Writing in the Digital Age: Connecting with Readers: The Stephen King Problem

I’ve been a writer for a long time. In high school, I was co-editor of our newspaper, but even before that I wrote plays for my sisters and me to perform. I’ve been an avid reader for even longer (does it bother anyone else that the Verso survey defines avid readers as reading 10 books a year…a YEAR?…I used to read 10 books a week when I was a kid). I love readers because they are my first tribe, outside of the immediate family (which did not include a lot of avid readers, to be honest). Readers are my peeps. I like to hang with them in the book hood…okay, that’s sounds creepy and wrong, but if you are an avid reader, you know what I mean. Libraries rule, bookstores smell like Heaven, and bookshelves hold the nectar of the gods.

As any writer knows, however, when you begin to be published, your relationship to readers changes. It is similar to when someone begins to sell Tupperware or Avon or Mary Kay and her friends start warding off sales attempts with fake smiles and glazed eyes. Readers learn to be wary of the writer’s pitch. I tried to get around this by never making a pitch. But it doesn’t work. Readers know that all writers are neurotic about their work. A casual, “Not my favorite,” by a reader translates in a writer’s brain to “I hate her and and her books and will immediately commence a write-in campaign to destroy her chance to ever sell a book again.”

A decade ago, writers did not cross paths with readers on a regular basis. The reader-writer connection was made through a library talk, a book signing, a class at a university or adult ed program. The readers self-selected to attend those events, and thus tended to be in the group we call fans. You know, people who like a certain writer’s style, genre, and back cover headshot. Avid readers, in other words. You could go to the grocery store and be fairly sure that your checkout clerk had no idea that you’d just spent two hours murdering someone in Chapter 2. Unless you were Stephen King (he is a beloved and well-recognized figure in Maine).

When my husband was interviewed for his job, one of the tours of the area included a trip to see King’s home. He has an interesting fence around his beautiful Victorian paper baron home. And he is (still) the most famous resident of the area — one that is rife with writers I may add. Can’t swing a stick without hitting a writer around here. But King had a problem, even back 25 years ago, when we moved to the area. People knew him by sight. Most, of course, said nice things to him (he and his wife Tabitha — she is also a writer — have been very generous to the local communities, especially the libraries). But his avid readers? They offered their opinions on his latest work. As you may imagine, those opinions were not always complimentary. Some may even have been termed complaints (why did you kill her? do you hate dogs? what do you have against vampires? etc.).

I remember when my daughter came home from the pizza place down the street from our house (over 20 years ago, so the statute of limitations has run out), utterly humiliated because her friend Alice had seen Stephen King eating pizza and asked him for an autograph (on a napkin presumably, since the girls were having lunch and had no books with them). King had refused and my daughter had been horrified at the exchange (the girls were around 10 or 11 and neither one had read a King book at that point, as far as I know). At first I thought she was mad at King for refusing, but a little questioning uncovered that she was mad at her friend for asking for an autograph just because he was famous. And, apparently, for being rude in asking, though I don’t recall how or why my daughter thought her friend was rude. Alice was a very sweet kid, but at that age awkward often trumps graceful). I will take a moment and note with pride that my daughter has always been smart.

Other writers (many, as I have established for you) winced empathetically and rejoiced in anonymity. We never had the awkward 10-year-olds-asking-for-autograph problem because they spotted us in a pizza parlor, or out taking a walk. No one knew we wrote books. We were safe. Even the bad reviews only stung in private, and among our family and friends. If we wanted to bask in fan moments, we could set up a signing (and then ask a few friends to show up just in case no readers did). We could keep track of the number of books on the shelves in the local bookstore, or go in and sign the stock for the booksellers. Our choice, our way, under our control.

And then came the digital age. Websites, blogs, MySpace, FaceBook, Twitter. Writers tried to introduce themselves, with book jacket photograph elegance and mystery. Just enough to let the readers see authors were human, not 10,000 monkeys let loose on a roomful of computers. Not every author joined the website bandwagon. Some took the Stephen King problem to heart and vowed to avoid it, and the internet, forever. There are days when I wonder if they were the wise ones.

I could not resist the lure of the easy information sharing. So much less trouble to open a browser and check FaceBook or Twitter than to drive 2 or 3 hours to meet face to face with a group of authors. But the Stephen King problem is now come to those of us who surf the web, get email, FaceBook or Tweet. Readers generally send us compliments and thanks. Generally. Some tell us about typos. And others — many others — talk about, rate and review our books with the casual dismissiveness that was much safer in the non digital age (when you could be assured that whoever you were commenting about wouldn’t hear you, whether you were talking about his haircut or her latest thriller).

