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MIND MELD: The Evolution of the Author/Fan Relationship

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Twitter, facebook and blogging are more popular than ever, and every year the attendance at speculative fiction-focused conventions seems to increase. With that in mind, I asked our panelists the following question:

Q: With the growing popularity of social media and face to face events, how has the relationship between writing professions (writers, editors, artists, etc.) and fans changed over the years?

Here’s what they said…!

Jane Yolen
Jane Yolen is an author of children’s books, fantasy, and science fiction, including Owl Moon, The Devil’s Arithmetic, and How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? She’s been the recipient of the Caldecott Medal, two Nebula Awards, two Christopher Medals, the World Fantasy Award, three Mythopoeic Fantasy Awards, and the World Fantasy Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award among many others. She can be found online at janeyolen.com.

I think there is an even greater degree of fan ownership of certain writers because of the instant correspondences we now have online. This fan ownership happens to some degree at conventions, even if the writer (or editor) makes a quick escape. If a fan has had an interchange with a favorite writer on FaceBook or twitter or some other social media, he or she should be reminded that it’s simply silly or stupid or just plain dangerous to assume a relationship that might not be (never was) in the author’s mind or heart.

For example, I send a lot of stuff out there on social media. It’s part of my job–publicity, public relations, scattershot at best, but that’s how it’s being done now. If I get into a small exchange with a fan, that doesn’t mean we are now best friends. It means merely that I have done my job. Friendship entails a two-way relationship, an interest on both sides.

I remember a teacher tracking me down at a conference and giving me a hug. When it was immediately clear that I didn’t remember her, she was crushed. “But you changed my life,” she said. “I hope for the better,” I responded. She reminded me, “But ten years ago, when we spoke for ten minutes in the ladies room, and what you told me changed everything.”

Changing a fan’s life in a ladies room (or on Twitter, or on FaceBook) is not in my job description, though it may come about through my books, stories, poems. But that’s because any reader brings to the reading his or her own desires, wants, needs, fears.

Even, I suppose, if its three minutes on line. Even then.

Ursula Vernon
Ursula Vernon is the author and illustrator of the Hugo-award winning comic Digger. She writes and illustrates the Dragonbreath series of comics for kids and writes books for adults under the name T.Kingfisher.

From the artist side of the equation—which is where I started—I’ve always had a lot of interaction with fans online. I came of age putting artwork up on the internet (starting with Elfwood, if any of the readers remember that!) and so my very first experience with artwork on the internet was that people would be leaving comments underneath it.

And as far as art goes, thank god for social media. If I were trying to sell in galleries, I’d be digging ditches on the side to make ends meet. The internet put artists and buyers together and changed everything. And with things like Kickstarter and Patreon—wow. There are projects I would never have dreamed of trying to tackle that are possible because I can reach out to fans. If they’re interested, they’ll find a way to make it happen. It’s unbelievable.

I think the big thing about social media is distance—we lost so much of it but gained a tiny bit. Suddenly instead of being miles apart, we’re all in the same room but we’ve got a bit more personal space.

Being pretty introverted, it’s often easier for me to interact with fans and other creators on-line—hence the “more personal space.” I can go away and think about what I’m going to say and if I’m fried from the day, I don’t have to mumble and slink into an elevator and lose that chance to interact forever. I like meeting people at cons, I have a lot of fun at parties, but then I have to go recharge for a while. The internet doesn’t require the same physical investment to be present.

At the same time, we’re all so close now! I can throw a question on my blog—”Hey, I need a Latin phrase here, anybody good at that?” If I put a bit of flash fiction on Tumblr, it may get picked up and reblogged ten thousand times. That blows my mind.

Being instantaneous may be part of the key. If we had to do everything via parties at conventions and—I dunno, letters to the editor or fanzines or whatever—I suspect it’d take forever to get to know anyone. Now my biggest problem is wishing that people would put their Twitter handles or Livejournal icons on their badges, because these people are associated with little pictograms in my head and it often takes awhile for “That nice person who came by the table” to connect with “Person who leaves thoughtful comments online.”

