Can authors use Facebook to reach readers?

(This is a story I wrote for the Globe that ran in the Review section of Tuesday’s newspaper. I’m posting it here for anyone who might be interested but doesn’t read the newspaper).

Necessity is the mother of invention, the old saying goes. But boredom and the desire to experiment are powerful forces too, says Canadian author Michael Winter. That’s how he came up with the idea to “serialize” his latest novel on Facebook, the hot social-networking site.

“I look at the whole book-publishing and promotion-of-books process as pretty boring,” the British-born author says with a laugh from his home in Newfoundland. “And I’m always game to do anything different to promote the book.”

Over drinks one night, Winter and Penguin Canada publicist Stephen Myers came up with the idea of using Facebook to create an online community around Winter’s new novel, The Architects Are Here. For the past several weeks, the author has been posting a short synopsis of each chapter every few days on his Facebook page and will continue doing so until the book is officially published later this week.

In addition to the synopsis, Winter has also been posting his thoughts and commentary about how the chapter developed, including debates he had with himself over how to handle a particular situation, or the local landmarks and people that became part of the novel.

“At first it was just going to be an excerpt from each chapter, but I thought that was just as boring as doing a reading,” says Winter. “So I thought what I could do was talk about where I was when I wrote a certain passage … and kind of annotate the book in a way.”

Winter is just one of a growing number of authors who are trying to drag the book into the 21st century by using the Internet to supplement the traditional process of writing, publishing and distribution, and by using blogs and other Web tools to build relationships with readers.

While Winter’s group isn’t likely to set any world records for Facebook membership, he has about 230 “friends,” many of whom return for each chapter and post their own comments about the events in the book, or the process of writing it. Some are clearly would-be authors.

This two-way connection isn’t something that novelists often get, Winter says, and it is nice to have. “There are so few readers in the end for a Canadian literary novel,” he says, that the chance to connect with some of them online is a treat.

Myers and Penguin Canada have also been involved in other publicity stunts involving young Canadian authors, including a boxing match last year with Craig Davidson, author of The Fighter, and a drinking game to help promote Noel Boivin’s and Christopher Lombardo’s The Man Who Scared a Shark to Death and Other True Tales of Drunken Debauchery.

But Myers says the Facebook idea is more than just a stunt. Looking at the readers who have come together around Winter’s book, he says, “I see community there. I see 200 or however many have signed up for it, and I see them on there discussing each of his posts as they come out.”

Winter is not the only author using Facebook to promote or serialize a novel. Halifax author Dr. Brad Kelln – a forensic psychologist who has published two thrillers – has been posting chapters of a new book as he writes them, and has even been using the names of group members from Facebook in the novel.

Another recent experiment with online interactive fiction – something authors have been experimenting with since the early days of the computer – comes from Canadian author Josh Martin, whose latest project is called Plot Party. Readers suggest different outcomes for each chapter and then vote on which they prefer. Martin is also planning something called Pocket-Change Parade to coincide with World Literacy Day this Saturday.

One recent attempt at online interactive fiction didn’t come to a happy end, however. In February, Penguin USA launched a fiction-writing project called A Million Penguins, loosely based on the concept of Wikipedia, the encyclopedia written and edited by users. But the project shut down a month later and was widely viewed as a failure.

According to Penguin, about 1,500 people contributed to the writing and editing of A Million Penguins, making it what Penguin’s CEO reportedly called “not the most-read, but possibly the most-written novel in history.”

On the Penguin blog, one executive at the publishing house summed it up in this way: “So what of the experiment – can a collective really write a novel? I guess the answer has to be a qualified maybe.”

Meanwhile, some authors have even taken to publishing their entire works online, although that is still relatively rare.

The most recent high-profile example is Austrian writer and 2004 Nobel Prize-winner Elfriede Jelinek, who is posting chapters of her new novel as she writes them, on her website, for free.

Jelinek isn’t interested in publicity. Described in a recent Associated Press news story as a recluse who rarely ventures outside her house, she has apparently chosen to publish her book online because she wants to avoid the usual book-launch interviews and readings.

The new novel will not be protected by any digital-rights management or copy protection. Jelinek says “anyone who wants to can download it,” and calls publishing on the Internet “wonderfully democratic.”

Other authors have experimented with online sales of books in various forms. Technology publisher O’Reilly sells “e-books” as PDF files, and so have marketing guru Seth Godin, Toronto-born science-fiction author Cory Doctorow, and digital-rights advocate Lawrence Lessig.

Fittingly enough, an early employee at Facebook — engineer Karel Baloun — has written an e-book called Inside Facebook that can be downloaded from his website as a PDF file. Readers can choose to pay $9, $12 or $18, and the author says he has sold more than 700 copies.

Stephen King wrote and published parts of a book called The Plant online in 2000, allowing readers to download each chapter and pay $1 for it using the honour system. Although a majority of people paid, by the sixth instalment interest had waned and King shelved the idea.

Another recent trend is the blog that becomes a book. There is even a prize for the best “blook,” called the Lulu Blooker Prize. The winner this year was Colby Buzzell, whose blog about his time fighting in Iraq became the book My War: Killing Time in Iraq, published by Berkeley/Penguin.

One of the most famous blog-book deals came in 2004, when the author of the pseudonymous Washington sex blog Washingtonienne, Jessica Cutler, got a reported $300,000 book offer from Hyperion.

Blogger Zoe Margolis recently became a sensation in Britain writing the pseudonymous blog Girl With a One-Track Mind, and won a lucrative book deal, and so did Salaam Pax, the pseudonym of a Baghdad resident who became famous for blogging during the invasion of Iraq.

Other recent blog book deals include one for the website Hot Chicks With Douchebags, and one for the creator of Petite Anglaise, who was fired from her job in France when her employer found out she was writing a blog. And Anya Peters, a homeless woman who wrote a blog about living in her car, was signed to a book deal last year by HarperCollins.

Bloggers who want to become published authors don’t have to wait for a book deal, however: software from a San Francisco-based company called Blurb will download the contents of your blog and format it for publication, and then print glossy hardcover copies for you for prices ranging from $30 to $80 (U.S.) each, depending on the number of pages.

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