Why authors reach out on the Web

It wasn't long ago that the only way readers could get in touch with their favorite author was to hope for a book tour docking nearby, or else to send a letter - sure to be tossed into a pile with hundreds of other similar missives - to the author's monolithic publishing house.

Today, however, the loyal reader's options are many. With the advent of the Internet, as well as the proliferation of small presses, book aficionados are now seeing more variety in the marketplace than ever before. Many presses now offer chapter excerpts on the Web, as well as other enticements to get people interested in their authors.

Some writers are taking the new connectivity a step further, developing and running their own websites, offering up such goodies as unpublished works, reading lists, e-mail addresses, and more. To have such a site is a no-brainer, as these authors tell it: They provide loyal readers content they can't get anywhere else, allow the authors to plug their friends, and lend a personal - but not too personal - connection between writer and reader. We invited several writers, via e-mail, to explain their reasons for establishing a Web presence.

"For me, it's a way mostly of keeping things 'in print' that would otherwise go swiftly out ... magazine articles, short essays, incidental pieces. The odd failed bit or rejected screenplay," says Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier" and "Clay" (www.michael chabon.com).

"The e-mail was manageable for a very long time," Mr. Chabon says. "Recently it has become more burdensome, but not by any means a deluge.

"I have learned all kinds of interesting things from readers - bits of trivia, items of expertise, startling personal anecdotes. I have encountered unsuspected lost relatives and been propositioned for acts innocent and dubious. Going to a SF Giants game would be an example of the former."

John Jakes, bestselling Civil War writer and author of "The North and South Trilogy," says he prefers to do much of the work on his site himself (www.johnjakes.com).

"I was in advertising and marketing for 17 years before I turned to full-time writing, hence I figure that I can prepare the site copy as well as some copywriter.

"Since I began my site, 'paper' mail reaching me from the publisher has virtually disappeared (I used to get bales of such letters and cards). I don't know whether this means no one is writing in the conventional way any more, or that the publisher's mailroom is simply not forwarding any mail that arrives there for me."

"We have no trouble with correspondence," says Ishmael Reed, the popular African-American author, essayist, and founder of the online Konch and Vine magazines (www.ishmaelreedpub.com). Reed says his site's visitors query mostly with technical advice.

"Our reader recommendations are usually from those who want to redesign our site. We want to avoid bells and whistles, and the kind of dizzying busyness that characterizes CNN Headline News.

"Konch is a continuation of a print version which I lugged around the country for about nine years, selling them at colleges and book fairs," Reed continues.

"With the website Konch, we've been able to reach thousands of readers and publish writers from all over the world. example, while visiting Ghana, I promised some Nigerian writers whom I met there that I would publish them on the site. Two years later, when I visited Nigeria, they asked whether I had published them. We went into the computer room and I was able to download their contributions [instantly]. It was like magic."

"I love the interactivity and the immediacy of the web," says author Judy Blume (www.judyblume.com), known for her young-adult novels like "Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret" and "SuperFudge."

"But it's not easy to keep up with e-mails. Right now I'm trying to finish a book - as my grandson said last week, 'Are you ever going to finish that book?' I certainly hope so, because this one is to be dedicated to him. It's a 'Fudge' book, and if I don't finish soon, he'll be too old to care! So - I spend much less time interacting via my website when I'm writing than when I'm between projects.

"When I do have time, I try to get up new info," says Blume, whose site is run by her husband, George Cooper. "My site is more informational than some, because I get thousands of letters every year from kids doing reports, college students doing research papers, and graduate students doing theses.

"It's my goal," he says, "to guide them to the info they need. The more I can get up there to help, the better I feel about not being able to answer individual questions - especially when many of their questions are the same. I still try to answer all the personal e-mails and answer the quirky questions. I have one trusted assistant who helps me keep the e-mails up to date."

Mr. Jakes says privacy and the fast communication with his audience were the primary spur to his forming a site.

"The difficult part of this is trying to keep up with a large volume of reader responses - a couple of hundred queued up at any one time. I try to answer them in batches of 10 - very briefly - or have my assistant take care of the less important ones (e.g., 'When is the US video version of North and South III coming on the market?')."

Blume says the potential negatives of having a site are the same as with other forms of reader contact, but in real time.

"We do have to monitor the e-mails," she says. "Occasionally we get rude comments from people who are trying to shock. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed, but I felt the same way about snail mail."

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