Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

Navigating the author / reader relationship in online communities by Molly...

 BIO: Molly O’Keefe is a RITA-Award winning author with 24 novels in publication. Her new series The Boys of Bishop will begin on October 30 with
Wild Child, Never been Kissed in July and Between the Sheets in August. She lives in Toronto, Canada with her family and the largest heap of dirty
laundry in North America. You can find her on her website: www.Molly-okeefe.com  on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MollyOKeefeBooks?ref=hl or Twitter: https://twitter.com/MollyOKwrites

 

Inspired by the Goodreads policy change, the podcast on buying reviews and Robin’s interesting articles on free speech, the internet and the romance community, I’ve been thinking a lot about that community; my part of it, and my part in it.

Since first getting published in 2001, my publisher’s (first Harlequin and then Bantam Dell) interest in my involvement in the romance community has gone from roughly indifferent (sure, go ahead and set up that yahoo group) to something very akin to a worried mother sending their kid to school for the first time; “Go. Go make friends. Make lots of friends. Make ALL the friends. Don’t be too weird, keep your pants on, but be interesting. Only tell the funny knock knock jokes. NOT the ones about gun control. Here’s some gum to hand out. Have fun, but try to make everyone like you.”

And somewhere between my publisher’s interest and my own incredible self-consciousness, I’ve sort of flailed around in the community. I’ve made a dozen rules for myself; NEVER RESPOND TO REVIEWS, only to turn around and respond to reviews. NEVER WRITE REVIEWS OF BOOKS YOU DON’T LIKE, only to write a review of a book that disappointed me by an author I loved and then deleting it because I felt so shitty.

Some authors seem to understand exactly how to walk this line, and so I asked some of them how they do it.

“While I’m both an author and a reader in private, in public (at cons, online, etc. I’m an author,” says Elizabeth Hoyt. “That means to me that I’m a public figure so I’m going to conduct myself accordingly: I’m polite and friendly and (hopefully) accessible, but I’m not going to talk politics or tell you the names of my children.”

But there is no question that the on-line reality of the community can make the lines between personal and professional, for many authors, very blurry and difficult to maneuver. When is it promotion? At what point are we perceived as readers? Writers? At what point is friendship construed as an effort to sell something to a reader?

“When I “get on” something like twitter, just like if I walked into a room or a party I tend to seek out interactions with those I know well, just like at a party, and I tend to shy away from interactions where I feel less comfortable for all the dozens of reasons one feels less comfortable — lack of knowledge, a history with the subject/idea/book unknown to those talking, feeling tired, feeling a little dim, feeling shy,” says Mary Ann Rivers. “Lots of engagement with those I know less well is interesting and lovely, but exhausting, too, so I have to be in a place where I have a lot of resources. And for me, I have the most resources when I don’t have to worry about if I am in a position of being received as a particular role (writer or critical reader) versus just Mary Ann.”

“I view myself as an author first. I’m also a reader and a community member,” says Jill Sorenson. “But I don’t set aside my author hat when I participate in discussions. Over the years I’ve become less of an “author’s author,” if that makes sense. I’m more supportive of negative reviews. I value thoughtful discussions and honest criticism. I have reviewer friends and author friends.”

For some authors, like Courtney Milan, it’s simple. But not. “My role is to write books,” says Milan. “Also, sometimes people say things and I can’t keep my mouth shut because either I’m interested in what they’re talking about, and/or they are wrong on the internet and I stupidly have to go and correct them, but I don’t see the latter as part of my “role” either way. I just do it because it is difficult for me to see people being wrong on the internet without shoving my oar in. Authors who can avoid correcting people who are wrong on the internet probably have a natural advantage, in that they spend more time writing.”

For many authors the increased exposure between readers and writers has been an incredible source of validation and for Deanna Raybourn, pleasure.

“Writing is such a solitary occupation–it’s a pleasure to have a follower unexpectedly tweet that they just discovered you or have someone tag you in a facebook post as a writer whose work they love. And honestly, seeing a writer pal struggle with the first 5,000 words or wrestle an ending into submission is a reminder that you’re not as alone as you think you are!”

For Kristan Higgins when it comes to social media, the good outweighs the bad: “It’s tempting to spend too much time on social media and promotion, and to worry that you’re not doing it right or not taking advantage of every form. But that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the pleasures. I remember writing fan letters to authors and sending them to the publisher, then waiting six months or more to hear back. Now, I can write to an author the minute I finish a book. I’ll have fan letter in my inbox the morning of a release from readers who got the book at midnight. That leads to a very personal (and often very warm) relationship between reader and author, and it’s truly the best part of the job.”

