We all have fictional best friends. They live in the pages of our favorite books, and come out to play whenever we open their covers. But according to Eloisa James, books foster another kind of friendship: the very real friendship between readers and authors. She even ended up writing a book with one of her readers! James collaborated with reader Jody Gayle on The Official Essex Sisters Companion Guide. Together they’ve put together a must-read book for fans of James’ Essex Sisters series. It includes deleted scenes, an alternate ending to Kiss Me, Annabel, and a brand new story! Here, James talks about her evolving relationship with her fans, and how she has come to consider them some of her dearest friends.
When I published my first book, Potent Pleasures, in 1999, my publishing company set up exactly one book signing.
I forgot to go.
In my defense, I had a preemie baby at home. But in retrospect, I was having trouble imagining that I had any “readers”—and if I did, what would we say to each other?
In the years since my first book was published, everything has changed. Thanks to Facebook, in large part, authors can now be “friends” with readers. What do we do with friends who are making bad decisions? We give them advice. When a book is published, I will hear from hundreds of readers through email, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. That isn’t simply because I have fans—it’s because the whole paradigm has changed. Readers are not passive consumers; they’re passionately active. They have a sense of ownership of me and my books.
When an author begins listening—really listening—to readers, her writing will change. Tone changes, plots change, characters change. Readers ask hard questions, and shaping my responses has forced me to articulate my own choices, and led me to think more deeply about the manuscript at hand. Here’s an example: Around 2004, I began writing a series about four sisters. In the first book, Much Ado About You, the youngest sister, Josie, was a plump 13-year-old. Over the course of the next books, as Josie went through a painful adolescence, I received more and more letters describing readers’ own experiences. Soon Josie had thousands of fans.
Her story had to take into account the pain of those readers. I sent one fan/friend a scene from my manuscript, asking if my depiction of society’s scorn for Josie’s curvy figure was too extreme. She wrote back saying that I hadn’t gone far enough.
I rewrote the book, and to this day Pleasure for Pleasure is one of my biggest sellers. A few years ago, a fan, Jody Gayle, came up to me at a signing and asked if I’d consider co-writing a companion volume to the Essex Sisters series. I had closed the door on Josie, but many fans had not.
Rereading hundreds of readers’ letters, I realized that the bullying plot in Josie’s novel was unresolved. Two other girls, scorned for different reasons, had been dropped from the storyline. What’s more, as one perceptive reader pointed out, it’s not just the victims who endure life-long consequences of adolescent bullying; bystanders can be forever changed as well, even by passive involvement. Readers were curious: They wanted to know more about a complex situation I’d invented. In the end, I wrote two more stories connected to the series, one as part of the The Essex Sisters Companion (“A Midsummer Night’s Disgrace”) and one as a stand-alone novella (A Gentleman Never Tells). Gentlemen hit #5 on The New York Times bestseller list because readers love answers to their questions.
The business of writing has changed profoundly since my first signing. These days, readers become my friends—in name and in truth. Baby Eloisa just turned two; baby Josie is going on five. If I forgot a book signing these days, I’d get 20 emails within the first five minutes, asking me where I am. One might be from my preemie daughter, now 17 years old. The rest? From my friends.
Eloisa James is a USA Today and New York Times bestselling author and professor of English literature, who lives with her family in New York but can sometimes be found in Paris or Italy. (Her husband is an honest-to-goodness Italian knight!) Eloisa’s website offers short stories, extra chapters, and even a guide to shopping in Florence.