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Austin celebrities try to keep up with fan love in the digital age

The amount of direct interaction writers, photographers and musicians are expected to have with fans can be overwhelming

Omar L. Gallaga
ogallaga@statesman.com
6/4/2011 - Zach Ornitz/AMERICAN-STATESMAN –¤Gabrielle Faust, author of horror and vampire novels, hangs out at Casino El Camino on 6th Street on Saturday, June 4, 2011. The novelist spends up to four hours a day engaging with fans through social media. 0612fans.

In all the imaginings you might have of what a popular author of vampire novels does all day, writing itself probably tops the list. There must be time to ruminate on characters, the logistics of living fast and dying never, notes to be taken on fangs. Fangs, certainly. Fangs a lot.

Austin horror author and illustrator Gabrielle Faust does all this, but she also spends about four hours a day interacting directly with fans.

She does it on social networks like Twitter, Facebook and MySpace, in response to comments on gabriellefaust.com , and through emails.

Some writers, stuck on a plot point or needing a moment to get up and stretch, take coffee breaks.

"I take social media breaks," Faust says. "I check in."

Sometimes as she's writing, she keeps a second computer monitor filled with Tweets, forever streaming, open next to her prose.

Faust doesn't complain about the time commitment; "It's part of the modern writer's way of life," she says. "It really does become quite a job, and you have to do it every single day. With social media, you can be gone in the blink of an eye."

Besides blogs and social media, there are also emerging tools to help celebrities communicate more directly with followers.

Why bother? As Faust says, being in the public eye now means that in addition to book-signings, convention appearances and interviews, writers like her are now expected to devote a chunk of time to making fans part of the process. In exchange, readers become more invested in her work, she says.

"When people realize you're listening, they become a lot more interested," Faust says. "The human element of responding to people, it's still crucial no matter how many followers you have."

The dinner party

About two years ago, Austin photographer Trey Ratcliff realized he couldn't keep up anymore.

Ratcliff's vibrant, otherworldly photos, edited through a process called HDR (high-dynamic range) had become so popular — appearing in blogs, magazines and popular online video shows — that the feedback was coming in too quickly to manage.

"I reached that point where it got overwhelming and I could not do everything," he says.

The photos he shares on his website, Stuck in Customs, and on services like Facebook have earned about 65 million page views. The price of such popularity: He has about 40,000 unread emails.

Ratcliff says he loves receiving inspirational words from those touched by his images. "It's wonderful to have a positive effect on people," he says. "Whenever I feel down about myself or I'm down, I just open up random emails."

But he knows he can't answer them all, and he hasn't resorted to hiring someone to do it for him. "I cannot bring myself to have someone pretend to be me and answer them," says Ratcliff. "I feel bad because it's never enough. People deserve more, I just can't do it."

Ratcliff has created online communities for his fans. He started a website called HDR Spotting where photographers can upload their own images and share them with the world. He delegated running the site to one of his fans.

He doesn't post there himself , instead preferring to keep the spotlight on up-and-coming talent.

Ratcliff says he spends about two hours a day interacting with his fans. That might mean responding to comments on Facebook or on his website, posting tutorials on taking better photos, or organizing in-person photo walks in different cities.

On the photo walks, which started about two years ago and have been held in cities including Austin, London and Monterey, Calif., Ratcliff meets with a few dozen to a few hundred photographers at a time, shares tips and usually assigns someone to set up a group on the photo site Flickr, where the participants can share and discuss the photos they took.

Ratcliff says he's been trying to redistribute the attention he gets back to the community of photographers he's built.

"Just because I'm driving attention to these artists doesn't mean that I get any less traffic," he says. "It's not a competition if we all win."

He describes it as a "snowballing circle of love" and likens it to being a good dinner party host.

"You know you have a good dinner party when you're a host and everyone comes into the room and they talk to each other, they're not just listening to you."

Artist relations

Ratcliff and Faust both say that even if they eventually hire assistants to help manage the flood of correspondence, they would continue to handle their own social media accounts and their public personas on the Web.

On the other side of the coin, however, are Austin artists who already have a group of representatives to manage their publicity and fan relations.

Bassist and vocalist JoJo Garza from the music group Los Lonely Boys is part of a group of bands and solo artists working with Austin-based FanTrail, which emerged at this year's South by Southwest.

FanTrail has allowed artists — including Erykah Badu and the Roots — to create their own free apps. It offers ways for them to share songs and upcoming events and even allows points to be assigned for fan devotion on the "LoveMeter."

FanTrail, like other emerging startups, including FanBridge and Backplane (which is working with Lady Gaga), is creating tools for artists to more directly communicate with fans and to address their community through personalized voice messages, branded apps or even video clips.

For Garza, it supplements what he posts on Twitter, Facebook and MySpace to keep up with fans, especially when his group is on the road.

"It all plays in together," Garza said. "We're able to send postings and little video clippings and let people know when and where we're going to be somewhere personally. ... (Fans) are definitely interested in what we're doing."

Fans of Los Lonely Boys can download a personalized app that Garza describes as "a mini Lonely Boys Facebook." He says that the entire group carries iPhones and can interact with fans on the fly, wherever they go.

He spends about an hour a day using FanTrail's tools, as well as social media, but doesn't see it as a burden on the creative process. "There's a little bit of time involved, but it's nothing compared to the good that it brings."

Garza said that despite all the high-tech tools at work, the new approach to fan relations ultimately helps make the group more down-to-earth.

"You want to feel connected with the people and you want to let them know we're just as human as everybody and just as normal," Garza said.

He pauses.

"Well ... maybe a little extra crazy."

ogallaga@statesman.com; 445-3672