I just started reading The Casual Vacancy by my writer hero, J.K. Rowling over the weekend. Harry Potter it ain’t, but I’m still enjoying it. I’ve built up a certain mystique around J.K. Rowling in my mind that will be hard to shake. I read what she’s written with the reverence of a petitioner seeking knowledge. I know some people who read Stephen King the same way, or J.R.R. Tolkien or Nora Roberts. There are authors out there who, for one reason or another, touch us and earn a place not only in our admiration, but in our souls.
There was a time, a time in my own life, mind you, where all authors held this place of reverence and amazement. Wow! They wrote a book! Someone published it and people buy it! These people, these authors, were pillars of imagination. As such they existed somewhere beyond the clouds.
And then the publishing industry changed.
We all know it. We talk about it all the time. With the advent of eBooks any given author’s chance of being published has just gone way, way up. Can’t find an agent or a Big Six publisher to produce your work? Don’t want to bother trying to jump through all those hoops? Go ahead and self-publish! And then there are the delicious in-between means to publication: small presses and eBook first imprints of bigger houses. It’s never been so easy to publish a book.
But you know, there’s a bigger change happening out there. It’s a change I see a lot of people taking part in but not so many people talking about. It’s a movement that, in my observations, is starting to change the very fiber of how we think about authors. It’s social media.
Yeah, yeah. That’s not new. We’re always talking about social media: how necessary it is to reach your audience and sell books, how to do it, how not to do it, which platforms work best, how not to turn into an obnoxious spam-bot. You can’t travel too far in the world of writer blogs without stumbling over half a dozen pieces written about social media and how to increase your presence to boost sales.
And that’s where the biggest shift in the publishing industry in the last several years has come from. It’s where it’s going too.
I remember the first time I ever emailed an author. It was about five years ago. I was starting to get the itch to publish after decades of writing, but I didn’t know how to go about doing it. I attended my first Philadelphia Writer’s Conference, pitched to an agent, thought I did great, only to figure out later on that I might just have made a fool of myself. There were a lot of things I didn’t know. I didn’t even know that I didn’t know them. One suggestion made at the conference was to ask other authors questions.
I greeted this piece of advice with a healthy dose of skepticism. They’re authors. They’re important. No one is going to have time to answer my stupid amateur questions. But I shrugged and got online and emailed the author of the romance novel I’d just finished reading.
Dude, she replied to me by the end of the day! Whoa! An author, someone whose words were in print, actually wrote to me! I tried it again with another author. Oh my gosh, same results!
Could it be that these authors, these people whose words others pay to read, are real humans who talk to people?
Well of course they are! Almost universally, whenever I’ve emailed an author or talked to them through Facebook or Twitter they’ve responded. Nowadays that’s what writers do. In fact, I’ve gotten to the point where the very few authors who don’t reply to my emails leave a very bad impression … which affects how I view their books … which determines whether I shell out the money to buy them.
We’re in a new era of publishing. I sometimes worry that my Facebook page is too personal, too conversational. Several of my real life friends are both friends and fans on Facebook and can’t keep the two accounts straight when I post, so they respond with personal messages. For a while there I was worried that that would make me look unprofessional. Do I want to give the impression of being just another person on the internet who happens to write or do I want to be one of those unapproachable authors to be revered?
The answer is, of course, the former. Although it took me a long time to come to this conclusion. There’s a fine line between professionalism and unapproachability. We can talk about social media all we want and how to master it, but the real lesson to be learned in this modern era of writing and publishing is that the new social tools we have available to us have changed the way authors are perceived. Fans want to see your pictures. They want you to respond to their emails. They want you to be approachable.
And guess what? It takes time. A lot of time. One of the NY Times bestselling authors that I once emailed who didn’t respond to me had her assistant reply saying that she was very busy writing and therefore couldn’t answer interview questions for my blog. On the one hand, I can’t fault her for that. It’s her prerogative. On the other, yeah, tell me more about how much time you don’t have to do marketing because you’re writing a book. Been there, done that. Only I don’t have the financial resources of a bestseller to buy a little time. I have a day job. And I still write at least two novels a year and three blog posts a week. If you ask me, this dear author hasn’t caught up to the new reality of the kind of authors readers want.
Contrast that story with that of another NYT bestselling author who replied personally to tell me she was very busy but could answer three questions, another who said she was too busy but what if she sent me a couple of interviews she had done overseas and I could use those questions and answers, and a couple others who knew they were too busy but squeezed a few questions into their schedules anyhow.
We live in a new age of author accessibility. The road forward is one where we need to befriend our readers more than we need to boost our own professional mystique. The new professionalism in publishing is not the kind where you do whatever it takes to make yourself appear untouchable. The bestsellers of the future are going to be the authors who take the time to connect, really connect with their readers and potential readers. There’s no longer any excuse not to.