Monday, February 15, 2010

Fan mail

I got a copy of a letter lauding FIRST CONTACT by Evan Mandery recently. It was a letter that I'll frame and put next to the copy of the book in my office. It said all the things I think, only so much better I wanted to call up the writer and gush my thanks. I refrained, since it would probably only frighten her, and I want her to read every book I sell from now forward.

It was wonderful to know Evan connected in this profound and intimate way with a total stranger. To me, that is one of the greatest joys of writing. Even in my limited capacity as a blogger, it's the comments and sense of connection that makes this special to me.

There is a Slate article about the woman who worked at Harold Ober and Associates, J.D. Salinger's literary agent. JD Salinger never read his fan mail. From the article it sounds like he never even SAW any of it.

I'm sure there are a handful of authors these days who don't see any of their fan mail, but I'll bet most see at least some.

Which got me thinking.

I had lunch with a brilliant young editor recently who was wonderfully cruel and sent me a book that knocked my sox off. I read it, then read it again, and then again. Under threat of decapitation and public humiliation, she swore me to total secrecy regarding author, title, publisher, and pub date. (When I can reveal it, I will. You won't be able to shut me up in fact)

But after I read this book, I realized the author was going to get fan mail. Some of it would be the gushing thanks. Some of it won't.

Some of it will be "this is my life you're writing about." And some of it will be from people whose lives are in ruins, who are clutching this book like a lifeline.

And because of Twitter, Facebook, webpages, blogs and the plethora of ways to reach authors these days -- ways publishers and agents demand authors be available in fact -- this author will not have the luxury of not reading these messages.

And some of the authors of these incredible amazing YA books that reach right into your heart? The authors themselves are young. They are social networking savvy. They are right there on the front lines and they will hear everything said, no filter available.

How do we, agents, editors, booksellers maybe, others, adults anyway, help these young authors with this modern burden? I've never even thought of talking to my authors about what to do if someone reaches out like that. I've mostly been worried about my authors' privacy and security concerns.

This is something I'm thinking about now. I haven't seen anyone else talking about it. I think we'd better.

And the irony of the timing of this post is not lost on me: just today I wagged my finger at you and said censoriously Be Reachable.


hannah said...

I have no ideas, but as a young YA author I'm going to be glued to my refresh button here...**plops down and waits**

Piedmont Writer said...

Really great post Janet. As someone who is not Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, savvy it has already posed a problem in my brain as to how to reach the masses, if ever I have any.

I'm too worried about the privacy issue you mentioned, to be concerned that I would even get fanmail. It's a crazy world we live in.

Carrie said...

I think they are already somewhat prepared, having experienced the 'unfiltered' internet from nearly the moment they could read. Many writers have gone through the thrashing from peers, and have seen what happens to celebrities.

I do feel bad that a writer/author can't really lash back out at a particularly pointed or worse, unjustified/invalid opinion. That's where it gets really hairy and it all boils down the the main circumstance of being a writer: Have a thick skin.

Maryann Miller said...

As a writer who is pretty well connected on social sites, I am not worried about privacy issues. I wasn't even aware that I needed to be as my e-mail addresses and phone numbers are all hidden. It has been a real joy to get a fan letter now and then, and so much easier for fans to do that electronically than the old-fashioned way.

The biggest problem with being on social sites is discipline. It is easy to get caught up in everything and not writing. I limit myself to a half hour a day to be on Twitter and Facebook and visit blogs.

Matthew Delman said...

One of the major things you can remember in this age of hyperinterconnectivity is that the "fan mail" an author gets is sometimes going to come from people who believe they know you because they've read your work.

Film and TV actors have dealt with this for decades. Perhaps, in fact, you could take a lesson from interviews with how stars deal with their fame and apply the same lessons to your authors. Just a thought.

Christi Goddard said...

When I decided to try to publish my manuscript (as originally I'd just been writing for my own entertainment), I realized up front the sort of issues you are bringing up.

I created an email that is strictly for professional use and blog to connect with other writers (and hopefully eventually fans), but my private stuff is still safe.

The email, blog, and website are for professional pursuits, while I maintain other separate pursuits incognito.

I would think that many of these young writers who have grown up in the cyberspace universe would think to do that, too. My email on my blog is for professional use, and thus far no one has abused it.

