In today’s Publetariat Dispatch, author and small publisher Alan Baxter discusses authors’ obligations to their readers, particularly where a book series is concerned. Warning: contains some strong language.
Back in May 2009 a reader asked Neil Gaiman, via his blog, whether it was reasonable to feel let down that George R R Martin was not giving any clues about the release of the next A Song Of Fire & Ice installment. Gaiman famously told that reader, “George R R Martin is not your b**ch”.
GRRM is one of the best and most popular fantasy writers, but his A Song Of Ice & Fire series, which started in 1996, has been a long time to completion, and isn’t finished yet. At the end of book 4 it said to expect book 5 in a year. It took six years to see publication. There are still two more books to come, with no release date even hinted at. So people are getting concerned that the whole story may never be told, and the query posted to Neil Gaiman is still valid. As, potentially, is Gaiman’s answer.
Gaiman’s point is that GRRM doesn’t have to live up to our (readers) expectations. As a writer, I can kind of agree with that to an extent. Gaiman posits that the reader, by buying the first book, assumed some kind of contract with Martin. Gaiman says, “No such contract existed. You were paying your ten dollars for the book you were reading, and I assume that you enjoyed it because you want to know what happens next.”
Art is not something you can force, and Martin is well within his rights to do whatever he wants with his story. Even quit now and never finish. He’s not our bitch and that’s his prerogative. However, if he does do that, I think he is also letting his readers down. And not just GRRM – this applies to all of us as writers. If we’ve said we’ll do one thing and we do something else, that’s either our choice or a situation forced upon us. But we are letting people down when we do it. It’s not an either/or proposition.
Recently, Brent Weeks, author of the Night Angel Trilogy and The Black Prism, posted an opinion piece at SciFiNow in which he says that Gaiman is wrong. In the article, Weeks says:
“Part of what entices us to buy a book is the promise conveyed in the title. “Gragnar’s Epic Magical Dragon Quest Trilogy: Book 1” promises there will be two more books. Whether through the title, or interviews, or through a note to readers at the end of a book that says the next book will be out in a year, when an author makes that kind of commitment, maybe technically there’s no contract, but there is an obligation.”
He also says, “…writers make mistakes about how fast they’re going to finish books All The Time. GRRM’s situation is merely illustrative.” This is well worth bearing in mind, as I’m not out to bash GRRM here, or anyone else in particular. I’m simply addressing the issue as a whole.
But I think Weeks is right – there is an obligation there. When a writer says they’ll write X number of books, readers start to invest their time and money into that series. It’s quite reasonable to feel cheated when the author doesn’t come through on that promise. For this reason a lot of people are now loathe to buy into a series until they know it’s finished. After all, they don’t want to spend time and money getting into a story without an end. Which is fairly reasonable. I’m tempted to make a sexual metaphor here, about encounters without happy endings, but I’ll be a grown-up and rise above that temptation.
I wrote a piece a while back called While you wait for book three, authors die! in which I point out that this method can be damaging. If an author’s first book doesn’t sell well, their publisher may decide to cut their losses and not publish the rest of the series. Bad for readers and writers. I always advise buying the first book, but not reading it yet. Collect the whole series as it comes out and read it all once it’s finished. Of course, this could turn out to be a waste of your hard-earned if the author doesn’t finish the series. But life without risk is like an untoasted tea cake. There’s no crunch.
Readers and authors are entering into unwritten contracts with each other. The author says, “I’ll write this series.” The reader says, “Cool, I’ll buy it and read it. I might even like it and give you a positive review and tell my friends about it.” It’s a symbiotic relationship.
The author doesn’t have to finish that series. There’s no legally binding contract, no demon’s blood on the page to force the magic out. But, should they not see through that originally stated obligation, they are letting the readers down. We all fuck up sometimes, we all get distracted by life and things that happen which are beyond our control. We all let people down sometimes, however much we may wish and try not to. But we should also own up to that let down. “Sorry, folks, I let you down” is lot more conducive to an ongoing relationship than, “F**k you, I’m not your b**ch!”
I really want GRRM to finish A Song Of Ice & Fire. I’ve invested a lot of time and money into it and I really want to know how it all works out. But Martin isn’t my bitch and I can’t force him to do something that he may not have the ability (due to other things in his life) or inclination to do. But, should the series not be wrapped up, I will feel let down.
How do you feel about it?
This is a cross-posting from Alan Baxter‘s The Word.