Not everybody can do social media gracefully, I know—can or will or wants to—but I’m so glad it exists for creators like me.

Betsy Mitchell
Betsy Mitchell has been a New York science fiction/fantasy editor for more than 30 years, including ten as VP/Editor-in-Chief of Del Rey. She currently runs her own editing business, Betsy Mitchell Editorial Services, and is overseeing a line of classic SF/fantasy backlist at digital publisher Open Road Integrated Media.

I didn’t come up through fandom; my first convention ever was just after I joined Analog magazine and got to attend the 1980 World Science Fiction Convention in Boston. What a great experience–everywhere I looked, authors, editors, agents, and lots and lots of readers who loved SF and fantasy as much as I did! I gorged on meeting authors whose work I’d grown up on, basking in the glow of being gee-only-five-feet-away-from-them-at-a-party-even-if-I-never-got-up-the-guts-to-say-anything. At that con and for the next couple of years, as “cub editor” I had the job of manning the Analog table in the dealer’s room and answering questions from whoever stopped by. Ever since then I’ve enjoyed getting to meet fans in person–and at today’s mega-cons, like San Diego ComicCon and DragonCon, it’s possible to speak (briefly, at least!!!) with hundreds of people a day.

I was lucky enough to attend these conventions year after year on a corporate expense account. But as a fan, you have to have serious dedication to pay your way to a con for the opportunity to speak to professionals. The same goes for writing conferences. The truly committed saved up the necessary funds by making the event a priority in their budget. Of course you could never be guaranteed to find exactly the person you most wanted to talk to, and if your favorite author lived in Europe or loathed traveling or couldn’t handle being in large crowds, then a personal sighting was pretty much not going to happen. So the internet has been a life-changer. Now readers and professionals don’t have to invest in serious travel and/or monetary expense in order to connect. Blogs, AMA (Ask Me Anything), Facebook, Twitter, publishing websites, all of these make it so much easier to learn from the people whose work we admire and to communicate back to them.

As an editor, I used to spend time only with the authors whose manuscripts I bought for publication. Now that I’ve left full-time acquisitions editing and work with private clients instead, I’m able to help writers who may not quite be at publishable level but whose work shows promise. If the internet didn’t exist, I’d need to rely on word of mouth–a valuable resource indeed, but rather scattershot as far as matching me with the next person whose work is ready at the same time my schedule has an opening. Even when I can’t take on a job, I try to give a few words of wisdom and encouragement. I love books, and other people who love books are my friends, or potentially my friends. So thanks, internet!

Paul Weimer
Minnesota dwelling Ex-pat New Yorker Paul Weimer is a Hugo Nominated podcaster [The Skiffy and Fanty Show 2014], SF Signal Irregular, Genre reviewer/columnist & writer. When he isn’t doing all of that, he loves photography and playing and talking about roleplaying games. You can find him on Twitter as @princejvstin, and commenting on genre blogs far and wide.

There have always been two layers of readers in genre. There is the inner, connected Core level of readers, the fans. They’ve been around since the 1930’s, arguing in fanzines, conventions, and the like. They have been the noisy portion of genre readers, the ones closest to writers and writerly types, and engaged in what Jonathan Strahan and Gary K Wolfe call the “Long Conversation of SF”.

And then there are the general run of readers, the Mantle of the planet of genre readers. The reader who walks into Barnes and Noble, or clicks on Amazon, or discovers Fantasy and Science Fiction in a bookstore and reads book after book, story after story, but never engages with fandom as a whole. They are the larger portion of readers by far, by simple mathematics, and by observation. These are the readers who, in the end, make or break midlist writers, and these are the readers who make George R.R. Martin household names. They number the sales, but nothing more.

