05 April 2010


Authors in the Combox: Yes or No?

Should professional authors leave comments on the blogs of amateurs/hobbyists?

(Yes, that's a big question. I'll be making it more specific in a short while.)

A few months ago, I would have been all for authors leaving comments. The blogosphere is free, after all (unless you live in China), and bloggers who enable comments surely welcome all sorts of feedback from anyone who reads their stuff.

I know I'm still pleased that Romance author Jo Beverley read my personal appreciation of her work several years ago, and left me a warm comment. (It's a post from my old MySpace blog: Where Beverley Meets Chesterton.)

Not that it was some huge achievement: I had messaged her with a link to that post a few days earlier! LOL! Still, it was as good as a personalised reply to a fan letter; and even though one of her later releases made me decide not to buy any more of her books, I'm glad I was able to make her happy in return for all the enjoyment I had received from previous novels.

*** *** ***

More recently, another writer whose name I must withhold (for reasons which will soon become obvious) took issue with a post I had written about some of his books. In it, I had shared the story of why he had graciously offered to send me some copies for free, rolled my eyes at the marketing pitch on the back covers, and shared an unimpressed third party's first reaction to some actual content . . . and he was not happy about that.

Oh, well. You win some, you lose some, right?

This time, I had done nothing to bring the post to the author's direct attention; some anonymous reader had sent him the link. I can see why he was upset at my tone, but he took it so badly that I felt sorry for the poor publicist in charge of his books. I wouldn't want any of my authors behaving that way.

*** *** ***

Granted, my experiences with dealing with professional authors in my own combox have been very limited--which is why I'm also recalling vague "anecdotal evidence" from other people's blogs. And what I'm concluding is that it is inadvisable.

That is--to refine the broad brush strokes of my opening question--I think it's a matter of tact for a professional author to keep out of a combox discussion of his own books.

And now I'm going to get really opinionated . . .

By and large, blogs are a field for amateurs to express their opinions at no charge. To add a paid writer to the mix--especially if his livelihood essentially depends on whether or not the readers buy his books--kind of subverts that.

Obviously, the authors who have hissy fits only spoil the party for everyone else. It's one thing to have a bunch of readers arguing about the merits of a book--or even (Gasp!) criticizing the personal life of its writer. It would still be a completely impersonal discussion by disinterested readers, the most abrasive of whom may even be real fans. Add to this mix even one person who might take it personally, and you have, in modern idiom, a buzzkill.

For while we're on the subject of tact, it is true that readers will use different words to discuss a book with their peers and to discuss a book with its author. And I don't think it's fair to put them in a position where they might have to apologise for a misunderstanding, when the group they were writing to in the first place understood them well enough.

Yet even a writer being really friendly can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can nice to have him clear things up. The blogger and commenters may be arguing about what a certain symbol really means or what a character's real intentions are, and the author can set them at ease. On the other hand, as soon as he does, the speculative spirit of the thread just dies. Anyone who remembers what it was like to discuss books before authors were so accessible understands that much of the magic comes from the mystery.

Finally, I'd say it's also a matter of giving readers their turn to "talk." A writer gets his chance to "speak" during all the hours the readers put into finishing his book. To show up may be friendly . . . but it's also like the teacher wanting to hang around with his students during recess. That he may be their favourite teacher isn't the point; it's just not professional.

Okay, time for a deep breath . . . =)

Now I must add that writing this post was a little challenging for me, for two reasons:

a) a friend who reads this blog is also a professional writer--and one whose comments are always welcome here;


b) I'd obviously love feedback from both bloggers and authors, though the latter would probably never think so after what I've just written! =P

For everything above happens to be very new to me, too. I'm still hashing everything out for myself, and would be glad to get other opinions.


Lindsay-with-an-A said...

I think it depends on what kind of comment an author leaves. Over at Smart Bitches Trashy Books, authors will occasionally comment on reviews of their books, and the only ones that I think are acceptable are the ones that say, "I'm glad you're talking about my books, no matter what you have to say." The BEST are authors who accept a bad review with grace, but that happens fairly irregularly.

I know that I would feel much different knowing that an author is reading whatever I'm writing, and it's really just not tactful for authors to "put themselves out there" like that.

r said...

I think I'd prefer an email.

Enbrethiliel said...


Lindsay: What other sorts of comments have you read? I agree that a "Thank you," regardless of the blogger's opinion, is the gracious way to go. When a writer, in an attempt to be friendly, gets too chatty, he would seem to be trying to turn a book discussion into an impromptu Q&A session, with himself as the star.

I also wonder what the long-term and more wide-spread effects of authors "putting themselves out there" will be. While I'm certainly no advocate of the ivory tower model, I don't think this uber-accessibility is a good thing.

Right now, I'm even wondering whether authors who like to read and participate on book blogs should use generic "pseudonyms," just for the sake of what my grandmother would call delicadeza. ("John Author" could simply go as "John" or "Jack" or "JA": that sort of thing.) I think there's a difference between the person and the persona, and if writers put themselves out there as themselves, they bring all the baggage of the persona with them.

