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Authors, Readers, and the Internet: Are we losing something?

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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Authors, Readers, and the Internet: Are we losing something?

Stefan from over at Civilian Reader put out a tweet some time ago asking if anyone wanted to do a guest post.  I spoke up and mentioned my interest in doing one about whether or not having authors in touch with their readership is a bad thing.  Of course, he noticed that we bug authors all the time to communicate even more in interviews and guest posts.  Good point.  But, the topic interests me, so I figured I'd just write it here and the consequences be damned!

Over the last few years we've seen authors go from having their own website (maybe) to an expectation that an author keep a blog and be reachable via e-mail or Twitter.  Authors are able to get feedback from readers in real-time.  George R.R. Martin has been blogging for 10 years.  In that time he's received millions of comments that I'm sure he's read and more often ignored.  He's done chats and discussions.  Sam Sykes, author of Tome of the Undergates and Black Halo, has tweeted over 20,000 times.  He hosts giveaways on his feed and keeps a very well put together blog with thoughtful discussions.

It's clear that authors like Sykes gain quite a bit from this presence in social media and the blogosphere.  Or is it?  Publishers, as far as I know, don't urge their authors to really engage in social media and I doubt there's been any study done that's found some correlation between on-line presence and sales figures (authors like Michael Sullivan may disagree).  Regardless, I know I'm more likely to review a book if I've talked to the author on Twitter or dialogued via their blog.  And that's a good thing.  Authors get more things said about their book, good or bad.

Certainly more readers today are checking out reviews before buying a book.  The internet had made smart shopping so much easier.  We've got message boards, blogs, specialized websites, and more to help everyone make decisions about how to spend their money.  My worry is that authors know this too.  If I were an author with an active on-line presence and my book was broadly criticized for something specific, how could I not endeavor to work on that in future installments?

Peter Orullian's debut The Unremembered comes to mind.  Heavily criticized as a rip-off of the plot from Eye of the World, was book two originally planned as The Great Hunt redux?  If it was, has Orullian changed his original line of thinking based on the response from the review community?  Should he?  I'm sure this is reading like a blogger who thinks too highly of his own opinion.  That's not my intent.  I personally think authors should ignore what we, as bloggers, have to say.  It's their job to write and our job to say whether we like it or not.  Nothing that's said on this blog should change how or what an author writes.  But, is that possible?  Has the internet given authors and readers so much access that it's  fundamentally eroded the divide between the two?  Could we be entering an era of unrestrained "on demand" consumerism in literature?

I was finishing K.J. Parker's The Folding Knife when these thoughts came into my head.  Parker, as an anonymous pen name, could be Sam Sykes.  For the sake of this argument lets assume Parker doesn't go on-line.  It's certainly true that Parker does not interact in any way as K.J. Parker.  Folding Knife is not traditional in the fantasy genre.  There's no magic, and almost nothing "fantastic".  Everything is raw and real and the only reason it's classified fantasy is that it's second world.  The novel is functionally a tragedy in a very Shakespearean kind of way.  It's a brilliant novel, but I doubt one that heads up Orbit Books list of best sellers.  Nothing about it is whimsical or fun.  Are Parker's sales harmed by a lack of interaction with fans?  Or is it the case that lack of interaction frees Parker to write a novel insulated from outside influences?

I see a lot of consternation in the publishing world about eBooks and how it's going to change the way we buy books and develop authors.  It will, but isn't the issue I've raised just as crucial and potentially damaging?  Look around.  Every major house has a hooded man cover.  Why?  Because they sell.  They look cool.  Publishers know all this because the data and feedback is so immediate now.  If Angry Robot Books slaps a cover up on their homepage, they've got fifty people telling them what they think in real-time.  I'm not sure there's a point in all this other than to say, I'm a little worried that intellectual and creative integrity could be under threat if we don't pay attention to how technology is changing the model.

Or I'm full of shit.  What do you think?



At October 5, 2011 at 10:11 AM , Blogger Paul Weimer said...

I'm not sure, Justin.

I think a published author should have a thicker skin than to continually chase goalposts set by reader feedback.

At October 5, 2011 at 10:14 AM , Blogger Justin said...

