Friday, July 29, 2011

Can Reader Engagement Go Too Far?

Posted by L.J. Sellers, mystery/suspense novelist
Being a middle child, a nice person, and a workaholic, I’ve spent my life trying to do the right thing and make people happy. As a member of a dysfunctional family, I’ve given up the goal, but as novelist, I’m still trying to satisfy my current readers while reaching out to new ones. Some days though, I’m not sure what I should be doing.

The new catch phrases in marketing are content and engagement. Content seems easy: Just keep writing stories that people want to read. But the experts say that’s not enough. They say I need to pen informative blogs, write short stories to give away, and create entertaining videos. So I’m doing all that.

Engaging readers is a less-concrete concept and I’m starting to think the idea is more hype than practicality. For example, a well-read blog recently advised authors to do the following:
  • Listen—Create ways to listen to your readers and collect data about what you hear; use focus groups and surveys to support regular listening mechanisms.
  • Customer knowledge—Find out why people buy your products (or not), why they recommend you to others (or not), why they are repeat buyers. Understand what else they buy.
  • Conversations—Find unique ways of connecting with readers, ways that will enhance your brand as an author, ways that enable dialogue, not one-way broadcast.
  • Collaborate—Go beyond listening and conversation to collaborate with your readers, perhaps testing your products in advance of a full launch or soliciting ideas for additional content.
  • Community—Build a community of your readers. Facilitate mechanisms for readers to interact with one another as part of this community and to broaden the reach to additional readers.
Some of this is intuitive and I’m already doing it. But focus groups and surveys? Does this seem over the top? As a consumer, I hate surveys, and I’m not likely to ever clutter my readers’ in-boxes with a questionnaire that makes them feel like a cash cow. Collaborate? Meaning, ask readers where they’d like me to take the series or characters? I’d get as many different answers as there are readers.

In fact, that’s the biggest problem with engagement. Some readers like to interact with authors. They send e-mails, go to conferences, and participate in book discussions. Many readers, perhaps the majority, would rather not engage with the author. They simply want to read the books and move on. I’ve heard readers say they don’t even like seeing an author bio in a novel, because they enjoy the story more if they don’t know anything about the writer.

I understand and respect this. I also love readers and book clubs who contact me to talk about my stories. So I make myself as available as I can, while trying to find the middle ground and not waste time on activities that readers will ignore or find annoying.

Readers: How much and what kind of engagement with a novelist do you want? What are authors not doing that you'd like to see more of?
Writers: How far do you take reader engagement?


  1. As a writer and a reader, I have to say, seeing the author's pic is not a big thing. Why do I need to? The story is the thing. Thanks for the post. I think we have to pick and choose our options.


  2. LJ - What a great post!
    #1 - "Readers: How much and what kind of engagement with a novelist do you want?

    I think any sort of "engagement" needs to happen naturally. Just like a friendship and/or relationship. It might begin at an on-line forum such as DorothyL and move forward (or not) depending on the people involved and how well they like (or not) one another, and just how much they have beyond books for the "engagement" to move forward. I'd really rather not have stuff show up in my email box other than notes (not surveys, not marketing tools, etc.) from people I know unless it's stuff I've requested.

    #2 - What are authors not doing that you'd like to see more of?"

    And that, I think, NEEDS to be up to the author. I honestly don't think the reader has any place in this equation. Some authors are very comfortable doing conventions, some aren't. It's hard for me to watch anyone doing anything they're not comfortable doing, and I'd rather think of them comfortably sitting at home writing. They are, after all, doing that for the readers and I think that's a gracious plenty.

  3. Great post, LJ. I empathize with being a middle child, and wanting to please everyone. But I'm sure there's no such thing as a functional family.

    I suppose it's true that writers' customers are their readers, but it sounds almost mercenary.

  4. I love seeing the picture of the author, and knowing at least what part of the country they live in while they spin their words.

    But I totally agree with Kaye . . . natural is the key. Not forced. Not because of angst or fear or some kind of strange obligation. And puh-lease, don't show up in my inbox unless I've invited you.

    By the way, LJ, Kathleen Hickey (a DLer) and I had coffee this morning. She is thoroughly enjoying THE SEX CLUB and looking forward to the reading the rest of the series.

  5. Hi L.J.,

    What a great post. As a reviewer, I try to maintain a bit of distance between me and writers. I enjoy meeting them, interacting with them on on-line group such as DorothyL, 4_Mystery_Addicts, Crime-thru-time, etc., and loved the conversation we had a SF Bouchercon, but I don't want to become close friends.

    While my reviews are, by their nature, subjective, I feel it's important to be objective about the author. Yes, I like to see their photo; I do even read their biography.