But every week there seems to be another example of an author or a reader behaving badly on a blog or a forum or Goodreads. And the truth is one tweet or comment taken the wrong way, or written in the heat of an argument can have a nasty ripple effect across the whole community.

“One of the pitfalls of increased exposure is that there are infinite opportunities to make mistakes,” says Sorenson. “I often regret being outspoken online. I adhere to my personal standards of professionalism, but I’ve put my foot in my mouth on many occasions.”

And the hottest spot of contention is reviews.

“I think reviews are probably the trickiest thing when it comes to negative comments,” says Jennifer Estep. “I’ve seen posts for and against authors commenting on reviews of their books. Some people like to hear the author’s thoughts, and some people feel like it hampers having an open, honest discussion about the book.”

According to Courtney Milan the problem often lies in the misperception that reviews and books, readers and authors should be treated the same way.

“People talk a lot about how there’s a double standard for reviewers versus authors–that readers can comment on books, but authors can’t comment on reviews,” says Milan.” This annoys me when people say it (mostly because they are saying it on the internet and they are wrong.) Of course there’s a double standard. Double standards are only hypocritical when you’re applying different criteria to things that are fundamentally the same. But individuals of sense and taste recognize that different things have to be judged by different standards. I can’t figure out why we would want to judge authors and reviewers by the same standards. One of us is putting out a commercial product. The other is critiquing a commercial product. These things are exactly the opposite of each other.”

But understanding this intellectually does not take the emotional sting away from reading a bad review.

“Seeing a bad or negative review of your book is never pleasant as an author, and can be extremely disappointing,” says Estep. “But not every book is going to work for every reader and reviewer. It’s just a fact of life. So I think you have to take negative comments in stride with the good ones.”

I asked the authors what were some of their informal rules for interacting with readers and reviewers and most of them said the same thing:

“I don’t respond to reviews. Ever. I try not to even read them,” says Hoyt. “Two reasons:

1) It just messes with your head. If the review is bad (or even slightly off–authors are so fracking sensitive!) you’re bummed for the rest of the day and make plans to become a plumber. 2) As a reader I really don’t see how an author can comment on a review without shutting down–or at least dampening–the discussion. If other readers know the author is looking at the comments, most will censor themselves–it’s just human nature. I believe the reviews, commentary, etc. are for the readers, not the author, and unless I’m specifically invited in, I’m going to stay out.”

“I usually don’t comment on reviews of my books,” says Estep. “But if someone tweets a review of my book at me, or shares it on my facebook page, then I will thank them for taking the time to read and review the book. I think that’s the nice, polite, respectful thing to do, no matter whether the reviewer liked the book or not.”

When discussing this blog with Jane she added some questions about what can make an author feel vulnerable in some on-line spaces, and what can readers do to alleviate that while still feeling confident about sharing negative thoughts about books.

“When the reviews or comments on a book are particularly snarky, attack the author personally, or seem to be made just for the purpose of seeing how mean someone can be,” says Estep. “That’s when I think a line has been crossed from objective, thoughtful criticism into something else. And it’s such a gray area that it’s hard to know where that line is sometimes. What one person thinks is okay is offensive to someone else, and vice versa.”

“I think honest reactions to books should be shared, whether they’re positive of negative,” agrees Higgins. “Ranting is different from that; I think that’s where some authors feel personally attacked. ”

Readers have the right to review and respond to a book in any way they want, and none of the authors I spoke to said differently. Many of the authors believe that in order to not feel vulnerable authors need to stay out of those spaces.

“I don’t know how readers can change anything–or even if they have to,” says Hoyt.”But AUTHORS can just not go on those sites that bother them. I’ve never had a problem on Goodreads, for instance, because I don’t participate on the boards. For all I know readers are bashing me right, left, and center on the discussion boards–but that’s just it: I DON’T know. In this case, ignorance is bliss.”