I would agree, although it's not about thicker skin. It's more about trying to write what people want to buy. At the end of the day writers write and publishers publish to drive a bottom line. If responding to feedback from readers can drive that bottom line in a better direction, it would be hard not to take it. Regardless of creative vision - and when we're talking about an art form - we don't need more Britney Spears.

Again, not necessarily what I think is happening, more just wanting to have the discussion.

At October 5, 2011 at 11:20 AM , Anonymous Stefan said...

Good post. I think the internet's been a boon for readers and authors, with caveats. Sure, we readers now have the opportunity to email many of our favourite authors and bug them about interviews and so forth (God knows I've bugged more than my share of authors to answer questions), just as they have the opportunity to interact with fans and detractors. It helps get their names out there and hopefully increases their name-recognition. At the same time, I'm sure it's possible for authors to be influenced by what they see on the 'net. I think there would be times when this would be good, but also times when this could ruin future output - if an author got the impression that they had to write more "commercially" or something like that. Imagine if Mark Charan Newton, China Mieville or similar authors were convinced that they had to write commercial stuff, and not follow their own tastes? We'd be missing some pretty great genre fiction.

I tend to assume that online reviews have more of an impact on readers than authors. If for no other reason than the publishing industry is working a good year ahead of the readers - I've been surprised at how many authors I've interviewed have mentioned that they're just finishing up their next novel, when one has only just been published!

It makes me wonder if this is a good idea - if reviewers and readers pan a book unanimously for a specific reason, then doesn't the author run the risk of making the same mistakes again, and therefore harming his/her chances for success? Are readers likely to give an author a third chance to 'get things right'?

Something about KJ Parker - perhaps the air of mystery actually helps boost sales? If you know everything about an author, that can get boring, make people less inclined to care. Parker's mystery identity could appeal to a lot of readers. It helps that the author is also very good, of course.

It would be nice to think that publishers employ people with the courage of their convictions and creations - the blogosphere is still a pretty small slice of the population, so if some rabid, hard-core fans of this or that author don't like something about a cover piece... well, it may still work for the less crazy fans?

I remember Tor UK did a Twitter survey for the paperback edition of Alan Campbell's Sea of Ghosts - they offered three alternatives, and I do think they went for the best one in the end. This sort of thing can be useful for publishers, but to base entire decisions on what bloggers and people on Twitter complain about is probably not the best way to go.

And, dare I say it, some of the Hooded Man covers are rather nice...

I'm not sure all of that was on point, but some of my thoughts just to throw in the pot.

At October 5, 2011 at 11:30 AM , Blogger Justin said...

Should have written your own blog post, sheesh! haha

I think you're right that the blogosphere and twitter are a small voice in a larger crowd. Anybody would be crazy to take what goes on there as gospel. And shit, look at Terry Goodkind's sales numbers, no one in the blogosphere like those books, but he still sells like gangbusters.

Still, these "voices" are only going to get louder.

To the point on Mieville and Newton - that's sort of what I'm getting at. This is an art form that everyone wants to do it for a living. And thus sale-ability becomes relevant and all too easy to chase. Something that the industry has avoided, but the trap remains.

At October 5, 2011 at 3:09 PM , Blogger Seak (Bryce L.) said...

I think you make a good point. I'm taking a class in Alternate dispute resolution right now and we've talked about how there's brainstorming and evaluating. If you evaluate too soon, you lose a lot of creative ideas and I think this interaction with the fans can be a bad thing like you've said in that it gets authors evaluating everything they do before something great can come of it.

You're welcome for pretty much just repeating your post. :D

At October 6, 2011 at 7:47 AM , Anonymous Courtney Schafer said...

You raise some interesting questions, Justin. Though I'd point out that not every author wants to write for a living. (I love writing, but I have no desire to give up my day job, which pays a million times better than publishing and is way less stressful.) Would I love for my books to sell well? Yes, because it'd mean they were reaching more readers, and the whole point of fighting through the endless hoops of the pub business is to share a story you love with as many readers as possible. But if my books didn't sell well enough for me to be considered commercially viable by publishing houses - or were received poorly by reviewers for reasons other than glaring craft issues - my response wouldn't be to chase the market. I'd keep writing what I wanted, and maybe give the self-pub thing a go. (Yes, I'd be sad that far less people would likely read my book(s). But not sad enough to try and write something that didn't come from my gut and heart.)

