In 1893, after deciding that he wanted to start writing different things, Arthur Conan Doyle killed off his wildly popular character Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle had had enough of Holmes, and it was time to move on. In the story The Final Problem, he had Sherlock fall off a cliff to his death.
Conan Doyle had no way of predicting what happened next. In the months that followed, Sherlock fans around the world went wild. Men in London wore mourning bands. Twenty thousand readers of the Strand magazine, which originally published the story, cancelled their subscriptions in protest. “Let’s Keep Holmes Alive” clubs began in America. Angry letters flooded Conan Doyle.
In short, the fandom erupted.
Sherlock’s death is the first time that fans enacted enough power over the work’s creator to change the course of the story–in response to the outcry, Conan Doyle reintroduced Sherlock the following year.
What is fandom?
Fandom is a subculture and community surrounding a specific work. Members of fandom create fan fiction, art, and discourse about a particular fictional universe.
Today, fandom has found its home on the internet. These groups enact enormous influence–one study even suggests that fandom is changing our holiday traditions. Fandom has saved shows from cancellation, most notably Star Trek in 1968. During the Writers Guild of America strike in 2007, fandom organized into an activist group to picket for fairer pay for content creators.
But these groups are not without their downsides. ‘Fandom wars’–disagreements between fans about canonical facts or fan theories–can quickly erupt. In the inflammatory culture of the internet, they often turn personal. And managing them can be a PR nightmare.
Cassandra Clare, Maggie Stiefvater, and Social Media
Cassandra Clare is the author of the immensely popular series The Mortal Instruments. Clare’s series evolved out of a Harry Potter fan fiction and has become a phenomena in its own right, with mega movie deals and television shows. Clare, herself a player in social media and the Harry Potter fandom for years, had to step back from social media last year after in-fighting in her books’ fandom turned vicious.
“I cannot be online now, so I am going offline and will return when I can,” Clare tweeted. “I am not angry, or flouncing away. I just need a break.”
As we’ve seen in previous posts, social media is considered a necessary part of author self-promotion. While Clare’s empire is probably safe (she was worth an estimated $7 million in 2015), this sort of move could be devastating for smaller scale authors.
Maggie Stiefvater is a young adult author. Though she has been a successful author for years, her series The Raven Cycle is the first of her works to have a fandom grow around it. Stiefvater, who is active on social media, has experienced the same frustrations that forced Clare to quit:
The most aggravating part about being the creator is that even if you have an opinion on an aspect of your own work, you must be cautious about sharing it…Expressing an opinion shared by one side of a divided fandom can seem as if you have given that side an unfair advantage. But…not being able to take sides is frustrating. The fact is that we write these books and characters and issues because they live close to our heart. Not being able to talk about it feels muzzling. [via MTV]
So what is an author to do?
To Engage or Not to Engage
There are two opposing ways of dealing with fandom. One can engage directly, such as Clare and Stiefvater. And one can avoid entirely. Anne Rice, author of the famous Vampire Chronicles, once released a statement forbidding her readers from creating fan fiction about her work.
There are dangers to both approaches. Choosing to engage with fandom means choosing to come face-to-face with bad reviews and, quite often, their reviewers. Horror stories abound about the outcome of these interactions (read this one about an author stalking someone who left a bad review under a false name if you have time).
Choosing to not engage is equally dangerous. Rice’s approach of forbidding her readers to engage in fandom activities has not gone well–despite a formal request to fan fiction hosting sites to have anything involving her work removed, fan fiction of Rice’s novels abound. Her harsh stance on fandom activity has painted a negative picture of her to her fans: today, any Google search brings up venomous judgements of her character.
The woman simply does not care what you think. She will write and do as she wishes, because being a famous writer gives her privileges beyond those of mortal humans. This apparently includes cyberstalking and cyberbullying teenagers. [A review left on Urban Dictionary, of all places.]
The answer, of course, is moderation.
Keep Your Friends Close
For an author who is just starting out, engagement with a fan base is not optional. As that fan base begins to morph into something resembling a fandom, a healthy dose of caution is necessary.
Fandoms produce incredible amounts of fan fiction, art, promotions, and can generate healthy sales for an author. These individuals are artists in their own right, and authors need to respect that.
However, engaging too directly can lead to all sorts of trouble, as we saw above. This is where a healthy understanding of PR tactics comes in.
Public Relations is Storytelling
It’s a phrase drilled into us from day one: public relations is about building a story. Who is better equipped to do so than an author?
To engage with fandom but keep their sanity, authors and creators need to set their story. This establishes boundaries. What part of their life is important to the story? How did they become an author? What inspires them? How do they write? What kinds of fan questions will they answer? And what parts are not important to the story? What parts don’t need to be shared, what questions don’t need to be answered?
By establishing these boundaries early, authors set themselves up to protect the parts of their life that need protecting. It gives the control to the author and shows their fandom in which realms they are allowed to operate.
(Oh, and let them write fan fiction. They’re going to do it anyway. You don’t have to read it).
It might be a good idea to keep a PR person on speed dial.