by Nancy K. Herther (writer, consultant and Sociology/Anthropology Librarian, University of Minnesota Libraries)
COVID-l9 has changed many aspects of our daily existence – from working and living in communities with a wide degree of individual freedom to self-imposed, isolated beings in a time of massive uncertainty. As noted in a recent issue of Time magazine: “theaters, concert halls, museums, sports stadiums and nightclubs are closed; music, comedy and book tours are canceled; and non-news TV production has ground to a halt. Within the space of two weeks, Americans have seen so many of the institutions that kept us amused, informed and intellectually stimulated during national crises past shut down.”
However, creativity has not vanished along the way. Live Streaming of comedy skits, Instagram Live chats and other sites have given people new channels of communication, entertainment and even education – as colleges, schools and major companies shut down for the duration. Literary groups are not exempt. The Virtual Book Channel from the Literary Hub is just one avenue for “readings, launches, conversations and community.” Many others exist, and some are popping up as individuals seek camaraderie in these difficult times.
AUTHORS REACHING OUT TO THEIR READERS ISN’T NEW
As C. S. Lewis is quoted as saying, “We read to know we are not alone.” The concept of “book clubs” isn’t new. Benjamin Franklin formed a “literary society” in 1726 called the Junto Club which focused on discussion and debate of contemporary issues and political theories. More recently Oprah Winfrey’s book club has revitalized the concept and gone on to bring great success to many authors selected for her program. Today, authors themselves are making greater attempts to reach out to readers as well and, again, this isn’t new.
Charles Dickens, perhaps the greatest author of the Victorian era, twice visited the U.S. and gave public readings of his works across Britain as well. This certainly provided him with financial support, but it also allowed him to share his love for his characters with others who equally enjoyed the worlds he created in his masterworks. Clearly he enjoyed the close contact with his readers and the opportunity to share his beloved works with his fans.
Since this, authors have been quick to establish relationships with readers through public readings, communicating with individual fans and developing websites and speaking tours. Fandom has become a major part of our culture with perhaps the best example being
J. K. Rowling, whose Harry Potter books made her the first writer to become a billionaire through writing alone. However, her contacts with readers and expansion of her literary domain now stretches to her Pottermore website opened in spring 2013. Rowling has carefully, and legally, protected her characters while reaching out to her fans, even making them feel like co-creators as her literary opus has expanded under the ongoing interactions with her readers.
As the Guardian noted in 2012, “Science fiction authors have long understood the power of a solid fanbase that knows how to connect and grow through new technology. Mainstream writers, take note.” And, in the past eight years, author websites have taken off! Today we even have many specialized companies offering services and tools to help any author go online.
April was Poetry Month and the Academy of American Poets celebrated by posting new poems each day. Poem-a-Day is “the original and only daily digital poetry series” and has featured over 250 new, unpublished poems by today’s poets each year. You can even have a new poem dropped into your inbox daily or search the archive of past years’ poems. And today most writers have their own websites where you can keep up with their current projects and be able to communicate using new media with other fans of these authors.
WEBSITES CONNECT READERS WITH AUTHORS TODAY
As Kent State University Professor Marianne Martens explains in her 2013 book Publishers, Readers, and Digital Engagement, “convergence in the publishing industry and the development of new digital technologies around reading have enabled publishers to create disintermediated digital enclosures in which they can communicate directly with their reading audience.” Today technology allows readers and authors to connect directly with each other.
Martens’ book focuses on teens; however, her conclusions are worth noting in general: “Authors’ interactive websites and use of social media, and how in turn publishers are able to exploit such labor as they get invaluable market research, peer-to-peer recommendations, and even content which can be used in other projects—all virtually free-of-charge. As online environments enable new means for young adults to participate in the books they love, this book demonstrates how the roles of ‘author,’ ‘marketer,’ and ‘reviewer’ are being redefined.
Prior to the expansion of digital technologies around reading,” Martens concludes, “teachers, parents, and librarians were the primary gatekeepers responsible for getting books into the hands of young people, and researching readers was an elusive process. But a combination of convergence in the publishing industry and the development of new digital technologies around reading have enabled publishers to create disintermediated digital enclosures in which they can communicate directly with their reading audience. As online environments enable new means for young adults to participate in the books they love, this book demonstrates how the roles of ‘author,’ ‘marketer,’ and ‘reviewer’ are being redefined, and present a 21st century configuration within the field of cultural production for young people.”