R: As much as I love combox discussions, I think I'd prefer that, too.

If the author wants to say thank you for a good review, it will seem more sincere because there will be no self-serving link back to his own blog or Web site; and if he wants to address a more critical review, it is a chance to have some civil dialogue without causing a public "scene."

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

I think that anything other than, "Thanks," comes off as defensive, which I've seen a couple of times.

I also tend to agree with you about the uber-availability of authors, but somehow it works for some people (like Neil Gaiman, who's essentially become a cult figure). I think it REALLY depends on the genre--literary fiction, not so much. Any other genre and I think that easy access encourages people to identify with the writer and probably boosts sales.

(Still, there's something to be said for the Bill Watterson approach.)

Enbrethiliel said...


Ah, Neil Gaiman . . . He comes to the Philippines every year and has dinner with some lucky fans. I think it totally adds to the myth behind the man.

I can think of many other writers with even more friendly or disarming "styles" of interacting with readers--which is, of course, highly appreciated, even by Yours Truly who only reads about them.

Yet I'd say the main difference is who initiates the interaction. Before the Web, readers would have to write letters or issue speaking invitations to authors, and the authors would know for certain that they were welcome to give their input. So when an author jumps into a combox discussion about his own books, he'd come across as . . . Well, the image that comes to mind is of a writer noticing someone reading his book at the bus stop, interrupting the stranger to introduce himself, and offering to sign the book!

Enbrethiliel said...


By the way, I looked up Watterson, whose personal life I had never known about, and found him very charming! =)

Not quite Salingerian in his love of personal privacy, but definitely on the opposite end of the spectrum from Gaiman.

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

I agree, I don't think it's wise because it's too easy to come off as a huge @$$hole. I also can't imagine Neil Gaiman doing a google search on himself to comment on reviews.

I read a review on SBTB that was pretty critical, and the author (who had been reviewed before) said something along the lines of, "Ouch, I don't remember needing to eat an entire bag of cookies to stop the pain after my last review here!" I thought that was the best way to approach that (since she was already a commenter on the site), and she got mad props from other commenters for being gracious about it.

(I would also be a bit disconcerted to know an author was going to read my blog, although I once had the son of someone I wrote about log in and comment on the post. That was cool in an unexpected way... and luckily I only had good things to say about his dad so I didn't feel too uncomfortable about it!)

Enbrethiliel said...


That's another, more interesting case. I think that an author who is already a regular reader and commenter would actually be expected to comment on a bad review. And even if he comes off as defensive, I think all the other regulars would give him a break. (It's the "gatecrashers" who do Google searches and then butt into the conversation who risk of turning people off.)

Yet I still think it would be more considerate of those writers to interact with the other regulars as fellow readers, without the weight of their blog personae behind their words--and to avoid commenting on reviews of their own books.

/dev/null said...

My brain being trained by physics-style inquiry, I initially agreed to myself that accessibility of *Fiction* authors is a cause of difficulty, but immediately thought to myself that with *philosophical* and *expositive* writers, or anyone attempting to overtly teach some doctrine or discovery, it's really preferable that they be available (within reason subject to their finitude) for discussion, criticism, and comment. The difficulty there is that sometimes a very simple remark might lead to a very long new book, so the blog medium has its limits. A case in point, one author of "Why Buildings Stand Up" was soon after told by his mother "I'd rather read about why buildings fall down", and since then there is indeed a new book with the obvious title...

I think the unique difficulty of fiction is that, properly executed, it isn't part of a conversation in itself, but contained as a conversation and fertile for new conversation. By all means, for a coherent narative the author must adopt really or conjecturally some particular philosophy, and the writing may show that philosophy as either good or bad; by all means let the author write fiction in support of it! But don't imagine that the fiction itself belongs within a reasoned or even impassioned discussion. The difference between The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged is one is selling books with good thinking behind them, and the other is selling bad thinking with books around it.

We know which sort we like, and which is worth talking about; and we know for which one does the author need to be corrected.

I seem to have gone on longer than I meant to... ^_^

(--aka B. Bat)

/dev/null said...

I should say "being trained by ... immediately decided that ... comment"; and then wanted to figure out why I thought that; that is, looking for something like a mechanism, if not a proper explanation.

Enbrethiliel said...


Ah, Jesse, I am really sleepy at the moment, and I can't read your comments without a crisp British accent doing a voice over in my head; so I'll have to read them again and answer them in about twelve hours, when I get back to my workstation.

Enbrethiliel said...


Okay, I can think more clearly now. =)

This post actually began as a thread on a message board for book bloggers. It attracted a nice variety of answers. Some people had thoughts like mine and Lindsay's; others said they'd be thrilled if an author took the time to respond to a bad review! But yes, I think everyone was thinking of Fiction when they contributed to the thread.

As for non-fiction, particularly books which attempt to "teach some doctrine or discovery" . . . well, I do see your point. And now I'm wondering whether it would be possible to separate a discussion of a book from a discussion of the book's ideas.