In Search of The “Pure Reader”
In the aftermath of my post on the worrisome increase of aggression against negative reviews, Sunita wrote a fantastic post, which raised a number of additional discussion issues, including the question of how the online Romance community has changed in the wake of social media, blogging, and more direct engagement of readers with members of the writing and publishing industry.
Since we’ve talked a lot about how social media, self-publishing, self-marketing, and other factors have changed the way authors interact with readers, let’s talk a bit about how readers have changed, about what those changes mean, and about whether there is (or ever has been) such a thing as a “pure reader” space online.
There are many layers here to examine, and I can’t hope to touch on all of them. My aim here is to open a discussion about the changing role of readers in today’s online environment, and this post will rarely scratch the surface of that. Also, I cannot speak of any personal experience outside the Romance community, and I think you would need to break this analysis down across genres, since online engagement of readers with authors and publishers is not limited to Romance. Maybe others can shed some light there. As for my take, here’s where I would start:
What is a pure reader, and are there any pure readers spaces online?
I know the first part of this seems like a straightforward question with an easy answer: a pure reader is someone who simply reads and has no “industry” connections.
Before I entered the online community over a decade ago, that would have been my answer. However, even back then, it was a tough standard, because so many readers were also aspiring professional authors. Sometimes these individuals made it known that they were also writing and trying to publish their work, but often they did not, using multiple pseudonyms, depending on whether they were in “reader” mode or “author” mode. And this seemed perfectly logical to me given the very mixed reception comments and reviews critical of books and the genre as a whole received. After all, these were the days when AAR was perceived as a Romance hate site by some authors and publishers.
However, things did seem less complicated back when AAR, RT, and TRR (The Romance Reader) were the main Romance venues, and there was not a lot of open dialogue about issues of disclosure and conflict of interest. Traditional publishers still, for the most part, controlled advanced reading copies of books, and there was a perception, anyway, that the community was more centralized. Despite the long-time existence of the USENET boards and other online venues, AAR and RT were still perceived to be the “main” online Romance venues, with RT perceived as more fan-based, and AAR as more “critical” in its tone. And whatever connections these main venues had with authors, publishers, and other industry members (agents, editors, cover artists, etc.), they were not always publicly disclosed. If someone was writing reviews for RT or Publishers Weekly, it may not have been widely known. If a professional author was writing reviews under a pseudonym, it may not have been widely known. Whatever personal relationships existed between published authors and non-published authors or readers, they were not necessarily made public. And, perhaps because the community seemed smaller and more centralized, it may seem like it was simpler and cleaner and less enmeshed.
However, even back then, there was significant overlap in the reader community among those who did not aspire to publish professionally and those who did, and I often felt like I was in a small minority of people who were not writing Romance novels in my off hours. Then, on the other side were those I’d call super fans – the readers who had real loyalty to an author (like some of Suzanne Brockmann’s, Laure K. Hamilton’s, and Nora Roberts’s readers) and whose loyalty provided a lot of free marketing for the author, even if it was unsolicited. Are super fans pure readers? Or does their dedication to an author’s books, to the schedule of publication and the desire to purchase right away so as to secure a place on the NYT Bestseller list count as an industry connection?
What are industry connections, anyway?
This is really the crux of the issue, I think, and probably the most complex and unresolvable in any simple way. As I noted above, I don’t think the Romance community has ever really been dominated by pure readers, if the main criteria of that definition is that the reader can have zero connection to the industry. Not that such readers don’t exist – I think we can all agree that they do. That there are readers out there who don’t know one author, aspiring or professional, and who haven’t received on ARC from NetGalley or from an author looking for a review, who haven’t served as a beta reader for an author or run a blog. Although I suspect that the vast majority of these readers are not online.