The interface and the border between the inner Core of fans and the Mantle of readers has, in the past, been a distinct and sharp one. To get into that inner core took a lot of work. Readers had to become aware of fanzines, fan societies, and conventions, and then try to inculcate themselves into those worlds. Not such an easy task, especially for the socially awkward, and because those insular societies were not always welcoming.

The rise of super conventions has changed all this. Comic-cons are now big time events covered in the major media, and the awareness that there are cons, where people who love Game of Thrones, or True Blood, or Doctor Who is more omnipresent than ever. In the 1980’s, it took work to learn there were places for fans to gather. Now, it’s impossible not to know that fans get together. Non fannish co-workers of mine ask me if I go to Comiccons and the like. Not so long ago, they’d never have thought to ask.

The Internet, too, especially Facebook and Twitter, has provided entrée for people to move from the Mantle to the Core. Anyone can write a blog these days, and have that blog be seen by people, and engage in that long conversation.  Fans can virtually interact with authors, too, in a both more ephemeral and more long-lasting way than an autograph signing at the local bookstore. Readers don’t have to discover and try to work their way into the esoteric world of fanzines. One doesn’t have to send a fan letter to a publisher and hope it gets to an author.[Something that I had been known to do in the 1980’s and early 1990’s]. Now, you can just tweet the author, or leave a comment on their blog.

My own social awkwardness kept me in the Mantle of readers for years, never daring to try and penetrate the Core. As far as my own experience, the internet moved me from the Mantle, and firmly into the Core. It was engaging with authors, fellow fans, bloggers and the like on twitters and on blogs in comments that brought me to the attention of people like John DeNardo, Shaun Duke, Patrick Hester, John Anealio, and publicists, and authors, and other bloggers. If not for those interactions, I would still be putting reviews on my blog, mostly unread and probably unknown to everyone. I wouldn’t have had the social strength to be seen at conventions and engage with fandom that way, too. I wouldn’t have gotten a Hugo nomination for podcasting, of all things.

Thus, more and more people are moving from the Mantle and into the Core. The barriers to entry are smaller than ever, logistically, emotionally, and otherwise. The amount of Mantle readers is and always will be many times the size of the Core, and always will be. A lot of readers don’t want to delve into the Core of fandom, and that’s fine and dandy. But a lot more readers who want to (even if they didn’t know it originally) get into the Core now can do so, and I consider that a good thing.

I do think that this increase in the Core of fans by readers formerly and safely within the mantle, especially readers not formerly well represented in that inner Core, has led to tensions and problems in the genre community.  But an expansion of that inner Core, its democratization, is, I think, a good thing. I look forward, now that I am within the Core myself, to how this continues to change, evolve, and grow.

Fred Venturini
Fred Venturini grew up in Patoka, Illinois. His critically-acclaimed debut novel, “The Heart Does Not Grow Back,” was released in November, 2014. His short fiction is widely published and featured in Chuck Palahniuk’s “Burnt Tongues” collection. He lives in Southern Illinois with his wife and daughter.

I’m not a veteran author of multiple novels, but I hope to transition from “debut novelist” to regular old “novelist,” and the way you’re going to get there in this changing social media/convention environment is to have the soft skills that help you connect with your audience.

The evolution is crushing traditional barriers. Your creative work used to be the only means of communication. The audience was buying the Wizard of Oz and ignoring the man behind the curtain, but now, that curtain is getting peeled back by social media and the convention scene. It’s how you get all those cool Game of Thrones costumes at Halloween, right next to the “sexy George R.R. Martin” costume.

I’m new at this, so I don’t get overwhelmed at conventions, readings, or in social media. I have the time and space to literally respond to everyone, and I try to do just that, even if it’s just a quick retweet or favorite. One thing I’ve noticed at events is that people will buy your stuff if they like you, even if they’re not completely intrigued by what you have to offer. It’s not a slimy sales job, but if you just look people in the eyes, listen, and have a thoughtful conversation, they’re going to give your book a shot.

