The Writer’s Corner: Stay in Touch with Your Readers
Online systems are wondrous tools for authors. We not only use them in private work and to market books but to interact directly with readers in ways never before possible. While this can be an exceptional opportunity, it can also get some authors into trouble.
It is not just about remembering to “think before you speak”—or if you should speak at all—but when and how to make the option of a personal conversation available to your readers.
All of us have heard tales of authors who reacted badly and/or too personally to reader comments. Like everything else on the internet, those stories spread quickly—along with exaggerations, misconceptions, and fabrications of epic proportions. Such authors end up better known for a flub than for their work; and that flub can now have an astonishing longevity.
Some might think even that kind of notoriety is good publicity amid the rising flood from e-self-publishing. Trust us, you do not want to be that author… because you could be stuck with the reputation for longer than a book remains in print. So, here follows some advice for the “how” as well as the “when” to respond to readers about your work... or about you.
Staying in (Direct) Contact
Regardless of scary stories about fans, working authors should have a direct contact option online. Yes, you will get flamed once in a great while. Toughen up like an old scaled dragon impervious to its own fire. Otherwise you will not survive in this industry, and your ashes will soon be forgotten. Just as important, do not make yourself a target for verbal arsonists with kerosene in their lungs and tongues like butane lighters. There is a right way to to interact with readers.
Control & Secure Direct Conversation
Establish an email account something like “email@example.com.” No, do not use you personal email account. Ah, so you do not have your own site and you own domain? Seriously? Get one now!
Domains are dirt-cheap these days if you shop around and then link it to any type of site... and the email address can be linked to a hosted email account as well. Most readers (and others) who then contact you will immediately know…
- they are not writing directly to you as a person but to your “office” as a professional, and
- their email may be seen by others helping to manage your professional affairs.
Whether or not both of these are the case does not matter. Conduct yourself as professional before you even have the fulltime career that qualifies for that title. By no means put that contact email address out there for people (or “spider” scripts) to find it.
Putting something like a broken up “contact-@-mydomain.com” in a web page does not fool automated mailing list “spiders” looking for their next snack. That is one of the oldest and lamest bits of internet folklore. We still hear this nonsense advice in writers groups. You need a secured web contact form to protect you, your author’s “contact” account, and even your readers.
Email Forms for the Non-Webhead
If you do not have a way to put a secure email form on your site, then use one of many free services for such. Readers using this form will (hopefully) realize their own email address is also protected against exposure on the internet. If you want an example, drop by NobleDead.org and look in the “Contact” section. The link to the service we currently use is visible; you can search out alternatives once you review that provider.
There are lots of email webform services with different features, but all will serve your simple needs in this case. Most (by a majority) have a free use option, which might have a monthly quota on the number of emails you can receive. The quota is almost always far greater than the number of direct emails you will receive, so do not worry about that. With the better services, a properly constructed and verifiable sender’s email address is also required for the form to even send an email to you.
Okay... now that you are all set up to receive secured email via a web form, what about dealing with the communications you receive?
Book Errors: Reality vs. Reader Perception
If there is any problem with your recently released book—such as serious formatting issues with an electronic version—it is normal for a reader (your customer) to go straight to the author with complaints. Seriously, think like a reader and not an author; who else can the reader contact? Most professional authors have a contact form on their sites, and although the author has no power or control (with professionally published works) over the book “product” (electronic or otherwise), this is a common email sent to them:
“Your book totally sucks! I paid $[??.??] for the [?????] version, and there are [no scene breaks, words smashed together, typos, broken internal links, etc.]. You are a thief to sell such a shoddy product! I’ll never buy one of your books again!”
As an author, your first thought might be that such a reader is a loudmouth moron going at the wrong person. Okay, you are right, but take a deep breath and remember three things:
- Readers in general do not know (or care) how the publishing industry really works. Though some readers could pay a little more attention to who really made and/or sold that book, the biz has become even more diverse and complicated these days.
- There is usually no one else the reader can contact; most publishers do not have readily accessible contact avenues for readers.
