Saturday, January 20, 2018

What Authors Owe Fans

(Originally published on SF Signal, September 22nd, 2014)

Neil Gaiman (image credit: Keith Cassidy)
Neil Gaiman
(image credit: Keith Cassidy)

In 2009, Neil Gaiman posted the now-famous blog entry “Entitlement Issues…“, in which he declared “George R. R. Martin is not your bitch.” This was in the context of a larger statement about fan entitlement and what authors of series owe their fans, of which I think the most pertinent part reads:

You’re complaining about George doing other things than writing the books you want to read as if your buying the first book in the series was a contract with him: that you would pay over your ten dollars, and George for his part would spend every waking hour until the series was done, writing the rest of the books for you. No such contract existed. You were paying your ten dollars for the book you were reading… When you see other people complaining that George R.R. Martin has been spotted doing something other than writing the book they are waiting for, explain to them, more politely than I did the first time, the simple and unanswerable truth: George R. R. Martin is not working for you.

In the rest of the post, Neil argues both that authors need downtime to let their brains recharge and—more interestingly—that the author-audience transaction is in fact complete as soon as a reader pays money for a book, regardless of whether it’s part of a series. I don’t want to put words in Mr. Gaiman’s mouth, yet the “paying for the book you were reading” line seems to imply that if George Martin lost interest and simply never produced the last book of A Song of Ice and Fire (or pulled a Dark Tower and took 22 years to finish the series), Neil would say that’s the artist’s prerogative.

ENTITLEMENTIt’s an argument that I embraced wholeheartedly when I first encountered it. My day job is in the pen-and-paper RPG industry, where fan entitlement can reach legendary proportions, and that idea that an artist—even a commercial artist—is responsible only for the art they feel like creating is deeply liberating. The fans yelling online about how your work would be better or faster if you weren’t distracted by other projects—or, god forbid, a personal life—can safely be ignored, because you don’t owe them anything. You wrote a book, they bought it, end of transaction.

That soothing sense of righteousness lasted exactly as long as it took me to explain it to my non-author roommates. Said roommates then patiently explained to me that in fact there is a social contract in play. To them, when it comes to epic series with giant overarching storylines, a single book is not a complete product, any more than a single chapter, paragraph, or word is the complete product in a standalone novel. When they buy into a series, they believe they’re purchasing the story, and whether that story fills a hundred pages or ten thousand, if it’s incomplete, it’s no different than if you bought a novel and found the last three chapters had been left blank.

harrypotterObviously, this sort of logic doesn’t apply to every series. If your books are all standalone but linked by recurring characters, then a single volume might well be said to be a self-contained unit. But if the true focus is the overarching story—if, like some fantasy epics, book breaks are little more than expanded chapter breaks—then by this new argument, readers aren’t buying individual books, but rather purchasing the overarching storyline in installments. You can’t say, “Well, you enjoyed the first three books, so you got your money’s worth for those whether I finish the series or not.” Series become an all-or-nothing game.

At this point, you may be thinking, “Well, caveat emptor. The artistic muse is fickle, and I never promised them a conclusion.” That’s a valid position, yet an inadvisable one, for one important reason:

We as authors can’t afford a cautious audience.

As Neil himself points out…

The economics of scale for a writer mean that very few of us can afford to write 5,000-page books and then break them up and publish them annually once they are done.

Which is exactly why we need the audience not just to purchase our series after they’re complete, but to invest in us by purchasing each book as it comes out. We’re asking for their trust, promising that if they buy the car now, we’ll do our best to sell them wheels for it tomorrow.

Brandon Sanderson - Wheel of Time
Brandon Sanderson – Wheel of Time

That’s a hard sell. Unlike the Wheel of Time, most book series that fail to reach their conclusions can’t expect Brandon Sanderson to swoop in and save the day. (TV series are even worse, as those brave enough to have a story arc at all usually get canceled or change creators before reaching a satisfying end.) As a result, more and more fans are doing the sensible thing and waiting to see whether authors can finish their opuses before picking up the first books.

And we can’t afford that. Because as every author knows, the number one reason series get canceled partway through is lack of sales on the early books. By waiting to see if a series resolves, we as readers help ensure that it never gets the chance.

We can’t simply blame the publishers, either. While it’s easy to look at smash successes and assume that the series is a healthy art form, the truth is that for smaller publishers, series are extremely risky. And without reader buy-in on early books, they’re doomed to failure.

It would seem, then, that arguments against entitlement and obligation cut both ways. If we as authors want to take a no-strings approach, then we can hardly turn around and beg readers to support the early books in our series. And if we instead want to ask people to be our patrons—to have the faith to invest both emotionally and financially in a series before it’s complete—then we need to keep our side of the bargain and do our damnedest to see things through.

There are limits, of course. Every author works at a different pace. Not every reader is going to agree about what constitutes a satisfying resolution. The trolls who insist that a vacation with your family is wasting valuable writing time are still trolls. And Neil makes a fine point that the same people who whine about how long a book takes to release are frequently the ones who complain if it feels rushed.

In the end, only we as the authors get to decide what it means to be acting in good faith. But to pretend that the social contract between author and reader doesn’t exist at all is disingenuous. If we walk away or let a series languish, we can’t blame the fans for feeling cheated. We’re the one who sold them an incomplete product.

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  1. Christopher B. Wright 3 years ago

    I was kind of taken aback when Neil Gaiman posted what he did, and I have to agree with Mr. Sutter: the relationship is considerably more complicated than that. If an author WANTS readers to commit to a long series, then by God he or she better be promising SOMETHING along the lines of “I will finish it.” As a reader, why would I commit to a story the author WON’T commit to?

    This is not exactly the same as stating the author is my bitch. But I do think there is a certain level of obligation.

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  2. Michael Kirby 2 years ago

    It is a classic free market. The writer writes, but doesn’t have to, and the reader reads but doesn’t have to. comments not-withstanding.

    Once a writer becomes famous, the rumblings of his or her fan base become more difficult to manage. It’s part of the cost of doing business. He can always ignore them (at his peril).

    I remember Colin Montgomery (the pro golfer) once complained that fans were hassling him at an event. He stated somewhat churlishly “Do I come to their office and hassle them during their work?”

    My response was that if I sold tickets to people for $50 a day, they could come and watch me program all-day long. I’d put up with some criticism.

    So Neil (and George) should calm down, take their fame in stride and realize that their fans are attempting to have a dialogue, it’s a healthy thing.


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