When Fatal Shadows was published in 2000, the total extent of contact I had with readers — fans — was membership 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?