Strange Bedfellows: The Evolving Relationship between Authors and Readers … by Josh Lanyon

When Fatal Shadows was published in 2000, the total extent of contact I had with readers — fans — was josh logo - martini glassmembership on a mystery listserv (remember listservs?) and the occasional letter forwarded by my publisher. Reviews came from paid professionals. I never anticipated or intended to interact personally with my reading public. I couldn’t imagine such a thing.

Fast forward thirteen years. Readers moderate my Facebook Fan Page and my Goodreads group. They beta my books, they create art for my books, they help launch my books, and they review my books. They patiently permit me to bounce ideas off them for upcoming projects, offering feedback, encouragement, and support. Not a day goes by that I don’t receive several messages or emails from readers. My readers — the Fanyons — have become a critical part of my writing career. Many of them are now personal friends. All of them, in a strange and unforeseen way, are my publishing partners.

When I write I am conscious of readers in a way I never was before. I don’t think it has so far affected any large decisions in my writing. I tried to prioritize this year’s writing schedule based on what I believed readers wanted, but that didn’t work. Despite pleas to resume the Adrien English series, I know there is nothing important I can add to Adrien’s and Jake’s story at this time; I won’t be lured into writing about them until I can. I haven’t so far spared a character or ended a relationship based on what I know readers want. But just the fact that I am now aware of what readers want is a big, big change from the past.

If that awareness helps me to be a better writer, that’s certainly a positive for me and for my readers.

My experience is not unique in the world of modern publishing. Writers and readers are now inextricably linked. Both reading and writing are now interactive sports. If you are reading this blog, you’re part of the circle.

How did this happen? The Internet, obviously. Websites and email make it easy to make contact. But another key component was Amazon and its Citizen Review program. Originally a novelty, Amazon’s citizen or amateur reviews are now the single largest source of reviews anywhere. They are often the only reviews a book receives. From the review program sprang the discussion forums, also very popular and influential on Amazon. Social media provided the tools to regularly communicate and interact. Blogs have become the equivalent of global book clubs .

And let us not forget ebooks — or the reader communities that sprang up from publisher lists.

Online Fandom, too, has probably played its role. There is nothing more interactive than fandom.

In the end, it probably doesn’t matter how or why, because the fact is, there’s no going back.  The real question is, does this new interactive relationship make for better books? Does it make for a better reading experience? And if not, is there a way to improve the situation?

From a writer’s standpoint, the new dynamic provides a near embarrassment of riches. Once upon a time writing was a notoriously solitary business. Getting anyone to notice your work, let alone spread the word, was difficult, sometimes impossible. Now the amount of feedback can be overwhelming. As can the pressure to be accessible — and pleasant — twenty-four seven. Reviews are frequently as much about the book readers wish you had written as the one you did. Passionate and invested readers send in their questions about past stories, requests for future stories, and complaints about late stories. Writers who make unpopular decisions regarding the fates and personal lives of their characters can face backlash from irate fans, as in the case of Charlaine Harris.

On the other side of the coin, readers sign up for our newsletters and send their letters telling us how our stories changed their lives; they send presents; they send money. They write glowing reviews and vote down the negative reviews. They listen to us whine and bitch and moan and promo the same books endlessly. They humor us and reassure us. They give advice when asked, and join in the contests and the games and the general goofiness that is the contemporary literary life. But most of all, they buy our books — sometimes the same books over and over, simply because they’re in different formats or with different covers — and they read and then they tell their friends and anyone else who will listen.

It’s easy to see what writers get out of the deal. And it’s easy to see what readers get out of the deal. Books, right? But they always got books. So where is the value added for readers in this brave new world?

On the surface what they’re getting is greater access to their favorite writers. But that’s probably a two-edged sword. For all concerned. There has been a lot of conversation lately about the Gangs of New Media and anti-author sentiment in certain quarters at both Goodreads and Amazon.

