Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Thank You: some surprisingly complex netiquette

It's the thing I want to say most often in life, especially as a writer. Yes, even more than, "sorry, you must send me the dry cleaning bill". In fact, I lose count of the times i want to say thank you in any one day.

Take yesterday. Someone in the publishing industry agreed to look at my book and help me find places to send it for review; an author I greatly admire had a personal word with a magazine editor who then requested a review copy; a bookstore owner agreed to take my book sale or return; a website host posted a great big plug for my book; a blogger I hugely admire gave me a link; most of all, more than one person who's read my stuff sent me a lovely message. I want to buy them ALL milk and cookies and hire the Red Arrows to write thank you in the sky.

But it's not that simple. Thank you is a minefield for a writer.

Let me start with some very bad practice, and it might help you also to see the problem with seemingly good practice. Book blog tours seem to be all the rage at the moment. Or maybe it just seems it because there's a particularly interesting thread on the subject on the excellent Help Supprt Indpendent Publishers group on Facebook.

Maybe it's just me but one thing I've noticed is just how many writers on blog tours, or giving interviews on websites, attract comments from readers, and questions, which are met with a stony silence.

Now, pardon me for being old fashioned, but that's RUDE. And before authors chime in with "you're unpublished, you don't know how busy it is" (true, and also true [but try working a 37.5 hour week, running a festival, coordinating a collective, launching a book single-handed, AND trying to revolutionise an industry]), I KNOW how busy you are, but that's not an excuse. In practical terms, you actually lose readers as well as gaining them (and remember the old adage about one complaint needing nine bits of praise to balance it out. That's not just true in restaurants). But aside from that, don't take it on if you can't manage the courtesy of engaging with the readers when you do. These people are your RAISON D'ETRE. And it's not just that. It's incredibly rude to the blog host, who has to pick up the pieces of disgruntled readers and explain why their star guest bailed half way.

OK, that's a pet peeve out of the way. Do you see the other thing that would have been really rude of me? In the context of calling people who act like this a SUPERCILIOUS PLANK (as I believe I said in a bilious tweet last night :-))?

That's right. It would have been REALLY rude of me to name names.

Which brings me back to the business of when and how you DO say thank you. Take the first two instances. In both cases, I want to say thank you publicly. Because surely that's the greatest honour for someone, and gives them the best rep, the biggest kudos, right? Well, yes, BUT. If I say "Thank you for agreeing to read my book" to someone who's hugely busy and has done it as a favour (either to me or to a fairy godmother of whom I know nothing), they're not going to thank me back when 200 requests to do likewise arrive in their inbox.

So I send a grateful e-mail, right? Well, it's not that simple. Only the other day I was reading tweets by a Well Known But Nameless Agent who complained that authors are stalkers and, in not too many words "get out of my inbox" and certainly "if we've given something, go away and don't come back and bother us again." So the last thing I want to do if WKBNA does a kindness for me is to hack them off by sending a long e-mail thanking them and clogging their inbox. Nor do I want to seem curt. It's a minefield. (In this case, my advice is be thankful for one thing; never ask a second but say yes if it's offered; DO send a thank you that's friendly and personal, wishing well for a current project; I wouldn't offer to "let them know how it goes" - my guess is this will make them feel pressured to reply, which is bad - if they REALLY want to know they'll ask, but chances are they don't, so not offering spares embarrassment).

Which brings us to the nicest category. Readers, and fellow-writers. These are people who have approached you. So you needn't worry you're bothering them (that's NOT a stalker's charter). It goes without saying you MUST say thank you. It also, and this is important, because if you're not careful you can end up with no time to write, and that's actually what people really want from you, should go without saying that you can't, even though you'd like to, be everyone's lifecoach. You need to have boundaries, and to make those clear (which is NOT to say some, probably many, readers and fellow-writers won't become friends, possibly lifelong. I would hope they will. But that shouldn't be the expectation from your initial contact - that's THEIR stalker's charter). On the other hand, if you can do something to help, I really believe you should. That means much more than the words "thank you". You could offer to host them on your blog; or look at a short story; or put them onto a helpful website.

Yes, again. I KNOW you're busy. And I know it's easy fro me because I don't really have any fans. But remember those times before you were famous, when you were met with silence? Remember the mutterings under your breath. And remember the one person who showed you even a bit of kindness? I bet you DO. And don't EVER forget it.

Which brings me to a general observation. One of the most important articles ever written about culture (or business) can be found here. Kevin Kelly's basic premise is that you only need 1,000 true fans to sustain your business/life as a writer. I happen to think he's right (I'm not getting into that argument here). Now 1,000 is NOT a huge number. Certainly not if, like me, you write 50-100 e-mails a day. One reason I like 1,000 true fans is because it's a way of being that allows you to engage with everyone who's a fan of yours. And if you're a writer, someone who communicates, that's really how it should be, isn't it?


  1. Well said! This also brings to mind Malcolm Gladwell who has said we should understand that success comes about through the efforts of many different people and circumstances. It's a group project!

    And thank you! You've reminded me that I must pick up the dry cleaning tomorrow.

    Don't know where I am in the 1,000 mob...but I'm there!