    However, the most important thing to me is being able to write an honest review pointing out both a book's strengths and weaknesses. I believe I would find that more difficult to do were I to become too closely associated with the author.

    But that's just me...

  6. As a reader, I always look for the photo and short bio of the author at the end of the book, and am disappointed if there isn't one there. If I've enjoyed the book, I like to find out a bit about the author. (If I don't enjoy a book, I never get past the first chapter or two.)

    Occasionally I want to contact the author of one of the novels I've read about some point or other, but I confess that my life is so busy I almost never follow through. I have quite a few well-known and bestselling authors as Facebook friends, though, and I really enjoy posting a few lines on their profile page about how much I enjoyed their book! It makes me feel part of a community of lovers of a great story well told! (I'd say "bibliophiles" but that makes us all sound like librarians.)

  7. I also feel sorry for authors in today's economic times, who have to promote their books when they'd rather be writing the next one. I hate to think of all that marketing effort sucking the creative juices out of our great writers. Somehow, you manage to pull off both, LJ! I have no idea how, but kudos to you!

    As for your point, "Collaborate? Meaning, ask readers where they’d like me to take the series or characters? I’d get as many different answers as there are readers." I totally agree with you. Write the story you're dying to tell. Some people will like it, lots will love it, and a few will pick at it. That's life. I say be true to your own self and don't worry about trying to please everyone or trying to write a collaborative book with your readers! You're the talented writer, and it's your vision, not theirs! Sure, use beta readers if you like, and/or a freelance copy editor, but take their advice with a grain of salt and remember, you're the author and it's YOUR story! And in your case, LJ, you're the successful author, and for good reason!

  8. Thanks, Jodie!

    Everyone is busy, which is why I don't want to waste time hosting events and discussions that readers don't have the time or desire to participate in.

    As you said, I want more time to write.

  9. I think the continuum swings through varying degrees. There's no way to fully understand what degree of engagement the reader wants, since it's an individual choice, just as much as what and whom they read. As an author, I try to stay somewhere in the middle so I don't over or under step any boundaries. Better safe than sorry. I think the key is to always measure the appropriateness of your actions, then respond accordingly.

  10. Every reader is different. I agree with Andrew E. Kaufman. I love the idea of a writer writing just what they love.

    Marketers will probably give you every idea of things that can keep you busy ALL the time since that is what THEY do all the time. I have been thinking a lot lately about why I haven't read a second book by some authors that I liked a lot. I think that is where the reminders and publicity are important, keeping your name out there. But is there a being out there too much thing too? Not everyone has to read all of the books right away. I don't know why I never read a second book by a very famous prominent writer for years when the first one I read I read in two hours flat and laughed my head off. Maybe his name being out there all the time slowed me down? I just don't know. Maybe it was the books not being on the shelf of the bookstores in my town, though I special ordered other things. That is where the internet and ebooks should be a help to writers, I think. Fewer interruptions causing the customer to pick up someone else's book on the way to the cash register.

    I very much enjoy reading the author bios at the end of a book and seeing the author's picture. A bit of bio makes the author memorable -- to me it is one way an author stands out especially since it often mentions other work and helps the name stick in your head. Or maybe the hobby stands out like, "um, the one who plays the bagpipes." I have found it quite odd that author's spouses are vanishing from books. (It is a marketing thing I am told.)

  11. I should have mentioned in my post that I usually do read most of an author's books. That is why I sometimes pause and wonder why with others equally well liked years go by in between. Maybe it is just "so many books, so little time."

    The constant interactions prescribed by marketers sound like a push toward adding one more field to those overrun with the cult of celebrity in which the quiet writers might not get the attention of the ones who are more extroverted.

  12. How much and what kind of engagement with a novelist do you want?

    How about drinks and maybe a nice quiet dinner? Dancing if you like, but I'm not much of a dancer, so be warned...

    Seriously, as a reader, most of the time I'm content to enjoy the ride. Once in a while, I encounter something that makes me want to ask just what was in the writer's head as those words settled on the page, but more often I'm puzzling over the activity in my head as the words float up off the page. (It's all about me, after all.)

    Once in a great while, I demand access to the writer, whether via email, face to face contact, or postal mail - because sometimes, it's worth the effort to deliver my thanks in person.

    As a writer... well, I was the kid who always gave his book report on the last day, who couldn't speak loudly enough for anyone to hear... whose page of notes would not hold still in my hand. Yes, I was the Barney Fife of book reports. The thought of what comes after the first novel is sold is, frankly, terrifying.

    Perhaps I should write a book about it?

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