Navigating the author / reader relationship in online communities by Molly O’Keefe
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/
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.”