The Author–Reader Relationship

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The other day my hubby made a comment about how important he’d realized relationships with clients are in accounting. He said a lot of people might think that accounting is just about crunching numbers, but that if you have to tell a client he owes fifty grand in taxes, it really helps if you’ve got a good relationship. Otherwise, the client’s more likely to complain not just about the amount but about his accountant.

Similarly, in the corporation he used to work for the engineers hated the accountants because they thought the accountants were too picky and giving them too much extra paperwork. So hubby would walk down to chat with the engineers, getting to know them. Once he started creating that relationship, the engineers were more willing to provide info the accountants needed.

I notice this all the time in teaching. Creating a fun, friendly, approachable relationship with my students makes a big difference in how receptive they are when I give them feedback about their writing.

The relationship is key.

So now I’ve been thinking about what else this applies to, like the author–reader relationship. Thanks to technology, suddenly you can read your favorite author’s blog and leave comments on it or send her messages on Twitter and get replies. It’s amazing.

And yet it’s still such a unique relationship. One of my author friends once told me how inadequate she feels at book signings because readers already feel like they know her through her books and it’s almost like they want something intangible — some taste of what they found in the book and want to rediscover by meeting her. It’s sort of crazy and sort of awkward and sort of understandable, all at the same time.

The experience of reading a great book can be so tender, full of a huge range of emotions. You feel like you’ve connected with someone soul-to-soul, like this author is someone who understands you in ways no one else does.

And yet of course the author knows nothing about you. To me it’s such a strange kind of relationship.

I so admire authors who do what they can to cultivate that relationship anyway, reaching out to fans through blogs and Facebook and Twitter and so on, patiently reading through comments and replying as much as they can. It’s tough and it’s time-consuming, from what I’ve observed, but I know as a fan myself the coolest thing is to have an author say they liked your blog post about their book or they appreciated some comment you made. That’s when the author starts to feel like such a real person to me, somebody with whom I’d love to go to lunch and chat for an hour or more.

I’ve also been thinking about the author–reader relationship in terms of what’s communicated in the story itself.

I exchanged emails with one of my early readers this week in which I admitted that I wanted to keep certain elements of the story despite how skeptical the critique group had seemed about them. She replied,

“In no way did I want to discourage it [that element of the story] — I do believe that as writers, we know more things than the readers. And so it’s just a matter of clarifying it to the readers, and I’m sure that’s where you are.”

Despite how cool it is to connect with authors at signings or via social networks, still the most important part of the relationship is the experience of reading their work. I have to create a relationship where the readers can abandon their sense of disbelief and trust me to guide them through the story. I also have to connect them to the characters, providing the conduit for that additional relationship layer.

In other words, just as I show my students I care about them from day one by learning their names, I have to show my readers that I care about them by clarifying every element of the story until it works right.

That doesn’t always mean bowing to their ideas. Last week I let some of my students propose ideas for how to spend our last two weeks of class, and one group proposed having three days off for more time to work from home. Instead I agreed to take them to the computer lab for time to work in class. I happen to know that when I let them “work from home” more than half will just procrastinate the assignment even longer. Once I explained that factor, they agreed with me.

Similarly, as the author I know my story. Often I just have gut feelings about what to include, and then my job is to figure out why those elements make sense in the story and  somehow subtly portray the reasons to the readers.

There will still always be complaints. I’m sure that no matter how cool your accountant is, you’re going to complain at least a little about owing $50,000. There will always be decisions in a story with which some readers disagree. But I’m hoping that if I keep my readers in mind, always, then they’ll see how much I care — both about the story and them.

What do you think about the author–reader relationship?

Leave a comment!

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2 responses »

  1. I agree with you – it’s hard. I have this compulsive need to reply to my readers whenever I get a tweet/facebook/blog comment and it’s overwhelming at times! It is nice, though. We do pour our hearts out on paper, and it’s shocking when you find you drastically changed someone’s life because of it. Scary, intimidating, secretive – these words come to mind when thinking from an author prespective on the author-writer relationship. I’ve only done one book signing, am I’m terrified to do another!

    But reguardless, I do love my fans and they are every bit of my books!

    Like

    • Thanks for sharing! “Scary, intimidating, secretive” — I like those words, too. The writing process starts out so secretive — just you and the words — and then even though you share it with hundreds or thousands of people, each one still reads privately, savoring the words in secret. It’s a crazy thing. Good luck on your next signing! 🙂

      Like

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