Authors Interacting With Readers Online

August 20, 2015
Twitter connections mapped

Social Collider image courtesy of Channy Yun

Authors are often pressured to connect online to develop a reader base and promote their work. This puts them in the dicey situation of relating to people socially while also marketing their books. I was curious about how writers manage that balance and what they find rewarding or frustrating about interacting with readers online.

I created a short unscientific survey for crime fiction authors and distributed the link through a number of social sites where crime fiction authors participate: Dorothy-L, the Sisters in Crime Yahoo group, Twitter, and the crime fiction communities on Goodreads and Wattpad. Of the 33 writers who chose to participate, two were under 25 and eleven were over 65, with the largest number of respondents (16) between ages 45 and 65. One respondent preferred not to specify demographic details. Most respondents were women (27), with only five men participating. All but two or three of the respondents live in North America. (Two live in Europe; one chose not to specify a location.)  Fourteen of the respondents are traditionally published, 12 are both traditionally and self-published, four are self-published, and two chose “not yet published; I am evaluating options.”

Platforms of choice

I asked participants to tell me which social media they use from a list I provided. Of social media platforms, Facebook was the most commonly used, with 30 respondents saying they use it. This is not surprising. A recent Pew Internet report found that Facebook is far and away the most commonly used social media platform, though its membership growth is plateauing, while the less-popular sites Pinterest and Instagram have doubled their membership since 2012.

Blogs (including either writing posts or commenting on them) remain a major social tool for these writers, with 24 respondents involved in blogging, closely followed by Twitter (22). Email discussion lists focused on crime fiction were the next most popular medium, with 20 respondents participating in such groups. Slightly over half (17) used Goodreads, with far fewer using LibraryThing (3), not surprising given that Goodreads has a much larger membership and encourages authors to promote their work, whereas LibraryThing explicitly focuses on readers and their books. (There is an LT Author badge and regular author chats and book giveaways at LibraryThing, but the overall culture of Goodreads is more commercially oriented.) The four who used Wattpad were 45 or younger, including two respondents under 25. Only one respondent (over 65) reported using none of the social media options in the survey. There did not appear to be any particular patterns of use by age among these respondents except in the case of Wattpad.

When asked what makes particular platforms useful to respondents as writers, the most common response across the board was interaction or relationship-building. This was mentioned by eleven respondents as a plus for Facebook. Four praised email lists for this quality, and three felt blogs were useful for relationship-building. Some sites were valued as places where authors could express themselves, with Wattpad and blogs each having this quality mentioned by three respondents. Another reason respondents preferred various media was reach, where, again, Facebook (the largest of social platforms) was most frequently mentioned, with Twitter an also-ran. The sheer size of membership can be a factor. As one respondent put it, “I’ve found Facebook and Goodreads to be the most useful. They provide opportunity for a writer to get to know and interact with a large number of people from around the world, people who – once they get to know you – may purchase your books or at least recommend them to their own circles.” But several respondents mentioned that they found it hard to keep up with all the options and weren’t sure whether they were useful to their writing careers. As one respondent put it,

Despite the worldwide spread of the Internet, I feel I only reach a very few people through my social media efforts. Only a handful of people like or comments on my Facebook/blog posts. There’s so many blogs and so much “noise” on the Internet that it’s impossible to rise above the clutter.

Positives and negatives

I asked what authors liked most about interacting online with readers. When coding the results, the two most commonly-mentioned positives were socializing or meeting people (11) and getting affirmation (11). As one respondent put it, “this is a profession rife with rejection. I get validation from the interactions.” Two interrelated benefits were learning about writing and the publishing industry and finding out what readers like, both in one’s own writing and in crime fiction generally, with 12 respondents responding in one of these ways. Other qualities mentioned by at least two respondents were appreciating candor within a community, having fun, the immediacy of interacting online, low cost, and being able to belong to an affinity group.

My next question had to do with the downside: what is most frustrating about interacting with readers online? The two most-commonly mentioned problems were the time it took away from writing (7 mentions) and dealing with hostility or argumentative people (9). As one respondent put it, “The Internet can be a mean forum.” Most of the problems arose from disagreements over personal beliefs or political issues, but some irritation was caused by people criticizing a writer’s work or disparaging it because it included elements such as “bad” language or sexuality that they disapproved of. Five were bothered by the shallowness of many interactions. Five were troubled by lack of response to their comments or posts. Three mentioned that they were frustrated by not having any way to connect the time spent on social media with sales. As one put it,

there’s no measurable way of assessing impact/results . . . The lack of metrics dismays me because my time is not unlimited and my main job is writing.”