As Young Adult author Rowena House noted in 2017 as she explored setting up her own webpage for readers: “The more I’ve looked at author websites for inspiration for my own new site – searches which tend to be biased towards young people’s historical fiction, given my subject – the clearer it has become just how generous many authors are with their knowledge.” However, she concluded that “this experience of waiting raised an important issue for me: when designing my own site, should I assume that readers/schools/librarians/bookshops will have sufficient broadband capacity to support the latest apps and videos, etc. or should I ‘Keep It Simple, Stupid’ which always seems like good advice in almost every situation.” Her final website draws from both her research, and perhaps more importantly, from interactions with her readers.
CHECKING IN WITH THREE AUTHORS ON DEVELOPING THEIR WEBSITES
Setting up an author website isn’t as easy as you might think. The best are complex, highly stylized sites with navigation and lots of interaction with readers. We talked with three authors: Kiran Dellimore, who at the time of the interview had only been operating his website for two weeks, Mike Chen, who comes to this as a former website developer, and Rachel Howzell Hall who set up her website initially in 2002 to promote her novel, A Quiet Storm (Scribner). Each of these wonderful writers brings their own personality to their websites – and if you are new to this form of outreach, you might want to give each of them a good look (their books as well!).
LEARNING FROM THE AUTHORS THEMSELVES
Rachel (read a novel, and the author becomes a friend on a first-name basis!) describes herself on her website this way: “A writer of things. An observer of life.” She set up her website with the publication of her first book in 2002 – making her a “pro” this form of communication. Her first novel, A Quiet Storm was a smash hit by any definition – garnering a starred review in Library Journal, positive reviews in O Magazine and Publishers Weekly and even as a must-read selection on the Rory’s Book Club (a must-read website of the fictional television character Rory Gilmore of The Gilmore Girls). Since then, her books have continued to gain positive reviews and a growing readership.
“My husband designed my first website to promote my first novel,” Rachel explains. “I wanted, of course, to have a website since it was a new, cool thing – and my husband wanted to design a website. We just visited the Wayback Machine and I gasped – I hadn’t seen those eyeglasses in years! For my current site, we enlisted one of our good friends to do all the pictures – this redux was for the launch of Land of Shadows.” This latest novel – intended as the first in a series of detective novels featuring Elouise Norton – has equally garnered widespread praise. “Back then, I received lots of emails through the site – there weren’t many ways back in 2002 to reach out to readers. I’ve received messages from readers in states that I may never get to visit during a book tour, and I’ve especially received messages from book clubs interested in virtual meetings with me to discuss my books. People still reach out to me through the site.”
Kiran Dellimore describes his evolution as a writer this way: “I am a self-published part-time author, with a day job as a scientific researcher at a multinational healthcare technology company in the Netherlands. Before launching my author website, I only engaged with my readers via email newsletters sent sporadically to a mailing list that I have built up over the years comprising mostly friends, family and acquaintances. After the publication of my memoir, Walking in Footsteps of Promise last September, I decided to radically change my approach. The major driving force behind this was the realization that I also needed a change in my own life. I was at a juncture in which I felt an urgency to pursue my dreams and in particular my burning desire to become a full-time author able to support myself financially. Basically I knew that if I did not do something differently my writing dream would always remain on the back-burner.
So, I spent the next two months researching web design services as well as author websites to help me define the requirements and to find inspiration. By chance one day in early February, I saw a LinkedIn post from Tribe Visual advertising web design services. After a short call with the founder of Tribe Visual, Dee Dorant, I decided to take the plunge by commissioning the website. I chose TribeVisual since I was starting from scratch and they offer the full package in website design. From taking the right photos to website implementation in WordPress. The website took one month to be built, including the photoshoot, photo editing and content generation, and was launched officially on March 31st, 2020.”
“I had multifaceted goals,” Kiran explains. “I wanted to create a platform in which I could engage more deeply with my readers by sharing my passion for storytelling. I also wanted to promote my memoir, Walking in Footsteps of Promise, as well as my other books Fresh Ereba: A Collection of Caribbean Bedtime Stories and Squash Diary: The Story of How Squash Saved My Life. On top of that, my author website is designed to be a touchpoint for publishers and the press, which is vital to becoming a more successful author. And lastly, I wanted to experiment with selling books directly to readers, by creating a unique experience around my books and offering fans the opportunity to buy signed books. For me this is a game changer, since selling signed books is not possible via traditional distribution channels like Amazon or Barnes&Noble.”
