Sun, Jul 24, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Internet opens up new opportunities for writers

Despite early fears that the Web would kill the art of reading, it has become another weapon in the writer's arsenal, offering authors a way to communicate directly with their readers

By Bobbie Johnson  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

A decade ago, when the Internet bandwagon started to roll, the sense of fear from inside the literary establishment was palpable.

With each new technological development, sinister soothsayers would trot out the latest in a series of dark predictions. E-books, we were told, would herald the death of paper-based novels. Web sites such as Amazon would destroy bookselling as we knew it. The escalating volume of informal, sporadic e-mail would degrade literacy and reduce readers' attention spans.

More than a decade into the wired world, however, few of these sinister prophecies have come to pass. In fact, there are more and more writers taking the opposite view: that the Web is actually a valuable ally to the literary world.

Last weekend, when the latest round of Harry Potter fever reached its highest point, the famously reclusive JK Rowling held a sleepover reading for 70 readers hand-picked from around the world. Two representatives from the biggest Harry Potter fan sites were included. The Leaky Cauldron's Melissa Anelli, a 25-year-old journalist from New York, was chosen to visit Edinburgh, as was the 18-year-old founder of Mugglenet, Emerson Spartz.

"She said we do a great job with the sites," Anelli said last week. "She knows we will bring it back to the fans in an ethical and responsible manner."

Rowling's work has inspired many fan Web sites, but she also maintains her own domain -- a place "where I can tell you the truth about rumors or news stories, where I can share the extra information I haven't put in the books, where I can give you hints and clues about what's going to happen to Harry next."

Rowling also freely admits to trawling fan sites, and pays homage to the good ones with a regular fan site award.

"From what I've seen of reading and speaking to writers, going out to these sites is easier than going out in public," said Heidi Tandy, a 34-year-old attorney from Florida who is one of the editors of The Leaky Cauldron. "One of the things I've learned is that they like interacting with fans, but book tours are murder. For them, to have another way to communicate with the public is phenomenal."

It is not just popular writers who are enveloped by these online fan communities -- music, film and a multitude of pursuits are replete with enthusiast sites.

But many writers particularly enjoy the way the Web lets them write to readers directly, circumventing the traditional, one-way communication between an author and the public. That ability has proved positive for Chris Cleave, whose novel Incendiary -- about a terrorist attack in London -- was published on the same day the recent bombings struck the capital.

"My site helps me understand people's feelings, and I wouldn't be without it," Cleave said. Connections are "especially relevant at a time like this."

"The intense feedback -- positive and negative -- that I've had from readers has been very important to help me understand how people are feeling out there, which feeds into my current writing project. I don't think direct contact would be possible without the Web site."

Many non-fiction writers, particularly those in technology-related subjects, have already switched to the Internet. Publishers such as O'Reilly have led the way through a wide network of writers, and Silicon Valley journalists such as Chris Anderson and Dan Gillmor have used the Web to think out their books in public before finalizing the manuscripts in print.

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