(Published in the Business Standard, March 15, 2010)
If you track Facebook, Twitter and the arcane world of author sites, you’ll find more ghosts there than in the average cemetery. The hulks of sites circa the early 2000s, with their unlovely designs and basic, TimesNewRoman fonts, speak of books that have long since tumbled off the bestseller lists.
Closer to our time, Facebook is littered with invitations to book launches, book discussion groups, about-the-author sites—most of them have the lifespan of fireflies. Authors come and go on Twitter, the social media site where you post your life in 140-character “tweets”. Some leave Twitter after being tweetburned—being indiscreet on the Internet is like getting drunk at a book launch, embarrassing fodder for the gossips—or discover that it takes more than a random weekly update to draw in fans.
In the previous generation of writers, the big filter was the media. If you worked your interviews well, gave good soundbytes and made the correct literary festival appearances, that was enough. For the generation of writers working today, the ones who learn to manage their online presence have an edge over their peers. Most authors do the basics: get the website up, start a blog, get onto one of the big social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter. But learning how to survive on the Internet is a different matter—here’s a look at three different approaches.
Margaret Atwood: Like Salman Rushdie and a few other writers who grew up long before the Net did, Atwood remained a fascinated observer of life online for a while. Back in 2006, Atwood invented the LongPen: a device that allows authors to sign books in faraway locations using a stylus and the Internet.
In 2009, she became one of the first authors of her generation to join the likes of Harlan Coben and Neil Gaiman on Twitter. With over 30,000 followers, her Twitter feed is both popular and eminently useful. She will send greetings to “Delhi students” after one tweets her, link to book readings and chat with readers about everything from her book The Edible Woman to Twestivals (Twitter festivals). Atwood seems to have found the perfect balance between tweeting and sticking to her extremely busy writer’s schedule.
Richard Dawkins: Like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, Richard Dawkins was an early Netevangelist. His site, RichardDawkins.Net, operates like a cross between a blog and a forum, and for years was a wonderful space in which to follow the Darwin debates, or the clashing of swords between atheists and true believers. Very recently, Dawkins hit the headlines when he announced that he now needed to take over comments moderation from the previous forum moderator, after receiving increasingly abusive responses. (One comment referred to him as a “”a suppurating rat’s rectum inside a dead skunk”.)
His decision kicked off a brief storm and accusations of censorship, but that outcry is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of free speech—and the nature of the Internet. Most of the good blogs and forums are moderated, to keep out Spam, and also to keep out Internet trolls—abusive, often anonymous, commentators who are often responsible for the degeneration of a good argument into an exchange of insults.
Most serious Netizens take the view that their forum, blog or website is an extension of their homes: you’re welcome to join in the discussion, but if you’re abusive, expect to be kicked out. As blogger Great Bong (Arnab Ray) put it at the launch of his book, May I Heb Your Attention Pliss, “Don’t take a dump in my drawing room.” Dawkins hopes that comments moderation will allow for a healthier and less pointlessly vicious exchange of views, and since he has one of the great science writing forums, we’ll watch that space with interest.
Laila Lalami: In the online literary world, Lalami became famous as the blogger Moorish Girl long before she started her career as a young and promising writer. Her blog demonstrates the best way to use a blog to further your work: instead of seeing it as an advertisement for the book (“yet another great review for my work!! How cool is that!!!”), blog for fun, share your passions, and share your life. Fantasy writer Neil Gaiman does this to great effect on his blog, sharing work, his relationship with his cats, and the secrets of bee-keeping with thousands of fans.
What’s lovely about Moorish Girl as a blog is that it’s kept pace with Lalami’s growth as a writer. As her writing schedule demands more time, her posts have focused less on literary links, and more on the writing life—it’s a fascinating way to chart the emergence and growth of a writer, and it keeps her fans loyal.
Three different approaches, on three different forums—Twitter, a discussion board and a blog—but at the heart of them is something elementally simple. Dawkins, Atwood and Lalami—the century’s greatest science writer, one of our literary mavens, and a rising novelist—really like the Net, and feel at home online. It’s the only way to build a genuine fan-base on the web.