Strange Bedfellows: The Evolving Relationship between Authors and Readers

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Commentary
Title: Strange Bedfellows: The Evolving Relationship between Authors and Readers
Commentator: Josh Lanyon
Date(s): October 13, 2013
Medium: online
Fandom: original fiction
External Links: online here; WebCite
Click here for related articles on Fanlore.

Strange Bedfellows: The Evolving Relationship between Authors and Readers is an essay by writer Josh Lanyon.

Topics Discussed

  • violating the fourth wall
  • the relationship between creator and fans
  • blurring the fine line between fiction and fact
  • the two-edged sword of branding and engagement with fans

Some Excerpts

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 [1] (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.
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?

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.

Comments: At the Post

[Jeff Erno]:
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.... [snipped]... 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.
[Josh Lanyon]:
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).
[Pete]:
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 :(.
[Josh Lanyon]:
That’s a shame [about Abigail Roux]! 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.
[M]:
I’m not sure I think it’s a good thing, or a bad thing. It just is. I have some favorite authors that have very little online presence. I still love their books. The best thing, and I’ve said this before, is your online presence has introduced me not only to you, but to people I have a lot in common with, that will be friends until the day I die. That, to me, is right up there with the books you produce. It must be a strain to have to be “on” every moment that you’re online. Let’s face it, there are some weirdo’s out there. But never think, for a moment, that we readers don’t appreciate the time that the authors spend talking to us. So if I had to vote right now, I’d say it’s a good thing.
[Josh Lanyon]:
Considering my fan base (which is, and this is worth pointing out because it’s true for all of us, quite a bit smaller than my reader base) I have dealt with surprisingly few weirdoes. I can still count them on one hand, so that’s good.

And, and unexpected boon of a loyal fan base, is sometimes the fans deal with the problems before I ever see them. Which is an interesting development too.

But I think you’ve really hit on something here, M. And that is authors and books acting as catalysts for real life friendships and social activities between readers. These groups grow and evolve beyond the original reason for bonding — love of a particular author’s work — and turn into real friendships. I’ve seen everything from knitting groups to cancer survivor networks spring up from love of a particular author’s work. That’s kind of amazing.
[Jan]:
I think good or bad depends very much on the author and how they interact. Those with the maturity to ignore the naysayers and poor reviews (no one is ever going to please every one) will get positives out of it. Those who whine about their exes, their on going gastric disturbances and the fans who ‘don’t get’ what ever are going to lose out.

With regard to the fans influencing the stories again I think it will vary, YOU are the author and the book will be a better written one if you tell the story that the characters dictate, not what the loudest fans want you to write.

As M said, the friendships that your fans have formed have been gifts above and beyond the books themselves. One thing I have found through the author interactions both online and in person is just how much I love books by people I like. You Harper Marie Sexton….. And how good the recommendations are from the groups of like minded people that the internet allows us to form.
[Josh Lanyon]:
...the author temperament is not necessarily that of the extrovert. Or even the socially competent. And so we see a LOT of really ugly social media encounters between writers and readers. I do think that there is something to be said for the reclusive author mystique.

And as far as readers influencing stories…well, in fairness, authors bring this on themselves in a lot of cases. How many authors have appropriated the fannish notion of “challenges”? A lot. I see myself doing it — asking readers questions about what particular elements or subplots they want to see addressed?

It’s a delicate balance. I’m not going to go against my own instinct, but at the same time, I think it would be stupid not to pay attention to readers. Readers are smart. And very often they have a better memory of my work than I do!
[Tammy]:
The “magic” of the books doesn’t really matter who the writers are. There are some i don’t know and some i do. But that to me doesn’t take away the knowledge that they are mighty fine writers! Even if my best friend at work wrote a book and it got published and started writing, it wouldn’t change the fact that i would or wouldnt love her writing any more than any other author i know out there. If there is one thing I’ve learned its that EVERYONE is human, makes mistakes and some are out there just trying to make a buck like the rest of us. It just so happens their talents lie in acting or writing or in other ways than the working class man. I wish i had a talent to write but i dont. I write fanfiction but that’s it. Nothing spectacular.
[Kim W]:
One thing I don’t like is authors who over-share their personal life and opinions on social media. I like to follow authors for news about their upcoming books and release dates. I hate it when I find out that an author who’s books and characters I really love are people I would probably avoid in real life. In that case I either stop following them or check their posts occasionally with a hand over my eyes peeking through my fingers like I would at a scary movie.
[Josh Lanyon]:
There isn’t any going back [to interaction before the Internet]. That’s certain.

