Never correspond with your readers, unless invited

I have been asked whether I ever correspond with my readers. Well, naturally we writers do, especially when we are so embroiled in social media these days. Writers automatically seek an audience, that’s why we write, so when someone writes back to us and refers to our writing, our interest is aroused, our vanity is stoked, and our bubble of loneliness is punctured.

But what happens when a writer takes a reader unawares and initiates the conversation? I am guilty of this act of commission, and after three lessons, I decided to discontinue this practice. The first incident occurred when a reader gave one of my books a score 1 on a scale 1(poor) to 5(excellent). This particular book had been enjoying an average reader score of 4 on Goodreads, so I was curious as to why this reader had found the book so weak. As she hadn’t written comments to support her rating, I was itching to find out more. So I wrote to her asking why she had scored my book so poorly, and could she provide some constructive feedback. I never received a reply. The second time, I encountered an independent reviewer who said that another one of my books needed stronger editing. As I had self-published that particular book, I wrote to this reviewer to ask for pointers on where I could improve. I never heard back. On the third and final occasion, I stumbled upon a social media group that had been discussing my books in a positive way. I wrote to thank the lead member of the group, and asked for her view on a controversial point in one of my books; I thought an enthusiastic and engaged reader would be able to provide me a new perspective on this point. Silence was the reply.

To say that my self-confidence was shaken was an understatement. But after the air returned to my deflated ego, I tried to figure out why I had been treated so shabbily. Then a few things became clear to me. I am a fiction writer. I create worlds in which the writer is absent, only his characters exist. Fiction writers are not intrusive, and their voices emerge through the mouths of their creations; readers draw their own inferences from what is laid down on the page, sometimes, obviously, sometimes opaquely. Therefore, my sudden presence “in the flesh” must have been alarming – like a dead man come to life, and one who had been snooping on the conversations others had been having about him! I had betrayed the trust of the storyteller, where the story is more important than the teller.

In the age of social media, self-publishing, and shameless self-promotion, writers are pushed towards breaking the wall that exists between them and readers, and towards making contact with the “other side.” Some say it’s the “new way,” that readers buy the writer and not the story. That may be so for commercial survival, and even then, commercial writers work with their publicists to create a persona and all communication with readers is carefully scripted and routed via one’s literary agent or publisher – an even greater wall of separation.   Yet, readers seem to be more comfortable with this “fictitious” form of correspondence than with a message from the heart.

After my experiences, I have returned to my cocoon of silence and only speak through my stories. Yes, I still remain active on social media and other online channels to announce upcoming projects (the shameless self-promotion stuff), but a serious discussion of my work will not be on the cards, unless specifically invited. This has been a hard lesson to learn, and one I thought worthy of sharing with others on the same journey.

The rising standard of self-publishing

When the latest wave of self-publishing, assisted by print-on-demand technology, hit the streets at the dawn of the new millennium, it was quickly dismissed as low-grade soap opera. Established publishing houses shivered lest they fall victim to this new assault on their bastion. All sorts of labels were thrown at the new entrants: “vanity publishing,” “lacking in editorial integrity,” “selling to friends and relatives.” It was dismissed as a fad that would pass.

But this wave of self-publishing continued to grow and evolve. The sheer volume of books coming through the channel was daunting; even if an average of 50 copies of each self-published title were sold, that was “50 x umpteen” attempts at stealing readers away from the established order of publishing. And the old order started to groan and creak under this kamikaze attack; big publishers merged to get even bigger, mid-size publishers collapsed and went out of business, and small presses started to proliferate using low-cost business models. When Amazon, Lulu, Wattpad and other platforms facilitated self-published authors to “do it themselves,” the dam burst and writers associations around the world moved fast to legitimize this revolutionary movement and bring it into the fold, lest their own members defect and become “indies” in an industry that had moved from a cosy cartel to a free for all!

And what of the self-pubbers themselves? After the first wave of poorly constructed, badly edited, and haphazardly formatted offerings, the movement took stock. Professional editors and other middlemen from the traditional industry saw opportunity to replace income in this space as their employers, the mainstream publishers, began shedding them in order to remain competitive.  Self published books became deeper and broader (they were no longer just disguised memoirs), they were well edited, formatted and produced as technology continued to evolve. Besides, creative writing courses were proliferating in colleges and universities, and where else could all this output be absorbed? Certainly not by the traditionalists who had driven many of their authors to become teachers in those very schools because their royalties did not cover all the bills at home.