There’s a lot of good advice about how to deal with a negative review/comment/remark about a book. Writers give it to each other all the time, and then ignore it when it comes to our own negative reviews. I’m not going to repeat it here. You all heard it at some point when you were growing up and got picked on for being different. It’s always the same advice, and it really never works.

But here’s the thing that is even more true in the digital age: writers need readers (and readers need writers). Need. Want. Enjoy. Dread. We are locked in a symbiotic relationship that feeds each other. This relationship symbiosis was tidied up in the time before the digital age, when speed and social media have taken us all from six degrees of separation to one degree. The rules were different, except for authors like Stephen King. Now, with social media, our fans want to tell us what they think about our latest book, short story, terrible author photograph. And readers who are not fans casually mention the meh factor to their friends…on Twitter, or FaceBook, or GoodReads. Places where authors can stumble across it (or be sent a link by a helpful editor, friend, or GoogleAlert). Ouch. We are all Stephen King (except for the sales numbers, darn it!).

And here’s the thing: I’m a reader first. An avid reader (x10 if one uses the Verso definition). I like reading reviews, blogs, other people’s casual opinions of books I have read or may read. I like talking about books. I don’t like feeling that the moment I enter a room/comment on a blog, the book discussion needs to cease, lest I launch into an awkward sales pitch of my books. But I haven’t yet found a way around the awkwardness that the symbiotic relationship causes. I get it, because I am a reader and a writer. As a writer, I need readers; I want people to buy my books, read my books, love my books. As a reader, I want writers to write books I love (because I can read many more books than I can ever write). Last year, at the Tools of Change conference, I had a great conversation with a young man who was creating a startup reading group — where readers can share their opinions as they read books with others who are also reading that book (or who have read it). It was called ReadMill. I got a beta invite to the group and I have the app downloaded on my iPad. But I hardly participate, because I’m a writer and I don’t know how to get around the awkwardness of being a writer-reader. I wish I could figure it out.

I didn’t take a pseudonym for my writer self. I wonder if I need one for my reader self? After all, there are reader communities springing up everywhere — and opportunities to talk about books while you’re reading them, with other people who are also reading them. But the pesky Stephen King problem gets in my way. How can readers be brutally honest if they know who I am (and not just what I write, but other writers I know, and ….). I’m not really sure how King didn’t choose to run away and hide in his nice Victorian house; but he didn’t. He walked the streets. He ate pizza. He dealt with fans, good and bad and too young to be fans. So I guess I won’t run away, either. I’ll keep posting on Goodreads, like a reader. And if fellow readers buy my books — or casually mention that they’d prefer I never write another word — I’ll just remember my daughter, her friend, and Stephen King. And then I’ll eat pizza. There are many worse things to have than the Stephen King problem (not enough bookshelves, for example).

Kelly McClymer does not write horror, or psychological thrillers, but she writes almost everything else, including historical romance, fantasy, YA, science fiction, and chicklit. You can read more about Kelly on her website, follow her on Twitter, Like her on FaceBook, or friend her at GoodReads…if you dare!

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Writing in the Digital Age: Connecting with Readers: The Stephen King Problem — 18 Comments

  1. Interestingly, readers also suffer from this tech-generated closeness. Over on Goodreads someone has started a discussion on the Fantasy Aficionados board titled, “The guilt that comes with a review.” The debate: is it OK to be very frank in your review? Obviously a bland review is not worth much, but what if the author reads your brutal dissection and feels sad? I weighed in and tried to be helpful by explaining why I never read reviews. (The reason: the book or story is out and published, flown the nest. You might as well call me and complain that my daughter, aged 27, went to Afghanistan and cruelly whacked you with her M-16 rifle — what can I do about it?)

  2. Good point, Brenda. I think writer-readers feel that guilt from both sides — you can really like another writer you know personally, but dislike the writer’s books. Not that you’d want that to get out, so there’s a certain amount of being cautious that you don’t let your feelings out (even though all authors *should* understand that…since they feel it, too).

  3. A casual, “Not my favorite,” by a reader translates in a writer’s brain to “I hate her and and her books and will immediately commence a write-in campaign to destroy her chance to ever sell a book again.”

    Few truer words were ever written.

    Everybody in this condition knowing of each other, knowing so much about each other — whether we actually all know each other personally or not, a lot of us do — makes it particularly difficult to impossible to erect a productive critical apparatus for the field.

