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Monday, September 15, 2008


Authors with websites

In answer to my asking if anyone has any blog topic suggestions, an anonymous poster writes:

Also, are you going to change your website to incorporate the new book? Perhaps you could talk about that, about being an author and running your own website and choosing what goes up on it etc. I've been thinking recently about how an author can promote themselves and maximise their exposure, and how websites are pretty much crucial these days, so I'd like to hear your thoughts. It's surprising how many author sites are bad and just plain unhelpful, whereas there are some that are really comprehensive and you can tell that the author actually cares about their relationship with their readers.

Hm, quite a lot of interesting questions there! Let's see.

I am going to change the website to accommodate the new book; I should start thinking about it, but the information's not ready yet. My publishers and I are still discussing what title to settle on, and the cover is in the process of being designed; those two things being foundation stones of any publicity material, I'll have to wait till I have them. There's a bigger time-lag than one might expect between handing a book in and it hitting the shops; the UK version doesn't come out for another five months, and the US version well after that, and in the meantime the publishers have other books on their plate, so you have to work with that.

How much the website changes, though, is going to depend on one of two things: my skills, or my finances. Probably it won't change in appearance too much, as a major re-design would strain either.

In defence of the authors whose sites aren't very helpful, I think it's highly unlikely that the explanation is lack of interest in their readers. There are a number of alternative explanations that reflect less badly on the authors.

Some authors, particularly older ones, may not be big Internet users themselves, so don't realise how major a form of interaction it is for some readers. Those authors may put up a website because it's the thing to do, but it's not necessarily something that will be very interactive, because they don't interact that way themselves. If the site's not user-friendly, it's probably because they aren't users themselves, and don't have the experience to know what's friendly and what's not. Inexperience rather than indifference is the key. In fify years, perhaps, everybody will use the Net all the time, but we're not there yet.

There's also the fact that some authors consider blogging a drain of time and writing energy. They're not entirely wrong; I often blog more when I'm stuck on a plot, because I like to be writing something, and when I'm in a prolific phase I just don't have time to blog very much. Non-blogging authors may feel that their relationship with their readers is best served by spending all their time producing the stuff readers want most, which is more books.

The other main obstacle is this: not everyone knows how to design or re-jig a website themselves. I don't, for one.

To update a website takes a certain amount of computer expertise, and not everyone is good at that stuff. The ability to write fiction is an arts skill, and computers are a technical skill; those skills are not always found in the same people. You can learn, of course - it took me a while to master Blogger, but I've got the hang of it now - but how much your lessons stay in your head may depend on practice. Blogger is something you use regularly, which keeps your hand in, but website re-jigs to accommodate new books only happen every now and again, because it takes a long time to write a book. Even if you knew how to do it when your first book came out, you may well have forgotten by the time the second rolls around. I can recite poetry verbatim, because that's the way my mind's wired, but I don't remember technical stuff unless I do it on a regular basis, and I suspect a lot of authors are the same.

So, if you're not sure how to do it yourself, the alternative is to hire a professional. There are reasons you'd put this off: to begin with, finding one is not something a novelist automatically knows how to do. More importantly, authors don't usually earn very much, and paying somebody to re-jig the website takes a big bite out of your advance. An author whose website is basic or out of date may simply be trying to save money. Possibly they're spoiling the ship for a penn'orth of tar, as my dad would say, but parting with large sums when you're on an uncertain income is never a comfortable experience.

It's actually hard to know how much a website promotes your book. I started this website for that purpose, but in terms of concrete rewards, its main advantages for me are somewhere to express my opinions and a community of posters: working from home, it's the cyber equivalent of a water cooler. But so many variables affect how a book sells - publicity, word of mouth, shop promotions, awards, whether your surname puts you next to a popular author on the shelves, just plain chance - that it would be very hard to get an accurate measurement. I suspect, though I'm just speculating, that how much authors put into their websites is more to do with how Internet-oriented they are than with what publicity they expect to get out of it. Some people love the Net to a positively ideological degree, some people use it like the postal service and not much more, some people just never adjusted to it and some people actively dislike it. Authors, I'd guess, use their own website pretty much in proportion to how much they use any websites; it's a matter of personality and lifestyle rather than strategy.

