John Green is the author of The Fault in Our Stars, which is currently the number 1 YA book on the New York Times Bestseller list. He’s also one of the Vlog Brothers, an outfit that includes John’s brother, Hank, and has nearly a million YouTube subscribers, and almost 300 million page views to its name. Each of the Vlog Brothers’ videos has several thousand comments from fans, who go by the moniker “nerd fighters.” Semi-frequently, John will directly answer comments from readers, who Tweet questions at him, like, what’s your favorite essay? (A: “The Crack Up” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. And why hasn’t my boyfriend kissed me? (A: “You are a powerful young woman. It’s not something that happens to you, it’s something that happens with you!”) Green’s video responses are manic, utterly charming, and deeply idiosyncratic.
Among YA authors, Green is one of the best in the business at communicating with fans using YouTube, Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook. But even more than with adult readers, communicating with teenage fans via the Internet is an important part of being a YA author. According to Nina Rastogi, the VP of content at Figment, a reading and writing community for teens and young adults, young people are more devoted fans than they were just 15 or 20 years ago. “They want to talk about the things they love,” Rastogi says. “And they do those things on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. If you’re an author trying to build an audience, why wouldn’t you try to be part of that mix?”
It’s a cliché that teenagers can sniff a fake a mile away (paging Holden Caulfield), but both Green and Cabot say that if you don’t enjoy posting, it will show. “Teens are very media savvy,” Cabot says in a phone call from her home in Florida. “They can tell if you just show up to promote your book. That’s kind of phony.” Green doesn’t even really make a delineation between his novels and his social media output, which makes them seem all the more natural. “I don’t clock in and out of Tumblr or Twitter; I see them as part of my life. I like talking about things I care about with people I care about,” he writes via email.
Though most people think of online comments as a scourge of the universe where Godwin’s law is proven on an hourly basis, but for YA authors, they’re a big part of connecting with fans on a more intimate level. “While YouTube comments get a bad rap, I’ve found it to be an excellent place to have meaningful conversations on everything from the Oxford comma to Indus Valley history,” Green writes. Furthermore, the Vlog brothers’ viewers have lent over $1,800,000 to the microfinance site kiva.org, which shows how devoted young fans can be to their favorite authors—they might give to charity just because their hero tells them to.
Teenagers connect more deeply with the objects of their fandom than adults tend to—they’re at an emotional, somewhat volatile time in their lives and they feel their love and hate intensely. “I think a lot of adults don’t see teenagers as intellectually curious, but in fact they’re fiercely so: They’re trying to figure out whether meaning in human life is inherent or constructed, why suffering exists, how best to alleviate it, and all kinds of other interesting questions,” Green writes. “Maybe they’re approaching these problems through Sherlock or Doctor Who, but the curiosity is real and important and totally fascinating to me.”
But this fierceness of feeling is why it’s important for YA authors to draw firm boundaries with readers. Cabot says she’s gotten a lot of requests from readers to help them with their homework. “It’s a report and it’s due tomorrow, and they want you to help them figure out the theme of your book, and if you won’t, they get a little angry,” Cabot explains. With entitled readers like this, you’ve got to draw the line when you’re a living author. Charles Dickens probably doesn’t have to deal with that noise.
[Image: Flickr user Ingo Bernhardt]