The evolution of the artist-fan relationship is breaking down the barriers between them. More direct contact, more frequent contact, multiple avenues of contact. The contact is good, especially for people trying to build an audience. My strategy is to treasure and engage in those connections—every single one. If a day arrives where that sort of interaction is impossible due to sheer volume, then I’ll know it’s working and I’ll still do my best to treasure those connections.

Helen Marshall
Helen Marshall is an award-winning author, editor, and book historian. Her poetry and fiction have been short-listed for the Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers Association, the Aurora Award from the Canadian Science Fiction, and the Sydney J Bounds Award from the British Fantasy Society, which she won in 2013. Her debut collection of short stories Hair Side, Flesh Side was named one of the top ten books of 2012 by January Magazine and her second collection Gifts for the One Who Comes After will be released in late 2014. She currently lives in Oxford, England where she spends most of her time staring at medieval manuscripts.

It seems to me that the relationship between writing professionals and fans has changed substantially over the last ten years. Twitter and Facebook make personal engagement much easier, and this has both positive side effects and negative side effects, but I find myself feeling increasingly wary about these relationships. After all, many of these relationships are formed as a result of materials that represent some part of the psyche—but almost always a masked part, a distorted part. Writing forces a writer to make him- or herself vulnerable, to attempt to create a feeling of intimacy with a reader. But the reader remains elusive and opaque; the reader invests or not, the reader can walk away—or the reader can engage. But this intimacy is always partly genuinely and partly fictitious. That desire for connection with the author of the loved work can be powerful—but it’s often one-sided. Writers create intimacy with The Reader, not any particular reader, but for twenty bucks the reader gets to put on the mantle of The Reader. The writer never sees the response; the reader’s moment of vulnerability is always hidden. The book exists to allow this intimacy to exist, but to exist at a distance. It’s protective in that sense. But the new opportunities for engagements between readers and writers collapse that distance, stripping both sides of the protection it offers.

There’s another side as well,  While many writers have been able to boost their careers substantially by means of savvy engagement over social media, there have also been numerous episodes of abuse in various guises: the trolling of certain authors by Requires Hate is one of the most recent and most shocking accounts, but I remember Neil Gaiman’s post on entitlement in 2009, claiming “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.” Now, I really don’t want to conflate these two issues: they each have different personalities, different contributing factors at work, and very different representations of the author-fan relationship. But one of the commonalities between them is the system—the Internet—which makes communication across strata very easy, it makes authors reachable, but it also opens them up to critique at unprecedented levels. And, look, critique is good; critique is useful. But critique should be thoughtful, nuanced and placed in context. That’s not what social media does. Social media constricts the length of reply, and demands immediate response. There’s a reason that graduate students don’t Tweet their dissertations. Critique is hard—and it should be hard. It’s too easy to tear something down thoughtlessly.

The Internet has changed the game, and I think we’re still in the process of figuring out how to adjust our behaviour to an unprecedented level of access, not only to authors, but to each other. And one of the things we haven’t figured out yet is how to fight with each other. So be kinder. Be calmer. Be more generous.

Susan Voss
Susan Voss often posts as nrlymrtl (which has been mistaken for Gnarly Myrtle on more than one occasion) and can be found at DabOfDarkness.com where she enjoys a good scifi thriller or epic fantasy, lots and lots of audiobooks, and perhaps the longest running read along ever (The Wheel of Time series).

I grew up in small towns, like the ones that didn’t even have libraries. So whenever we went to a real city (usually for grocery shopping) we went to thrift stores and used bookstores. Authors to me were like leprechauns, aliens, unicorns, Mars colonies; they often ignited my imagination but were never seen themselves. They were (and are) the magic wielders and mad scientists in my life. If I ever saw these authors, it was in an outdated, often slightly fuzzy picture of them on the inside back cover of a paperback. Authors were untouchable.