In terms of choosing what to put on my own website, it's fairly pragmatic. I blog about whatever I think I can make interesting. Generally it's reflections on writing or some kind of cultural commentary, because I spend time thinking about those things and I assume that novel readers do too. A lot of what I say comes from ideas sparked with friends and, particularly, my fiance; I credit people if I'm quoting their ideas directly. Mostly, it comes from chatting to people, hearing myself say something and thinking, 'Hey, there's a blog post in that!' On the whole, my aim is for the blog to be a place where people can have interesting discussions about art in a friendly setting.

I'm actually clearer on what I don't put out. What you say on the Internet stays there pretty much for ever, so it's good to think about whether you'd regret it. There are a few things I'm cautious with.

Personal information is a big one. The Net is the most public place in the world, and if you divulge something private, it's always open to be read by people who do not wish you well. People who happen to swing by my blog are not going to act as the guardians of your privacy, so if there's something you aren't willing to share with everyone, the privacy guard duty is on you. If you read over this blog, you'll see there's actually very little personal information: the name of my fiance, the appearance of my cat, the first names of a few friends and the general location of my house, and that's about it. There are occasional stories about things that happened to me - but most of those are about involvement in public or professional events. My Internet persona discloses about as much as my street persona. It's more about my opinions than my life.

Information about people who aren't me is another biggie. I generally ask permission even before mentioning someone's name on the website: it's freaky to find your friends blogging about you without warning, and I don't see that I have any right to publicise my friends' lives.

Bitching about other artists is one I at least think twice about. I have one basic rule: do not attack living colleagues. I'll express negative opinions within limits, but I generally steer clear of fellow writers. Attacking them is too much like trying to undermine a rival, which just isn't classy: treating other writers as rivals rather than colleagues at all is a counter-productive attitude, and even if they were rivals, it would behove you to be civil about it. You may notice, if you've been reading for a while, that I'm much more comfortable criticising a movie, for instance; I'm not involved in movie-making, so I'm not swiping within my field, I'm just another viewer. Similarly, I'm prepared to lay into dead writers, but living ones, I'm not so comfortable with. That kind of thing can get ugly. I have a semi-exception on the Slacktivist website, where people including me criticise the Left Behind books, but as those books are primarily tracts, the writers aren't so much colleagues as proselytisers who happen to use fiction as a medium, in the same way that a writer for The Watchtower is a Jehovah's Witness before they're a journalist. Picking apart the writing of someone using an art form to further a non-artistic end (in this case a religio-political one) is opposing their end through undermining their means, but I don't criticse equally inept writers whose primary purpose is to write rather than to preach. So, while never expressing a negative opinion would limit the range of things to say too much, I try not to swipe at my fellows, and if I do say something critical I try to back it up rather than just slinging insults. It can be a balancing act, and I'm sure I wobble occasionally, but I try not to be too unpleasant.

I also don't get into discussions of certain works of art that I don't like which have thousands of Internet fans, just because I don't want to be mobbed. A year ago, for instance, I linked to an article about whether epic fantasy was inherently conservative and wrote about my own views on the subject*; in the course of his essay, the blogger I linked happened to criticise the fantasy author George R.R. Martin in one of his examples. It turns out that the Net is full of Martin fans; a lot of people were so antagonised that his thread turned into a discussion of Martin's merits that, rather to my regret, ignored the broader question of how fantasy and authoritarianism or conservativism interplay, and it grew so heated that he ended up shutting it down. (In fairness to the posters, McCalmont had said some rather rude things about Martin fans; some of them were rude back, and it all got out of hand.) There was a lesson there: certain works of art have particularly energetic defenders online, and if you criticise them, you'd better be prepared for that. It's wise to think about who you're addressing, and how much of an argument you feel like getting into.

That was a lot of 'don'ts', which is hardly positive, so I'll move onto something more cheerful, which is courtesy, and the niceness of my posters. I work on the assumption that blog posters generally follow the tone set by the blogger. A blogger who's aggressive will attract aggressive posts, a blogger who's polite, not so many. As I don't enjoy aggression, I try to keep my tone reasonably civil when criticising, and I'm happy to say that the vast majority of posters have responded in kind. I've only very rarely had someone come on and be rude to me, and asking them to stop has generally worked. I very much appreciate how nice everyone on this blog is; just last month I put out a request for comments on the premise of my latest book, and it was remarkable how generously people gave of their time to help me out.

