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

Sun, Jul 24, 2005 - Page 9

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.

More people online

The benefits are spreading. Even just a few years ago, the Web was dominated by early adopters and tech-heads, but these days the subject matter and quality of sites are widening, as more people discover their interests can also be pursued online.

This has been helped by the widespread increase in Web access. In the past five years, Internet connections have more than doubled in Britain, and they are getting faster all the time. And despite the closure of chat rooms from high-profile providers such as Yahoo and MSN, social spaces on the Web have continued to evolve and grow. A mixture of bulletin boards, forums, weblogs and social networking sites all help people draw connections with each other. A Stanford University study reveals that about a fifth of Internet users now communicate with people they have never met -- and not just as part of their work.

"People bring to the Internet the activities, interests and behaviors that preoccupied them before the Web existed," wrote researchers Lee Rainie and John Horrigan in a Pew Internet study earlier this year.

"Still, the Internet has also enabled new kinds of activities that no one ever dreamed of doing before -- certainly not in the way people are doing them now," they wrote.

Novelist Jasper Fforde has built up a substantial personal Web site since publishing his first book in 2001, with content dedicated to the alternate-reality Britain that provides the backdrop to his stories. He runs a selection of Web sites with his partner, fleshing out the world of his main character, the time-traveling literary detective Thursday Next.

"I don't remember being particularly Web savvy," he said about the origins of his online endeavors. "When we started jasperfforde.com, it was a curiosity: Web sites weren't a new thing, but they were new enough. I thought about the world I created, and I liked the idea of visualizing it. I thought that would fit in well with the idea of a Web site; help blur the edges between what's real and what's not."

New communities

Fforde sees the site as a kind of "after sales service." With fans all over the world entranced by his storytelling -- which was described by the Guardian as "the morning after a particularly delirious dream" -- the Web allows them to congregate, mingle and speak with the author.

His Web site's discussion boards (and the aptly named independent "ffan club") have proved fertile ground for those wanting to continue their delirium. This September sees the first community-organized convention dedicated to his fiction -- the "Fforde Ffestival" in Swindon, England, (an important location in his novels) -- with fans from around the globe. And all of it was conceived, created and organized over the Web.

"We have a thriving community of people who talk, organize outings and even fall in love," Fforde says. "We now have three couples who met on the forums, I think, and a baby named Thursday. It's a strange feeling."

But he is modest about his role as the Cilla Black of fiction.

"All I'm doing is creating little beacons for people with a similar interest. If they didn't meet on the Web site, they might meet somewhere else," he said.

There is one dilemma that writers struggle with: trying to balance the workload. Many authors find themselves unable to fight the gravitational pull of their Web worlds, and struggle to balance its demands with the amount of time they have to spend writing their books.

"My Web site takes up a lot of energy because I maintain it myself," Cleave says. "I try to reply to everyone who posts or e-mails -- but I think the result is worth it."

Fforde agrees, and says he finds it difficult to keep up with the site and his writing schedule. This is no surprise when you consider his prolific nature: later this month, he will publish The Big Over Easy, his fifth novel.

"Ultimately, the Web is a tool to facilitate my primary business of selling books and selling stories," he said. "I like to give the Web site as much time as I can, but it's a conflict. It takes a huge amount of work, not only in writing it, but in Photoshopping images and other things. One series of pictures -- the Seven Wonders of Swindon -- took me about three weeks of solid work to complete."

Science fiction has a long history of slavish, unsociable technology addicts who trade in their real lives for virtual ones.

But the greatest fear of the literary world -- that people would stop reading books altogether -- now seems absurd. Not only is today's wired society reading more, but it has found new ways to support its reading habits: through Web sites, instant messaging and e-mail. The Web is just another weapon in the author's arsenal.

"Bulletin boards and e-mail are where people write their letters now," Fforde said. "I think in the future, people might look back on the 20th century and say that the era of the telephone was a very short one where people didn't write to each other. Humans communicate: it's what they do fantastically well."