In fairness, authors have done their bit to bring this hostility on themselves. You can’t interject yourself into the review process or blast your advertising at top volume day in and day out and not expect to seriously annoy people. But some of that annoyance doesn’t seem to have much to do with anything other than a general and diffused hostility against people who write books.

Setting aside for a moment the puzzling and growing antipathy between two organisms that share a symbiotic relationship, what I really wonder is whether so much interaction with authors doesn’t spoil the magic of storytelling?

Are we spoiling books for readers?

Maybe there was something to be said for those decade-old author photographs on dust jackets, the formal B&W portraits that used to pass for author interaction. For all my curiosity about the authors of books I’ve enjoyed, the more I learn about those authors, the more it tends to get in the way of building that suspension of disbelief when I read their work.  I don’t mean that I learn anything negative (although sometimes I do, and of course that doesn’t help). I only mean once I hear about their publishing woes and their struggles to diet, read their blogs on everything from breakfast cereal to DOMA, they become so…human. Once I know the author as a person, once I have interacted with her or him, it’s perhaps inevitable that I start to see her or him in the work.

Is the line between fact and fiction blurring? Because I kind of like that line.

Maybe it’s just me. But then again, maybe some of this reader hostility is the natural disappointment of realizing that authors are simply geeky boys and girls who spend way too much time alone at their desks making shit up. Not special at all. Not these days, when it seems every other reader is trying her hand at writing her own book. Once upon a time readers were kind of impressed by authors. Not so much these days. And partly we’ve done that to ourselves.

Not that we had a choice. Authors can’t change the social dynamic of contemporary publishing anymore than we can (or would wish to) return to pre-ebook economic models. This new relationship with readers is exactly that: new. We’re all still figuring out the parameters and trying to work out what we want and need from each other beyond the most basic equation of supply and demand.

So what do you think, Readers? Authors? Is all this interaction too much of a good thing? Is it creating better books? Or is it possible too much attention is making it harder for authors to write the best possible stories?

72 comments

  • I agreed that with the way ‘The Hell You Say’ progress, any other endings would be the shortchanged you mentioned. I felt sorry for any fans of yours who were nails biter. The ain’t of waiting must be hell on their nails :eek:.

    I do recall an author who blog regularly though, the venerable Amy Lane. She blogged often, about personal stuff mostly like her children, husband, works woes and getting sick (one of her recent blog post was aptly named ‘tossing cookies’). I supposed that didn’t effects her because her writings were very solid. That and probably the fact that her readers were too busy weeping uncontrollably reading her books :-P.

    Reply
  • I am curious about the mention of endings in the post. In light of present days writer/reader climate, do you think there will be strong backlash as to how you end ‘The Hell You Say’ and the two years gap before ‘Death of The Pirate King’ was release?

    No. Because that particular ending does not shortchange the reader on romance — it is not a romantic ending, period. 🙂 And that’s a very good example of where the author must know when to overrule the reader. I knew readers would not be happy with that ending, but I could not have written a different ending.

    Also, there was another facet of this, was how the fans interacts with each others that eventually hurt to the writer. I am quite a fan of the Cut & Run series by Abigail Roux and see first hands how people can be such idiots and childish. Ms. Roux ended up decided to remove herself from some of the online activities that she did to reduce the tension caused by a few. This deprived the majority of her fandom who enjoyed her online presence, me included. The majority take this pretty well but in mourning because we wish to participate but the option had been closed 🙁 .

    That’s a shame! How disappointing for everyone. Particularly Abi, who I’m sure misses the interaction with her readers. I know I would.

    You’re right too, the actions of fans do reflect on the author, even if the author is absolutely blameless. When our fans are smart and civilized and articulate that makes it look to the rest of the world like that’s the kind of person our work attracts. When our fans turn into a mob and insult reviewers or other authors…not so much. 🙁

    It’s tough too, because we authors are always grateful when people love our work and want to demonstrate that love. The last thing we want to do is squash the fun.

