How should writers engage with readers?

Recently I discovered what it’s like to speak to a room full of people and have my words reported online. At the New England Crime Bake, I was interviewed by Steve Ulfelder. We spoke for almost an hour, about the craft of writing, and suspense fiction, and what it’s like to be a writer nowadays.

Somewhere in that discussion, I said that I don’t read Amazon reviews. Ever. I used to, but ended up with heartburn. Some Amazon reviews are thoughtful, but plenty aren’t (“This book is so stupid” being the mildest example). After a while I decided that reading customer reviews on retail sites was obsessive, self-involved, and masochistic. I thought I conveyed that to the audience — I don’t read these reviews because it’s both narcissistic and painful. My time is better spent trying to write the best books I can.

A few minutes after the interview ended, I checked Twitter. To my surprise, people in the audience had live-tweeted many of my remarks. I was really pleased — until I saw that “I don’t read Amazon reviews. Period.” had generated pushback.

One person online countered with, “I do. I want to hear from readers. Period.” Another wrote, “When you’re first time authors like we are, we LOVE to hear from our readers!” And they added the hashtag #notjaded.

I didn’t expect that. It never occurred to me that people would take my remark to mean that I am too high and mighty to engage with readers. Or that I am so jaded that I can’t be bothered to care about the people who read my novels. First, I don’t consider reading Amazon reviews to be “engagement.” Customers who post reviews aren’t generally trying to engage with the author. Second, I love to talk to readers. That’s why I have comments on this blog. It’s why I am on Twitter and Facebook, and take part in conversations online. I answer emails from readers. I go to conferences and spend weekends talking to readers. I am a reader. So to say that any author who doesn’t read online customer reviews is ignoring readers… yeah, not exactly.

In one way, I think the Twitter kerfuffle was a case of people looking for an online argument. The woman who originally tweeted my remarks — the estimable Jane Friedman — later added a string of “In Meg Gardiner’s defense…” tweets, suggesting that I hadn’t actually expressed a disregard for readers. And I responded directly to the people who were complaining about my remark. Some replied to me. Others ignored me.

Yes, I love the irony.

In any case: I do love to talk to readers. Earlier today I asked online whether other authors think writers are obligated to read all online customer reviews. I got this response, from Ian Rankin:

9 responses to “How should writers engage with readers?

  1. Love the irony! You are one of the most reader engaging authors out there, Meg.

  2. Great post, thanks

  3. Great post. I do read reviews, but always with the full realization that if a reader wants to communicate with me, they’ll use the feedback form or send me an email or comment on my blog. Reviews are by readers for readers to tell them whether, in their opinion, the book is worthy of their time and money. Feedback is by (beta-) readers to authors to communicate with them and help them improve their craft.

  4. Great post Meg. I know for a fact that you engage with your readers.

  5. Ah, Meg … Some people are just … Never mind. We know you better than that. Just keep doing what you’re doing, ’cause we enjoy your “engagements” and posts and books …

    I suppose that’s what the new generation does now, if I may say so without sounding old. 🙂

  6. After receiving hundreds of nasty comments from a Salon article I wrote (I stopped reading after the first dozen) I’ve officially appointed my husband as my “troll buster” when my first book comes out in June. It’s not that I don’t want to hear criticism — maybe some of it will help me write a better book next time — but I need someone to filter the helpful comments out from the mean-spirited ones.
    I think you are right that some people will look for a fight no matter what is said or done. Especially online where it is “safe” for them to be jackholes.

  7. The other thing I forgot to mention is that sometimes by sitting back and ignoring the naysayers or critics, others will jump to your defense and you don’t have to say anything!

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