Another Word: What Authors Owe Us
I recently asked my circle of friends (both in person and on the interwebs): “What do authors owe us?”
It’s an age-old, deceptively simple question that should have a simple answer, right? But the further I delved into the nuances of the answers I received, the muddier the waters became.
As social media continues to amplify the volume of fan voices across the globe, this question has been asked louder and more frequently in recent times. Fandom is power, especially in a capitalist society where fans are more than willing to put their money where their virtual mouths are. We can cancel shows and end careers, resurrect characters and drag a series on long past its natural end. We are many. We are mighty. We are the gathering horde and oncoming storm. We are the mob. We can be benevolent . . . and dangerous.
So, what do authors/creators owe us?
If you take out the qualifiers: What does anyone owe anyone else? Well, that’s easy enough. Nothing.
A large percentage of the answers I received were just that: Authors owe us nothing. Authors are actual people, with actual lives. When the spirit moves them to sit down and create their art, fans should feel lucky. Excited. Awed. Amazed. And then we need to move on to the next beautiful thing and leave the artist alone to create—or not—as they will.
Or, as Neil Gaiman famously phrased it eight years ago (yes, it really has been eight years): George R. R. Martin is not your bitch. “Life is a good thing for a writer. It’s where we get our raw material, for a start. We quite like to stop and watch it.”
Neil says that a book is not a contract with the reader. Technically, no it is not. However, it could be argued that people who choose writing as a profession know that they’re entering into a unique relationship with their readers.
When a story lives and breathes inside the mind of an author, it is one hundred percent the author’s property. Similarly, when that book is written and sitting on the hard drive, the author has complete control over his or her work of art.
When it is published, it evolves into a completely new thing.
I have heard many an author wax rhapsodic about how published books are a collaboration. Words, editors, cover art, illustrations, publicity (perception), and the mind of the reader all work together to create a fascinating new world. This team’s job is to make sure readers fall in love with the thing they have created. And then the author is forced to move on to the next project.
These readers—now fans—are encouraged to lose their hearts to a thing. At which point, they become the person pining after unrequited love in a fabricated relationship.
As fans, we see ourselves in a book’s characters. We dress up as them. Write fan fiction about them. Go to conventions and speak on panels about them. Teach them in classes. Watch them in movies and on television. These characters come to mean so much to us, personally. More than the author will ever know.
(Of course, chances are, the author does know. It’s often why they became an author in the first place.)
The other most common answer to my question was “The author owes us a good book.”
It’s a two-part answer. And a loaded one.
“The author owes us a book.” Sure. You fall in love with a series, and you’d like to read more in the series. I get that. If for any reason the series has to end, you would (maybe) be satisfied (maybe) reading a book by that same author about something else.
“Good” is so incredibly subjective. One of the first lessons authors learn is that they can’t please all of the people all of the time. Some yahoo in the crowd is going to give you one star for whatever reason. It happens. But authors are told not to read reviews. Instead, they are encouraged to concentrate on a new project.
And how often are these new, good books expected to appear in the world? Once upon time, we’d get a new release every one to two years and be happy about it. Tomorrow isn’t fast enough for some fans these days.
Right before my Last Book came out, I put a new project on hold for one week so that I could spend time writing a few guest blogs and essays. I knew I was supposed to be writing the Next Thing, but that Last Book turned out to be one of my favorite books ever, and I just wanted to spend a few days enjoying it before I moved on. I’m sure only a handful of people read those essays, and it got down to the wire on the deadline for that Next Thing, but I was glad I had taken the time. Because I actually like the stories that I write. And I don’t get a whole lot of free time to appreciate them anymore.
Gaiman said that writers were not machines. But those authors who are living off their paltry writing income kind of have to be. It’s tough. But that’s the job, right?
Ready for some interesting statistics?
Recently, LitRing asked a similar question of its readers: “What do you wish more authors would do for their readers?”
22% answered “book content.” (Similar to the “a good book” answer given above.)
21% answered “free books.” Excerpts are not enough. They want the first book in the series free, and any other book that’s free. Sites like BookBub and Robin Reads feature newsletters in which readers are notified of free content on a daily basis. Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? (Wait, you mean this wasn’t what Mom was talking about when she said this?)
18% answered “more interaction.” Unfortunately, this piece of the pie is a double-edged sword. Authors can spend a solid month on guest blogs and Skype visits and FB live videos and Instagram stories, but if it doesn’t happen to come across a reader’s social media feed the exact moment they log in, it never happened. Authors can make themselves available until the cows come home, but the algorithms are against them if The Machine thinks that they are in any way trying to sell something. That content is usually out there, if the reader looks for it. I’m curious how much of the 18% who said this actually went looking.
15% answered “giveaways.” Preferably in the form of retail gift cards.
If the author could please write the books, give away the books for free, and then spend the rest of their precious time and money keeping everyone happy, it would be a readers’ paradise.
If you think this sounds insane, you’re not alone. And yet, this is the world we have created. There are hundreds, probably thousands of new authors every day. If a reader doesn’t want to pay for a book, they don’t have to. They only have to interact with the author on their time, if they so choose. They can get a Kindle Unlimited or similar subscription, sign up for all the newsletters that contain giveaways, go to a hundred conventions and collect only swag. Because they can.
Authors are jumping through incredible hoops just to get attention.
Now, you’re welcome to pull this survey—and LitRing’s data pool—to pieces, but I’ve got to say, as annoying as their results may be, I didn’t find them very shocking. This is the literary world we have created today. As frustrated as fans might be with GRRM or Pat Rothfuss or anyone else they’re waiting on a book from, it’s that much more frustrating for the millions of other authors out there trying to eke out a living. The battle between “what an author can realistically accomplish” and “what is expected of them” is never-ending.
My favorite answer to the “What authors owe us” question came from my friend, number one New York Times bestselling author Sherrilyn Kenyon. “Respect,” Sherri said without needing to stop and think about it. “The author owes their readers respect.”
I liked this answer because it was not about books or appearances or time spent on social media. It’s more about mutual appreciation in a polite society. In a perfect world, this might be the best of all answers.