But I think the reality is that – at least for the many readers who are active online – relationships are much more complicated and difficult to define. For example, I think it’s clear that someone who serves as an acquiring editor for a publisher is “part of the industry.” But what about someone like me — someone who blogs, writes academic analysis about popular fiction, including Romance, and does freelance editing work for self-published authors? I’m beholden to no single publisher, I don’t blog for any industry-sponsored sites, I don’t write reviews for any industry-sponsored publications – in fact, I don’t blog or review professionally at all, and my career is in an entirely different field from commercial publishing and/or Romance. How does my profile compare to someone who, say, runs a blog, occasionally beta-reads (for free or in return for a finished copy of the book), and who occasionally writes articles for an industry-sponsored blog like Tor or Heroes and Heartbreakers? And let’s throw in the reader who doesn’t have her own blog, receives ARCs from NetGalley, and beta reads for several authors – where does she fit? Or how about the reader who produces cover art, or who takes on freelance copy editing or formatting. Or the blogger who judges books for various contests. And let’s not forget the person who gets paid to write positive reviews for books she may or may not have read, AND the person who writes only positive reviews of books for authors she likes – some of whom she’s become friendly with online and maybe even in real life – because she wants to support the careers of her favorite authors.
Are any of these pure readers, and if so, where do we draw the line? Is money the determining factor, or is it the way in which someone spends her time in the Romance community? Is a pure reader someone who is a reader first, and at what point does should someone no longer view herself or be viewed as primarily a reader?
Is there such a thing as an online space for pure readers?
Without question, things have changed. Blogs have populated the online space, and instead of having one or two centralized hubs, Romance has numerous gathering places, which often overlap in membership and interaction. Readers have easier access to ARCs and have more opportunities to interact with authors and publishers. Authors comment on reader blogs, and readers follow authors on Twitter and Facebook. Venues like Goodreads try to play both ways, using reader content to draw authors to the site, and then trying to create an environment that blends messageboards and social media to promote author-reader interaction.
And with all of these changes has come the sense that boundaries previously existing between readers and the commercial interests of the Romance industry have been broken down, making it more difficult to differentiate efforts conducted on behalf of those commercial interests and independent opinions expressed by readers who may also be benefiting from those interests. Which, in turn, makes it very difficult to have a space populated solely by pure readers. In fact, I’m not sure there was ever a pure reader space online, especially given the number of readers who also write in the genre, published or not. And because Romance was a fan-based community long before online access existed, it seems that there has always been an impulse toward and a desire among many readers for interaction with authors.
So if there’s no such thing as a pure reader or a pure reader space”online, where does that leave us?
I don’t know. Do you?
In some ways, this goes back to the issue of trust I raised in my post about the relationship between readers and authors. There has also been an erosion of trust among readers, in part because of the way super fans have been mobilized to promote the interests of their favorite authors, but also because at some level we really don’t know each other, and at any point, any one of us can be revealed to be someone or something else.
This is one reason disclosure is important, but part of the problem is that it’s not only the guilty who avoid disclosure – sometimes people have very good reasons not to disclose certain things (e.g. the author of erotica who is well-known under her real name as a reader, and who feels the need to protect herself from being fired from her job as a school teacher; authors who have chosen to review, especially in their own genre). Sometimes people just don’t think they need to disclose – like the reader who contributes to an industry-sponsored blog and figures everyone will know she does that, because her columns are written under her online name. And, of course, disclosure invites further scrutiny, so if you don’t want people to look more closely at what you’re doing, you need to clam up tight, thereby giving people the perception that you have nothing to disclose.
In some ways, things are more open than they’ve ever been, because so much reader-author-publisher interaction is happening online, and on social media. Readers are being recognized and valued for their contributions to genre discussion, reviewing, and even production of books — as beta readers, copyeditors, translators, etc. People are more open about the multiple roles they occupy and the way these intensified interactions provide opportunities and rewards (some financial) that would not have been available previously. The myth that you could easily tell the difference between reader and author has evaporated, and there is much more awareness of how books are produced, marketed, and consumed.
Still, there are real challenges here, especially for those who want to have as little engagement as possible with the writing and publishing industry. Similarly, there are challenges for those who are engaged with various aspects of the industry but who still consider themselves hobbyists. And, of course, there are challenges for authors who sometimes get mixed messages from readers who want to engage – but only up to a line that’s not clearly defined until it’s crossed.
What concerns do you have about the changing role of readers in the online Romance community? What do you think should be discussed more, and in what ways do you think industry engagement is changing the online community?