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Readers are fearless people. Each time they open a book they take a risk. They risk disappointment with our literary offering. They risk being offended. They risk caring for imaginary people who suffer great abuse at our hands. They risk boredom. They risk being changed. They risk – dare I say it – wasting their money. And yet they read. Your novels and mine. There should be a Pulitzer or a Nobel for those courageous souls who venture between the pages time and time again.
Yet I fear that in today’s publishing climate we’re taught to exploit these dear readers rather than nurture them. We’re taught how to collect them on various social media outlets but we’re not educated on how to earn their trust. As both a reader and a writer, here are a few things I’ve observed:
Do No Harm. I am baffled by the things writers post on their blog, Facebook, and Twitter accounts. Things best left in the bathroom, the bedroom, or not said at all. A single inappropriate comment can alienate a reader for life. The same holds true for intense political and religious views. Before clicking “update,” consider whether that comment is worth losing a reader.
Seek Friends, Not Fans. Does this sound familiar: “Author became a fan of Author and suggests that you become a fan as well.” I get several of these e-mails a day. From authors I don’t know. Whose books I’ve never read. Who friended me on Facebook (it seems) for the explicit purpose of spamming me with unwanted updates. One author sends these fan requests repeatedly, though I’ve ignored them each time. What this says to me is, “I think of you as a customer and I want to sell you something.” No one likes to be sold.
Yes, I know that a Facebook profile can only hold 5000 “friends” while a Fan Page is unlimited. So may I offer a few reader-friendly alternatives to this dilemma? Let an actual fan create your fan page. (I hear a horrified gasp from publicists nationwide) Although this option means you have no control over the content, it becomes a legitimate page for fans. Or if that is too unnerving, go ahead and create your own page but let readers find you. Real people who have read your book. And liked it. And want to hang out with you online. Another option is to send the fan request only to people you know. Friends and family readers you’ve communicated with in the past so that there is a context for your request.
Forget the Platform, Build Relationships. May I conjecture that the best use of social media is not to find readers but to keep them? There is an author/blogger who I’ve read for a number of years and truly respect. I found her on Facebook, sent a friend request, and we have slowly built a friendship. While I don’t expect an invitation for Christmas any time soon, she does a great job of maintaining an author/reader relationship. I suspect she treats all her readers with the same respect. And my response to her warm professionalism? I sing her praises online and off.
Write a Great Book. In this age of guerilla marketing seminars, we have lost the most effective way to gain and keep readers: write a breathtaking novel. The kicker is that this takes time. A lot of time. More time than most of us are willing to spend on one project. More time than most multi-book contracts allow. Which reminds of what Anne Lamott says about novel writing:
“Well, novels as you know are a lot harder than stories or essays--it takes close to 3 years, and you never quite know what you're doing. I really try to commit to my characters, and capturing each one's voice and truth, instead of committing to a finished novel. It can be a nightmare for a lot of the process, because you're trying to keep so many plates spinning in the air. So I just try to get a day's work done everyday."
And speaking of Anne Lamott, one of the most loved authors around, she doesn’t even have a website. To the best of my knowledge she doesn’t engage in any social media. She simply writes books, and does that very, very well. Not every writer makes that choice (or should) but she proves that we can make writing the main thing and still keep an audience. I’ve yet to meet an Anne Lamott fan who stopped reading her books because she’s not on Twitter.
So, your turn. Is my take too extreme? Too unrealistic? Must authors – as we’re told – beat down a reader’s door? Or is the better approach to be invited in?
What are the best ways you’ve found to care for your readers?