When authors get roasted live
Various shades of vitriol. That could well have been the name of author EL James’ live Twitter chat this week. The Fifty Shades of Grey author certainly wouldn’t have anticipated the way she would be trolled when she took to the microblogging site in an exercise in fan engagement. Live Twitter chats are one way of interacting with readers who otherwise never get to ‘talk’ to their authors. Avanija Sundaramurti, Head – Marketing and Consumer Insight, Hachette Book Publishing India Pvt Ltd, calls them “the new marketing arsenal with social media becoming so key in getting the word out about new books”. But what happens when things get ugly as happened in the case of James?
Krishna Udayasankar, who has had Twitter chats — one for each of the three books of The Aryavarta Chronicles — says it would be a lie to say she doesn’t get affected by the not-so-great remarks. She does, however, try her best to address every question, no matter how negative the tone, “since I believe that being able to stand by one’s work is important to the integrity of a writer”. Believing that not answering a direct question on her work is “not an option”, she believes that “responding only to pleasant comments and questions” would be little more than a PR exercise.
James, on the other hand, took the opposite route, choosing to answer mainly ‘safe’ questions (about her favourite characters and such), and ignoring the attacks on her writing (“Do you get paid per adjective”).
It’s a tightrope walk for the publishers, often the facilitators of these chats. Priyanka Sabarwal, Digital Marketing Manager, Penguin Random House India, who ran a successful live Twitter chat with Amitav Ghosh around the release of his book The Flood of Fire last month, says they do a lot of chats on Facebook and Twitter. Other authors they have organised chats with include Shobhaa De, Vikas Khanna, Karan Bajaj, Nikita Singh and Durjoy Dutta.
Chats are also organised in conjunction with retailers – the Amazon.in Twitter handle in the case of Durjoy Dutta – and blogs such as Miss Malini for Vikas Khanna. But not everybody gets a live chat. “We look at how the author is faring on Twitter, and their existing engagement with fans. It also depends on the pre-release buzz for a book – is it getting any interest of queries?” she explains.
Sundaramurti says the chats are usually “a collaboration between the author, the publishers and often a third party that can help drive traffic to the chat itself”. In the last year, there have been four Twitter Chats with Hachette’s authors – Vimal Kumar (The Cricket Fanatic’s Essential Guide), Krishna Udayasankar (The Aryavarta Chronicles), Vivek Menon (Indian Mammals) and Sreemoyee Piu Kundu (Sita’s Curse). “Often publishers have a far wider reach and are followed by more people on Twitter than a debut author so that’s the platform the author is playing on. If your author is a Twitter celebrity with a huge following, then yes, the chat is obviously not as dependent on the publishers or partners reach”. Sabarwal adds: “The announcement about the chat is made on the publisher’s handle, using a hashtag. The author will continue to answer questions while tagging the publisher and using the hashtag.
And as the publisher, we retweet interesting questions and responses.”
VarshaVenugopal, Head of Social media and Online Marketing, Westland, says they have organised roughly fivechats on Twitter. Some were organised with a new book in focus (eg, Scion of Ikshvaku, Tripathi’s latest), but some of them also put the author in focus (eg, Preeti Shenoy). Westland moderates and if they find that one particular user feels a little left out (which can happen when the author rapidly receives a large number of questions!) “we let the author know so they can respond”, Venugopal says. “It is a super way for publishers and authors to reach out to readers. Quite a few of the participants tweet back later, saying they have pre-ordered or ordered the book. We also keep an eye on specific feedback (eg, the book is not available on so-and-so website, or when will the eBook version be available,etc) to ensure that we provide proactive customer service.”
Kiran Manral, who has done about eight chats on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and some facilitated by retailers such as Infibeam, says as an active Twitter user, she’s used to being trolled for her political views and such. She believes most trolls – the likes that James was subjected to – are there for little more than the attention. “But it’s lovely to be able to interact with readers in such an immediate fashion. Where else will you get feedback in real-time and at such a large scale?” asks the author of The Reluctant Detective and Once Upon a Crush. “Twitter is a medium I’m comfortable with. Having said that, I’m not there to take abuse. So I know what I can take, respond to, hit or block. It’s really my choice and prerogative,” she believes.
