Don’t believe what you hear about New Yorkers being rude. During the four days I was there for the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference [in 2009], only two people were rude to me. One was a woman who sat next to me during a showing of the musical Billy Elliot. The other was an author in attendance at the conference. I’ve blurred the details in relating my experience with the author here, but there’s still an important lesson to be learned from it.
I’d long been a fan of this author and a regular follower of her blog and online columns for various publications, and had long pondered a specific passage in one of her books. Seeing her at the conference, I figured this was my chance to ask her for further clarification directly. Her response was curt. She tersely said I’d completely misunderstood the passage and rather than indulge me with further explanation, directed me back to her site. Not surprisingly, my impression of this author has changed entirely, for the worse, and my new, negative impression will undoubtedly color my opinion of all her work in the future.
In fairness to this multi-published, big-name author, it must be said that she probably receives queries like mine all the time and is sick and tired of having to answer the same questions from the boneheaded public over and over again. However, in fairness to the boneheaded public, it must be said that we pay her bills and it is our desire to read and understand her work that allows this author to maintain her lifestyle and vaunted status. While I sell respectable numbers of books and get tens of thousands of hits on my various websites each month, I’m a relatively smalltime operator in the big scheme of publishing. Even so, I cared enough about this author’s work to buy it and try to absorb it, and I think that’s reason enough to deserve a modicum of respect from the author.
The author essentially made me regret having posed my question to her, and by extension, having spent the money and time I’d invested in her work to date. I was left to slink away in quiet embarrassment as other, better-known conference attendees swooped in and were granted a much warmer welcome by the author. What could I say? "Gee, sorry to show interest in your work, I’ll try not to do it again."
As an author, you should count yourself lucky to have each and every fan, and treat every one of them with the same level of respect and interest you would show to the most famous and influential person you can imagine. In the general sense it’s just plain good manners, but in the marketing sense it’s critical.
You may think a bumpkin housewife who accosts you to ask the most lamebrained question about your work you can imagine isn’t worth your time because she’s just a lamebrained, bumpkin housewife, but you’re wrong. That housewife buys books, belongs to book clubs, church groups and the PTA, and comes from a large circle of family and friends in her community. Whatever she tells her circle about you is something that circle will repeat to their circles, among whom are sure to be some bloggers and influential voices—six degrees of separation and all that.
Each contact with a reader is an opportunity to make a good impression, reinforce an already good impression, or spread bad press on your own behalf. No matter how tired, frustrated or annoyed you may be feeling on the inside, paste on a smile and show your audience some respect.