So yeah, that's basically my blogging principles: try to be reasonably nice, appreciate the company of others, if you're going to say something disagreeable at least think about it and try to analyse rather than just blast, and hope for the best.

I'm working on answers to the other interesting questions; anyone who has further ones, just ask anytime. More Mikalogues will appear shortly too - I just need to find the camera with the relevant pictures. Mika says she is carryin me an my blog and I should appreciate her more.

* On a tangent in case anybody goes back and rereads the essay, I've sort of changed my mind on that score. Somebody recently introduced me to the kids' TV show Avatar: The Last Airbender, which is as epic as you please while containing genuine moral content and a very low-authoritarian attitude, so that's another counter-example that suggests my theory might apply in some cases but is not an across-the-board universal. Highly recommended show as well; it's really loads of fun, visually spectacular, admirably well written and surprisingly touching.

Thanks for answering my questions, Kit!
Thank you for asking it! :-)
This comment has been removed by the author.
On your tangent: I might be (read: am likely) still on a series-finale high, but despite its (teeny!) flaws, right now "Avatar" is my favorite show in the world.

It is a powerful high.

(Which makes me feel strangely old, and yet exhilarated.)
Interesting--I was recently thinking about the conservative/epic fantasy debate and had come to the conclusion that there was an inherent connection--except for YA or children's materials. I note that Avatar would fall in line with that.

Thanks for spurring the thought process!
That's an interesting thought, Menocchio. Epic fantasy is a genre I seldom consume, so perhaps you might furnish some examples? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

I've been reflecting on something similar in a post I'll put up shortly; I suspect part of the problem is in handling good and evil. In a lot of genres, there's a contingent of readers/viewers/writers who equate 'adult' with 'cynical' - something I don't agree with at all; it's perfectly possible to have faith in people in an unsentimental, it's-difficult-but-worthwhile way, and cynicism is, in my experience, the mindset of adolescence and early adulthood rather than full maturity - and such people are perhaps more likely to want the villains to be Legions of Darkness, because the alternative involves considering redemption or compassion, which call for faith in humanity and interfere with cynicism.

So if you're having a clash of good and evil and you want to feel adult by acting cynical, stereotyping threatens - and once you've stereotyped the enemy, you're down the authoritarian road.

I'll be saying more about this in the forthcoming post, but Avatar seems to get round it by two methods: one, it refuses to be ethnocentric and presents all cultures as having good and bad elements and containing nice and nasty citizens, and two, the evilness of the villains, such as it is, is presented - much more realistically - as emotional damage to the point of mental illness; having seen several loved ones suffer from depression, there's something horribly familiar about the Fire Lords' logic and affect. I don't think that option is necessarily confined to children and YA stuff... but then, the few 'adult' epic fantasies I have read haven't seemed any more mature than Avatar - they've just had somewhat older characters - so I don't know where you'd draw the line, really.
In re: young adult epic fantasy that handles the good /evil conflict in an adult, unsentimental, yet profoundly humanistic way (I don't want to say "liberal", but I'll certainly say "anti-authoritarian"), I have a number of suggestions for you:

Cashores. GRACELING.

Those just spring to the top of my head, and notably, they are all female writers, and none of them USian. (I'm not sure if the last one counts as "epic fantasy" either, although it's certainly fantasy, and cosmological in scope) I don't know what that says, really.

Let me try and think of an American male author I would fit in that category... Hmmm. Michael Levi's CITY OF DOGS is kind of epic fantasy-ish. Is he American or British?
I just discovered your blog (via the article you wrote for Endicott's Farewell Issue-- which was great, by the way) and wondered, is there an RSS feed available for your blog, so that readers may access it through other venues (such as through LiveJournal.com, etc.)?

Another note on your article-- I found it very refreshing to see lycanthropic literature and themes discussed seriously. I have been reader shapeshifter fiction of various types for some years now, and much of it is dissapointing-- for many of the reasons described in the article. But it was heartening to see titles like Bradshaw's given the recognition they deserve. So, thank you.
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