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Technology can be an author's best publicist

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By Rege Behe
Thursday, Nov. 19, 2009
 

Before the World Wide Web gained traction, Anne Rice was trying to reach readers beyond the pages of her novels.

She published a newsletter and left messages on a phone line where fans could leave feedback. Rice, the noted author of "The Vampire Chronicles" series, occasionally took out ads in newspapers to get out her message.

"I was much criticized for that," she says, "but then it turned out that the Internet came along, and now everybody does that."

Rare is the writer who doesn't have a Web site, from best-selling authors such as Rice and Stephen King to literary novelists the likes of A.S. Byatt and Ian McEwan. Writers have turned to social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter to interact with fans and market their work.

"(Publishers) expect you to not only write the book, but you also have to sell it," author Hallie Ephron says. "And the selling is with new media. It makes it both easier and more daunting, because there's so much noise out there. How are you going to make yourself heard?"

Ephron, the Massachusetts-based author of mystery novels including "Never Tell a Lie," and the just-published "The Bibliophile's Devotional: 365 Days of Literary Classics," updates her Web site daily. She tweets on Twitter; shares a blog, Jungle Red Writers, with five of her peers; and posts updates on Facebook.

But she is wary of too much exposure.

"I think you can numb people," Ephron says. "I think people get sick of hearing from you, and there are plenty of authors out there who are overdoing it. I think there's an art to be intriguing and making people want to buy the book."

That might be worse than no exposure at all, according to Sarah Weinman, a book critic and writer who runs the blog "Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind."

"I can't tell you how many examples I can come up with of authors who are out there semi-spamming Web sites, blogs, social networks, mailings lists, etc., because they are desperate to get their names out, and forget that interactions with prospective readers have to have meaning and purpose," Weinman says.

Quick feedback

Earlier this year, Gregg Hurwitz was at Comic-Con in San Diego when it was announced he was going to be working on the "MoonKnight" series. Within minutes, the news had been posted on Facebook and Twitter by ardent fans.

Hurwitz, author of the best-selling thrillers "Trust No One" and "The Crime Writer," can tap into the passions that are rampant throughout the comic book community. While he has to be careful -- Hurwitz zealously avoids suggestions for story ideas because of possible legal ramifications -- the feedback he receives acts as a technological pulse, allowing him to gauge which ideas work and which ones don't.

"The (comics) community is great," Hurwitz says. "When they love stuff, you know it. When they hate stuff, you know it. ... There are a lot of opinions flying around, so it's very vital."

Facebook and Twitter also act as a way of relieving the tedium of writing.

Alafair Burke, the New York-based author of "Angel's Tip" and "Judgment Calls," worked as a district attorney in Portland, Ore., before turning to writing. What she misses most about her previous work is the culture and the camaraderie, being able to have a cup of coffee with friends. As a writer, social interaction is not naturally present. But social media sites provide surrogate, if technologically removed, compensation for the solitude required to write.

"Facebook and Twitter have become nice distractions," Burke says. "Sometimes, it can be too much of a distraction, but it's a way to exchange little quips with people just from your own home."

Burke, who blogs via her Web site and uses Twitter, says there is a beneficial synergy that occurs between her writing and the public posts.

"Sometimes I'm writing stuff for legal academics, sometimes I'm writing fiction," Burke says. "Sometimes I'm blogging toward the book crowd, sometimes I'm blogging toward the academic crowd, and I find that switching gears on the substance of what I'm writing can help the entire time I'm writing.

"It keeps those muscles fluid, so the typing fingers and the voice are always going. It's just the question of what I'm talking about that changes.'

Boosting sales

Ayelet Waldman initially resisted the idea of increasing her presence on the Internet. At the urging of her publisher, the Berkeley, Calif.-based author of the novel "Love and Other Impossible Pursuits" increased her Web presence. Much to her surprise, her sales figures also increased.

"I think Facebook and Twitter definitely helped my book sell and get on the New York Times best-seller list," Waldman says of her most recent release, "Bad Mother." "We had contests for pre-orders, and pre-orders make a huge difference, for Amazon in particular. I would go on my Facebook page or on Twitter and say I'm going to run a contest. ... I think it made a tremendous difference."

While the Internet has proved to be a boon for her, Waldman remains nostalgic for how books once were promoted. But the old model -- notably, book tours -- is not enough.

"Unless you're super-famous, going from city to city doesn't do you any good, she says. "So you sell 30 or 50 copies more in a city. I don't think that gets you on best-seller lists."

Despite the easy access of the Internet, there still are those who don't take advantage of its ability to reach thousands, even millions, of potential readers.

"Not every author wants to do this," says Heather Drucker, an associate director of publicity with HarperCollins in New York. "I have a few author Luddites. They do e-mail, but they are not interested in blogging."

It is usually more established authors who are most resistant to promoting themselves via the Internet, especially on Facebook and Twitter, Drucker says.

There are benefits for writers beyond increased book sales. Rice, who rarely travels from her home in California due to health issues, says she hears from fans in Israel, Romania and the Canary Islands by way of her online presence.

"Sometimes, you get bad or negative e-mails," Rice says. "But most of the time, 99 percent of the time, they are kind of constructive and interesting. I think if people are bored with your writing or they don't respond to it. ... Usually what you get is positive feedback on what you achieved, and that can be very comforting and sustaining."

Writers' tech

Who are the best writers when it comes to maintaining an online presence• Sarah Weinman, a book reviewer who hosts the influential mystery blog "Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind" ( www.sarahweinman.com ), selects her favorites:

Laura Lippman ( www.lauralippman.com ): "I like how Laura Lippman manages her Facebook pages and blog."

Alafair Burke ( www.alafairburke.com ): "Alafair Burke is out there in a number of different social media and strikes the right balance between a strong presence and not too strong."

Lee Child ( www.leechild.com ): "Lee Child's message board is still a gold standard in terms of old-school fan-author interaction."

Mark Billingham ( www.markbillingham.com ) and John Connolly ( www.johnconnollybooks.com ): Both "have active (and moderated!) message boards."

Joseph Finder ( twitter.com/JoeFinder ): Joe Finder used Twitter fairly effectively to get the word out about his last novel.

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