How not to piss off your readers, or “Have you driven a Ford lately, Terry Goodkind?”

The rise of social media has given many readers new ways to cross authors off the list.

andre-norton
Recognize this author?  Me, neither.

The internet is great, but it’s a double-edged sword, especially when it comes to authors.  When I was a kid, authors lived in far off worlds whose locations were rarely hinted at by About The Author passages.  If I passed Dan Simmons or C.J. Cherryh on the street when I was growing up in Boulder, Colorado, I never would have known it.  Everyone knows Stephen King lived in Maine (and for a while he lived in Boulder, and set one of his books there), but King is not only a superstar, he’s a down-to-earth guy who most readers find accessible (even if his books aren’t; although sales suggest they are).  One can believe he not only lives in a house, but he coaches Little League.  The details of Arthur C. Clarke’s personal life came out pretty well in his later books, but for most authors, they might have been dead and I wouldn’t have known it.

(The punchline to the above paragraph is I actually did walk by Stephen King in Boston one evening and I didn’t realize who he was until I was a block away.  He was by himself, on the way from the Back Bay T-Station to Fenway Park, wearing a jean jacket and a Red Sox hat, with a book tucked under his arm.  I walked by politely looking at him and thinking “I know that guy…do I know that guy?”  We were the only two people in a crosswalk at the southeast corner of the Boston Public Library, just opposite the John Hancock building.  By the time I looked back…he had vanished…)

Social media has changed everything, for better or worse.  I first heard of Brian Staveley as a recommendation on Goodreads along with Jon Sprunk, Steven Erikson, Anthony Ryan, Michael J. Sullivan, and a few others.  I wrote all these down, went to the Dartmouth Bookstore, and browsed through their books.  I noticed the back flap of The Emperor’s Blades said the author lived in Vermont, so I looked up his blog and Twitter profile.  By the next day, he and I were in email correspondence.

I’m not new to the internet, and since 1994 I’ve often taken the steps to email authors, musicians, and scientists to talk to them about their work, ask questions about things I’ve noticed or get information.  There has also always been a segment of the media devoted to books.  Authors have been doing interviews for a long time, and there have always been publications dedicated to getting the word out about new books, supplemental materials, and inside information.  But in the last five to eight years online information has become the primary way people find out about books.

Before 2010 I went to the bookstore or the library to look at books themselves.  That was where I got my primary idea of “the market” or “the scene” or whatever abstraction you want to use to summarize the book world.  Nowadays I check Twitter five days a week, I’m part of Facebook groups, subscribe to YouTube channels, and listen regularly to three podcasts (Sword and Laser, Grim Tidings, and Book Geeks Uncompromised) for my book news and interviews.  This is because I’m a writer, and it might have something to do with not just hanging out in bookstores and libraries (i.e. I have kids), but it’s also because it is much easier to get this information on a moment’s notice.

Consequently there’s an impression of the book scene with little to do with the books themselves, the words or stories in them.  I find this good and bad.  I do have nostalgia for the old days when hanging out in the bookshelves was the primary way I found books: as I have often had to point out to Wrong People On The Internet (WPOTIs), when you go to the bookstore you find out many Strange Things, like how many female protagonists there really are (in fact, whole sections are devoted to them).  There are even brand new books at bookstores and libraries you won’t hear about when you just browse Amazon and Twitter: these avenues are filtered to show you what you want, and thus there’s very little avenue for exploration and discovery.

However, I am also thankful for the internet and the rise of social media because before 2010 I had a lot of trouble finding books in certain genres.  I finally started The Eye of the World in 2008, but until then reading fantasy was hit-and-miss for me.  I liked the general idea of Tolkien, but The Fellowship of The Ring left me unsatisfied.  I didn’t like books that assumed I knew elves don’t get along with dwarves.  I loved the fantasy genre: I loved the artwork, the maps, the heroic stories, the pagan side of things, and of course all the women in flowy dresses.  But after a few years of reading what I could find in libraries, I found it lacking.  I was left thinking there must be serious fantasy out there, and I just didn’t know where to find it.

0_robertjordan
An author who died a year to the day before I first read his book

I later found out the fantasy genre was undergoing a major shift.  Robert Jordan was dead, but he’d left behind him two decades of transformation in the genre I was somehow not catching on to.  Again, I can blame a toddler and an infant: every time we went to the bookstore we’d go straight upstairs to the kids’ section, and I would longingly look at the scifi/fantasy section, drooling over the artwork and never knowing Patrick Rothfuss, George R.R. Martin, Jacqueline Carey and many other authors were waiting for me there.

Less than ten years later it’s a different world (and my kids have grown up a bit).  I’ve taken up writing seriously (it got hard not to in graduate school, and eventually I gave up) and I feel like I have to stay current, but mostly it’s because the information feels like it’s being shoved down my throat.  Again, good and bad.  It can be prickly going down, and sometimes it gets stuck mid-throat.