I do think one of the most fascinating aspects of this new close reader/author interaction is the push to influence the work itself. Believe it or not, I think it’s understandable. I think it is a natural development — I’ve had to fight the impulse myself with certain writers I love. It’s kind of like an addict pushing for a bigger dose of the drug they crave. I want a bigger boost of certain stories or characters. 😀 I want that rush!

So I do understand. Which isn’t to say that the first time I received a complete story outline from a reader I wasn’t surprised! 😮

I also am very grateful for the genuine friendships I’ve formed along the way. These are relationships that enrich my life — relationships that exist beyond the books beyond the work. And yet I wouldn’t have known these people if I had not written certain books.

The idea of “nice” artists is a modern concept, and one I find fascinating. History — even a quick glance at just Art History — teaches us that some of the greatest works of all time were created by not so nice people.

By all accounts neither Michelangelo or Da Vinci were particularly nice people. I don’t think they’d have a lot of Twitter followers. In fact, I think they’d piss off a hell of a lot of people. So the idea of linking niceness to good art is really very modern. I wonder where that will lead.
[Jenre]:
When I first started out, I was very interested in getting to know authors. I read a lot of author blogs, engaged with authors online and by email. I loved knowing about the author, what makes them write what they write and I was thrilled that they wanted to engage with me, a lowly reader. I made some darned good friends during that time, some of whom I still regularly email and even meet up with.

In the last couple of years though, I’ve found myself drawing away from authors. Not because they’ve been badly behaved towards me, but rather because of a genuine worry about reviewer/author relationships (a topic thrashed out many, many times). I began to distance myself a little, stopped leaving comments on author blogs or emailing authors because that felt safer. I think I’ve reached a better place now in that I have maybe 4 or 5 good author friends. I still follow author blogs but I don’t comment and now, instead of feeling thrilled, I feel slightly uncomfortable if an author leaves a comment on one of my reviews of their books, even if it’s a ‘thank you for the nice review’. In the end this saves on hurt feelings for everyone.

Having said that I was completely fangirlish when I met Ginn Hale and gushed about how much I love her books :).
[Josh Lanyon]:
I remember, Jenre. What an adorable little fan girl you were! 😉

But your situation is somewhat different in that you moved into professional reviewing. I think there is a difference between reviewers, average readers, and unabashed fans. The fan who blogs about books she loves or posts an Amazon or Goodreads review has different motivations from the average reader, and certainly from the professional reviewer.

This is not to say that the professional reviewer isn’t moved and enthused by various works, but their mission is not to Spread the Word on behalf of a particular author. From the point you have a blog dedicated to reviewing, the dynamic changes a bit. And that dynamic is not really what I’m addressing here — although of course there is an evolution for many readers from casual commenter to professional reviewer.
[Josh Lanyon]:
I think curiosity and interest in any writer whose work moves us is natural. I think humans are naturally curious. When I stumbled across Poppy Z. Brite’s blog, I read every single post! I was fascinated. But the ultimate result was it became hard for me to read the stories I loved without seeing Poppy (now Billy) in the work. There was nothing wrong with Poppy OR Billy, it’s just that it complicated my pleasure in reading. I don’t want to think about the author, I don’t want to know about the author.

Now this could be unique to me. I could well be more anti-social than the normal reader. :-)

And of course the main takeaway was that she wasn’t writing anymore in the New Orleans series, and for that I could not forgive her.
[K.Z. Snow]:
...I can’t read books by writers whose online presence I’ve found overpowering and/or abrasive. They’ve shredded the veil.
[Josh Lanyon]:
Yes! Knowing a character is an author’s alter ego definitely snaps that delicate construction of disbelief for me. Even if I like the author. It’s just too much.

And maybe this is because in a way we readers appropriate characters we love. We continue to think about them, imagine futures for them, imagine their story running on after the last page is turned.

