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What does online engagement mean to fiction authors and readers, and what are the implications of those meanings for future research and design?

Butler, C. (2021). What does online engagement mean to fiction authors and readers, and what are the implications of those meanings for future research and design?. (Unpublished Doctoral thesis, City, University of London)


Since approximately 2007, musicians, authors, artists, and other creative professionals have increasingly been using online platforms such as social media to engage directly with their audiences. Hailed as an effective strategy for expanding market reach and retaining existing custom, it is fast becoming expected that fiction authors embrace online practices to foster authentic engagement with readers, whatever their career stage.

Whilst recent studies have uncovered some of the interaction dynamics between authors and readers at time-boxed literary events such as festivals and readings, online interactivity is a relatively new phenomenon yet to be studied. The impact and value of authors being online and nominally accessible 24/7 is still little understood. Trends in content sharing, online presentation, and the affordances of the platforms used can both vary and change rapidly. This makes it difficult to develop a clear and concrete picture of what authors do online, where, and how engagement with their readers manifests.

This thesis uses a hybrid empirical and theoretical approach to provide a rich account of how authors and readers experience engaging online. It draws on multidisciplinary theory and concepts to reveal significant insight into what practices authors follow when engaging online, and how readers interact with, perceive, and value those practices. It also reveals rich complexities in relational and environmental dynamics which impact interaction, and interrogates conventional understandings of how and why authors and readers choose to interact.

Findings are presented from two empirical studies:

• An inductive interview study with fiction authors and readers, which uncovers their experiences of interacting together through different online platforms.
• An interview study with readers, using a novel technique, which provides a rich account of how readers perceive and value authors’ online practices, and interrogates how readers may respond to potential future changes to those practices.

The thesis contributes new integrated theory which delineates how authors’ online engagement practices relate to a broader context of the Literary Field, literary practices, and commercial interests. It also introduces a novel interview technique, composed of methods from complexity theory and Human-Computer Interaction research. This technique was modelled to unearth important insight around how readers perceive the role of the author online, and to explore how readers (as the target market) may be predisposed to respond to changes in how engagement is mediated online. Lastly, through applying a practitioner-based model for mapping system complexity - the Cynefin Framework - the thesis offers an alternative framing from which to understand authors’ online engagement practices as a specific business intervention, intended to produce several desired outputs for the benefit of authors, readers, and the publishing industry more broadly. This conceptualisation is used to discuss potential ways that online engagement may be appropriately monitored, evaluated, and managed to better support mediation between creative professionals and their audience.

Publication Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PR English literature
Departments: School of Science & Technology
Doctoral Theses
[thumbnail of Carol Butler PhD Thesis Oct 2021.pdf] Text - Accepted Version
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