    Reply
  • I am curious about the mention of endings in the post. In light of present days writer/reader climate, do you think there will be strong backlash as to how you end ‘The Hell You Say’ and the two years gap before ‘Death of The Pirate King’ was release?

    Also, there was another facet of this, was how the fans interacts with each others that eventually hurt to the writer. I am quite a fan of the Cut & Run series by Abigail Roux and see first hands how people can be such idiots and childish. Ms. Roux ended up decided to remove herself from some of the online activities that she did to reduce the tension caused by a few. This deprived the majority of her fandom who enjoyed her online presence, me included. The majority take this pretty well but in mourning because we wish to participate but the option had been closed :(.

    It is true that you cannot please everybody, so might as well trust your instinct (provided that that had guide you far already) and went with the direction that you think is best.

    Reply
  • Interesting topic. The comments from Wave made me blush a bit, mainly because I’ve drastically increased “promotional” efforts on Facebook lately. I’ve also noticed very recently that other authors on social media have mentioned their struggle with finding a comfortable balance when it comes to promotion. At what point does it become bragging? How much is too much? And does it all just sound like self-aggrandizement?

    For me, much of it is a result of technological retardation. I was reluctant to even create a Facebook page, late to join Good Reads, still very new to Twitter, and not much of a blogger. After nearly four years, I’ve become quite comfortable with Facebook and Good Reads, but I did nothing to establish separate “personal” and “professional” accounts. So my contacts, especially on FB are a mixture of readers, fans, fellow writers, reviewers, friends who don’t even read, family members, etc. And as Josh stated in one comment above, my “fans” are not necessarily the same group of people who are my readers. The number of ratings and reviews I receive on Good Reads and the number of followers I have on FB are only a percentage of the number of people who have bought my books.

    So at times I’m at a loss about what to do, wondering what’s appropriate. I know there are a number of readers who do follow me on social media, and when I make an effort to promote a particular title, I do see some results. However, I don’t think there is anything I can do that’s as important as the distribution efforts of my publisher. And the last thing I want to do is offend readers or even other authors by being obnoxious with too many postings. I ultimately decided that since Facebook does give users some control over which posts they prefer to see, “friends” who aren’t interested in my promotional posts will simply bypass or ignore them.

    Concerning the issue of personal information, maybe I’m guilty of sharing too much. Yet I firmly believe that being pretentious is a far more egregious offense than being too transparent. I just hope I don’t fall into the category Wave described, as being one of those authors whose work has deteriorated so badly I have to constantly self promote or readers will forget me.

    Reply
    • Hmm. I’m thinking the words “drastic” and “promotion” should never be used in the same sentence. 😀

      You make good points, Jeff.

      It’s very easy to forget that the majority of our books are not bought by the people we interact with online (if that IS the case, you’ve got a problem, because those sales are not enough to support a living wage).

      When we talk about “targeting” our marketing and promotion, we all tend to think in terms of the readers who will like and enjoy our books — and this is partly correct. But also we should be targeting readerswhowilllikeourbooks who do not already know about us, would not be aware of the new book, would not, in the ordinary case of their online or offline interactions, come across us.

      Too often we’re busy promoting and marketing to the people who already know about us and probably already know about our new book. That’s a waste of promo money and effort. And this is also where it’s easy to saturate — and then annoy — the audience.

      The goal needs to be to expand your reach — while still reaching toward those most likely to enjoy your work.

      And of course there is the ongoing problem of authors spending too much time talking to other authors. Classic example: the blog post on writing from a newbie writer. This post will only be of interest to other newbie writers. I see this over and over and over. And readers complain about authors who talk to other authors instead of readers.

      What is so difficult about this concept? TALK TO READERS. WRITE ABOUT THE THINGS OF INTEREST TO READERS.

      Just like with our fiction, it’s not quantity that matters. It’s quality. We want quality interaction with readers. If the only thing we have to say to readers is, “Buy my book!!!” no wonder they tune out.

      Reply

Please comment! We'd love to hear from you.

%d bloggers like this: