Wednesday, January 19, 2022

A funny thing happened when Fifty Shades author went on Twitter to interact with people

EL James, a working model illustrating how social media can help hitherto unknown writers make a killing, came a cropper last week in the course of a Twitter stunt.

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | New Delhi |
July 12, 2015 1:00:48 am
Fifty Shades of Grey author EL James Fifty Shades of Grey author EL James

EL James, a working model illustrating how social media can help hitherto unknown writers make a killing, came a cropper last week in the course of a Twitter stunt. One public tweet using #AskELJames had a satirical video allegedly depicting her literary agent, a woman in a business suit, reacting to the incident by upending a bottle of strong drink into her mouth. The author herself was not harmed in the production of this fiasco. She apparently blocked off critics who raised boring ethical questions about her work and logged out with a sunny, “Thanks so much for an interesting hour… :D”

James had started her career as a fanfic blogger, whose work drew the attention of agents trawling social media for talent. She is the most successful of many writers who have resolutely set aside the idea of literary art as idle daydream to focus on what Ursula K Le Guin classified last year as “the production of a market commodity”, in her politically loaded acceptance speech at the US National Book Awards.

In the desi sphere, consider Amish Tripathi (now in his second wind with the Ram series), who had organised events and friend-sourced social media campaigns and YouTube videos to project himself initially to his readers.

It must have been seriously hard work, as hard as launching a new ball-bearing brand. The internet is a great equaliser which puts free promotional tools into the hands of indie writers rebuffed by big publishing firms, but leveraging it takes the sort of energy which one associates with a whole PR agency, not a single human unit which must expend most of its calories writing.

James was comparatively lucky, drawing the attention of the big boys early. So, her minders may have thought, why not return to the source? It should be so easy. Not so, it transpired, because social media and traditional PR are structurally different. While promotion was conceived as a one to many projection, social media is wired for many to many conversations. It talks back, laughs back and tries to take over. In the #AskELJames fiasco, the reading public tweeted ironic requests like: “I’ve just been sick and some alphabetti spaghetti landed on a blank piece of paper, could I have your publisher’s email address?” Not so bad, really. Not half as bad as the kick in the pants the US National Rifle Association got when it tweeted after the deadliest shooting in US history, in a cinema in Aurora, Colorado: “Good morning, shooters. Happy Friday! Weekend plans?” The Aurora incident spiked gun sales, heightened the debate over US gun control laws and brought down a barrage of criticism on the NRA.

On social media, Le Guin’s acceptance speech travelled far better than PR campaigns usually do. Because she denounced the promotional culture which has taken over the hitherto quiet trade of publishing, and causes books to be launched like luxury liners so that they can founder likewise on the rocks of heightened expectations. Calling trade publishers “profiteers”, she had stated that the writer’s reward is not profit, but the freedom to dream.

In publishing, hardsell has become so pervasive that to price yourself out of the market — indeed, to deny the market altogether — earns wild applause. Le Guin reminded readers of a time before bestseller lists, when the market and publishing were antithetical and the score was kept in other coin, such as vision, imagination and stature.

Could the mass technologies which put literature on the market take it back in time? The next generation of writers could be lone operators who don’t have to do book tours, who connect using social marketing tools which are easier to use.

In the near future, Twitter may look as clunky as the huge Remington typewriters on which so many 20th century classics were written. And shorn of the heavy responsibility of fitting in with their publishers’ marketing plans, indie writers may find the time to dream again.

The story appeared in print with the headline A little birdie trolled her

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