Twitter chats are usually centered around book releases. In the case of Ghosh, for instance, the chat was a way for readers to know more about an eagerly-awaited trilogy. A look at his Twitter feed on the day reveals the questions centered around his writing process, inspirations, the characters, and his personal reading and writing tastes. Similarly, for Udayasankar, the “nice” ones have been about queries and doubts on the content of the book, the publication process, specific scenes and characters and opinions on other books and writers, particularly on the Indian mytho-fiction scene. “I remember being asked once whether the character of Govinda Shauri was inspired by Narendra Modi. Other interesting questions included technical details on the war scenes,” she recalls.
But not everyone is that nice. Ashwin Sanghi, bestselling author of The Rozabal Line, Chanakya’s Chant and The Krishna Key, (he has had Twitter chats after the release of each of his books) says, “One person kept asking me about my religious views. I am one of those who believes in ‘Sarva Dharma Sama Bhava’ and this was my standard response to each and every tweet that came from that particular handle,” he says. In any case, he doesn’t let himself get too worked up over such behaviour. “I have found that a simple solution to rude behaviour is to simply retweet the offending tweet. Most of my fans and followers immediately jump in to set the offender straight. But these situations have been few.”
Udayasankar believes every person is entitled to their opinion on her work. “But when the colourful expletives start coming out, I refuse to engage till they retract their comment, and tell them as much,” she says. Calling the “not-so-nice tweets” she has received “unsuitable for print”, she says they are never about “valid critiques” of her writing, choosing instead to “suggest improper relationships with family members”.
The trick is to not get too offended by each uncomplimentary comment. And it helps if the chat can be moderated or if the publisher is at hand to keep offenders at bay – although that is not always possible in a live Twitter chat. “On a Twitter chat I haven’t really faced too much rudeness – and know I can take care of myself if it happens. But at the same time you have to understand that if you agree to be there, you have opened yourself to snarky comments,” Manral says. ‘It comes with the territory’ is an attitude also adopted by Amish Tripathi, bestselling author of The Shiva Trilogy. Recalling a time when an atheist got “aggressive” with him on a chat and accused him of misleading youngsters by talking about religion in my books, he says, “I just told him that you have your point of view and I have mine.” Uncomplimentary comments about his writing style have also been dealt with summarily. “I always say that your interest may be the English language, but mine is philosophy and the Vedas. Language to me is a means to an end, not an end in itself. And you may feel differently but that’s fine.”
Moderation and preparation is key, according to Sanghi. “Twitter chats are not a good idea without preparation. It’s the equivalent of going on a talk show without homework,” he says.
Sundaramurti says the marketing team works closely to monitor the chat. “As far as picking the tweets to respond to goes, it’s totally up to the author who they choose to respond to. I would advise my author to ignore the trolls while the chat is progressing.” Similarly, at Penguin Random House, a team works in real-time with the author to monitor the proceedings, whether on Facebook or Twitter. On Facebook, the chat will be conducted on Penguin’s page, not the author’s. “If someone is being abusive, the Facebook filter itself is pretty good and won’t allow the comment to get published. If people begin soliciting – asking a writer to read their book and help them publish this – we tell them this is not the right forum for it and move on,” says Sabarwal. Like Sundaramurti, she points out that having a social media team that can respond on its feet is the only way to deal, because it’s very hard to have ethodologies or plan and predict responses.
At the end of the day, a phenomenon like social media “has democratised the world for non-Lutyens Delhi authors like us who wouldn’t otherwise get reviewed and published”, believes Tripathi. And that comes with its downside – where people can say what they want to him. But he believes it’s still a good medium and a great way to shore up publicity for the book, or, as Sanghi says, “engage and also open up the conversation with a wider audience”. Using a bit of philosophy to explain himself, Tripathi concludes: “Everything has a positive and negative. So you’ve just got to take the good with the bad.” Someone tell EL James that.
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