These Are My People: Building Community in the SF/F World

The title was unwieldy, but the theme of the “These Are My People/Aliens/Zombies/Vampires/Dragons!: Building Community in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy World” panel at NYCC on Saturday was clear: building community in genre is all about positive engagement and respect.

The panel brought together a varied mix of SF/F authors and artists, including N.K. Jemisin (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms), Daniel José Older (Half-Resurrection Blues), Richard Kadrey (Sandman Slim series), YA author Arwen Elys Dayton (Seeker series), Nicholas Sansbury Smith (ORBS), cartoonist Jerzy Drozd, and Trevor Pryce and Sanford Greene, collaborators on An Army of Frogs: A Kulipari Novel.

Moderator Petra Mayer of NPR Books facilitated a conversation with panelists about how to engage with fans, how to build community as a creator, and how to use social media practice to your creative advantage.

It’s all about access (plus practice): On social media, readers simply want access to their favorite author, Jemisin said. Some of her most popular tweets are about things her co-workers say and have nothing to do with her work directly. Writing for social media can also help with writer’s block: if you find you’re having trouble working on your fiction, write a blog post. The fiction is the main work, but advertising and social media is part of it, too.

When Older worked as a paramedic, he used to “live-tweet—well, not live-tweet, but after-tweet” about the work. Writing for social media helped him figure out how to be direct and tell stories concisely, and was how he found his voice to write Half-Resurrection Blues.

Greene said that naturally, he’d been tweeting and posting updates throughout NYCC, including his appearances on panels, which gives people who can’t be at the con an instant connection to what’s happening. “It gets fun,” said Kadrey, who had been live-tweeting all of his cab rides around New York. Giving followers a mix of the serious and the silly keeps the information interesting.

YA audiences expect access to their favorite authors all the time, Dayton noted. They want to know what authors are like, to see pictures, to hear all about the trips they’re taking and what they’re doing in daily life. It’s significantly different from her experience with the adult SFF community, where the focus is largely on discussing and dissecting the text. YA is about connecting readers authors and with each other, and about “feeling the feeling” of the work.

Pryce interjected a firm “no” after Dayton’s statement about posting pictures and details of travel, drawing laughter from the audience and panelists. But Jemisin followed up by saying that authors do, in fact, need to be careful. She doesn’t tweet about where she is when she’s on vacation, though she’ll talk about it afterward. People react with anger when you challenge their idea of what “the geekosphere” is supposed to be, she said, and since Jemisin believes the geekosphere should be like “this room,” with people of all ages, genders, races, et cetera, she’s drawn her share of ire from those on social media.

Starting (and sustaining) dialogue: Jemisin started out by blogging and tweeting about race and gender in SF/F, critiquing existing work and discussing how the genre could improve. So when she started publishing her own work, “some readers turned in just to see if I could pull it off.” There were a few hate-reads, she admits, but largely it was an audience of people curious about her work who had already become engaged with her viewpoint via social media.

Looking around NYCC, Older said, it appeared to be by far the most diverse con he’d ever been to, and he’d attribute that in many ways to the rise of online communities where people from all backgrounds build a safe space to share their love of genre. He cited communities like Black Girl Nerds as online spaces that are “changing the face of fandom, literally.”

How do you keep up the momentum of successful, engaging conversations on social media, Mayer asked? Simple, Jemisin answered. “I just keep talking.”

Focus on the work: Pryce advocated a different tack than many of the other panelists, saying that he prefers to keep it about the work. In his opinion, his strength is in creating the world and letting other people play in the sandbox. He prefers face-to-face interaction with fans. Greene jumped in to pay Pryce many compliments on the worlds he creates, affirming that amazing and well-executed ideas will always generate their own enthusiasm from fans.

Givin’ ‘em what they love: Drozd started a podcast dedicated to deconstructing the cartoons of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s called Saturday Supercast, since Saturday morning cartoons are a huge influence on his work. He used the sidebar to link to his original comics, basically saying to his audience, “Oh, here are these comics that are like the things you love.”

Working on a project like a podcast also gives authors and artists a chance to reach out to other creators and fans. Drozd would ask for help and input from listeners whenever he encountered a problem putting the podcast together, which he said contributes to creating the impression of meaningful interaction.

Finding your readers: After Smith’s self-published debut didn’t sell well, he spent a year researching different methods for engaging readers, including building a subscription list and, in many cases, giving his book away for free. He also went searching for his readers, finding them mostly on Goodreads and Twitter. His efforts as a self-published author continue to pay dividends, though he has a publisher and agent now: people he connected with or provided with a copy of his book back then now review and support his newer work.

Once you’ve found your readers, though, you can’t always control what happens next. Keeping spoilers out of the conversation, for instance, can present a challenge, which several of the panelists had specific ways of addressing.

“Tell them to shut up,” said Kadrey, evoking laughter. He went on to say that in truth, while you do sometimes have to yell at people, it’s usual more effective to ask them to respect other people in the forum. Jemisin asks reviewers on Goodreads to tag spoilers, which has worked well for her. Dayton noted that in YA “kids are much better about not giving spoilers,” and that negative Amazon reviews of her books actually present the biggest problem, since people have no issue detailing the entire plot and why they didn’t like it.

Smith recommended avoiding bad reviews, while Jemisin said she finds them “illuminating.” She encouraged an audience member who asked how to provide feedback to authors to “write a good review,” because authors will choose how they engage with criticism and will seek out that feedback if they find it helpful. Writing a book is like giving birth, she said, and “not everyone wants to hear that their baby is ugly.” Authors can decide whether to avoid or seek out reviews on their own.

Drozd finds that users will end up self-policing in a lot of situations, especially if you build a structure where they can do so. He rewarded people on a forum he ran for positive contributions to the community by giving them titles (“Mayor,” for instance), and found that people took those responsibilities seriously, stepping in when there were issues with other commenters.

You can’t control everything, though, said Older. He once found a page for a book he hadn’t even sent to his publisher online, and realized it had been made by an 11-year-old beta reader of the manuscript.

The takeaway: engaging online as a creator isn’t without its risks, but the reward is an active, interested audience and a forum for opening up complex, crucial conversations. Writing that blog post or live-tweeting that con can contribute to creative work, the panelists stressed, and building community has become as important to many creators as what they do on the page.

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