Writers and readers - are they getting too close for comfort? by Ali Bacon
Of course the experience of a first-time author is a different kettle of fish (like how I did that?) to that of an international best-seller, but it did make me wonder if our proximity to readers has changed the goalposts for writers, and think about what readers are actually entitled to.
Is there anything else we ‘owe’ our readers? I don’t think so. Of course if we have built up an audience in one genre or sub-genre, we change the goal posts at our peril. The audience for Harry Potter did not in general warm to A Casual Vacancy (which I loved!) but hey, it’s still the prerogative of JK Rowling to write what she pleases, look for a new audience, or live off her earnings from the boy wizard.
|Nathan Filer pleasing the punters...|
Of course it gets more difficult if we want, as Harris requests, to make a living from what we write and I'm not sure it quite sits with her own claim to "never let anyone else decide what I should write, or how - not the market, my publishers, my agent, or even you, the readers".
The work of a commercially successful (or even less successful) author has always been moderated by agents, editors and publishing houses who think they know what readers want. (See Kath’s post yesterday on how demanding they can be) and even those working independently from the traditional publishing industry are going to have some kind of eye to the market if they intend to reach a mass audience. In this respect a book is a product which like any other will only succeed if the market likes it and most professional writers will know the tension between what they want to create and what readers might want or expect and have to decide to what extent they will compromise, even if its only in matters of title or cover design. Not that any of this encroaches on a writer’s freedom, but anyone looking to earn a living should be aware of their market even if they choose to ignore it and plough their own furrow as many in the writing game do. (Chris Hill, who write last week on Writers Unchained) is a good example of the do-as-you-please philosophy).
|... or lost in the crowd|
But I do agree with JH that writing is not a democracy, and however much we might ramp up publicity by involving our readers, the creative choices (which might extend to making a character after a sponsor) are still ours to make, and anyone like Harris’ bible-bashing bowdlerisers who ask for text to be changed run the risk of breaching copyright as well as artistic autonomy. Personally I would ignore them! We may live in a world where "the consumer increasingly calls the shots," but we can retreat from it any time we like and throw ourselves on the mercy of the book-loving public.
The new social media world does expect more visibility from authors - which for indie authors is a double-edged sword in terms of time and energy management, but we do it to reach our public. As an international best-seller Harris could probably downsize her media presence (much of which she enjoys) but if there’s a publisher driving her engagement calendar …?
More convincing I think is her point about the cheapness of e-books and the devaluation of writing in a market where, apparently, ‘anyone can write a book’.
In fact we know this is isn’t the case, but anyone who has written a book can publish it, and charge as little as they like. In this we may have been our worst enemies but even if I like a bargain as much as the next person, I’ll stay pay a publisher’s price for a book I really want to read, especially if it’s by an author I already know. I think this aspect of the market will eventually shake down. Occasional freebies or specials will be legitimate marketing tools (I bagged Donna Tart’s The Goldfinch for 0.99 – high-five!) but the reader will make his own choices and if a free book doesn’t please, he won’t go to that author again.
Joanne Harris’ manifesto, however we might quibble over the details, is still a good thing. We can’t turn the clock back on the ‘publishing revolution’ and it’s only right that readers should be reminded of the kind of job we do and the difficulty of earning a living from it. If some of it is overstated or only applies to her own situation, it casts light on the world of the writer and I do hope it becomes part of the ‘national conversation’ it hopes to engender.
available as e-book or paperback
To be honest, I’m not sure that an author really could allow readers to dictate what he or she writes. You can’t please everyone, and by producing a book that a certain group of readers loved, you’d almost certainly also be alienating another group. I notice that Harris mentioned the CleanReader app in her manifesto. Perhaps that’s less a case of readers dictating what a writer should write, and more about readers being enabled to read a book that they might otherwise avoid due to their dislike of, for example, profanity or sexual content. I’m not saying that such apps are a good thing, or to be encouraged, but I can also kind of see it from the reader’s point of view.
But then again, there’s another issue at stake: that fiction isn’t always comfortable or comforting, though it can be. Fiction can challenge, introduce new ways of looking at things, and encourage the reader to question preconceived ideas. Personally, I quite enjoy books like that, though a few of them have made me uncomfortable while I was reading them. However, I’m sure there are readers who read purely for entertainment and don’t wish to be challenged, and I also think that that is perfectly legitimate.
All in all, as you might have guessed, I find this issue complicated, and I don’t think there’s a straightforward answer.
Has the distance between writers and readers narrowed? - I don't think so. Readers have always written to writers and popular writers - Dickens, for instance - have always toured, lectured, written for newspapers and magazines.
Readers have always tried to dictate what their favourite authors wrote - 'Don't kill Little Nell!' - and writers have always ignored them. Readers have frequently been glad, in the end, that the writer ignored them.
Readers have the choice they've always had - read stuff by a particular writer if they like it, or not read it if they don't. How has Social Media changed this? Do emails and FB somehow force writers to do as readers bid, when letter campaigns aimed at saving Little Nell didn't? - I just don't get it.
irect interaction with readers is usually welcomed. If you think about live performance, there is a buzz from the immediate reaction of an audience which is usually denied to the written word (although a fan letter was always an option).
I do know some authors are resentful of publiishers' expectations re publicity etc but I heard of one this week who has just decided to withdraw from all interviews, festivals etc - already a best-seller, of course - most of us know we need to get out there if we want to sell anything!