- In the case of an ebook—amid the current e-self-pub glut—more and more readers now think all ebook editions come directly from the author. Yes, many of them do believe this.
So, take yet a second deep breath… and then respond.
“Thank you for your email. I will contact my [editor, publisher, press, etc.] and forward these problems concerning the [????] version of the book. Hopefully, these can addressed and corrected soon, though as only the author, I have no control over the actual product. I appreciate you bringing this to my attention.”
This is all you should ever say concerning such an email from a reader. When something is wrong with any edition of your book(s), the reader has a right to complain. That you are probably the only person to whom they can complain easily or at all is just the nature of the industry. And whatever you do, do not promise anything.
You are powerless except to report the issue(s) to the proper entity, department, or person—usually your editor—and fervently hope corrective action is taken. In most cases, it will, for your publisher is very mindful about such things.
The same advice stands even if the issue is with a particular vendor; inform your publisher, not the vendor. If a reader shouts blame at you, then simply write a polite response explaining that you will forward the complaint to the proper people. The implied meaning is that the reader did not contact the right person/entity. And enough said!
For the most part, here we are talking about a traditionally published novel from a professional publisher. If the book is self-published, then all corrections are the responsibility of the author… and that is a different discussion.
Online Comments or Questions vs. Conversation
Most authors now also have some type of “blog,” online journal, etc. No, social system page is a different tool and not the same thing or used the same way… hopefully! In addition to a contact web form, authors also need to respond appropriately to readers who comment on their sites (where allowed). Where both are concerned, there are two other things you should consider.
Establish an FAQ
If you have been working as an author for some time and established a growing readership, add a Frequently Asked Questions to your site. We have an FAQ on ours, and it helps new readers find quick answers to common questions. But an author should never get short with any reader who asks a question covered in the FAQ.
For example, at least once per month (or week) JC fields an email asking, “Why haven’t the Noble Dead books ever been made into movies? Will they be made into movies? Why can’t you arrange it so they are made into movies?”
These questions are answered in our FAQ. After 10+ years in the business, when these questions come in via our contact form, there are things J.C. does in the home office that are better left unmentioned. But he does not reply “For crying out loud, look in the FAQs!”
Sometimes people are lazy when visiting an author’s site; sometimes they are just so enthusiastic to have contact with you that they overlook something already available online. When uncertain, think the latter of these two and be grateful that they were so enthusiastic about your work that they had go find you.
No matter what our readers ask, we always respond politely and with good grace. This is essential, as only an egotist consciously alienates a loyal reader… or especially a new reader. Better that you sharpen up that costume broadsword on the wall and whack off a body part. You will do less damage to your career.
Plan for Criticism and Cruelty (and Know the Difference)
Most of our readers contacting authors are kind and full of praise for the books. People who take the time to respond to a post on your blog, site, social page or send you an email are usually those who love your work. But as an author, sooner or later you will see your work charbroiled by someone:
“Your newest book in the [????] series sucks! Why don’t you go back to the old formula? Why don’t you just kill off [insert main character name] and give the rest of us a break? I might check your next book out of the library, but I sure as hell won’t buy it!”
First… do not respond to these kinds of communications no matter how you receive them. You have nothing to say that will make this person happy, and such people are not looking for a conversation… they are only trying to bait you.
Second… there is a difference between someone expressing an opinion (unsupported) or viewpoint (supported) versus a flame or rant. Even the first two should not be viewed as an invitation to converse; those are just someone saying something aloud, so leave them alone. The second two, however, are another matter. Feel free to delete such if you have the control to do so, but never ever reply back to these. There might be a case where correcting mis-(dis-)information from a ranter is an option, but think twice before even doing that. And if so, be clean, concise, and unemotional about it.
Make yourself accessible but be smart in doing so; be kind and polite but not personal; never snap at a reader no matter how many times you have been asked the same question; and do not respond to overtly negative comments that only bait you into defending your work. This last one is probably most important. Onward!
—J.C. & Barb