I actually think the far greater danger from the immediacy of the online world lies in distraction. Because, hey, maybe people are talking about your book right now. Or how about now? Maybe if I hit the refresh button a few more times, a new comment will get posted... Naah, I'll go check my Amazon ranking. Oh, woe, nobody has bought the book today...what about the ebook version? Let me go check novelrank and compare my sales this month to similar books...or maybe I'll pop on over to twitter...ooh, look, somebody put a new review on goodreads!...etc. Before you know it, you've wasted an hour that could've been spent writing. (These days when I sit down to write after my 2yo goes to bed, I unplug the internet cable from my computer. And stuff it down a crack in the wall so it's a PITA to retrieve again.)

I'd also agree with Stefan that the delayed time scale of publishing makes reviewer comments less likely to affect an author's next work (whether for good or bad). Though I do wonder if authors of long-running book series have trouble shutting out the voices of fans. I remember there was a fascinating discussion on the Television Without Pity forum for the TV show Supernatural about whether in hindsight fans wished the creator & writers of the show had NOT been so quick to read fan comments on such forums. (The Supernatural showrunners were well known for reading boards like TWOP.) Some people felt the writers tried to "course correct" and give the fans what they thought they wanted, only to hurt the quality of the show because the story felt forced and shallow instead of organically evolving out of what came before. I could see something like that being an issue for a long-running novel series; especially popular ones with a vocal fan base. The pressure to please fans with the next installment must get pretty high, especially as the series nears the end. (Heh, I don't envy George R. R. Martin, for example.)

At October 6, 2011 at 8:21 AM , Blogger Mazarkis said...

Courtney, I was going to mention TV myself. I believe TV was the first medium to start listening to the fans and giving them what they wanted, or at least giving them shout-outs. Sometimes that turns out well, but more often, it turns into soup. It's a 'too many cooks spoil the broth' kind of thing.

I agree that the internet itself is a distraction.

Of course I'd never allow a group of reviewers to cause a rewrite of my WIP; I learned long ago, in critique groups, to avoid that. But they can instill subtle doubts about writing choices which I feel, in the long run, are not bad. We should always question how we've chosen to frame, structure, and write our works--but hopefully between WIPs. :)

At October 6, 2011 at 9:19 AM , Blogger Justin said...

If nothing else, it's a great sign when the comments are longer than the article! Love it. I hadn't thought about the TV angle, but LOST would be another example of the breakdown I think.

At October 6, 2011 at 11:25 AM , Blogger Justin said...


I tried to post this yesterday and Google ate my comments; unfortunately, I didn't have time to rewrite them.

I've been watching the feedback for Miserere, because it just fascinates me what people are taking from the story. However, I have to filter the difference between the readers enjoying the story for what it is versus the reader who is upset because he or she wanted to see the story go in a different direction than the one I took. I had one commenter on Amazon decry the fact that I killed a certain character. A few thought it should have been a young adult novel because Lindsay was their favorite character. Others loved it dark. Still others wanted to see it as romance.

What do you do with that?

If I wrote to all those specifications, I’d have a young adult/dark fantasy/romance/[Please Fill in the Blank with the Kind of Novel You Would Like for Me to Write]

At the same time, several people have mentioned they would like to see more world-building, which seems to be a valid and CONSISTENT complaint. So long as the world-building doesn’t overpower the story, I’m cool with that and can oblige the fan-need for world (or World as the case may be) information.

BUT (and this is a big but if you will notice) I cannot possibly anticipate every single question someone might have about Woerld. At some point, the readers have to trust the authors to give the necessary information to carry the story.

So I can’t allow other people’s ideas of what THEY think the story SHOULD be influence the second book in the series. I mean, people that think authors just make things up to please fans are living in a fantasy of their own. I have a definite arc that I'm following for these four books. If I deviate from that arc, then I've lost the story I wanted to tell (and thank you, Courtney, that was a great way to describe why we write—that desire to tell a story).

Maz is right, too. This type of feedback started with television and it’s just bled over into the Internet. How much interaction between author/reader is good? I don’t know. I interact with the fans because I just love them. They keep me young in my thinking and they never fail to make me smile with their exuberance for life and the beauty of their imaginations.

I also drop out of sight for long periods, because if I want to finish the next book, I have to spend time working on it. I think every author has to find the balance that is right for them.

Thanks for writing this, Justin. I’ve really enjoyed reading the responses.


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