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[GUEST POST] James L. Sutter on What Authors Owe Fans (Or: Maybe George R. R. Martin *Is* Your Bitch)

James L. Sutter is the Managing Editor for Paizo Publishing and a co-creator of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. He is the author of the novels Death’s Heretic and The Redemption Engine, the former of which was #3 on Barnes & Noble’s list of the Best Fantasy Releases of 2011, as well as a finalist for the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel and a 2013 Origins Award. He’s written numerous short stories for such publications as PodCastle, Apex Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the #1 Amazon best seller Machine of Death. His anthology Before They Were Giants pairs the first published short stories of science fiction and fantasy luminaries with new interviews and writing advice from the authors themselves. In addition, he’s published a wealth of award-winning gaming material for both Dungeons & Dragons and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Find more essays and free stories at jameslsutter.com, or let him know all the ways he’s wrong on Twitter at @jameslsutter.

What Authors Owe Fans

by James L. Sutter

In 2009, Neil Gaiman posted the now-famous blog entry “Entitlement Issues…,” in which he declared that “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 presumably 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.

It’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 truly mythic 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 philosophy lasted exactly as long as it took me to explain it to my non-author roommates. They then patiently explained to me that in fact there is a social contract in play. Because 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 a book is 100 pages long or 10,000, if the story is incomplete, it’s no different than if you bought a novel and found the last three chapters had been left blank.

Obviously, 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.” And that would be a valid position, except for one thing:

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.

That’s a hard sell. Unlike The Wheel of Time, most book series that fail to reach their conclusion 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 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 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. 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.

18 Comments on [GUEST POST] James L. Sutter on What Authors Owe Fans (Or: Maybe George R. R. Martin *Is* Your Bitch)

  1. Hi James!

    I usually am much more in the Gaiman camp on this issue, although this reminds me of a reading incident. I will not name names since I didn’t and won’t review these two books.

    Well known author starts new series. I read (audioed) book one. Some entertainment, some problems, clear set up for a trilogy. Not the author’s best work.

    Found myself with a lot of driving time, so I listened to book two. Aside from the content problems and disappointment on that score, the novel in its end-matter wraps up with a “Aren’t I clever” sort of postscript to what looks like a ESB sort of middle book, and ends the series at two.

    Was that kosher? The author in an afterword basically shrugged and said he wanted to finish the series there, so he did. Ungainly.

    I felt *very* cheated.

  2. I straddle the line on this. I agree with Neil that authors do not and perhaps should not work on our timetable. However, I agree with Mr. Sutter in that if you write an open ended series with an overall story arc, you do owe the reader an ending. We may buy the first book hoping we like it, not knowing if we wish to continue the series – but we do expect that the series will be completed if it is within the author’s control to do so.

    Poor sales, health issues, family issues, other personal issues – those are all a different story and readers who don’t / won’t understand that are just assholes.

    How long it takes the writer to complete the series, that’s not part of the author / reader contract. If it takes 30 years to finish 5 books, that’s just tough. Frustrating and annoying, but tough.

  3. martin is indeed not my bitch, but i’m also not his. i stopped purchasing his books after the bullshit surrounding the release of the fourth one. (i got on board when there were just three.)

    he can have my money again when he finishes the rest of the books. if he writes another series? i’ll only consider it when it is complete.

    and i’m just that much more cautious about purchasing the start of what i believe are incomplete works, now. especially from anyone who railed against the implicit contract, along side gaiman.

    in the mean time, i divert my money to other authors who have a proven track record of finishing what they start.

  4. This has become such an issue with Extended Series Books, that it has made a difference in my buying habits. If forced to choose between two books now, I’ll almost always go with a “stand alone” rather than commit to series that may not get finished by the writer, or even worse, dropped by the publisher (See the “Shadows of the Apt” series that Pyr dropped after book 5)

    • Completely agree with this. I actually look at author as well. If I see a Sanderson book, I’ll buy it and read it right away because I know the next one will be available in no more than 2 years.

    • Pyr may not have finished it, but Tor UK did. The tenth and final volume was just released and the last few should be easy enough to import.