  2. I understand your point but I'm afraid my recent experience at Overland is a kind of counterexample. If I was to go into the thread where everyone was saying such wonderful things about me and thank them it would have extended the comment stream to miles long (and I would have been accused of 'bumping'). I'm already receiving criticism that (and I quote) "the comment stream was just one long love-in". I didn't want to take over their blog by thanking everyone. I think you have to be very careful when making up rules of netiquette, they rarely apply in all situations or to all people. But I will keep your advice in mind in the future.

  3. I expect an extensive thank you email for this comment, I hope you realise.

    Great post, Dan. 'Thank you', two little words almost as loaded as those infamous other three little words.

    Like those three words, though, I think it's usually pretty obvious when 'thank you' is meant genuinely and when it's just said in the hope of getting some(thing), even in type.
    Does that extend to wrters/writing professionals? I don't know, but I'd hope so.

  4. @Paul Part of what I was trying to do was avoid making rules and remind people to take everything on a case by case basis, bearing in mind what is TRULY helpful and not just doing it the easy way (very good point you remind us about, though - don't hijack others' blogs - at least not for one's own gain. I'm aware taht I can get over-exuberant sometimes)

    @marisa One thing I love about having virtual dinner parties is that I can hand someone a glass of virtual wine to go with their virtual ossa bucco and I know I won't spill a drop!! Gladwell's point is very well put - it's a reminder of the very impotrant principle of leadership, that a good leader always passes the credit to their team but takes the blame themselves

  5. @Danny :p It would be nice if it extended to professionals, wouldn't it? And you're right, even on the screen you can HEAR the *mwah mwah* insincerity of some of those thank yous!

  6. I'd say I agree with that, a little thank you doesn't hurt anyone. And Paul, the guest blogger doesn't need to thank everyone who commented individually, just make an appearance and thank all who read and commented.

  7. This is when snail mail comes in handy -- truly the only meaningful 'thank you' (or 'happy birthday' or 'merry christmas') left.

    Then again, it's not like these people are going to give you their home address. And if you ask for it, they're likely to call the cops on you and there goes your business deal.

  8. Yes, snail mail. It sounds strange but if you really want to get someone's attention or just plain say thankyou - snail mail will do it every time. Grazie, gracias, asante, terima kaseh, or whatever has more meaning in snail mail. It is like shaking hands rather than just acknowledging someone when introduced.

  9. Gratitude is always gratefully received, and a little kindness goes a long way (especially in cyberspace) - as you can see from my latest blog post...

  10. Very interesting post, Dan. As usual.

    I never know when to respond to comments on my blog. If I don't know them I do, If I do and what they say continues the topic then I do, but I've never really known what I SHOULD be doing. I asked two authors at a blog forum I went to - one said, YES reply everysingle time. The other said nope, think of your writing time. I tend to the former, simply because if they went to the effort of reading your stuff it's nice to acknowledge them. It is a two way street. I thanked someone in the industry recently who had done something for my book as part of her job, and she nearly fell over. But I'm sure we got as good a result as we did because of her efforts.

  11. @Sarah @cat yes, I'm a big fan of snail mail. It's a bit of a bugger with one's cyberfriends, of course, because most of them tend to live the other side of the world, so it costs an arm and a leg, which goes to show that if you DO give something it really is meaningful.

    @Tony off to read your blog (I'm SUCH a sucker for the "as seen on my blog" remark - I'm basically a guaranteed click-through!)

    @Phillipa I don't know what your policy is but you are pretty much my cyber role-model. And the point about you is that it's obvious you aren't "obeying the rules" because you don't need to. You're just a lovely person. I think the point I was making about blogs was more to do with being hosted by other people (where I think there is an extra onus on being courteous). On one's own blog, it depends. If you're Nathan, then I guess it would be impossible to respond to 200 comments a day. Likewise, if you posted in order to get a debate started, then there's no need to wade in. It's a question of checking to see what's happening every so often, and judging the situation from there. I think the second author should bear in mind: 1. why do they have a blog? and 2. are they going to lose readers by not engaging?

    I tend to think that some writers verge on the "I'm too important to do that" once they reach a certain stage (it's also true of musicians - up to a point they'll go and drink with the fans after a gig; then they'll have security guards to protect them from fans). There's a tipping point artists reach when they go from "we need fans" to "fans need us". I accept that fully. BUT the moment they act as though they're in the latter category, they may well start to find their fanbase begins to haemorrhage. And fast.

  12. This is the kind of thing that gets me ties up in knots. When I first started blogging I hardly ever replied to anyone because I didn't think anyone would notice/care if I did.

    It is only in the last six months (after blogging for more than 3 years) that someone pointed out to me that when I reply to a comment - the commenter gets an email or message to tell them I replied!

    I'm an idiot and had no idea until then and thought people just popped in- dropped a comment and never returned - probably because that was the way I used to behave.

    I saw it more like leaving a note nailed to a tree rather than a two way conversation.

    Since I joined Twitter I have learned better manners and I'm having more fun consequently.

    But I do have trouble knowing what to say sometimes - people are very nice and I wasn't brought up to deal well with compliments. So I say thank you as often as I can and hope that I don't get too boring.

    I think for me I just have to stop thinking so much and just get on with it. That usually turns out for the best. Thinking too much usually mucks things up.

    Thank you for this post - it made me think - but not too much ;)