“Readers shouldn’t have to worry about the comfort level of authors in reader spaces,” says Sorenson. “A good author friend of mine recently said she was being sent a lot of negative review links and it bummed her out. Tweeting criticism or sending hate mail directly to the author is something readers can avoid, but I don’t think authors can ever be completely insulated from criticism. It’s just not a reasonable expectation. The internet is public. Authors are public figures. ”

In some of the best advice for authors I have ever heard Courtney Milan added: “The thing is, I understand that some kinds of reviews can make authors feel vulnerable. But it’s my job to know my emotional state–I’m the person who can most easily determine this–and to avoid the stuff I can’t take–because I’m the one who knows what that is. Nobody else is as perfectly situated to know what I can handle and to control how I get it as myself. If you went by what makes me feel vulnerable from time to time, you could literally never talk about my books, and that’s the last thing I want.”

But some bloggers want author involvement in a promotional way; giveaways, blog hops, blog tours. And some want a community where authors and readers can co-exist. And readers and authors perceptions that all blogs are the same and have the same rules and code of conduct, is often what causes problems.

“Just like there are a lot of different kinds of writers, there are a lot of different kinds of review spaces (and reviewers ARE writers, of course),” says Rivers. “And some of them are promotional and meant to promote the entire genre to general consciousness, and some of them are critical-response, and some of them are largely personal, and they all vary in tone and approach and intended-audience, and agenda. Which, I think is just this great, ordinary miracle. I don’t think any of this variety — from writers, from reviewer/bloggers, from promotional efforts — diffuses the relevancy or quality or importance of the community or genre, at all. I think the overall relevancy, quality, and importance of our genre is too great.”

But for those blog owners and reviewers who want authors to engage on their sites and not just for promotion, what can they do to create a space where authors and readers co-exist?

“When questions go beyond the surface, it’s a great place to start a discussion,” says Higgins. “I love when I’m asked why I made a choice with a character a plot twist. I also think it’s great when a moderator asks questions of the blog visitors—have you ever known someone like this, or have you had a similar experience, that kind of thing.”

“Know the kind of discussion you’re going to have on your blog,” says Milan. “Have clear rules, and enforce them evenhandedly.”

Estep agrees; “If a blog wants comments from authors, readers, other bloggers, etc., then I would suggest posting some sort of statement or policy saying that comments from all segments of the reading/romance community are welcome. I also think that if you are going to post about a controversial issue, then you need to be prepared for the comments you might get and consider posting some sort of statement or policy about the post and the sorts of comments/discussion that will or will not be allowed.”

The truth is, readers, reviewers, authors, we’re all in this together and as Robin makes a case for on-line civility in her free speech blog post, I think all the authors I spoke to would agree. No author wants only glowing fan-girl reviews, that doesn’t serve them or the genre. We need thoughtful objective criticism, just as much as we need a space where readers can vent about the books that disappointed them, without the spectre of the author threatening legal action. But in those places where readers and authors intersect, the rule of the day is pretty simple on both sides. Even if we forget it from time to time. As Jennifer Estep says, ” it’s all about treating people the way that you would like to be treated.”

Guest Reviewer

16 Comments

  1. Jo
    Oct 15, 2013 @ 06:40:46

    Thank You Ms O’Keefe for a thought provoking article.
    I am a reader. I don’t write, books or reviews, though I wish I did and I greatly admire those that do. :)
    This is just a personal observation but over the years I have noticed while visiting blogs ect, whenever the author of a book being discussed comments there does seem to be a kind of virtual crickets thing happening, I’m not sure people are completely comfortable discussing a book while the author is present, although that could just be me projecting because I don’t love it. On the other hand I do like to read author interviews, blog hops ect as I enjoy getting more of an insight into process of writing, characters,motivation and so forth. I also like to visit sites like this which have a number of authors who come here to discuss the books they read. I do find it interesting to see a writers opinion on a book I have read. I may not agree but it does get me thinking, which is all I ask. And oh boy, did that turn into a ramble. Sorry about that and thanks for giving me the opportunity to do so. :)

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  2. Jennifer Lohmann
    Oct 15, 2013 @ 07:30:05

    Molly,

    This was thought provoking and you covered a lot of ground. I’m especially curious to hear from other authors who write under their own name, instead of a pen name, because then your online presence isn’t just author-you or reader-you but you-you. I wonder if it makes the author more or less cautious online.

    This “it’s all about treating people the way that you would like to be treated.” is a good rule of thumb, but it’s better to treat people the way *they* want to be treated, which is why comment/statement policies are so important, for both readers and authors interacting with each other (or not) on blogs.

    Thanks for writing this.

