means that your photo isn't going to be appearing in Google Search Results any longer -- but you already knew that, right?  Google nixed the pix a couple of weeks ago.

It doesn't mean that your content doesn't count, or that it's going to have a negative impact on what you have written and published on your blog or web site.  (Google testing per Mueller shows little if any impact on traffic to sites, for instance.)


Google Still Loves Schema 


Schema -- e.g., the "article" coding for In Depth Articles and the "publishing" coding for Publishers -- that's still alive and well.  It's really just your byline that gets hit; that coding for "author" that Google isn't that interested in following right now.   From Mueller today:
Going forward, we're strongly committed to continuing and expanding our support of structured markup (such as schema.org). This markup helps all search engines better understand the content and context of pages on the web, and we'll continue to use it to show rich snippets in search results.
And why is that?  What nixed the "author" markup?  From the stuff that I've read this afternoon on Google, among other things is the fact that not that many people search for what someone has written -- they're looking for content by subject matter most of the time.


Searching for Subject Matter - Not Much Name Dropping


Don't you find that true?

I mean, I search for "Peggy Noonan" because I love how she writes -- but how many writers do you search for in Google, just to read what they've written?  Aren't you searching for subject matter too, anything from "Emmy winners" to "slow cooker chili recipe"?


Bottom Line Regarding Google Search and Google Authorship


Here's what I'm concluding today from Mueller, Enge and Traphagen, which is important: Authorship may be back in the future, but the important thing to recognize is Google is working hard toward "semantic search" overall.

If you want to know the future, learn more about the Google Knowledge Vault.


What is the Knowledge Vault?


Google's building a huge (HUGE) database of information for all of us to use.  And use efficiently.  It's called the "Knowledge Vault."

Google wants to be the best search engine out there -- to serve you; to keep you away from Bing and its other competitors.  To do that, this enormous, mind-blowing amount of information that it is compiling in its Knowledge Vault will have to bring stuff to you that you want most in your search results.

From New Scientist, this explanation of the Knowledge Vault:

It promises to let Google answer questions like an oracle rather than a search engine, and even to turn a new lens on human history.
Knowledge Vault is a type of "knowledge base" – a system that stores information so that machines as well as people can read it. Where a database deals with numbers, a knowledge base deals with facts. When you type "Where was Madonna born" into Google, for example, the place given is pulled from Google's existing knowledge base.

This existing base, called Knowledge Graph, relies on crowdsourcing to expand its information. But the firm noticed that growth was stalling; humans could only take it so far.
So Google decided it needed to automate the process. It started building the Vault by using an algorithm to automatically pull in information from all over the web, using machine learning to turn the raw data into usable pieces of knowledge.

Semantic Search is the Next Step


So, Google is working hard to evolve its service to make things even better for all of us.  This will be "semantic search" and the importance of quality content and good research will be even more important to blogs and web sites.

Beginning this year with Hummingbird, Google is moving past keywords and into "conversations" because Google has the ability now to comprehend and understand content (and searches) better.

Part of Google's success will involve the ability to discern reputable, trustworthy authors and experts so their work can rank higher in search results.  Google will want this as opposed to reliance solely upon "human actions such as markup," as described by Traphagen and Enge:
As Google moves forward in its commitment to semantic search it has to develop ways to identify entities such as authors with a high degree of confidence apart from human actions such as markup. Recent announcements about Google’s Knowledge Vault project would seem to reinforce that Google is moving steadily in that direction. So this may be how it approaches detection.


Bottom Line:  Keep Writing Great Content for Your Intended Reader


So, don't worry about this Author Ranking business, just keep writing great content.  Target your intended reader.  Support your work with links that you know are reputable and will stand the test of time (a NYT link will be there, a local blog is iffy).

And don't worry that your smiling face and your byline aren't being monitored right now.  You're fine.

8/22/14

Texas Law Firm Sues Client Over Negative Online Review at Yelp.Com

 In June, a Texas law firm did what so many lawyers these days dream about: they sued the author of a negative online review for defamation. 

Gunfight: Image, Wikimedia Commons Public Domain


Austin’s Grissom and Thompson has filed a civil lawsuit against their former client, a man named Joseph Browning, over a review he published online at Yelp.com, alleging that the law firm is the victim of defamation because the online review was "blatantly false" and had no basis in fact.

You can read the Texas law firm defamation petition here.

The full text of the negative online review appears as an appendix to the pleading.

The Online Review That Fueled the Law Firm’s Defamation Lawsuit 

The negative review was published not long after Mr. Browning was sued by the law firm for not paying his legal fees. In part, Mr. Browning wrote that not only did the law firm miss deadlines, but that the lawyers had no strategy and "couldn't even get the basic facts of the case straight after burning through 20 hours of billable time." 

He concluded his Yelp review with this zinger: "They will not defend you. They will hurt you. This is their motive. That is their intent." 

Mind you, Grissom and Thompson already obtained a judgment against Joseph Browning over unpaid attorneys fees and totaling around $4000. I have not read of any malpractice case against them, and the ABA coverage reports that Mr. Browning did not mount a defense to their case for fees.

This defamation claim is not a part of a fee fight.  It is an independent lawsuit.

The lawyers, speaking through their lawyer to the ABA Journal, say they may never collect on that judgment, and they may never see any money from their defamation (libel, libel per se) claim, but they're moving forward on principle.

Will This Law Firm’s Lawsuit Encourage Other Attorneys to File Defamation Claims Over Negative Online Reviews? 

Today, so many lawyers – particularly those practicing criminal defense or family law – are faced with false or malicious negative online reviews.

 It’s offensive to the attorneys, it can be maddening.  And there's the real worry that a negative online review can hurt a law firm's business reputation.

Will attorneys follow in the steps of Grissom and Thompson and start filing lawsuits against the authors of these bad online reviews?

It's a good question.

Personally, those lawyers I know who have dealt with a negative online review have had a knee-jerk reaction of filing a lawsuit, but have ultimately decided not to do so. They've relied on their numerous positive reviews in place on the web, as well as their lawyers' personal reputations and their history of case results to balance against the negative review.

And they’ve crossed their fingers that their clients and future clients will a malcontent when they see one. It’s a sticky situation, being a lawyer and having to deal with an online review these days. It’s not like anyone monitors these reviews before they are published (Yelp argues this isn’t their job).

Maybe things are changing.

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