As a lover of a very old technology for conveying information, the bound, printed book, and a believer in face-to-face or telephone conversations when anything of substance needs to be discussed, I realize that I am fast becoming an anachronism. Add to that my technophobia (if I choose the wrong option, will I wipe out everything on my computer?) and I begin to wonder if it is time to retire.
What keeps me going is the determination to learn what those young whippersnappers seem to handle so easily. Some who know me would call this character trait “stubbornness,” but whatever it is, it seems to be keeping me only a little, rather than vastly, behind the curve. This week I had another triumph in my effort to be no more than a few years behind the rest of the world.
The problem to be solved is caused by a combination of the location of my book shop and the current conditions in the publishing world. My shop, delightful as it is, is in a rather remote location. Although Flemington is located halfway between New York and Philadelphia, it is not close to the major through-routes nor easily reached by public transportation. I often wish I were in a more populated area, but then remember that I love the town, and have a loyal, intelligent and active group of mystery lovers right here. “Bloom where you’re planted” has always been my motto. Publishers, however, have little interest in promoting their wares to a small audience. Only the biggest names on the bestseller lists get any help with touring, and they head for the big stores in the big cities. Marketing money is spent on media which reach the largest audiences; it only makes sense. Yet I know many authors love to talk to their fans personally. Some authors do national tours at their own expense; others who live in New Jersey or close by are willing to do an event at my shop. The reality is, however, that time is as limiting as funding. A day traveling is a day away from writing and possibly other work, such as teaching, that helps pay the bills.
Authors in today’s environment reach their readers through the on-line media available: Facebook, Twitter, whatever else I have not caught up with yet. Most are glad to respond to e-mails and other messages, establishing a rapport with fans that engenders loyalty. These are useful methods of communicating, but have their limitations. Not every reader is a good writer, or a good typist. Meaning is sometimes lost or misinterpreted without accompanying facial expressions or verbal inflections. Even if both parties are on-line messaging at the same time (unlikely), there is a delay between question and answer and the next question generated by the answer. A question such as “What was your inspiration for this book?” may require paragraphs in response; a conversation would be less arduous and more revealing. And most important, that sense of “I met and talked to Author X,” the feeling of a personal relationship, is not truly established. I have seen many times how a reader who has met an author will talk up his or her work; they stand in my shop and do my work for me.
After chatting with several authors at Bouchercon in October about how to overcome the time and distance problem, and learning that many would be willing to appear via Skype, I decided that it was time to overcome my resistance to another new technology and give it a try. I felt that asking an author to meet with our monthly mystery reading group would be a good way to start. We have met with a few authors via speakerphone, and it has been a good experience. Time for the next step.
I contacted Reed Farrel Coleman last fall to set up a Skype visit for this past week. I asked him because he has appeared at my store, and has many fans in Flemington, especially in our reading group. He had recently published a stand-alone novel, one those in the group who are new to his work could read rather than jumping into the middle of his Moe Prager series, which really should be read in sequence. And although he lives in the next state, it is a 3-hour drive one way in good weather; the 2 feet of snow he is currently buried in on eastern Long Island could as easily have arrived two nights ago. In person visits in February are a dice roll.
Reed was amenable to trying Skype, although he had as much experience with it as I had – none. We consoled ourselves that we had the speakerphone to fall back on, and enlisted the younger generation to get us going. The teenage son of one of our group members arrived 30 minutes before the meeting and had us hooked up 15 minutes early. Amazing! There was Reed at his desk, a fully loaded bookshelf (yes, real paper books) behind him, and there we were in semicircle, all able to see each other, feeling we were all in the same room.
We had a fantastic meeting, discussing Gun Church, the stand-alone book, and his series. The conversation flowed because of the face to face intimacy that written messages cannot imitate. Those who had not met Reed before feel they know him, and those who had met him renewed the acquaintance. When he suggested that we attend the launch party in New York for his new book, Onion Street, in May, there was a chorus of “Yes! Road Trip!” I may have mentioned in the past how this particular group has bonded and enjoys activities beyond the monthly meeting. We have already planned the big “road trip” to Albany for Bouchercon; everyone who can get away has registered. So I am sure there will be a contingent from Flemington’s small but charming mystery book shop at the much better known Mysterious Bookshop in May. This would not have happened without the personal contact Skype allowed us.
This experience has given me, at least temporarily, a more positive attitude toward the technology which seems to be changing my life. I am pondering how to expand the use of on-line visits from a small reading group to a larger event open to the community. Books could be signed and shipped. A larger screen could be obtained. What else is needed? Would people be interested in attending? If anyone has tried this, I would like to know how it worked. I still think personal appearances are the best way for writers to connect with readers, but if the technology which is hurting us in some ways can also provide a reasonable substitute, why not use it?