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  3. Arethusa
    Oct 15, 2013 @ 08:54:32

    The thing for me when it comes to book reviews is that books are not people. If I wanna rant, I shall rant, and it’s not a faux pas, or a contravention of someone’s human rights, it’s simply my response to a tangible object. Book reviews are not about authors as persons. I don’t have to or want to be sensitive to their feelings where that is concerned. That is the major problem I have with a lot of writers in review spaces — many appear to believe that readers who post reviews online or obligated to be respectful about their work. We’re not, IMO. They wouldn’t mind if we had to show a certificate to prove that we read all of the work before we declared it balderdash. We don’t.

    If we want to be taken seriously, or foster fruitful discussion *then* we’ll have to present writing and thought of a certain quality.

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  4. Ben
    Oct 15, 2013 @ 09:25:14

    As an author (and reader) I understand both sides of this story. I, personally, don’t comment on reviews (good or bad) unless it is to correct a factual error or answer a reader’s question. I pop in once in a while to read reviews at various sites because I think it’s good business to get reader (customer) feedback, like with any product. I’m not of the old school “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” But I do firmly believe in “contribute, don’t criticize.” To state a book is “bad. Don’t waste your money on it” is insulting to the readers out there who love it. It means they made a “mistake” in buying the book or there’s something wrong with them because they enjoyed the story. Really, the reviewer is saying “I didn’t relate to the characters/story, so I didn’t enjoy the book.” We’ve all felt that way. Rather than ranting, why not contribute: “I didn’t enjoy this book because of X, but if you love XYZ, you’ll probably love this book.”

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  5. Miss Jenny
    Oct 15, 2013 @ 09:33:17

    I agree with Arethusa. Books are not people and I have no shame in ranting about them when necessary. I generally don’t review books unless they have surprised me in great and terrible ways.

    Ann Aguirre responded to a review I wrote for Stone Maiden years ago and it was great. She answered a couple of questions I had asked about the book and possible follow-ups. It didn’t bother me or make me mindful of authors reading reviews.

    I have only come close to making personal comments about an author in a review once. I got caught up in the “GRRM is too slow” movement. Then I read Neil Gaiman’s response to someone feeling similar frustration: George RR Martin is not your bitch. I still re-read Gaiman’s response from time to time and it puts it all into perspective for me.

    I am a consumer. Authors are artists. They are not working for me. As a consumer, I can review a book in great or terrible ways – but it will never slip into a personal attack on the author because she or he is not my bitch and can write what they damn well please.

    The presence of authors on review sites doesn’t bother me. They seem to be a fairly well-behaved lot and when they respond to reviews they seem to do so fairly (provided the review is about the book and not the person). If a reviewer is bashing an author personally, I have no problem with the author bashing the reviewer back and can find it quite entertaining to watch. But that’s just the ugly American in me.

    Either way, the presence of authors and their participation in reviewing does not bother me.

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  6. Stephanie Doyle
    Oct 15, 2013 @ 09:37:18

    Awesome article Molly and really great quotes from everyone.

    I definitely think the reader/writer interaction is getting harder and more complicated. I think for one – there are simply MORE authors. More people self-publishing. More people crossing over from being readers to writers. More people using social media to develop a fan base. Then using that fan base to attract other readers.

    That aspect of connecting to readers is something that can lead an author to great success.

    But conversely putting yourself out there – maybe even in front of your stories – you run the risk of feeling like that criticism is about “you” when really it’s just about the book.

    I agree with what Arethusa said… books aren’t people. And even my books aren’t me. My books are just stories I tell. How I feel about the book I write, yes that’s personal.

    How any one else feels about it is something I can’t let myself worry about.

    Or at least that’s what I try and tell myself – especially when the review is bad. :)

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  7. Simone St. James
    Oct 15, 2013 @ 09:59:26

    I’ve always had the opinion, personally, that people on Goodreads are not talking to me when they talk about my books. They’re talking to each other. Yes, they’re posting publicly on the internet, but the intent is to talk to other readers, not to me. So to respond is a little like overhearing two people on the bus talking about your book, then butting in and claiming you’re offended.

    So not reading reviews and butting in with my opinion is a sacrifice I make as a published author. There are good points to this job that more than make up for it, IMO.

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  8. Jonetta (Ejaygirl)
    Oct 15, 2013 @ 16:19:34

    Thanks, as always, for an insightful and thought provoking discussion of a very relevant topic. I’m a reader, reviewer and blogger and so my relationships with authors will vary depending on the role I’m in at the time. I love Courtney Milan’s advice as it’s practical and would generally serve an author well in most circumstances.