And then e-books came along and leveled the field even more; with costly paper production and distribution taken out of the mix, e-books could be offered for less than half the paperback price and still retain the same earnings for authors and publishers. The stubborn old guard of publishers has tried to defend e-book prices, saying they should be equal to that of paperbacks, but that is an argument that lacks weight as long as publishers pay authors the same remuneration for either format, and pocket the larger surplus from the e-book channel by holding its prices level with the paper channel.

“Might is right,” has played throughout history, and the former fringe dwellers who formed the “vanity” movement have now gone mainstream as the more respectable “self-published” movement. Their stories come from a more personal place; their skill as all-rounders (writer, publisher, marketer) in this game makes them all the more skilled. And yet, except for a lucky few who will catch the zeitgeist and be snatched by the mainstream, they will remain effective only at close range (selling to friends, family and a small circle of fans) rather than selling across international markets in multiple languages aided by large marketing budgets; but they will be read, and they will add diversity to the literary landscape while the traditionalists retrench to promoting only their top 10 lists (or top 5, even top 3) as competition heats up and margins come under threat.

Where will this level out? Motive will determine longevity. Few are making money in this game anymore, and hunger may drive writers in either camp to choose where they want to invest their time in future. In the traditional camp, attrition also takes place when the Big 5 toss out “dead wood” at faster and faster rates.  Short shelf-life notwithstanding, we hope that writers in both camps choose wisely and continue to invest in their writing in some fashion, because that is what determines a society’s evolution, for “man cannot live by bread alone, but by the words that come from God” – and writers would like to believe that divine inspiration has something to do with how their fingers move on the keyboard.

Self publishing is mainstream now. The question is whether the traditionalists will move to make the self publishing channel their entry point for picking up the “best of the best” authors in future, thus creating a two tier structure, or will readers place equal emphasis on both channels, so that it will be authors who determine how and where they want to place their work.

The next measure of human growth: self-awareness

Reading books such as The End of Growth and That Used to be Us one gets the impression that it’s all over for us in North America: oil is never going to be cheap anymore, governments are bust, corporations are hoarding their money, and the best jobs have gone to China and India. These books also attempt to convince us that less is more and a back to basics approach is best for us now: save more, spend less, study hard, work hard and invest wisely.

All this is good, except that the standard we use to measure human growth is still weighted heavily towards a monetary yardstick, a simple but crude measure: GDP. Translated down to the individual level, when introducing yourself at a cocktail party, it’s easier to say, “I am a lawyer,” or “I am a corporate executive,” for that implies a guaranteed income potential and its accompanying elevated social status. I had some of those monikers in the past and it was smooth sailing in social circles. Now, when I say, “Umm, let me see, I write books and blogs, I play in a band, I do infrequent consulting gigs, I edit for a publisher, I dream a lot, I take lots of walks and I am learning much about myself,” people look at me as if I am a weirdo. “He has no MONEY!”

The United Nations made some strides in developing the measure of human development, going beyond the GDP yardstick. The Human Development Index (HDI) measures education, health, mortality, inequality and poverty, in addition to GDP. But as this is an aggregate country•level measure it only serves at that summary level – a good alert for a government on whether a “spring uprising” is brewing in that country, perhaps. Others have tried by measuring happiness quotients (HQ); there are tests and exercises on how to increase this measure, some people even self•medicate by repeating “this is the best day of the rest of my life,” several times a day to ramp up their ratings.

I think we need to go beyond HDIs and HQs. We need to measure self•awareness and make that a key driver of human success. Who am I as a person and why did I come to this earth? What is my role and am I on the path to achieving that measure before I pass on? The extent to which we are closer to achieving our life goal should be the measure of happiness, social status and all the other measures we use to grade human beings. We might find some surprising results: the multi•millionaire who is hopped on drugs may be lower on this scale than the poor fisherman who catches his daily supply of food and has a little surplus to share with his neighbours. Likewise, newly emergent nations, guzzling up the world’s energy supply and its jobs and on a path of consumerism never experienced in their histories may pause and say, “Hey, wrong track, must switch, chop, chop.” Arms factories may close, wars will stop or never start.

I’d like our ever shrinking census questionnaire to add the following questions: “Do you know what you were born to accomplish?” and “How far along that path are you at present?” and “Are you a net producer or a net consumer” and “If you have assets to leave behind, who should benefit from these after you die?” and the guilty question: “Who should pay for your debts?”

Tree•hugger philosophy? Utopian? Ballsy? But then nations are built by utopian and ballsy leaders, and I prefer a tree•hugger to a vote•hugger. And as our established western nations are under threat of falling behind, we need a lot of balls in our camp and some out of the box thinking.