  5. Thanks for the comments, everyone! I find this whole issue of the social contract between authors and readers (or viewers) really interesting, so it’s nice to hear a variety of opinions. 🙂

  6. Also, a quick note on the title of this post:

    I’ve never been comfortable with the misogynistic aspect of the word “bitch” as used in this context. It’s not something I’d write. At the same time, since it’s the crux of what’s probably the single most-quoted part of Neil’s famous post, it seemed to make sense to do a direct reversal of that in the post title. Yet as soon as it went live, our guts started telling us we’d chosen poorly.

    Anyway, the editor and I want to offer our apologies to anyone we’ve offended with the title. If we were doing it over again, we would title it differently. Reporting a slur is one thing, perpetuating it is another.

  7. Mazarkis Williams // September 22, 2014 at 2:27 pm //

    As both an author and a fan I have to agree with this. There are some authors I find extremely reliable in terms of finishing their series (Robin Hobb, Carol Berg, Mark Lawrence, Kate Elliott, for example) and others I do not. Given the choice I would buy from the author who is not going to leave me in the lurch, and to finish my own stories.

    • Kathryn A. Ryan // September 22, 2014 at 2:38 pm //

      With Mark Lawrence, I was under the impression his initial trilogy had already been written (or mostly written) before the first had been released. I could be wrong.

  8. Kathryn A. Ryan // September 22, 2014 at 2:47 pm //

    Here’s my take on the issue:

    It is a triangle of beholdenment. Customers rely on the author to write/finish the work and the publisher to distribute it. Publishers rely on the author to write/finish the work and the customer to buy the work. Authors rely on the publisher to distribute and market the work and the customer to buy it. If any one of these links fails, the other two are subject to negativity.

    My problem is more… this: Delays and long-spaced series need to be dealt with via good communication. I have started series in the past and been left waiting years for news of the next one because the author’s internet presence is minimal or outdated or because the publisher has no knowledge themselves. This is bad. Why? The customer might get bored of waiting, they might forget over time, or by the time it finally comes out they may have moved on.

    If authors were more communicative about these things – and many are – then I don’t think there’s much of an issue. Disruptions happen. Maybe the publishing schedule needs to change, maybe the book is taking longer than expected, maybe the author is having private issues, etc., etc., but as long as there is some communication then a lot of this stops being anywhere near as much an issue.

    The thing with GRRM himself is stems more from the fact that it’s clear he’s busy, it’s just it seems nothing gets done – or, should I say, the next book is still forever and a day away. Nevermind the fact he does a whole load of editing and anthologies, as well as working on other projects and being involved in Game of Thrones – you have a small group of people who want one thing and one thing alone from GRRM.

    Those people are selfish.

  9. I think everything you said is correct. I think for the most part, the trolls are a vocal minority who will be there regardless of what the author does. I think the best way to know if you are writing in good faith is to see if your time between novels is relatively consistent. Too often authors will write quickly and well in the first set of books and then, the release times slow down and the quality gets worse. Rarely have I seen a series that gets to 7+ books that doesn’t have some duds and seems to have a book or 2 in the series that we could have done without (almost like it was a filler just to get people off the authors back).

    I also think authors fall into a trap of believing their own hype. They start to fall so in love with their own stories and the world they’ve created, that they get lost in the minutiae. Take the Wheel of Time, series, Jordan was great to fans and worked really hard on getting his books out and his death was very sad, but that series was 5 or 6 books too long. As a reader, I could almost sense his infatuation with the story and world and his focus on every little detail and almost a reluctance for the series to end. It was a great series, that would have been better as 8 books, maybe as many as 10, but I think he let his love of the world get in the way of the story.

    As for Martin, I think he is trending towards this problem. I don’t think he’s in love with the story, but I think he has become more of a perfectionist following book 3. I don’t know if its a byproduct of writers block or maybe he’s fallen victim to becoming famous, but he went from a book every 3 years, to half a story a year later than expected and then another half a story 4 years later. Something has happened to his pace. If he’s struggling, he should be honest. I think fans would actually understand that for the most part. But you can’t deny that he has spent more time on what should have been 1 book 4 than he did on the first 3 books of the series.

