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Should You Set Limits with Your Readers?

barbed wire
A few years ago, it seemed like you couldn’t swing a deceased feline without hitting an author in the grip of a meltdown. Even if the conflict was minor, once it became public, the internet’s retribution often turned malignant. Virtual mobs would descend upon the author’s blog, clotting the comment section with hostility. Their fiction was systematically targeted for one-star reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. By committing acts which alienated readers, writing colleagues or the reviewing community, authors could decimate their platform and threaten their career within a matter of hours.

Small wonder, then, that many authors staged a quiet retreat from social media.

Some writers disappeared altogether. They preferred isolation to making a catastrophic mistake. Others abandoned all attempt at two-way conversation, effectively becoming broadcasters to their readers.

Still others looked for the magic formula which would allow them to maintain two-way, author-reader interaction. As consensus grew about what constituted best practices, they adopted them with a fervor that I might go so far as to term rigid. This included rules such as:

  1. One should never respond out of reactivity. (Or post while drunk, high, etc.)
  2. Stick with politically correct material.
  3. Treat your reader with the model touted by commerce: the customer is always right.
  4. Avoid engaging reviewers. Period.

With the exception of the Avoid Reactivity/Drunk-posting rule, I’d argue that there are problems with all these approaches.

It’s one thing to thoughtfully decide that you don’t enjoy social media or that, as Seth Godin say [1]s, it’s an overrated way to get attention for your books. It’s quite another to abandon it out of fear, if only because you’ll risk taking that sense of personal smallness into your fiction.

The one-way broadcasters may think they are safe, but they risk offending readers who’ve been trained to expect a conversation, and who see anything less as a hard sell.

Those who stick with politically safe material risk building a brand known for its bland.

If the customer is always right, to whom will you grant that status? “Reader” is a self-identifying descriptor and can be claimed by anyone who chooses, from the super fan who’s signed up for your street team and devoured your fiction (hi, Mom!) to the individual who skimmed a few blog posts and proclaimed you were derivative. Will you be equally devoted to both?

As for the decision to leave reviewers to their own devices, that’s nice in theory, but what if they won’t leave you alone? What if readers show up with negative reviews and post them on your blog or Facebook page? (The precipitating case of this post because Nora Roberts recently created a policy banning this practice, prompting mixed reactions on WU’s Facebook page [2].* For the record, I think her decision is brilliant.)

Further, if those rules are iron-clad, what explains the outliers?

I’m not saying you should try this at home—at least not without careful consideration—but some authors are rewarded when they talk about controversial subjects, mock commenters, or ban reviewers. How exactly does that work?

Before we talk about those exceptions and how they manage to get away with the seemingly impossible, let’s look for insights in another world which has navigated a vast change between provider and consumer.

Rise of the Patient in Western Medicine

Until the recent past, the doctor-patient relationship has been asymmetrical, heavily favoring the authority and opinion of the physician. Doctors spoke in exclusionary language, referring to common conditions by their Latin names even when communicating with patients. They scrawled prescriptions in indecipherable script. They wore lab coats and clustered en mass, towering above their semi-naked clients. (This is a Jan-idiosyncracy, but I strongly dislike the words “client” and “consumer” in this context. They make the relationship sound commercial and do not communicate the sacred trust that comes with the role. I’m using it here to avoid word repetition.)

While I know it can feel like we’re still living in those ancient days, a significant shift took place in the latter part of the 20th century with the advent of the scientific method and evidence-based medicine. For the first time we could examine why some physicians—using the same tools and instruments as their peers against the same backdrop of illness—consistently achieved superior results. The differences were startling, often eclipsing the value of the supposed “treatment”.

What were those improved results?

Their secret? The power of a strong doctor-patient relationship. Turns out that when doctors worked to elicit patient’s wishes in the clinical encounter, when they sought holistic treatment plans, and when they worked to establish rapport, everyone was happier. (Except the practice’s time-keeper, for each clinical encounter takes a few minutes longer.)

For a time, then, the Holy Grail in behavioral medicine—what we were teaching new graduates about the humanizing aspect of the clinical encounter—was a type of interaction known as patient-centered medicine.

But it didn’t take long for the limitations of this model to become known, and to understand the pendulum had perhaps swung too far from physician-dominance to patient-dominance. It was hard for doctors to understand the limits of service in this model, particularly in Canada where medicine is taxpayer-funded. (i.e. The “customer” indirectly subsidizes your training, builds the hospital where you maintain your privileges and becomes your employer.) Within the philosophy of patient-centered medicine, patients had the right to become unreasonably demanding and physicians risked burning out.