And then I went to DragonCon 2010 and that all changed. A whole world opened up to me. These authors were real and had facial ticks, rough voices, and coffee stains on their shirts. From there, I leaped into book blogging. Jacqueline Carey (I’ve read 5 copies of her book Kushiel’s Dart to tatters) has a love of pitbulls (and so do I). Patrick Rothfuss opened my eyes to the his nonprofit, World Builders (you can gift people ducks, emus, and camels!). The author of Forever War, Joe Haldeman, has a daughter I now follow on Facebook (she makes soap!).

I am constantly surprised by the openness of so many authors. I especially enjoy following several indie authors and small publishers as they almost always have a day job and writing is their passion and keeps them up late at night. From David L. Summers to Karin Lowachee to Edward Lorn to Gemma Files to James Maxey to Ilana Waters…uh, yeah you get the idea. The list goes on and on.

A large part of the reason I even found these authors is because they take the time to be on social media. They take the time to respond to individual readers in some way – perhaps they favorite a tweet or share a book review on Facebook. Authors are cool like that. And when a reader gets such a response, they often share with their book buddies and it grows from there. Readers are cool like that.

Of course, there is the flip side. I can’t ignore it. There are a handful of authors whose books I enjoy but they themselves have some aspect that I strongly disagree with. This has put me in a quandary as a book reviewer: to read and enjoy or to shelve those books for the foreseeable future? Does the art (in this case the numerous books) stand on their own? Do I concern myself with how the profits of book sales will be used? For myself personally, I have decided to shelve two authors while I struggle with these questions. And I do not curse social media to Niflheim for my opening my eyes to this; after all, I have gained so much enjoyment in connecting and politely cyberstalking from afar my favorite authors.

A.R. Miller
A.R. Miller is the author of the Fey Creations series. When not driving readers crazy with cliffhanger endings, you can find her painting faces, styling hair, or helping out at a local library. You can find her at http://www.feycreations.com/

Sending a letter to a writer used to take days, even weeks. Many times, due to time restraints, there was little to no chance of interaction. The arrival of email made connecting with your favorite author easier, but social media has taken us to the next level. In this age of immediacy, we are able to connect within seconds, with a greater chance of response. Fan letters evolved from one-sided communication into conversations, connections between readers and writers. The book world, in my opinion, is about connections.

From the writer’s side of things, I love chatting with readers. With the help of live events and social media, I’ve reached readers who never would have known my books existed. They can ask questions, which I happily answer, if it won’t spoil the reading experience. I can find out what they liked or didn’t like. They tell me when something I’ve written strikes a cord and how they relate. Some have helped with the research questions, or made suggestions of music to listen to while writing. One reader gave me the perfect catchphrase for my fluff, “Your books are like potato chips, no nutritional value, but fun to read and addictive.”

As a reader, social media and live events make it possible for me to connect with writers. I can ask questions, complement a well done story, or connect with them on a more personal level. I’ve had long chats on the virtues of coffee, the fashion world and music. These conversations remind us that writers are human beings, not just book making machines.

Most of the time, it makes me ‘like’ the writer as a person and I’m more inclined to read their work. On the rare occasion, I find someone who is pushy about their opinions or just plain rude. Sadly, it colors my view of them. I’m less inclined to read their work, even if I loved it before we met.

While I adore connecting with other writers—as a reader or a peer—the connections I’ve made with readers are some of my most cherished relationships. Their enthusiasm energizes me. Their thoughts and questions inspire me. They remind me who I’m writing for and why. If it weren’t for events and social media, I wouldn’t have met these wonderful people. So thank you interwebs, libraries, bookstores and conventions for making these connections possible.

Sam Sykes
Sam Sykes is the author of The Aeons’ Gate trilogy and the newly-debuted A City Stained Red, a vast and sprawling story of adventure, demons, madness and carnage. Suspected by many to be at least tangentially related to most causes of human suffering, Sam Sykes is also a force to be reckoned with beyond literature. He currently resides in the United States and is probably watching you read this right now. You can find Sam on his website, on Twitter (as @SamSykesSwears) and on Facebook, but more than likely RIGHT BEHIND YOU.

