Once upon a time, I had the privilege of meeting George Takei at a Star Trek convention. I was so nervous I literally couldn't talk. Uncle George was terribly sweet, but he gave me an odd look. As in, "Is she just shy, or should I call security?"
I managed to say "Nice to meet you" or "Thank you". Seriously, I was that nervous, I don't remember what I said. I do remember my voice sounded like Beaker's from the Muppets.
I don't always act that shell-shocked around someone I admire. Well, except for last Saturday night. My friend Jo introduced me to someone whose work I admire very much, and I squealed like a little girl. I'm pretty sure I embarrassed the hell out of the writer, too, not just myself.
So why am I bringing this all up?
I've had the opportunity to watch professional writers interact with their readers over the years, and I've noted four typical reactions in writers. Three of these reactions will lose you readers, but there are ways to compensate.
First of all, if you EVER feel in danger from a fan, get help! Grab a friend, get security at an event, or call the police. Trust that little niggle in your hindbrain. There's a big difference between that feeling and butterflies in your stomach.
Now on to the types...
1) The Cold Fish
It's never easy meeting total strangers. Even the most gregarious person has a little trepidation in a new situation. These writers fail to make eye contact with their readers much less say hello. This behavior can come across as being too good to talk to the hoi polloi when in fact, it's the opposite problem.
I'll tell you a secret. The best at the meet-and-greet are simply better at hiding their fear. Stand up, walk around that signing table, and be pleasant and polite. It will make the encounter easier for both of you. Something to remember is that your readers are probably more nervous about meeting you than vice versa, too.
2) The Hot Potato
The opposite of The Cold Fish, these writers not only come out from behind their tables, they attack people in the aisles and try to force their books on the public. Few people like the hard sell. (And if you know one, I'd like to meet him or her.)
Coming across as a crazy used car salesperson will only get you shunned and rejected. Take a step back, tone down the sales pitch, and take an interest in the person, not the sales prospect.
3) The Negative Nellie
These writers don't feel they deserve their success, or their fragile self-esteem can't handle criticism, so they try to beat you to the punch with self-flagellation. This behavior can turn off a potential reader. If the writer doesn't think their book is good enough, then why would the reader want to take a chance on it? And if the reader already read your work, it sounds to them like the writer is criticizing the reader's choices.
If adulation throws you for a loop, stick with simple phrases. "I hope you enjoy it." "Thank you." "I appreciate your comments."
On the other hand, those phrases work pretty damn good if a psycho reader slams you, too.
4) The Best Response
The writers I've seen handle the public best are Sherrilyn Kenyon and the late L.A. Banks. Both ladies come across genuinely interested in fans. They say how glad they are to meet you. These writers are comfortable with themselves and love the career they've chosen.
It's damn hard to achieve that level of confidence in yourself and in your work. Part of it is knowing your own comfort level with the public. For example, Sherrilyn's a touchy-feely person. She grabs a reader's hand and acts like they are her favorite cousin that she hasn't seen in forever. For her, this is a genuine response.
I know I'm not a touchy-feely person. Sherrilyn's way wouldn't work for me. Heck, even getting an e-mail from reader makes me freak out.
But my own issues don't mean I can't behave myself, be pleasant and say "Thanks!" Yep, that's right. I take elements from the solutions for The Cold Fish and The Negative Nellies. I remind myself that my writing affected a person enough for them to reach out.
And in the end, that's all I really want. To entertain someone for a little while and let them forget their problems.
The least I can do when a reader reaches out to me is to reach back with a heartfelt, "Thanks for reading my work."