    Maybe that doesn’t matter though.

    It’s all a conundrum!

    Love, C.

  4. However scorching the review, you can at least tell yourself, it’s not theater! You are not actually standing there while the audience hisses and boos. At least you are not a pole dancer!

  5. In teaching writing, I tell the students that a book is interactive. What we put into it is what we have responsibility for. What the reader takes from it depends on that individual reader, his/her life, past, hopes, likes, mood, education, health, background, intelligence, biases, and more — just as those elements affect what the author puts in.

    I respect reviews/comments of any book (not just mine) where it’s clearly that reader’s individual reading experience, and the reader recognizes that. Comments couched in absolutes don’t hold up for me — as a reader or a writer. … Unless someone’s pointing out that an author misused its/it’s

    On the Stephen King problem, I don’t want knowledge of the real person (authors, or singers or actors, etc.) to interfere with my interaction with the creation — THAT’s what I’m interested in. I do understand a lot of folks do want that knowledge, and I know I’m an oddity in that realm. So be it.

    So Stephen King would be entirely safe to eat his pizza in peace around me .

  6. This reminds me of a couple of writers I met at the beginning of my career. They liked each other a lot, but did not at all care for each other’s works. So, when they would see each other at conventions, they would exchange royalty payments (Maybe 50 cents?) for the books they didn’t buy.

    They interacted with respect on each other’s panels, turned each other’s books face out in bookstores — but never bought each other’s books.

    I imagine they are forwarding each other’s tweets about now..

    And I realize that I have never used “other” in this fashion and have no idea if it is correct. And I’m running out the door. I may have to come back and delete this later….

  7. The one thing that stuck out at me is that SK refused to give a kid his autograph. I understand they were too young to be fans, but they’re kids. It always bothers me when I hear of celebrities declining autographs. You don’t want to deal with it, then don’t put yourself out there.

    But more tothe point, you’re right that social media has made being a writer more challenging. As a writer-reader, I find the larger challenge is that I don’t read for enjoyment anymore. I’m always dissecting what works, what doesn’t, and wonder how I would handle it.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking article.

  8. Omg I used to write plays for my sister and the neighborhood kids, too! Charged 5 cents to get in and we spent our loot at the Ben Franklin store where you could get penny candy (yes they really were just a penny back then). Did I just show my age? Readers were all in my family. Every single night of life and day for that matter you’d find my grandmother who I lived with as a child reading a book. I loved books back then as much as I do now, but back then I had more time!

  9. Wow, I could have written this (right down to those neighborhood plays) except I don’t live in Stephen King’s neighborhood!

    But yes, suddenly everyone is in everyone else’s pocket. How does a lifelong reader interact? Well, not with the blithe freedom of earlier days, that’s for sure. (Cue your paragraph about careless dismissals.)

  10. Ah, Cheryl — I rarely tell this anecdote, because I fear people will hold it against King (I did at first blush, until my daughter explained her observations; he wasn’t mean, he just reasonably refused to autograph a napkin). I count myself lucky that I never lost the ability to read for fun (there’s a switch in my brain that flips over on command…at least so far).
    Dorothy — you were more advanced than me; but I doubt anyone would have paid a nickel for my work back then 🙂
    Pat — I spent 6 weeks in L.A. a few years ago (took some classes in screenwriting to help improve my writing…and for fun). I joked that I could stand right next to someone famous in the Starbucks line and not have a clue…turned out I was right. But when I had someone with me, *they* always spotted the famous person. I marveled from afar, and drank my coffee without bothering anyone for an autograph. Not my thing.
    Katharine — how funny to exchange royalties on books not bought…they were good friends.
    Sherwood–interesting how many of us wrote neighborhood plays; I wonder if we graduated to fiction in order to be in complete control (my sisters were always changing their lines 🙂

  11. Partricia M. hits the nail right on its shiny head. What we put into a book has everything to do with what we get out of it. Active readers will always get more out of a book than passive readers. That said, some authors will never be able to do it for you, no matter how active a reader you are. Their words simply don’t resonate with your experiences, your hopes, your moods, etc. But for those writers whose words do resonate…oh boy! There’s nothing more enjoyable than kindred spirit.

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  15. It is hard once you become a writer and are kind of “kicked out” of the reader community because of the awkward factor. We were all avid readers first.

    You know, I kind of like the idea of a reader pen name, lol. Though, some authors would inevitably abuse that method and go rate and talk about their own books.

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