Anonymous said...

Here's my suggestion: Create a Facebook Fan Page for the book, and direct traffic to it. On the book's Web site, say something like, "Want to reach out to [author name] or share your story? Click here [link to fan page]." In the author's Twitter bio, include the link to the Fan Page.

On the Fan Page itself, add a message from the author: "I'll try to respond personally to as many fans as my schedule allows ..." Encourage fans to share with each other, and that will take some of the burden of responding to each posting.

Periodically add content to the Fan Page with links to resources for dealing with issues that are brought up, perhaps acknowledging some of the personal comments.

Kate said...

My imagination fails me on this one. For me, considering such a problem is like worrying over which color Ferrari to order.

That said, this is an interesting point. It *is* a burden to have a stranger believe you are her lifeline, the only one who understands her. And when such a person can approach you directly, you may be forced to be mean, either in deed or lack thereof. And this undermines the spirit in which you wrote the book in the first place.

Well, without knowing the particulars, my advice is this: Post links on the author website to online support communities appropriate for the types of problems that draw these readers to the author in the first place. There are such communities for EVERY problem, and support from people going through the same is what these readers are really looking for anyway.

Likewise, give the author a pat way of directing fans to these communities in answer to any such fan mail.

Stephanie, PQW said...

Thanks for the insight. I would love to have the problem of fanmail. One of these days it will happen.

Privacy doesn't worry me so much because I keep networking a little separate from my private stuff. The truth is, today if someone wants to find you they can.

Cat Moleski said...

I think it’s great to be available to fans to chat about life, books, etc…but it’s another if your work and their life deals with something serious: addiction, abuse, mental illness, suicide, depression, running away. I think the best thing the author can do is know when they are in over their heads and be prepared with national numbers or other resources to give to the fan to find professional help.

Anonymous said...

You really know how to scare a body, Janet. I'm not sure whether I'll ever fall into the specific category of author you are addressing here, but as a hopeful who is young and connected (at least potentially), it gives me something to think about.

On the one hand, I think an approach like Salinger's is a bit too restrictive, but on the other, I have to wonder if he knew what he was doing. I've heard some authors say they don’t really want to hear about this kind of stuff from fans, but many others love getting fan mail. Even though this sort of fan mail is a level deeper than what they might be expecting. I’ve read that article you linked to, and I only serves to underline how difficult it might be for some writers (especially full-timers) to know how to respond to that sort of thing, and whether or not they want to respond.

The way we as people respond to stories varies so widely, and if an author and the fan in question have different response patterns, it could generate quite a bit of tension—both between the writer and the fan, and the writer and themself.

Linda Rader said...

We are all connected. You know that game "6 degrees of Kevin Bacon". The way you reach everyone is to reach 3 or 4 people with a good idea and they do will do the same. Word of mouth. It also mean we are connected to every nut in the world by 6 degrees. Knowing that doesn't increase one's risk but just makes one more aware and hopefully vigilant. Be aware but be unafraid in life.

Pepper Smith said...

Even the gushing praise can be a problem if the author's not prepared to handle it. But the not so nice stuff?

I don't think there's any way to fully prepare for it, but it helps if the author knows that when people respond with nastiness, they're responding to their own emotional reactions rather than to the author, regardless of what's been said. Sometimes it can be cleared up, and sometimes it can't, but responding in kind doesn't help the situation.

More thoughts later.

Marianne said...

I'm hoping that my memoir will be published sometime in the next year or so. Thanks to great advice from you and others I now have a great agent who is working with me to make sure this happens.

The book is about my experiences working as a peacekeeper in Afghanistan. It's the story of a young women filled with hope for the world who is crushed by the depth of the suffering and, worse, cynicism she encounters.

It's a story about being broken apart. But it's also a story about staying in the place that has broken you long enough to find hope again.

I certainly hope that it will be a story that will move people. People who have been through similar experiences may reach out to me. Fortunately I have some idea what to do about that because people have been reaching out to me for several years, ever since I started to write a blog about my experiences in Afghanistan.

I've now got a great list of referrals for people who need professional help. Up until now I've been able to respond to every person individually.

If my story ever reached so many people that it was no longer possible to do so then I have a good idea what to write on the book's home page to make sure people who need help dealing with their experiences of trauma or depression have some idea where to turn.

