Just between us...
In this two-part blog, historical novelist and mystery writer Sara Sheridan explores the changing relationship between writers and their readers.
In the good old days it was simple – writers wrote books and retreated, in an air of mystery, to their studies (academics), boudoirs (romantic novelists) or luxury hideaways (Agatha Christie/Enid Blyton). Readers read the books and occasionally wrote a fan letter. When the Edinburgh Book Festival (now the world’s largest) started in a single tent in Charlotte Square in 1983, the idea of bringing writers and readers together was still pretty revolutionary. Events consisted of traditional-style readings and the air was one of sombre respect. Just as it was in the days when Dickens toured America, writers were clever and readers listened and admired them.
Since 1983 book festivals have proliferated (over 40 in Scotland and over 300 UK-wide) and there are thousands of other events in libraries and bookshops. As a profession writers have more or less come to terms with meeting our readers face to face. It’s accepted that not every writer can or indeed wants to do events but being able to read well in public and talk about your work in an engaging fashion is part of most writers’ job specification.
Recently the whole writing world has undergone enormous changes. Writers have been faced with a challenging and fast-moving environment where publishers squeezed by the culture of corporate takeovers no longer provide many of the services upon which authors used to rely. Add into that mix technological advances that have allowed most media to become interactive (from facebook and twitter to blogs) and what you get is a huge forum where readers can tell writers what they really think – not only of their books but of any part of their professional (and sometimes personal) life.
As a writer I find that exhilarating. For example, having instant feedback on twitter to research material is an enormous help. Being able to share landmark moments, like seeing my new book covers for the first time is great fun. Not everyone can or will come to live events and not everyone wants to join in on twitter or facebook, but if readers can find some way of communicating that suits them, then it’s genuinely interesting to hear what they have to say. Uniquely in our publishing history there is a whole new contract possible between readers and writers and it’s based on an equality of opportunity. You don’t have to be in the right place at the right time – readers and writers can communicate now regardless of time zones and location.
The terms of that contract are complex. This is not the only change wrought by the digital revolution. The burden of curatorship has shifted – publishers used to choose what was ‘good’ material and newspaper journalists used to provide reviews on their choices. The critic was king. A reader’s only input was to vote with their feet. Indian chicklit writer, Shobhaa De talks gleefully about her first novel some years ago which received ‘a record number of bad reviews’ from traditional newspapers - so many bad reviews in fact (over 200) that news agency Reuters ran a story about it. The word still got out – readers loved the book no matter what the critics said. Today that kind of response would be amplified a hundred-fold because of the tools at a reader’s disposal.
Of course not every approach is welcome. To the reader who wanted to discuss (in some detail) the sex life of Zena (a slave girl who is the leading lady in my historical novel, Secret of the Sands), well, sir, do you wonder that I reached for the ‘block’ button. But mostly I believe that being able to communicate directly with readers is a boon and I certainly enjoy it as much as they do. I’ve met some fascinating people at events and online. Down with the isolation of writers I say! And long live Twitter. The question is, where does it go from here…