While social media platforms often include metrics (and even promote them), traditional publishers don’t provide up-to-date sales information, and even if self-published authors have current information, it’s difficult to correlate with time-consuming social interactions online. Another respondent wrote “I don’t blog anymore. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve made for my career. 3000 words per month to a blog – 3000 words not directed to my next book.”

Additional thoughts

I closed the short survey with an open question: Is there anything else you would like to tell me about your experiences participating in social media? The conflict between the time spent on social media and writing the next book was felt by many respondents. As one put it,

Too much new technology to learn. Writing blogs can be time consuming for little results. Social media was leaving me too tired and with too little time left to actually WRITE! I put my energy now on my stories instead of social media.

Another said, “I spend far too much time on it. If you’re not careful, you can waste a good part of your day.”

The focus on getting attention promoted in many social media platforms was also a concern. As one respondent put it, “I’d rather be writing books than participating in online fashion shows.” But another respondent had mixed feelings.

Sometimes I feel like I’m simply adding to the social noise when I post anything, and maybe it would be better if we all unplugged. OTH, I live in a rural area with few opportunities for reader contact, and I do think the contact makes me a better writer.

For some, it was important to maintain a careful balance between being authentic and coming across as a heavy-handed marketer. (My previous reader survey bears this out – readers enjoy genuine interactions with writers, but are quickly turned off when they feel that the interaction is geared primarily toward sales). One offered advice about how to pull this balancing act off.

Don’t force it. Be cool. Don’t be a jerk screaming “buy my book,” every eight seconds. Give content, answer questions, be funny (not forced), pleasant and available.

Though one respondent reported seeing a spike in sales whenever she had a blog tour, another wrote, “It’s actually pretty hard to find readers on social media. Most of the folks I’m finding are authors trying to find readers.”

While a majority of respondents in these open comments reflected on how much writing time could be wasted on social media, some respondents said that once they overcame a learning curve and established a routine, they could fold communicating with readers online into their workflow. Learning best practices from one another also helped. As one respondent explained it,

I started early and have kept up. I’m glad I did. It was a bit overwhelming at first, but because I got in early I found a few really great people from whom to watch and learn. And it cost me nothing but time.

Of course, the lack of time was a major issue among respondents.

While authors are frequently pushed to engage with readers online to promote their books, these writers were thoughtful about the nature and value of their use of social media. Like readers, they value authentic interactions (and, sometimes, the affirmation readers provided), and seemed largely realistic about the limitations such interactions have for boosting their careers. Some have deliberately reduced the time they spend online to focus on writing the next book. Others enjoy social media interactions but still question whether they have the value that publishers often put on them.

A quick search online will turn up thousands of articles explaining how authors should (or shouldn’t) use social media, often in the form of listicles: five essential sites, ten rules for engagement, 100 tips . . . Just reading through search results can be exhausting. The lack of metrics that tie sales to interactions online, the amount of time it can take away from writing in a genre where a book a year is a minimum expectation, and the sheer volume of writers seeking attention can be daunting. This is particularly true given that building a presence in an online community takes time and overt marketing is met with (often fierce) resistance. But there are benefits apart from the sales aspect, particularly in learning readers’ perspectives on books and gaining a sense of connection and affirmation.

Thanks to the authors who took the time to share their thoughts and experiences. For writers who feel they’ve been pressed to do too much connecting, there’s a satirical piece by Heather Havrilesky in the New Yorker, “How to Contact the Author,” that illustrates the fraught aspects of being expected to develop close relationships with readers when carried too far.

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Readers Respond to Online Reading Communities

August 1, 2015

after a book talk

Because I wanted to get the perspective of crime fiction readers who use a variety of social media, from email-based groups to newer platforms, I posted an anonymous survey to Twitter, the 4_Mystery_Addicts Yahoo group, Dorothy-L, and to crime-fiction-oriented forums on LibraryThing, Goodreads, and Wattpad. (Since I invited people to pass it along, it may have also traveled elsewhere.) The survey was open between April and the end of July, 2015 and collected 197 responses. It’s not at all scientific – purely a convenience sample that skews toward communities in which I’ve participated the most. While these aren’t results from which generalizations can be drawn, they provide some insight into the experiences of a self-selecting group of individuals.

Those who responded were largely avid readers of the genre, with well over half reporting that they read fifty or more books in the past year. Over three quarters reported that half or more of those books were in the crime fiction genre. This isn’t surprising since the only site where I posted the link that wasn’t focused on crime fiction was Twitter. The vast majority of respondents read books in print (93 percent), with a majority also reading ebooks (69 percent). As quarter also reported reading audio books. The vast majority of respondents (83%) live in North America, with additional responses from Europe, Australia or New Zealand, and Africa. Seventy-five percent of respondents were women; half were aged between 46 and 65, a third over 65, and the remainder younger than 45 or abstained from answering the question. This does not necessarily reflect who talks about books online; the Wattpad community, which is particularly popular with teens, has over 40 million members worldwide.I suspect that i was more likely to get the attention of members of two lists that have been in existence since the 1990s and have some very loyal long-term members; I am quite new to Wattpad, and as one of the survey respondents points out, it takes time to get the acceptance and attention of a community.

