October 9, 2003
With Friends Like These, Who Needs Book Agents?
WRITER'S lot can be a lonely one, since churning out pages usually means hours spent alone at a keyboard. It seems natural, then, that many contemporary authors are turning to the Internet for companionship and support, and even taking over a Web site that was not originally intended as a writers' forum.
The site, which has attracted such novelists as Caroline Leavitt, Ayelet Waldman and Katharine Weber, is readerville.com. With close to a million page views per month and nearly 10,000 registered users, Readerville has become a robust writers' community. And unlike most bookstores or other literary haunts, it never closes. (This reporter is a nonfiction author and a user of the site.)
The site's owner, Karen Templer, a former host of the "Table Talk" discussion area of Salon.com, started Readerville in June 2000 as an online community loosely focused on books.
"I was interested in building a community from the ground up," she said, "a place where the community was the focal point, not an afterthought" to an online magazine, for example. She chose books as the common ground because literary discussions "attract an articulate and civil kind of person," she said.
To draw participants to the site, Ms. Templer established discussion forums for young adult readers, book vendors and followers of specific genres, as well as writers.
"There's this enormous disconnect between what people in publishing think about books and what readers think about books," said Ms. Templer, who lives in Napa, Calif., and is working on her first book, a personal narrative. "I hoped that it would open up a conversation between readers and writers and booksellers and librarians."
Although the site has indeed attracted booksellers and librarians, its most active areas are devoted to the creation and marketing of books. Ms. Templer said she was hoping to find a way to generate revenue through those author activities so the site could become self-supporting and she could eventually pay a staff. The site, which was recently redesigned, includes an author's gallery offering links to writers' promotional Web pages and a calendar where authors can post information about readings for a fee. There are also some income-generating links to Amazon. com.
Ms. Templer has begun charging members $8 a month, although she relies on an honor system for payments. "The goal is to stay ad-free and to keep afloat," she said.
The novelist M. J. Rose, who is based in Greenwich, Conn., describes Readerville as her "office water cooler."
"I grew up in advertising, and I got used to spending time with my co-workers," she said. "When I became a writer I was shocked at how lonely it was. It was an incredibly isolating experience until I found Readerville."
Ms. Leavitt, whose eighth novel is to be published in January, said she begins each day by logging on to Readerville. "I try to work for three hours, and then I log on again," she said.
She discovered Readerville when her most recent novel, "Coming Back to Me," was about to be published. "When I first went to it, I thought of it in terms of promotion," said Ms. Leavitt, who lives in Hoboken, N.J. "But I really liked it for the people. When you're a writer and you work at home, you never see anybody. At that point, they were doing author events for the new people who were on, and everyone was so interested and nice."
These days, not every new author is the subject of an event. But the community flexes its muscle in other ways. Last winter, when Amanda Davis was preparing to promote her first novel, "Wonder When You'll Miss Me," she logged on often to ask questions about readings and reviews. In March, on a self-financed book tour, she and her parents were killed in the crash of a small plane, and Readerville members rallied.
"That woman wanted her book to succeed," Ms. Waldman said. "The response was, 'Let's get this woman on the best-seller lists.' "
Ms. Waldman first posted the news without any expectations. "I was notifying all of our friends, and I thought, I need to tell all of these people," she said. Within days, Readerville participants had organized readings of Ms. Davis's book in New York and San Francisco. Several articles about Ms. Davis came directly from Readerville participants, as did recommendations to book groups, which helped send the book from a sales ranking below 10,000 at Amazon.com to a peak of 105.
Although other factors also came into play, like previously scheduled reviews and publicity generated by her obituary, Anthony Schneider, Ms. Davis's literary executor, credits the Readerville group with pushing the book to two additional print runs. "Because of Readerville and other online communities connecting far-flung writers, the news traveled fast," he said.
For most writers, the benefits of being part the community are less dramatic but nonetheless useful. While those who post messages simply to promote their own work are largely ignored, the 250 or so regular users frequently refer one another to agents and to author services like postcard printers. There is also a good bit of reciprocal cheerleading.
"Here is my list of books to read if you want to do some of your own marketing & P.R.,'' begins a Sept. 23 posting by Ms. Rose, who then warns that one of her own books is included.
"Many thanks for the list,'' reads a response from Mary Ellen Foley, an editor. "As a Readervillian once said to me - of course you must include your own book! If you didn't think it was of value to people in the field, you wouldn't have written it!''
The connections made online often result in real-world publicity. The Emerging Voices reading series at the annual BookExpo America convention, which began last year, grew out of the efforts of Ms. Rose and another Readerville author, William Norris. "Readerville authors have tended to get chosen first," Ms. Rose said.
Several forums at the Web site deal with creative issues. "It's changed the way I write," said Ms. Leavitt, who has picked up tips about making outlines.
For some, the virtual community may at times be preferable to the real world. "The literary circle I run in because of my husband is pretty rarefied," said Ms. Waldman, who is married to Michael Chabon, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. "They're all earning a lot more money than I am. It's nice to be in Readerville with journeyman authors, like I am."
Terrestrial writers' colonies don't seem to feel threatened. "I think there's a utility for people communicating with one another," said Cheryl Young, the executive director of the MacDowell Colony, a retreat for artists and writers in Peterborough, N.H. "It has a function, but it can't be a substitute for real contact."
But after browsing at Readerville, Ms. Young said she developed a fondness for the site. "I liked that readers get to ask writers about what they were thinking, and have a dialogue," she said. "It's good for writers to have this feedback from readers, and not just 'How did you resolve that structural problem?' "