It’s extremely fashionable in this industry to announce the death of an era. “The age of the reclusive genius” is over, some might say, the time when you could afford to be a brilliant, misunderstood author toiling away in the confines of a labyrinthine library no longer a thing. I’m reluctant to say that any era is dead, including that of the reclusive genius.

But it’s fucking hard as hell now.

Fans have redefined the way they interact with the industry because fans have redefined the way fandom expresses itself. It’s true that energy and enthusiasm are the defining hallmarks of fandom and even the older fans were ecstatic and interested in their favorite authors since time immemorial. But the fans of today bring a certain energy to them that cranks the enthusiasm up to eleven. They are not merely enthusiastic about books, but about video games and movies and comics. And so, they are not merely enthusiastic about what the author is writing, but what the author is doing.

Authors today benefit greatly from this enthusiasm. Fans who have liked my taste in comic books have picked up my book. Fans who get into arguments with me about WoW have picked up my book. It’s a tremendous boon to be able to share in that excitement and enthusiasm. Granted, if you write the next Shakespeare and it just fucking takes off, then no need. JK Rowling and George R.R. Martin don’t have as big a social media presence as others because they don’t have to.

The rest of us kind of need to

Neil Clarke
Neil Clarke is a Hugo Award-winning and World Fantasy Award-nominated editor and publisher. He is the owner of Wyrm Publishing and publisher/editor of Clarkesworld Magazine, a digital science fiction and fantasy magazine.

The relationship between writing professions and fans has been changed by social media, but I’m not quite sold on the idea that conventions have changed enough to have had a significant impact. (Perhaps, with the notable exception is the implementation of harassment policies.)

Social media can be described as a disruptive innovation. It’s completely altered the landscape of communication between the two groups and among themselves. Previously, the most you knew about an author was from the short bio at the end of the book, perhaps an interview or two, and maybe you met them at a convention. Now we have the illusion (to varying levels) of knowing them through personal stories, opinions on a variety of issues, and casual comments. Being able to manage your online image has become more important than ever. We’ve seen plenty of people stick their foot in their mouth and end up at the center of a controversy while others deftly rally their fans to do some amazing charity work. Every day, you can see people pulling apart and pushing together. It can represent the best or worst of us.

Social media has also altered the power dynamic. It’s helped launch more than a few careers. For example, take a look at the rise of the review bloggers in the last 5-10 years. Several of these people rival the influence of the “professional” reviewers. This new crew of reviewers also seems more inclined to write negative reviews (more likely because of the flexibility of the medium than any quirk of personality) and that exerts an influence on sales. The temptation for some authors to publicly respond to those reviewers has created a few ugly situations, but by and large, it’s been for the best. More people are talking about books and stories in places that will be seen.

Sadly, we’re still going through growing pains and probably will be for some time. That doesn’t undermine the good, but it does mean it will continue to be messy.

About Andrea Johnson (99 Articles)
<p>Andrea Johnson also blogs over at https://littleredreviewer.wordpress.com/ where she reviews science fiction and fantasy novels and talks about other nerdy stuff. She’s also an interviewer at Apex Magazine. Her apartment looks like a library exploded, and that is how it should be.</p>

3 Comments on MIND MELD: The Evolution of the Author/Fan Relationship

  1. Show me just one transitional relationship. Just one.

  2. The sense of entitlement that fans think they should have, the right to comment, criticize, complain, instruct and badger authors and publishers is the worst part of it. Authors have a right to be themselves, in private and not have their privacy, opinions or lives savaged by the media, social, print or broadcast. That’s Bad. Writers need to have as much access to potential readers and buyers of their work and the media can provide that. That’s Good.

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