I guess we all write for different reasons. I write because I know that stories connect us, they help us all feel less alone and they show us that we share more than we may realise.

When you write to connect, you can't complain about people who want to be able to connect to you. But you do need to know your own limits and be willing to admit them and direct people to professional help when they need it.

Anonymous said...

Looking forward to what you have to say on this topic.

Venus Vaughn said...

I guard my privacy zealously. You won't find but two or three mentions of my real name on the web. But I recognize the need to be reachable, so I have a blog under my pen name.

My Myspace is private (again, fake name), I deleted my Facebook and haven't joined Twitter. Even my Amazon reviews are under a fake name. And yeah, all the fake names are different so if someone connects one dot, it's unlikely they'll connect all of them.

I'm my own gatekeeper, and I keep that puppy well-guarded.

Jami G. said...

I wonder if there's anything publishers can do to help authors. I write under a pen name and I have no intention of ever publicizing my real name. In short, I am creating an entire persona to go with that brand name. If a publisher can print books by 'Anonymous', can they similarly only reveal the pen name?

GalaktioNova said...

What an indightful post!

Well, isn't it why everyone famous have secretaries whose job is mainly just that, sorting and answering their fan mail?

Especially as there undoubtedly WILL BE some angry or hate mail so I'm not sure any writer will want to deal with all of it personally.

Heather said...

Great post, Janet. I think I sometimes take it for granted that many of my favorite authors are so easily accessible on social networking sites and through email - I've even gotten several responses to emails I've sent just to say how much I loved a book. But I think Cat makes a great point - if your book deals with issues like addiction, abuse, etc., you have to be ready to deal with some people contacting you thinking that you will be able to help them. Those people might even be at the lowest point of their life, and ignoring them would be the worst possible thing to do. Just having access to some helplines or Web sites could be a tremendous help to them.

I don't think my current WIP would have those issues, but some of the subjects I touch on in my next project might. Thanks to this post, I know to be ready with ideas on how to answer those kinds of fan letters if the book gets published.

Suze said...

I think it's an important, if not essential, talk to have with an author. Not only responding well to fans, but how to mentally filter the bad feedback that invariably comes with the good. We writers can be delicate - particularly while enduring a block. Any advice about dealing with the hard-to-avoid attention, I'm sure would be appreciated by all.

Casey McCormick said...

I think the best policy is to be upfront and honest. Make your limitations known wherever you're networking and putting yourself out there. Set up an automated form e-mail that you can send to fans (including resource/help numbers for what your book deals with) and then respond as you have time. With that in place, handle what comes as it comes and decide if/how you'll respond.

If the unfiltered nature of the internet becomes too much for the author, I think the best course is to be honest about it and draw back. True fans love their authors and (from what I've seen) understand that these authors have lives and responsibilities and only so much time.

From there, why not create a ning or social networking site where fans can support each other where the author is not able?

Jon said...

So where do we send fan mail to the infamous Janet Reid? I doubt you want your query inbox filled with silliness....

Mark Young said...

Thanks, Janet, for considering the feelings and challenges of these authors. I would include those of all ages who are just starting out.

One of my favorite authors (and mentor), James Scott Bell,touched on this subject in his latest writing book, The Art of War For Writers. He talks about handling criticism, writing, "So learn, glean, and ignore the rest. Treat it as a pain, a symptom that you show the doctor. He treats you, tells you how to get better, and sends you on your way."

He ends with this. "Let it hurt for half an hour, no more. Then get back to writing. Writing itself is the only known antidote for bad reviews, dings, nasty e-mails, returns, and skeptical relatives."

ryan field said...

I put myself out there because there isn't much of a choice. Most of the fan mail I get is wonderful, from wonderful people from different parts of the world. I get mail from people in places I have to look up on the map. I also answer each and every one personally and I keep a file.

When it comes to the scary letters, and it happens sometimes, you just learn to deal with it quietly.

If you're going to write books and you want readers to buy them, you're making a conscious choice. No one is twisting your arm to do this. And you have to be prepared to deal with losing a certain amount of privacy.

Kimberly Joy Peters said...