In that sense, the author loses a portion of “ownership” once the character is released into the nether. But if the character is actually kind of the author…that kind of messes with everything.
[KC]:
The relative strength of the writer can sometimes create awkward situations. If let’s say there’s a writer who is a nice person to interact with, but after writing a couple of enjoyable books, there’s a abrupt decline in quality. There are also very strong writers that one wants to interact with and others that one avoids so as not to let a less nice personality influence the reading pleasure. So what i meant was that i try to keep these things, if not separate, at least at a bit of a distance. It would upset me if i were to become disappointed with the person writer and that would somehow affect how i feel about the books. The “relationship” with the writing itself is instantaneous, and ideally, it will only improve as the writer gets better. The “relationship” with the writer as person is trickier. Ideally, the writer is a nice, kind person. But one cannot expect a perfect person. And one has to keep in mind that the writing itself is the priority. So maybe the stronger the writer, the more protective the reader gets of the writing they enjoy.
[Josh Lanyon]:
Yes, reading the comments here (and at Goodreads and Facebook) I suspect some people are better at creating this necessary distance, this separation. Mary G below mentions the latitude we give actors who behave badly. That is an interesting point. I will say that there are actors I detest for their conservative politics (or general idiocy) but can still stand to watch in films. But then a film is not a one person operation, and so there is usually some other reason to see the movie. Whereas a book is pretty much the author. There are no real mitigating performances.
[Issa]:
But the contact can be a double edged sword. I’m sure it’s nice to get the support, but sometimes it seems the author starts believing all the hype. It can feel like that if you want to be a fan you must not just like, but love every word the author puts out whether that be the books or the extras sent out over social media. As the author and fans keep engaging, the fans can become more obsessive. They feel like the author is theirs, that they are friends, and feel personally slighted, and think it’s an attack on the author, if someone doesn’t believe every word the author writes is gospel. And that’s not healthy for anyone.

You can also get saturated by too much author contact to the point where the books don’t seem interesting anymore because you’ve learned too much about them. I admit that I tend to lose my enthusiasm for the books where I learn there were writing problems or editing problems or personal issues. I like to think of my books as golden eggs and that human stuff can rub off some of the glow which goes back to the mystique aspect mentioned.

Some of the best groups discussing books that I’ve seen are where the author is not there. People aren’t afraid to offend the author and people are less likely to be upset by other viewpoints. Author involvement can really stifle book discussions.

While it may sound like I’m against author contact, I’m really not. But I think authors set the tone of their fandoms so be sure you putting into it something you don’t mind spit back at you. And I really think authors need to be very careful about not just what they put out but how they do it. I’m constantly stunned by the amount of personal information I see. Readers may ask for it, but it is okay to say no.
[Josh Lanyon]:
Also in our genre we have a surprising number (although, again, this may simply be how it is moving forward) of reviewers, readers, fans, turning their own hand to writing. A good percentage of our online interaction starts out relating to someone in one role and then the roles change. Ambition and aspiration factor in ways that I think are new. We have authors mentoring readers into their own writing careers. We have reviewers who use writing as a springboard for a writing career. There are a lot of crossover relationships that I think are a relatively new development. Or maybe the crossover element was always there, but it’s happening large scale now because of technology?
[Wave]:
I prefer the mystique of not knowing anything personal about the people who write the books I enjoy. I have no desire to find out every detail of the lives of my favourite authors. All I care about is that they release quality stories. I can’t count the number of authors who are now on my “do not buy list” rather than my “auto buy” list and this is mainly because the quality of the product they release has deteriorated to the point where I no longer have any desire to read what they write. I wish M/M authors spent the majority of their time improving their craft rather than being on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr 24/7. I realize that a lot of readers love the interaction with their favourite authors but I’m not one of them.

As for not buying an author’s books because of their on-line behaviour, if an author is rude, disrespectful, insulting or vicious online, not just impolite, I don’t buy their books.. We’re all human and have bad days – that’s not what I’m talking about. If they are mean spirited I find that difficult to overlook and would not put my money in their pockets..

Coming back to the symbiotic relationship between authors and their readers, I think the author has to steer that relationship and set the boundaries.

I understand that this sub genre is a lot more competitive than when I first started reading these books in 2003, but what I find amusing is that the lesser talents are the ones who spend their time on Tumblr, FB, Twitter etc. 24/7, promoting! promoting! promoting! It’s as if they’re afraid that if they let up for a second their few fans will forget them, and they’re probably right, because their books suck.
[Josh Lanyon]:
Your point [Mary G], about hearing back from the author is such an interesting one. I’m thinking in another five years this will no longer be grounds for amazement because readers and writers are interacting constantly now. I do still hear this on a fairly regular basis — but I still get a lot of email from readers who are older and who are not active in social media. I frequently hear that I am their first “fan” letter. I don’t think this is the norm in our genre — and it certainly won’t be the norm within a couple of years.

BUT what I do find fascinating about those particular “first time” emails, is the reminder of how much of our book buying public is NOT active on social media (in fact, the majority of the book buying world is not participating in social media, though that’s easy to forget for those of us who live online). Not only are they not active online, they are relatively new to ebooks and digital media.

It’s very easy to lose sight of the big picture when you’re so busy interacting on the social media stage. Our genre sprang out of online slash fandoms, and so we have a slightly skewed perception of how the general publishing world works.

References

  1. Dorothy-L?