Thus, the 1990s saw the dawning of relationship-centered medicine, which kept the best of patient-centered medicine alive and which asked for a commitment from both parties. Patients have a right to respect and quality medical care, physicians have a right to establish limits of care, including the right to “fire” patients who don’t respect the rules of their practice. (For example, verbally abusing medical staff.)

Is there a parallel in writer-reader relationship? Are we ready for this level of nuance in the writer-reader relationship? I think so, and for evidence, let’s look at some authors who’ve set firm, potentially controversial limits with their audience.

1. Jenny Lawson, aka The Bloggess [3]a memoirist and humorist whose blog and Twitter feed is frequently NSFW. Here’s her comment policy [4] as described by John Scalzi. “…she reserves the right to take the postings of the most obnoxious trolls in her comment threads and change the words to something else entirely, subverting the message of the troll. The troll usually returns, outraged that his golden prose has been changed; that comment gets changed too. This continues until the troll realizes that there is nothing he can say that won’t get subverted, and eventually the troll runs away.”

How have readers reacted to this public irreverence? Her memoir, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, reached #1 on the NYT bestseller list. Her blog posts regularly receive hundreds of comments. She’s a traditional media darling. And her colleagues? Do they take offense? Well she rubs shoulders with the likes of Will Wheaton and Neil Gaiman.

 2. John Scalzi—a NYT-bestselling novelist, film critic, editor, and former president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, he runs a popular blog which frequently tackles divisive issues: reproductive rights, politics, sexism within the gaming industry, etc. It’s common for his opinions to be amplified by traditional media, which means he attracts a goodly number of people who don’t know his blog’s rules. Scalzi’s response to transgressors? Vigorous moderation via the Mallet of Loving Correction [5].  From his comment policy [6]: “I run this site as I please. You do not get a vote. If you try to suggest that you do, I may be rude to you.”

3. Most recently, Nora Roberts [7]a prolific, multi-awarded and bestselling writer of romance and futuristic police procedural (as JD Robb), decided to clamp down on negativity within her blog or on her Facebook page. This meant deleting comments and banning readers who descended into personal attacks or who insisted on posting critical reviews of her fiction.

The results? No detectable loss of her nearly 600,000-person-strong  Facebook readership.

Why have these authors been able to set limits with readers in a way which hasn’t made them pariahs but which might have, if anything, earned them more respect?

Doubt that last statement? Look no further than Thea McGinnis’ comment in the Facebook post where we debated [2] Ms. Roberts’ choice.*

She’s…a positive voice and advocate for a genre that takes a beating. And she provides a platform for many other romance writers. She’s created a foundation for literacy. Her work has inspired budding romance writers. Her books have found their way to heartbroken and sick people and given them respite from the real world. She’s rebuilt a town and given people jobs. All as a result of her books. I guess she didn’t appreciate waking up on a Tuesday being called Satan. I don’t think she’s protesting the critique of her book. She is defending her personhood and her work. She is not going to allow herself to be pecked to death.

In summary, Unboxeders, just as there is no one formula to achieve social media success, there is no single prescription that will keep you safe from a PR disaster. But if you will take the time—as Dan Blank [10] relentlessly urges—to build trusting, genuine relationships with a larger community, and if you will act in service to a larger principle as you maintain the spaces under your control, odds are you will survive a social media storm. In fact, like the seeds of the coconut tree, when the pounding surf subsides, it’s possible you’ll have been washed ashore upon fresh, fertile soil.

What strategies do you have to keep yourself safe from social media snafus? Have you witnessed a rule-breaking author who manages to thrive? If so, how do they manage to be an exception? How do you handle readers who transgress your personal limits in the spaces under your care?

*Not a member of the Facebook page and wish to join? Go here [11] to read about our policies. 

About Jan O'Hara [12]

A former family physician and academic, Jan O'Hara [13] (she/her) left the world of medicine behind to follow her dreams of becoming a writer. She writes love stories that zoom from wackadoodle to heartfelt in six seconds flat: (Opposite of Frozen [14]; Cold and Hottie [15]; Desperate Times, Desperate Pleasures [16]). She also contributed to Author in Progress, a Writer's Digest Book edited by Therese Walsh.