Maybe I just haven't sold enough books, but I have more problems maintaining my privacy as a teacher in a small town than I do as an author of YA. I love getting questions and messages from readers, because the best books DO resonate with readers. But it's still easier to maintain a distance with fans I've never met than with students I see every day. While it is difficult to read fanmail from strangers telling me how reading about abuse in my book reminded them of their own experience, it is far more painful for me to watch the same students coming to school hungry and bruised week after week despite my repeated calls to Children's Aid.

My dual author/teacher role at first made me reluctant to blog, but has ultimately become a perfect filter. Before I post anything, I have to ask myself: would this information be appropriate to share in the classroom? Would I be okay with my students repeating it to their parents? If the answers are "no", then it's also not appropriate for my YA fans, nor the gossip hungry world.

Janet Reid said...

For those of you zealously guarding your anonymity, the one place that can trip you up is copyright registration. You don't really think about it when you sign a publishing contract but they use THAT name for the copyright.

Consult with your agent for how to avoid being "outed" that way if you choose not to be.

Furious D said...

When it comes to fans online, it's all a matter of management. Social network sites like facebook, and twitter, can create both the connection, and the distance necessary for interacting with fans.

As for copyright and anonymity I read that some writers create a corporation to hold the copyright. That could be used as part of a multi-level privacy shield.

As for JD Salinger not reading his fan mail. From seeing some of the more prominent "fans" of Catcher In The Rye in the news, I can understand that.

Personally, I think the best strategy for avoiding the crazies, is to create the image of being a completely boring person who just happens to create interesting stuff. Being a secretive recluse, or an oddball, can make you a crazy magnet. ;)

Deep River said...

There's little to add to the comments above other than one had better have a plan early on - not only to provide the contact demanded by publsihers and the paying public, but also to provide a place for privacy.

It's strange: I grew up not more than three miles away from Salinger, saw him freqently, and never bothered him about those books of his we had to read.
It was one of the unspoken Town Codes to respect his privacy- just as we would for any other neighbor.

Besides, we kids' interests ran more to getting permission to sled on Salinger's hill and to the other town celebrity recluse, the Marlboro Man and his yellow "Magnum P.I." Ferarri.

The internet can be bane or boon depending on how one looks at it. Find that secret retreat and a community that values privacy, then use social networking and carefully planned access to fulfill the obligatins of a professional writer.

Or you can choose the route the appeals to me: posthumous publishing. To the critics, these pearls; I'll be at the Bob Marley concert.

Lesli Muir Lytle said...

Dear Janet,

You've seen the problem coming, and unfortunately it will fall to agents to help writers embrace the horror and learn to let it go.

You have just added to your workload AND the need for writers to find the agent more right for them than ever.

Bon chance, and thanks for getting it on the table.

CKHB said...

Honestly, I don't think this is a big deal.

I was a child actress. I had a longer-than-15-minutes of fame that included (or continues to include) fan mail, fan email, being given free things because I was famous, being hounded by neighborhood kids I didn't know who nevertheless wanted me to come to their birthday parties (instead of a clown, I guess), signing autographs, having my image put up on websites that creep me out, and having to have an office secretary filter calls from a fan who just didn't get that I wasn't interested in building a long-term (platonic?) relationship.

My biggest time of celebrity was when I was 10. If I could handle it, so can authors, young or otherwise. If you're old enough to write something provocative, you're old enough to figure out a way to deal with reader reactions to it.

Oh, and if you get a death threat on your phone, don't just dial *69 because that's just caller ID. You want to dial *57, which does an actual trace. Just FYI.

ryan field said...

"Oh, and if you get a death threat on your phone, don't just dial *69 because that's just caller ID. You want to dial *57, which does an actual trace. Just FYI."

I made this mistake once.

Also...if you're on facebook don't list you're birthday on the profile if you like quiet birthdays.

Chumplet - Sandra Cormier said...

In my infant career, I have received a total of two fan letters in the last three years. I write under my maiden name, so nobody but friends and family really know who I am.

Both letters are framed, waiting for a spot on my writing room wall, as soon as I kick out the kids.

I have received letters from new writers asking for advice, but that's kinda like the blind leading the blind.

Do I anticipate being harassed by fans? Nah. I'll hug each one and give them chocolate until I run out of supplies, then I'll change my name LOL!

annerallen said...

