Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
As with almost every other feature of the digital landscape, social media have presented both a blessing and a curse to authors eager to stake their claims to this new terrain.
On the one hand, online ventures like sci-fi author Andrew Kessler’s togather.com promise an end to the author’s nightmare of poorly attended readings or signings. Launched on August 6, Togather is a “fansourcing” platform in the tradition of Kickstarter, allowing authors or fans to propose a promotional book event and obtain commitments from fans who are planning to attend—informing the author well in advance whether enough interest exists to make the event worthwhile.
Togather is free for authors, and allows them to decide just how much support they need to hold the event, in terms of book sales or RSVPs. In addition, fans can visit the page and propose events themselves for the author’s review and revision.
Similarly, analytical tools like CoverCake allow users to track what books are trending on Twitter and Facebook. According to this Publishers Weekly article, CoverCake recently entered into deals with Ingram and Inscribe Digital in order “to discover not just how millions of people are reacting to specific books and who those people are, but how they’re reacting to entire book subjects, both at a macro and micro level.” Such inside access to a book’s readership is unprecedented, and allows both authors and publishers to tweak their offerings based on hard data on what the people want.
But it’s not all rainbows and butterflies and packed book signings; there are always those enterprising and unscrupulous souls eager to game the system and ruin it for the rest of us. According to a Salon article by Laura Miller, along with services that produce fake five-star Amazon “reader” reviews for a fee, an author can also hire a company to create a Twitter feed and fake a relationship with fans. Worse yet, British thriller writer Stephen Leather recently commented on his intention to create sock puppet social media accounts to promote his book.
“As soon as my book is out I’m on Facebook and Twitter several times a day talking about it. I’ll go on to several forums, the well-known forums, and post there under my name and under various other names and various other characters. You build up this whole network of characters who talk about your books and sometimes have conversations with yourself.”
I mean, who hasn’t had the odd conversation with fake entities in order to sell their product, am I right? This isn’t crazy or creepy or exploitative at all. Leather’s frankness about scamming his readership is somehow the most disturbing aspect; his assumption that he isn’t the only one engaging in such practices comes through loud and clear.
The darker flipside of social media isn’t confined to readers. Sometimes authors themselves are the victims of commenters eager to promote their own opinions and condemn others’ at all costs. According to award-winning author Patrick Ness, quoted in this Guardian article, instant feedback via social networking sites is promoting a culture of dangerous self-censorship that threatens to stifle creativity and constrain literary examination of controversial topics.
“Instead of bringing us all together in an omnipresent, multi-faceted discussion, the internet instead has made sectarianism an almost default position. The nature of mass debate has become solely binary,” Ness says. “Ask yourself, truthfully, would you sit down tomorrow morning and start writing a novel with Muhammad as your central character? A Muhammad treated as a fallible man rather than a prophet? A Muhammad perhaps even criticised?”
Of course, not all authors feel so negatively. China Mieville, for one, is perfectly comfortable with taking care on public forums.
“There are millions of things we shouldn’t say. We self-censor all the time, and a bloody good thing too. Our minds are washing machines full of crap that we pick up over our years on this earth.
“One of the problems [in this debate] is the elision between having the legal right to say something (and I don’t trust the state to tell me when I can and can’t say something) and having the moral right not to be told off for saying something objectionable.
“This is why the free speech warrior who thinks they have the right to say what they like and then complain when someone complains – that’s not censorship. Censorship is when the police come round.”
Ultimately, social media tools are exactly that—tools. They’re neither inherently good nor bad, but they can certainly be used in both laudable and questionable ways. I tend to think that much of the current backlash can be reduced to temporary growing pains, as authors, publishers, and readers learn to navigate an unfamiliar and potentially fraught landscape. Twitter sock puppetry will either become regulated or lose its potency, and negative commenters hardly have the power of a fatwa; genuine trailblazers are unlikely to be swayed in their purpose by misspelled diatribes or even well-reasoned responses. Unless the Internet itself disappears, social media aren’t going anywhere; the best we can do is learn to make the most of them, and educate ourselves enough to guard against exploitation.