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Get on Twitter. Be on Instagram. Post often. Try TikTok. Develop an online presence. Curate a grid. Respond to followers. Post about your book, but not just about your book. Be real.
These things (and a lot more) are told to authors from the moment they sign their book deals, and it can get overwhelming quickly. Many of us understand that being on social media to reach readers and sell books is part of the deal. Publishers can market your book, but nothing is guaranteed and the unspoken expectation is that you will shoulder that burden. Hence, writers are turning to social media and doing their best to maintain an online presence to promote their books. It’s an imperfect science, and it works better for some than others. Some writers hate it, some writers enjoy it, many writers are stuck somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. But online borders can be indistinct and borders can be crossed. We’ve seen horror stories from writers pushing boundaries, but much less talk is about how parasocial interactions can affect writers.
What is Parasocial Interaction?
Parasocial Interaction (PSI) was defined in 1956 as “a type of psychological relationship that members of an audience experience in their mediated encounters with certain actors in the mass media, particularly on television”. Nowadays I would argue that social media has taken PSI a step further and that many writers with public social media presences also find themselves in the roles of those performers or recognizable public figures as defined by Horton and Wohl in 1956 The People may see nothing wrong with a little little fame, but problems arise when readers and audiences begin to see public figures as real people they know personally. We treat strangers differently than people we perceive as friends, and this is where boundaries can be crossed.
How does it look? It can start out harmlessly, but it has the potential to escalate. In my own experience as a lead author, I doubled my humble followers for the month I published my book. Associated with this was increased interaction on my social media platforms, especially in my Instagram DMs. While most of these interactions were polite responses to Instagram stories, and I dealt with a fair number of readers, there were some messages that made me pause. I shared a picture of a lake and a stranger called to ask where I was. They suspected a place near me. Another stranger wrote me a passive-aggressive email about a typo he found in my book, offering me unsolicited advice. Another stranger wanted to meet me at a bookstore I had just left after posting photos of signed copies of my books there.
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These interactions have made me rethink the way I share things online, for both the peace of mind and the safety of myself and my family. Add these in addition to the (many, many) inquiries I get weekly to share how I got published, to read unsolicited manuscripts, and to meet with strangers to tell them how to get published , and it felt like it was going to be a lot. The polite Midwest in me found it hard to ignore messages until I stopped thinking that nowhere in the social contract (or social media terms of service!) Said I had to respond to each one. Still, it was hard to let go. My core is to want to be a polite, happy, helpful, and approachable person, but the reality is that I am a busy person with a lot on my plate and don’t owe my time or effort to strangers.
However, these cases are relatively small compared to other experiences. I spoke to a large number of writers who shared what parasocial interactions looked like to them, and they range from well-intentioned but inappropriate to downright scary. Severe emotional story writers tend to attract messages from readers who identify with their work and want to reach out to the author to tell their own stories, which are often traumatic and always unsolicited. Authors who have shared parts of themselves in their work, particularly personal trauma, have received pressing questions about their personal life that have not been addressed in their work and range from insensitive to cruel. LGBTQIA + writers in particular receive an overwhelming number of messages from readers seeking validation, advice, and hope, as well as readers sharing their own stories about discrimination and homophobia.
There’s an unspoken expectation that writers should absorb all of this, and that’s the price of being on the internet – or even the price of getting a book published. And while I think most of us expect it to result in awkward social interaction when we are an insignificant public figure, how did it come about that this idea of being constantly available became so ubiquitous ? Many writers point to John and Hank Green, the writers and YouTubers who rose to fame in 2007 when they launched Brotherhood 2.0, a challenge where they spent a year not texting but posting YouTube videos daily. Her videos from this period feel intimate and personal, and they invite viewers into their (very likely curated) life without any encouragement to like, share, or subscribe. These videos made viewers feel like the Green brothers were their friends and that they were accessible in real life, and their meteoric success forced the writers to be similarly open and authentic on the internet. In a 2017 New York Times profile, John Green talked about his struggles with mental health and how suddenly fame made him anxious, especially when readers wanted photos or hugs when they were strangers to Green.
The consequences of accessibility
Although the New York Times article does not go into detail about what Green does to maintain healthy boundaries between his personal life and public figure, many writers find their own boundaries, and that often means disabling the line of communication. Authors I’ve spoken to have removed contact forms from their websites and instructed that all inquiries be made through their agent or publisher, and they have established blanket guidelines not to respond to social media messages or DMs. Many are abandoning social media altogether, though some are reluctant to get that far because it’s a useful way to share news and information – not to mention the not-so-subtle pressure of being online to sell books.
But for some writers, even the notion of lost sales doesn’t matter when it comes to safety and mental health. YA writer Tess Sharpe shared how a group of “fans” of her debut novel Far From You took their “jokes” about breaking their home too far, leading to very real security concerns, and Sharpe was open about the emotional implications that it had on it (substantive warning for PTSD, suicide, and mental health in the link). She was also very clear about drawing a clear line for the future – one that would protect her, which is the most important consideration, but also mean that she will not publicly discuss Far From You or sell any future rights to the novel. which can be a disappointment for readers who don’t bother the author. Other authors also speak openly about their limits, even if it could cost them followers or sales. Science fiction writer John Scalzi has written an extensive statement describing his use of social media, setting some limits to his presence on the platform, and encouraging readers to read it before following him for any Mitigate or annoy transgressions.
What do we do now?
I still remember the thrill I felt when I was a young teenager realizing that the writers I read and loved existed beyond my library shelves. They were real people whose social media accounts I was able to follow and there I was able to learn more about them – what books they love and recommend, their inspirations, funny anecdotes about their lives and what they were passionate about beyond writing. I was an aspiring writer who didn’t know anyone who had ever published a book. As a teenager, I wrote to many writers and many replied, much to my delight. Quite a few never did, and now I think I understand better why that might be. They were inspiring to me, but who knows what lines they should have drawn to maintain their own wellbeing.
I don’t think there’s an easy fix here, and I don’t think it’s likely that all writers will be leaving social media en masse. For my part, I enjoy being online and getting in touch with people despite the awkwardness or the occasional inappropriate news. But one thing I would like to normalize is respect for people’s privacy. I would ask readers to be aware of the concerns I have described here and many others that are not listed. (I didn’t even go into the harassment many writers face for being accessible online which is a sensitive topic for another day.) Please note that you are sending a DM to an author or using their contact form Sending email, no matter how harmless or flattering the message, you don’t owe a reply. Don’t think less of someone who doesn’t respond. If there isn’t an easy way to contact an author, please don’t insist on finding a direct route. Most of us enjoy engaging with readers, but unless you want your favorite authors to become full recluses or to stop publishing altogether, respect the boundaries drawn.