    I’m pleased when an author gives me a “like” on a review and don’t really consider it an intrusive or stalker action. If I’m more than just a fan (have a “friends” relationship on Goodreads or Shelfari), I would anticipate more interaction but would understand if an author who doesn’t really know me well elects not to do so. When I post a review, I do so with the belief that the author or her/his representative may read it…I would:) I’m aware that not all reviewers feel the same way and I emphasize that a prior relationship of some sort should be the determinant.

    It pains me when I see an author participate in discussions with readers and/or reviewers about negative or disparaging comments or reviews. It always ends unsatisfactorily for the writer and there’s nothing to be gained by participating.

    As a reviewer, I don’t mind writing negative reviews about a book, primarily because my objective is always to share my reading experience. Sticking to what works/doesn’t work is helpful to others who share my perspectives and to others who don’t share my issues. I’ve often decided to buy and read a book based on a negative review because what the reviewer criticized was one of my preferences. I am also very much aware that I’m being critical of work that someone invested their soul and time into…snark and meanness have no place in my reviews.

    Again, my thanks for your relevant contribution to a very important issue.

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  9. Jill Sorenson
    Oct 15, 2013 @ 22:17:54

    @Jennifer Lohmann: I write under my own name (as you know) and I do find it a little odd when people speak of author persona as it’s some sort of separate entity, disconnected from the real person. I don’t know if authors who keep their personal lives/real names separate from the business feel differently, but I’m just me. My author persona is me. Is it a better version of me? Maybe. It might be the “work me” or “public me,” as in more polite and less foul-mouthed. My books are not me. I understand that. My online self is me, not a fictional construct, planned and executed for marketing purposes. But maybe I misunderstand the concept of author persona. Or I’m doing it wrong.

    I do feel inhibited, at times. I don’t want to think about my mom when I’m writing a sex scene or worry about relatives reading my tweets. Soon my daughters will be able to go online, so there’s a future source of embarrassment.

    Great post, Molly. I’m not sure any of us have this “how to be an author” thing figured out.

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  10. Jill Sorenson
    Oct 15, 2013 @ 22:23:30

    I think my comment is in moderation.

    J

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  11. cleo
    Oct 16, 2013 @ 10:55:39

    I feel like as a reader, I’m still figuring out how to navigate the reader/author relationship too. It’s interesting to read about it from the author’s point of view. Since I personally prefer to separate the art from the artist (as a design teacher, I have to do that professionally), I’m realizing that that means that I like to choose how I much I interact with authors on-line – because the more I know about an author, the harder it is to separate them from their work. I like that authors participate at DA and SBTB – I think it’s fun and interesting. I don’t even mind the occasional respectful reply to a review, but I rarely read author blogs. I just don’t want to know that much.

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  12. Moonlight
    Oct 16, 2013 @ 20:59:04

    It will always be risky for an author to respond to a negative review. It smacks of punching down and there is no way an author can come out of that looking good. That being said, I would like to mention K. Rowling response to a negative review which I thought was perfect. She recounted to an interviewer that she had received a letter from a parent that told her her most recent Harry Potter book was too dark and that she should correct that in her next book. She responded that she wasn’t taking dictation and if they didn’t like the book, they shouldn’t read it. All said in a very baffled tone.

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  13. Molly O'Keefe
    Oct 17, 2013 @ 08:17:53

    Thanks everyone for your comments, here and on twitter. I like that so many people have their perspective totally figured out and for others (like myself) it’s still a work in progress. Even commenting on your comments seems a step too far, but I think that’s the self-consciousness talking. A huge thanks to the authors who talked to me for the post.

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  16. batgrl
    Oct 19, 2013 @ 14:24:41

    Great article – and after reading so much about various authors reacting harshly towards reviewers it is SO nice to have multiple authors reacting rationally yet honestly about the whole thing. I appreciate authors that can approach the issue rationally and thoughtfully. (And happy to see multiple authors who I’ve read and still read in there!)

    Once I’ve read authors having tantrums online (and I’m not talking about a single tweet or a sentence or two, some just go on and on) it’s really impossible for me to even look at their writing any more, much less post a review of it. And I’m not someone who usually reviews books by authors still living just because I don’t want to worry about author response – I just want to read the book and be able to react to it, and write about my experience of it.

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