    I know writing isn’t easy and I certainly am no expert on the process, but I think what is upsetting people is that his pace has slowed significantly and so has the quality of the product.

  10. Paul Connelly // September 22, 2014 at 8:17 pm //

    I’ve read several promising series that were never finished. It was disappointing, but there are many more disappointing things in life. The reasons for the series not being finished may have contractual issues with the publisher, poor sales, author exhaustion, etc. I don’t feel like I was deceived or strung along by authors who had no intent of finishing, it was just the breaks of the business and the extreme difficulty of producing sustained multi-volume stories.

    I’m still following series that seem to have been going on forever. Didn’t P. C. Hodgell start her Kencyrath series before GRRM started ASoIaF? Doesn’t matter, I’ll still buy each new one as it comes out. I forget when Rosemary Kirstein started her Steerswoman series, but I’ll buy the next one of those, if she manages to write it in spite of the horrendous health problems she has had. And, yes, I will buy The Winds of Winter as soon as it comes out.

    If there is a legitimate complaint that can be lodged against series books, it’s that sometimes the individual volumes don’t have enough coherence and closure. As a series author, you may not have an implicit contract with the reader to finish the series, but you certainly have an implicit contract to finish each book–in other words, don’t chop it off at an arbitrary cliffhanging point because of length, or pad it out with inconsequential detail to get it to a certain length.

    Each book should tell a story that reaches some kind of internal narrative closure as well as advancing the overall arc of the series storyline. It’s not impossible, P. C. Hodgell is quite good at doing it. A series author does have some responsibility for trying hard to keep the publisher from breaking a huge book into smaller volumes in a way that breaks this narrative contract with the reader. Even Tolkien had to deal with this, with mixed results, and an author may not have the leverage to succeed. But making the effort to deliver a coherent novel that has its own closure, along with moving the overall series forward, is what I would say the series author owes his or her readers.

  11. Well before Neil Gaiman made his points, George R.R. Martin said on his blog that he expected the next ASoIaF volume to be out in a matter of months. There were problems with the story direction that lead to volume four becoming volumes four and five, and of course the author/editor/publisher should be satisfied with the work before it is released into the wild; however, it should not be forgotten that GRRM had a hand in setting the expectations of his audience, and those expectations were never effectively reset.

  12. Stefan Radermacher // September 23, 2014 at 1:25 pm //

    Well, I disagree. I’m not an author, and I am a huge fan of Mr. Martins Song of Ice and Fire books, and I, too, eagerly await the next book. And yet, I’m in full agreement with Mr. Gaiman. Mr. Martin doesn’t owe me anything.

  13. I think it was Seanan McGuire who said something about how weird it was how some people seemed able to separate the artist from the art, to the point where they love the art so much that they became almost psychotically angry with the artist for not making it faster, like the artist was simply typing in the story of a world that really existed instead of being the source of the creativity that allowed that world to exist. I agree that’s crazy.

    I also agree, though, that there is a bit of a social contract between the author of books which are not stand-alone and the reader. I think it’s kind of disingenuous to act like readers are generally OK with a story that ends in the middle. Abusive words or acts are never appropriate over something like this, any more than they would be to someone who breaks a date without a reason or commits some other social act of rudeness, but it IS rude. GRRM has the right to be rude to his fans, but his fans have the right to notice and be annoyed thereby.

  14. Framing this as a matter of “rights” gets us into this messy ground of comparing authors’ rights to readers’ rights and implicit vs. explicit contracts (social or otherwise).

    I prefer to instead frame it as choices and consequences. Not everyone will be happy with the choices an author/publisher makes. Those choices will have consequences. Smart authors and publishers (and readers) will think of those consequences BEFORE making choices, and make the choices that are most likely to lead to the consequences they can live with.

    As an avid reader, however, I do reject the notion of an implicit social contract in the transaction of buying a book. I am making a transaction — cash for the work the author has *already* put in, not for the work they *may* put in (and that *may* make it through publishing/marketing). In my mind, that is just a variant of “you didn’t write the story I expected you to,” which is unhelpful and immature.

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