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.”