The downside of authorial community-building

Kay_GuyGavriel For an author to “build a community” with his readers has become a popular catch phrase in recent times. In particular, Richard Nash has talked at length about how community-based publishing is the main purpose of his new venture, Cursor. When you have a close relationship with your readers, the thinking goes, they are much more likely to buy your stuff. However, community-building can have a darker side as well, as this March editorial by Guy Gavriel Kay, one of my favorite authors, reveals. Kay talks about how some authors, such as George R.R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss, have run into blatant fan entitlement in response to the lateness of the promised next books in multivolume series. Some readers even complain that Martin is “sixty years old and fat” and they worry that, like Robert Jordan, he will die before finishing his series. One reason for the excessive criticism that these authors let themselves in for, Kay contends, is that very sense of community:

These days, writers invite personal involvement and intensity from their readers. In direct proportion to the way in which they share their personalities (or for-consumption personalities), their everyday lives, their football teams and word counts, their partners and children and cats, it encourages in readers a sense of personal connection and access, and thus an entitlement to comment, complain, recommend cat food, feel betrayed, shriek invective, issue demands: "George, lose weight, dammit!"
And sometimes, the authors or their fans sic fans on other people, such as harsh critics or negative reviewers (such as when Stephen King made cutting remarks about Twilight author Stephenie Meyer).

Kay concludes that authors may simply have to put up with this kind of backlash as a price of building a blogging community, and they may in the end have no choice but to build a community—blogging is addictive, and it may be the only form of promotion authors with little marketing support from their publishers have available.

Another point Kay did not bring up is that even as community-building brings authors and readers together, their geographical separation via the Internet and relative anonymity can lead people to behave on-line in ways that they never would in person. I doubt many of the fans who complained about Martin’s age and weight would dare do so to his face.

This kind of thing always takes me back to that line from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “To summarize the summary of the summary: people are a problem.”

9 Comments on The downside of authorial community-building

  1. Felix Torres // May 18, 2010 at 8:31 am //

    TINSTAFL!
    There is no such thing as a free lunch.
    Live by hype, die by hype.
    Get consumers invested in promoting your product, expect them to get invested in the design and manufacturing. (The converse is also true. (CF, crowd-sourceing.)
    Add in the internet with its well-documented “everything I think/say is right” ethos and…
    (Shrug.)
    Did anybody expect anything different?

  2. So community building can become gang warfare? Joy!

  3. DensityDuck // May 18, 2010 at 3:40 pm //

    “fan entitlement” is interesting in light of the recent Diana Gabaldon fanfic flap. She suggested that maybe the fans should stop pretending that copyright violation was the sincerest form of flattery, and everyone’s ovaries exploded.

  4. Lordee, what is to become of the lone curmudgeon writer? Luckily my novels are all to obscure to generate much of this sort of icky fandom. Isn’t a lot of this sort of stuff just an extension of the dreaded Fan Convention?

    In these sorts of situations, I always ask myself; What Would Louis-Ferdinand Celine Do? Tell them to get a life, and sic the dogs on them!

  5. DensityDuck // May 18, 2010 at 6:50 pm //

    And, coincidentally, here’s today’s XKCD which addresses this topic:

    http://xkcd.com/741/

  6. I would suggest these fans would feel entitled without online communities – online allows them to express their frustration.

  7. There’s always the flip-side of this argument: people have to answer to the public when they screw up.

    1. Recently, As Seen On Diana Gabaldon and fanfic! (It is suffice to say I hold a decidedly opposite opinion from those who think audience participation should be limited to mindless consumption and author-worship.)

    2. All of the Racefail imbroglios over the last year: the Nielsen Haydens, Elizabeth Bear, Emma Bull, Patricia C. Wrede and MammothFail, BloomburyFail (Magic Under Glass, Justine Larbalestier’s Liar, and another book I have lost track of), the whitewashing of Holly Black’s White Cat cover, *both* Avatar movies (racebending.com and io9 are good references), etc. ad nauseam…

    3. AmazonFails: GBLTQ books, pricing wars, you name it.

    4. Asinine behavior by fans, producers and authors alike at various conventions.

    In all of these situations, fans/consumers raised awareness. In several, the outcomes were steps in the right direction.

    I’m not advocating blind mob rule. What I am saying is that crowd-sourcing can be used as a force for social justice, and as long as authors maintain the right balance between privacy and transparency, the Internet is a valuable environment.

  8. “and everyone’s ovaries exploded”

    @Density Duck: Because everyone who writes fanfic identifies as a straight female, and we all know that them thar wimmins are ‘hysterical’ uhn stuff!

    1. Not all fans, of Diana Gabaldon or otherwise, are female or female-identifying.

    2. Not all fanfic readers or writers are female or female-identifying.

    3. Being justifiably angry about the comparison of writers to paedophiles and shoplifters is not in any way equivalent to “ovaries exploding.”

    Your language is both ignorant and offensive. Check your privilege.

  9. DensityDuck // May 24, 2010 at 3:30 pm //

    I’m sorry, but anyone who appends “fail” to a word cannot possibly be taken seriously. Try again.

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