Discovering books

I asked respondents how they discover the crime fiction they read, asking them to choose the top three methods from a number of choices. Discussion lists were the most common choice, with 57 percent including them in their top three. (Since many respondents encountered the survey on one of two large and long-running lists, this is both unsurprising and no doubt skewed.) Around 35 percent of respondents chose reading online reviews at website or blogs, participating on book-focused social media sites such as Goodreads or LibraryThing, or getting recommendations from friends or coworkers as among their top three discovery methods. Thirty percent of respondents included reading book reviews in newspapers and magazines as one of their top three, and browsing in bookstores or in libraries were among the choices of around 22 percent of respondents. Least often chosen were all-purpose social media such as Facebook or Twitter and “other.”

Discussing books

Most survey respondents discuss books both online and off. A majority (79 percent) say they talk about crime fiction with friends or co-workers. Though half discuss books on discussion lists, only 20 percent do so in face-to-face reading groups. Another 29 percent discuss books at Goodreads, with 22 percent writing or commenting on blogs. LibraryThing was a site for crime fiction readers for 17 percent of respondents. That said, about a third of respondents read discussion threads in online reading communities but rarely or never post. A bit over a third contribute sometimes. Only 20 percent say they contribute frequently.

Since this is not a representative sample of these groups’ members, these percentages are not particularly meaningful except to say that a significant number of people who are in online reading groups find them worth joining even if they don’t feel like adding to the conversation themselves.

Tell me more

I asked four open questions. The first one was pure nosiness on my part. I’m always curious about why people read crime fiction. I coded the responses, looking for patterns, and found that these were the things respondents said were most satisfying about reading crime fiction, with many responses including more than one factor:

  • The puzzle (or plot, or solving the mystery) was mentioned by 91 respondents.
  • Characters (55); another 15 said they particularly enjoy series because they are able to see characters develop from one story to the next.
  • Justice is served, the good guys win, or restoring order (37); another 14 mentioned that they like the fact mysteries have endings, that the ending itself offers satisfaction. Others noted that justice is not so easily come by in real life. As one respondent put it “I know the world is not like this, but I want it to be.”
  • Pace or engagement in a gripping story (27)
  • Setting or sense of place and/or historical period (24)
  • Entertainment, relaxation, or escape (24) As one respondent put it, “sometimes I just let myself float along, and enjoy the ride like any one else benignly looking over the shoulder of someone’s very worst day.”
  • The capacity of mysteries to explore psychological aspects of crime or human nature generally (21)
  • Learning new things (10)
  • Enjoying good writing (9) Some respondents noted that they prefer crime fiction to literary fiction because of its focus on telling a story. As one respondent put it, “[I] enjoy the absence of the self-conscious ‘writerly’ elements that detract from some lit-fic. Crime fiction writers (most of them0 seem to concentrate on the story and the characters rather than on themselves.”

One respondent offered a detailed analysis of the pleasures of the genre:

Although it’s true of all fiction, there’s a special quality of distillation to the atmosphere and characters in crime fiction, likely because there is so much that has to be woven into a very logical trail offering puzzle and resolution, regardless of the narrative voice. I enjoy that quality of focus, assuming it’s done with an understanding of real human nature. That all holds true no matter how far from actual reality or seriousness the tale may be placed. If it’s consistent within itself, it works for me. And, oh yes, the challenge/ and the resolution. Not just of working out what went down, for its own sake, but I also feel an enjoyable ‘contest’ with the author. Which is very likely part of how favorites develop. Someone can be a ‘good’ writer, but if I don’t feel that interaction, I don’t go back. Must be something about ‘being on the same page,’ so to speak.

I also asked what respondents liked most about an online community and what they found most frustrating. Coding the responses, these were the benefits of being in an online community. The number of responses are in parentheses.

  • Learning about new books and authors (95); many respondents mentioned the value of finding people with similar “reading DNA” whose recommendations were reliably a good match for their tastes.
  • Reading a variety of opinions about a book (55); many respondents found that encountering different responses was particularly worthwhile.
  • The social relationships that develop in a community (23)
  • Holding book discussions (13)
  • Being among fellow crime fiction fans (12)
  • Sharing their own reading experiences and recommending books to others (11)

Frustrations included

  • Competitiveness, aggressiveness, hostility, or elitism (24)
  • Messages that were primarily book or blog marketing (16)
  • Off-topic digressions (13)
  • Lack of participation or lack of response to postings (12)
  • Not enough time to keep up (10)
  • People who post too often or at great length – “list hogs” (8)
  • Lack of sophisticated commentary on books (8)
  • Feeling that online communication lacks the richness of face-to-face relationships (3)
  • Finding that the group has different tastes than one’s own (3)
  • People who give spoilers in their posts (3)
  • Learning about tempting books that are inaccessible to them (2)
  • Sense of being rejected by a clique (2)

Note that 23 people said nothing frustrated them, with several mentioning that it was easy to skip over messages that didn’t interest them.