This is an important post. We all need to think about protecting our privacy--even if it seems like "choosing the color of our Ferrari" at this point.

Lots of good advice here about privacy protection. Most of us are so wrapped up in trying to get our names out there, we don't bother to think about what might happen if they get to the wrong people.

I think the Facebook fan page--with advice for reders on how to get help for issues that might be raised in your book--is a great idea.

But there's also the problem of stalkers. A member of my writing group wrote a memoir that has become popular with prison inmates. Just this week, one found out her snail mail address and has been sending her scary, overtly sexual letters.

Protecting your snail address, having a dedicated email address, and keeping all communications strictly professional will help, but there are some scary people out there and we all have to be wary, and probably agents should give a bit of counseling before the fact.

Thanks for making us aware of the problem.

Angie Ledbetter said...

Not sure the exposure would even bother younger writers. They pretty much all live their lives under the Internet's eye. FaceBook, MySpace, Twitter, etc. seems to have become part of the twisted strands of our DNA.

I guess pen names don't guarantee anything much in the way of privacy these days.

Anonymous said...

Shortly after my first book was released I had the privilege of appearing on the Montel Williams Show. Or at least I thought it was a privilege. What I wasn’t prepared for was the avalanche of emails sent by, exactly as you describe, people who saw me and my book as their lifeline. Since my book was about child sexual abuse, the sustenance they clung to was, in fact, for them critical. And since I wanted these readers to be there for me (and buy my book) it seemed only right that I be there for them. This left me with a daunting responsibility, and the nagging question of how to handle each request. Given the additional forms of contact these days, I agree author contact and response is a topic that desperately needs a solution acceptable to the publishing world, the author, and the readers. Otherwise, you might find your writers, young or experienced, either curled up in a ball and hiding in the corner, or worse, with no following at all.

Molly O'Neill said...

I don't have the answers, but I think it's a really important question that you're asking in terms of the responsibility that authors of YA books have to teen readers who may see an author as a lifeline or someone who has all the answers. What kind of responsibility does that mean writers of YA have to their teen readers in today's modern world of social media and immediate communication? I don't think I can link from the comments, but more pondering about this topic is on my blog.

Katherine said...

I would in some ways love to have this problem, since I'm currently unpublished and think fan mail would be the coolest thing in the world. In other ways, the idea terrifies me. But what I really don't want is the sort of fame authors like Meyer and Rowling have achieved. THAT would scare me to death.

Brenda said...

A very informative post. Thanks!

Joylene said...

We were talking about fan mail over at Bertram's Blog yesterday. Small world. I'm glued to my monitor and will anxious await your surprise. You are naughty, Janet.

Richmond Writer said...

Daniel Radcliff is the actor that plays Harry Potter. He said one time in the middle of New York winter he looked out his hotel window to see a girl wearing nothing but a H.P. bath towel and flashing a sign that said, "Nothing gets between me and Harry Potter."

I think Rowling's next book ought to be a collection fan mail.

Joseph L. Selby said...

Speaking of always being reachable, I've combed your page up and down and don't see an RSS feed for readers to add you to your aggregator. I keep all the blogs I follow on my Google home page. I think you're one of the best agent blogs on the net, but I eventually lose track because you don't show up on my home page.

Am I missing it somewhere?

Janet Reid said...

The RSS feed icon is in the right side of the address box at the top of the page. (not the blog-the actual browswer page)

Joseph L. Selby said...

Ah, thank you. I use Chrome and it doesn't list RSS options in the address field. Not sure why. I was used to finding them there. I will log in with Firefox and add it that way. Thanks for letting me know.

silke said...

Interesting post. :)
I used to run an epub, and I had the great pleasure of sitting right next to one of our authors (I was visiting. I did that sometimes...) when a wonderful review arrived in her mailbox.
Along with a fan letter.
It was the first one she'd ever had, and seeing her reaction... wow.
I got the warm and fuzzies -- and I'll never forget that huge smile on her face and the "They REALLY liked it!" cry of surprise.
Well, duh. We wouldn't have published it if it hadn't been good.
I still love the book, even ten years later, but it was that particular moment which will make me remember both the author and the book forever.
Not to mention... the feeling you get when you see it and get to think "I made that happen for her."
It's a good feeling.
It's vindication, pleasure and joy all rolled into one. :)