Not only do you get things up to the minute, you find out about books twelve months before they come out, but you also get to hear authors talk about whatever the hell they want, including remarks irrelevant to their books.  The problem is readers in this age are especially sensitive to stupidity because there are so many authors available in the Amazon Era: if an author makes an even remotely stupid remark, a reader can cross her off the list and go on to the next one.  Readers aren’t limited by what the bookstore or library has to offer, so another author can replace the outspoken one right away.

Writers say stupid, insensitive things about politics, religion, and the personal values of their readers all the time on Twitter, and they reveal their self-aggrandizing personalities far too often.  Twice I’ve seen remarks along the lines of “Today I’m writing a story that’s making the world a better place: what are you doing?”  I can’t see a scenario in which such arrogance gets you readers.  It might get you short-term interest from other resentful, better-world-making, morally superior fellows,  but most people (by which I mean me) will be turned off.  You could respond “What am I doing?  I’m browsing a bookstore, which I guess isn’t acceptable to you.”

Even more egregious is the kind of alienating remark aimed at a whole genre of readership, specifically the genre you write in.  The master of this kind of stupidity is Terry Goodkind, who most recently became famous again for his insulting brand of arrogance.  In February Goodkind insulted an illustrator by inviting his Facebook fans to make fun of the cover of his latest release.  Goodkind is still releasing fantasy books after twenty years insisting what he writes is not fantasy, denigrating his own fantasy books and the entire genre of fantasy, while simultaneously calling himself a “nerd” and “one of us.”  Incidentally, I don’t consider myself “one of us,”  but I still manage to have deep respect the “us” in that statement.  (However, as “An Open Letter to Terry Goodkind” points out, and as I’ve pointed out, fantasy both is and is not a niche market; it appeals to a certain niche, but it also appeals to a huge audience, as attested by the success of Game of Thrones).

Goodkind is supposedly a nice guy, but you can’t tell from his remarks on the internet.  Whether an author is nice, liberal, conservative, sexist, gay, straight, incarcerated, male, female, communist, or left-handed (though I do draw the line at child molestation) does less to determine whether I read their books than if I can tell he’s careless with language.  I have no desire to read John Scalzi because of his impulsive tweets.

maratheaLet me get to the point that originally set me on this track: maps.  Maps are a really cool part of fantasy books.  When I open a book and see a map, it’s like bonus material, like opening an album and finding a poster inside.  I am an academic, and I love to learn about a new world.  I at least love the impression I could be learning about a new world.  A map of adds to the feeling I’m peering into a different world.  When I was a kid I remember asking my brother if some fantasy show (I honestly can’t figure out which it was) took place on an ancient version of Earth or on a different planet.  I was really fascinated by the idea of a different world altogether: something comprehensible as Earth, but not Earth.  A map enhances this experience.

But here’s what Terry Goodkind has to say about maps, an opinion I heard recently repeated by another author:

…I consider the map a distraction to the story. The map was put in the book as one of the cliched fantasy elements that fantasy publishers require. In recent books I’ve been giving less and less emphasis to the map.

When John Grisham, for example, has a character going from a restaurant to a courthouse, readers don’t have to flip to the map to see where the restaurant and courthouse are… .

I expect readers to use their minds when they read the story, without the artificial aid of maps.

If I enjoy maps I’m too stupid to comprehend how awesome his storytelling is.

I rarely, if ever, flip back to the map in the progress of the story.  If I do, it’s because I want to know more, not because the story has become confusing.  The map has nothing to do whatsoever in any circumstance to do with the motion of the narrative.  Maps are not necessary to the telling of most fantasy books, but they add an element of mystique.  They are illustrations.  They may even be cliché, but that’s not why they are in the book.  They are in the  book because they are beautiful, and because artwork has always been a huge draw for the fantasy genre.  I do judge books by their covers, and fantasy  books have always used covers to create an experience for the reader.  Fantasy books, to me, are largely about the possibilities of the human imagination, and the cover and the maps exemplify those possibilities.

Most readers don’t read  books because they share opinions with authors.  Many readers are surprised by them.  I get that authors can be opinionated, and I see how sharing your opinions gives the illusion of signaling to other like-minded people, but they should consider the benefit of communing with differently-minded people.  Most people aren’t friends because of shared opinions, but because of shared interests, shared locations, or a common goal.

From the age of ten to the age of about thirty-five I prided myself on being opinionated.  I was opinionated largely because I felt lonely and I thought I was being charismatic or that I would some day find a community of like-minded people who really got each other.  Mostly I was repeating things I heard elsewhere, or if I was original people thought I was parroting someone else’s opinion.  Consequently my opinions only got in the way of making real friendships.  Among healthy adults, opinions largely don’t matter in friendship.

Bottom line: your readers are not stupid.  They are reading fantasy, which might include your book, because they like it, including all its conventions and even most of its clichés.  If you tell them that makes them stupid, they will move on to the next author.  Terry Goodkind’s career is a sad counterexample.  It seems most readers do not decide which books to buy based on stupid (or non-stupid) stuff authors say on the internet.  Nevertheless, I don’t think it’s wise to insult readers.  It’s just not a good idea.

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