Finally, I invited respondents to add further thoughts about sharing their reading experiences online. Some comments related to what makes a group work – or not.

To really feel a member, it seems you have to participate a lot.

Having a platform where you can comment without being bullied or ridiculed for your views is paramount.

I don’t share my experiences often because I am shy online . . . I did have an early experience with a group that doesn’t exist anymore in which someone was very rude to me for no reason other than that she didn’t like the author that I did.

SO funny – when it’s great, it’s fascinating and revealing and enlightening and reassuring. When it’s terrible – it’s like high school. The cool kids stick together and the new kids are sneered at.

Others spoke about what they see as personal benefits of being in an online reading community.

I think it’s a great avenue to share information and thoughts with a diverse, though anonymous, group.

Since joining LibraryThing 8 years ago, my ‘to read’ is ridiculously amazing . . . I just love having a place where like-minded readers frequent, I visit it nearly every day and the social side is just as much fun as the book information.

I particularly enjoy it when authors participate in the discussion and update us on new work.

The discipline of posting comments regularly has sharpened my reading and writing skills. Reading the comments of other expands my awareness and guides me to other works of possible interest.

I find that sharing and reading about reading experiences online is a time-consuming, enjoyable meta-activity. I’m embarrassed to admit that I read more ‘about’ books than I read books themselves. Perhaps it’s a way to stay connected with the genre during periods when I lack the serenity to enter fictional worlds

I love it. There isn’t always a real-life chance to get into the weeds with your personal criticism and experiences when talking with your friends or spouse . . . [at Goodreads] I’ve got a thorough database of my reading and can see not just the memories, but have discovered some unsuspected personal patterns!

I appreciate that the group I belong to is international so that the participants bring various backgrounds and culture to the table.

I have met so many friends through the mystery community and some that I have met IRL [in real life] that upon meeting you feel you already know them. Have also had the opportunity to travel to mystery conventions that I would probably have done w/o the enthusiasm expressed online.

In general, regardless of the platform, readers who responded to the survey seem to enjoy learning about books from one another and seeing a variety of responses to books as well as the social interaction among fellow crime fiction enthusiasts. The positives, at least in this self-selecting group, appear to outweigh the negatives. I am grateful to all who took the time to respond to my survey and provided such intriguing insights.

header photo ca. 1920 courtesy of the New York Public Library Archives


Surveys!

July 14, 2015

I’ve been circulating these links around the crime fiction neighborhoods of the web. As part of my study of online reading communities, I have a crime fiction author survey and a crime fiction reader survey. I’d love your responses!

I’ll be reporting the results here … eventually.

photo courtesy of David Hanrath


Calling Crime Fiction Book Bloggers

August 10, 2014

Some time ago, I posted about a sabbatical proposal I submitted – and now I’m actually enjoying that sabbatical! I am studying online reading communities and am hoping readers who blog about books might be willing to take this survey. I estimated that it might take 10-20 minutes, though honestly if you want to complete it in five or less, I am pretty sure you could – it all depends on whether you want to give short answers or write more in response to open questions. Though I’m primarily looking at online reading communities that focus on crime fiction, any book bloggers are welcome to participate, whether or not crime fiction is your preferred genre.

One thing that made this survey different from others I’ve created in the past is that bloggers are writers (even if their main identity while blogging is as a reader), so I have tried to be explicit about rights issues and let you choose whether or not to have your words attributed to you. The default position is anonymity, but if you’d like credit for your commentary, you may attach your name to any response. Here’s the fine print you’ll encounter on the survey:

You retain the copyright to your answers and you may do whatever you like with them, but by participating in this survey you grant me the nonexclusive right to draw on your responses for the purposes of this research project only. I will make every effort to handle survey results confidentially and represent your thoughts accurately and ethically. If you write something in a response to a particular question for which you would like to be credited by name, please inlcude the name you wish to use in your response and an email address for verification.  (It will not be used for any other purpose). Otherwise, responses will be treated anonymously.

I will be creating a couple more surveys – one for authors and another more general survey for readers of crime fiction – but I thought I’d start with bloggers who write about books primarily from the perspective of being a reader.

surveypoint

photo (CC-NC) by Farrukh