Thursday, April 21, 2011

Reader Responsiveness and New Technology

This is a follow-up to yesterday's post in which Marion discusses why she ended The Shattered Chain the way she did, and the unhappy feedback she'd gotten from some readers. This was part of our early correspondence, in a letter dated 1980. Both her letters and mine were written on typewriters (I have carbon copies of mine -- remember carbon copies?)

Readers have always written to authors. Well, within historical times, anyway. There have been times when letter-writing and -reading occupied a significant portion of a person's day, particularly if that person had no other vocation. Think of the voluminous collections of letters that illuminate our understanding not only of the lives of the people involved, but of times and places.

When I was in high school, I didn't know that you could write to your favorite authors. I don't remember how I found out that it was possible to do so, using the publisher as an address. I wrote to Andre Norton, my first love in sf/f -- and she wrote back. (But that's another topic...) At the time Marion and I began corresponding, fans wrote to her, usually through first Ace and then DAW, and then the Friends of Darkover. Nowadays, fans are as apt to find a writer's websit or blog or Facebook page and zip off an instant message.

I think -- and I'd love to hear some other opinions or perspectives -- that writing physical letters slowed down the process of reader to author communications in a way that meant fewer messages would be created, and those would be of more extreme reactions and yet more thoughtfully presented. The action of committing words to paper imposes its own review process, so I think we tend to be more polite, more careful of our language and the clarity of our expression. So back in the 1980s, fan mail tended to be more polarized. People wrote because they were outraged. Fewer people wrote because they were transported with delight (the delight itself being insufficient cause to insert paper into typewriter and compose thoughts). Very very few wrote with tepid reactions. After all, why waste the postage saying a book was just okay?

In my experience, with both the Darkover collaborations and my original work, there is yet another difference between emails, the form in which I receive almost all of my fan mail, and reader reviews. Reader reviews on sites like are in a way reader mail. They aren't necessarily intended for the author's eyes, but they are as readily accessible by the author as by anyone else. I know very few authors who don't at least peek. Reader reviews suffer from the same lack of moderating filters that emails do, only more so because they aren't directed specifically at the author. Thus they have the off-the-cuff immediacy and absence of reflection of other internet communications coupled with the ego boost of seeing one's words on the screen and the advantages of anonymity. This is practically an engraved invitation to exaggeration. Exaggeration isn't necessarily a bad thing if it conveys an honest, uncensored opinion. It can also be an occasion for mean-spirited self-aggrandizing nastiness.

Not all reader reviews are egotistical or ill-considered, of course, but more of them are in comparison to the email responses I receive. This is interesting to me as a statement about how the medium influences the message either in content or delivery.


  1. Please don't be disheartened, I know some people out there are posting reviews that just shouldn't be. They don't look into the book and see how much hard work going into writing one page, let alone a chapter or a whole book.

    I am shocked at the language of some, people are just writing from their phone in a sms form and write it quick without thinking of the big picture. I agree it would be hard to even look at a review but then there are some that spend days thinking of the right thing to say.

    Yes technology has put alot more things out there for people to see and post things on blogs, twitter, Facebook, discussions or send emails, which is ok along as people respect the author and don't totally disrespect them.

    I don't know how a medium can be found, as one could spend hours a day searching and reading reviews or responding to emails. I suppose as an author you have a choice to choose, "the ones" that count, giving off a positive energy, not ones with negative chi.

  2. Mel, I've had my share of reviews that suggest the reader couldn't possibly have read the book (like a review posted before any ARCs -- Advance Reading Copies -- were sent out), so I try to take those negativity blasts with several grains of salt. Some readers seem to be so put off by their hot-button topics -- queer issues being one of them -- that they will smear any book that presents the issues in a positive light.

    I have a personal/professional tool kit of strategies for dealing with negative reviews -- sounds like another blog topic!

  3. I am glad you have strategies in place, I think everyone would love to hear about them.

    People should not judge on sexuality alone.

    Keep smiling