Mike Chen “was a website developer for a while before I signed with my agent, and I always resisted putting up an author website before achieving that milestone — I didn’t want to jinx it! Once I got there, it became a vital piece of connection to readers, reviewers, librarians, and others. It’s still probably the most vital element of online marketing, simply to have purchase links, media summary, and a press kit. I do use the blog functionality on there, but I don’t update it nearly enough.”
WEBSITES + SOCIAL MEDIA = EVOLVING COMMUNICATIONS
With the change of technology, social media have become central to all authors. “We’ve moved away from interacting through websites to interacting over social media,” Rachel explains. “For me, it’s easier to Tweet or write a Facebook post about tour dates or promotions than on the website. With the website, I need the help of pros to keep the site update. That’s why I tend to update maybe twice a year.”
“By using Mailchimp to manage my newsletter mailing list on the website,” Kiran explains, “I am now able to deliver more personalized content. Mailchimp is a powerful marketing which allows me to dynamically tailor book campaigns and special offers to my fans who have signed up via the website to join my newsletter. As I mentioned earlier, my previous engagement with readers was confined to a static mailing list comprising mostly friends, family and acquaintances. Now my mailing list has expanded to include readers worldwide who are beyond my acquaintance. Another interesting change in my interaction,has been the opportunity to offer readers a sneak peek into the two books (The Ashes From Our Tears and What I Think About When I Run) that I am currently working on via my website. This gives me a chance to build up interest in these books before they are launched. To compliment this, I will also be making posts on the website blog throughout the writing process, to update readers on my progress and share previews of parts of each book. Over time I expect even more positive changes in my interactions with readers to come.”
Some people get great mileage out of longer-form connections (blogs, newsletters, etc),” Mike Chen explains, “in particular, Chuck Wendig‘s blog is great and Susan Dennard has a really engaging newsletter. I’m much more active on social media, and Twitter in particular. I did have the advantage of being a journalist for a number of years, first for sports and then geek/pop culture. So I felt like I already knew how to use Twitter effectively to engage other people and have fun with it.”
“My goal on Twitter is to be myself and talk about the things that I love,” Mike continues, “which sounds kind of lame, but since that generally includes geeky things (Star Trek, video games), writing craft, and my pets, it’s easy to connect with people that way. You don’t really sell books directly that way, but that’s how you create supporters and advocates for your work. So it’s part of the groundswell. I try to be positive and funny, and for craft stuff, I try to be very transparent. I constantly invite people to ask me about querying agents, and part of that is simply paying it forward. So those are two separate channels, two separate purposes. The website is definitely more required as a general reference and social media is grassroots marketing through fun and transparency.”
Mike offers this advice to other authors: “Pick the social media platform you enjoy. That’s why I spend so much time on Twitter, I really enjoy the conversational aspect of it. I hardly use my Facebook author page and though I’m on Instagram, it’s mostly photos of my dog. If you’re going to express your personality on it authentically, you have to make sure you’re actually enjoying it. Otherwise it’s just a chore and then it will feel hollow to you – and people will pick up on that. On the flip side, social media can be a great way to build community and make bonds.”
“Whatever platform you pick,” Mike concludes, “be positive and constructive on it. there will be impulses to be negative or engage in arguments or complain about stuff. That approach is never constructive and usually just winds up making everyone mad, so save that for your own personal venting (or private Slack groups with your peers or friends) and keep your presence positive. If you’re going to be critical about something, be transparent and constructive about it rather than just mean.”
REACHING OUT HAS NEVER BEEN EASIER
It’s interesting to imagine what Charles Dickens might have done with today’s technologies!
During the COVID-19 crisis, many authors are reaching out with readings of their key works as a way to communicate with readers and provide a much-appreciated public service. However, author websites and other contacts are the future and will exist long after the pandemic is gone.
As Jane Friedman notes: “an author website is your most critical tool for book promotion and long-term platform development. It should be a 24/7 resource for readers and media—one that you update, own and control—serving as an online hub for everything you do.” And, today, authors are taking up this challenge and forging direct connections with their readers – for the benefit of both.
As Tina Jordan writes in the book review section of the New York Times, “authors’ websites aren’t just for reviews any more. A quick survey of the writers on the fiction best-seller list turned up Spotify playlists, blogs ‘written’ by their dogs, movie reviews and more.” Clearly a new form of “reach out and touch” for the 2020’s.
Now retired from the University of Minnesota, Nancy Herther is a consultant and frequent ATG contributor/columnist. email@example.com