Six impossible things

Internet pros and cons

Nearly everyone, these days, can name a lot of obvious advantages brought on by the establishment of the Internet. Pre-Internet, for instance, most writers only ever saw the small selection of their readers who came to autographings and readings; now, any reader with Internet access and ten minutes of free time can drop their favorite author a line. I can track my sales rankings on Amazon, read through reviews by professional reviewers, everyday readers, and anyone in between, and lurk on forums where real readers are discussing various aspects of my work from an assortment of different angles.

All of those outlets also give me tons of new ways to publicize my work – web pages, blogs, guest blogs, social networks, Twitter, book trailers, mailing lists, forums…the list goes on and on. I’m constantly amazed at the creative ways more net-savvy writers find to get and keep in touch with their readers.

A less obvious advantage, from outside, is the speeding up of professional interactions. Used to be that if my manuscript was due on Monday, I had to have it finished nearly a week before, to allow time for printing it out and sending it via regular mail. FedEx shortened that up by a day or two…but sometimes, you really, really want that last day. Every writer in town who started along with me can probably still tell you which FedEx office was the one with the longest hours, and more than one of us made it in the door five minutes before closing.

Now, I can work up to noon on the very day the ms. is due and still get it in “on time” with the press of a key. I also don’t get interrupting phone calls that derail my train of thought nearly so often, because people send e-mails instead. It’s not as if my phone was ringing off the hook before, but it only takes one call at exactly the wrong moment to lose that perfect plot twist you’d just figured out after two weeks of cogitating. (The plot twist that gets away is always perfect. It’s a rule.)

Some of the disadvantages of the Internet are also obvious: all those interactions take time, hours and hours of it. That time has to come from somewhere, and there are only two possible choices: either it comes out of our writing time, or it comes out of the rest of our life. (Yes, writers have lives, too…well, some of us do, anyway.) Writers complain about this fairly regularly, so most folks are aware of it.

There are other, not-so-obvious disadvantages, though. With the advent of all those ways for an individual writer to publicize his/her books, a lot of publishers have begun more or less demanding that the writers do so. What used to be an option – heavy involvement by the writer in end-user book promotion – has become very nearly mandatory. If you don’t have at least a web site and a blog or Facebook page, you obviously aren’t really serious about selling your books … justifying, in the minds of many publishers, even more cutbacks in the amount of promotion they’re willing to do. After all, if you aren’t serious about your work, why should they be?

The other big but not-always obvious problem with the Internet is that it offers a seemingly infinite number of ways to screw up your own career. When I’m typing in a blog post or website update, or even a comment on someone else’s blog post, I’m usually alone in my office. It’s incredibly easy to forget that the off-the-cuff remark that I make to a close personal friend is not just being shared with her and the three other people who are part of the active discussion, but with all the lurkers who enjoy reading but who don’t wish to comment…and with even more who may stumble across my words months or years later. As one of my friends said, it’s like holding an intimate tea party in an airplane hanger that could be (and probably is) full of invisible watchers.

The airplane-hanger effect can be particularly insidious when the writer really wants to talk about something they shouldn’t – an exciting new proposal for reissuing one’s out-of-print work, for instance, or a potential media deal. It’s awfully easy to forget that even a privacy-locked entry may have quite a few more folks cleared to look at it than you remember…and some of them may be the very business colleagues you really didn’t want knowing about this until the deal was tied down.

And then there’s plain old bad behavior. I’ve watched more than one would-be or newly-published writer (and some old and experienced ones, too!) shoot themselves in the foot by complaining, on line and in public, about a bad review or a demanding editor or an uncooperative convention or an irritating fan. I sympathize, to some extent (it is far too easy to dash off a fiery rebuttal and hit “send” in the heat of the moment), but it’s a small extent. I’ve had a terrible temper since I was quite small, and I learned a long time ago to sit on my hands until the first rush passes. It isn’t easy, but it’s quite doable, and it can keep you from making yourself a laughingstock or a horrible example.

Probably the worse examples of speaking-before-thinking are the folks who argue with their on-line reviews. It may seem to the writer as if he’s only saying mildly, “I don’t think you quite understand what I was getting at,” but somehow the comments always end up sounding more like “You ******* imbecile! How dare you dislike my golden prose? You *******!” when a disinterested reader looks at them. Being rude to people who are giving their honest opinion only ever makes you look bad.

I like the Internet, and all its advantages. But I do try to remember that there are disadvantages too. Most of the disadvantages, I can compensate for, if I think. So I do try to think as much as possible.

  1. I love that the first advantage you mention is that readers can contact you! I’ve discovered that so many writers don’t provide any contact information at all, which is very disappointing when I just want to tell them how much I love their books.

    By the way–love your books. 🙂

  2. When I first started using the Internet regularly back in 1994 one of the professors in my Masters program said: “Never put anything onto the Internet that you wouldn’t want seen on the 6pm news.” And that advice has stuck with me ever since.

    • Cheryl – The problem with “just telling a writer how much you love their books” is that the more popular the writer is, the more of those letters and emails they get, and some writers feel obligated to answer all of them, even if only to say “Thanks for the thought!” or “I’m glad you like my books!” Back when I was starting out, there was a cautionary tale going around of a European writer who wrote a couple of books that became wildly popular there, and who spent the next twenty years writing nothing but replys to her fan mail. And that was pre-Internet.

      The “contact the writer” thing is a BIG plus for newer writers (who are nearly always hungry for reactions) and for writers of the more sociable mindset, but it has a serious downside for those writers who are hermits by nature. And it is a lot easier to avoid the issue by not providing contact information than it is to deal with the guilt (and guilt trips!) from not replying.

      Alex – What you said. And anything you put on the Internet never goes away. There’s stuff I said on Usenet twenty years ago that people can still find if they poke around Google groups long enough.

  3. Wow, thanks for such a thoughtful response! It does make a lot of sense, although I still find it strange that more authors don’t provide some email address, even if it’s only going into a slush pile somewhere. But maybe the slush pile is where the guilt comes in! Personally, I wouldn’t really expect replies (although they’re fun!) it’s just nice to have the option to send a message out.

  4. Well, this seems as appropriate a place as any to gush shamelessly for a moment. I just found your blog and couldn’t be happier to see you have an internet presence. Having written some and shared little, I think I can partly understand why it might be guilt-inducing to have a pile of fan letters on your desk every morning. Certainly when I write I’m only concerned about getting the story to where I’m satisfied, and I don’t think of it as a gift to anybody else. But at least for me, your books have been the gifts from the old Garrison Keillor quote that I open again and again. From my perspective, I’m so indebted to you that any comment or letter I could send your way would just be one of hundreds of years-overdue thank-you notes. So– completely guilt-and-obligation-free — thanks for letting me read your stories for all these years, and thanks for sharing your thoughts here.

  5. PATRICIA C . WREDE YOU ROCK!!! p.s you need to write more enchanted forest books they rock.
    Your Number 1 fan

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