For Nonfiction Writers, New Connections with Readers

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Once, we manufactured books. The process—writing to editing to design to production to printing to shipping to selling—followed an Industrial Age model: create, manufacture, distribute.

That system is breaking down in the 21st Century. We still create, though increasingly we do it in a collaborative way. More important is what we do with what we create: We put it online; other people come and get it; and we all talk about it. The new model: create, make available, discuss.

by AJ Cann, via Flickr: https://secure.flickr.com/photos/ajc1/

by AJ Cann, via Flickr: https://secure.flickr.com/photos/ajc1/

For authors of all kinds, the new system offers incredible new opportunities and challenges. For readers, there’s so much more to choose from, and sometimes a deeper connection to the authors.

I’m convinced, based on my own work, that the opportunities for nonfiction writers vastly outweigh the challenges. The keys are conversation and reputation.

When I was working on my  first book, We the Media (2004), I’d already learned from blogging that conversation with my audience—I was a newspaper columnist at the time—was improving my work. So I published the outline and chapter drafts on my blog. The feedback was amazing, and the result was a much better book.

A decade ago this summer, the book became available, into bookstores and on the Internet. We published it under a Creative Commons license that allowed anyone to download, read and share it for free. I opted for Creative Commons in large part to make a statement: that while I strongly believed (and still do) in copyright, I also felt strongly (and still do) that the American copyright system was broken—and that it was more important to me that people be able to read what I’d written than to attempt to wring every last penny out of the process.

What I didn’t fully realize at the time was that I was exploring some new boundaries of conversation with my audience, enhancing my own reputation, and ultimately ensuring that the book would make money. By ensuring that anyone who wanted to read the book could do so, I was marketing my ideas, not just a book. Inevitably, or at least to the extent that my ideas were credible, that boosted my reputation in my relatively small literary niche: the collision of media and technology. It definitely led to more speaking invitations, some of which were for pay. (Not coincidentally, I’m still getting royalty checks for that book, because it’s been free to download since the day it went into bookstores.)

Nonfiction authors no longer have to rely on publishers’ publicity departments, not that publicists have ever been all that effective in the first place. Marketing has always been part of the author’s job, even if that’s an uncomfortable role.

Since most authors don’t have mega-bucks marketing budgets, we market our work in mini ways, and hope that everything we do adds up to creating attention. Attention spurs conversation (and vice versa) and, assuming high-quality ideas and writing, boosts reputation, which feeds back into attention. All are related to sales of books and speaking gigs, of course, but also to other kinds of benefits that accrue from reputation, including (as in my own case) offers of other kinds of paid jobs.

Where should we have these conversations? I’m tempted to answer, “Everywhere we can create good ones”—but that feels wrong given the bad behavior of some of the companies that host these conversations, Facebook in particular. I realize I’m costing myself significant contact with my own audience by abstaining from that service, but I can’t abide its corporate policies, many of which have been designed to reduce people’s privacy in a world where we need more and more control over our data, not less. Moreover, we don’t really control what we post on Facebook (and Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram et al.) because they are platforms owned by third parties that have the right to remove our work at their discretion. Yes, participate in social networks. But I tell my students they should register their own domain names, and create blogs. Every author—every author—should do this, too, and create an online home base where they can define themselves, and which they own.

Over the years I’ve developed a few rules for my conversations. Here are a few:

  • Always answer email about your work. Even if someone is writing to tell you you’re an idiot, and explains why, you can make a fan out of a critic by paying attention. I learn more from people who think I’m wrong than from people who agree with me, after all. (And when you discover you’re wrong, say so.The only exception is pure abuse.
  • Use the social networks not just to promote, but also to engage. I don’t respond to every Twitter post with my @dangillmor username in it, but I do this enough to keep learning new things.
  • I like getting paid speaking gigs, but I often do them just for expenses if I have the time and the location and audience will be new. Kevin Kelly, a wonderful technology writer, does speaking gigs for people who’ll agree to buy copies of his books for the audience.
  • Join other people’s conversations. You don’t have to post everything you say only on your own site or in your own social media feed. Sometimes I reply to people with blog posts, but it’s a signal of respect to comment on other people’s work where they wrote it in the first place.
  • Above all, don’t do all the talking. The first rule of having a good conversation is to listen.

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