Writers as bitches and the investment of readers

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 bitch”.

Game Of ThronesGRRM 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.

Night AngelRecently, 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, “Fuck you, I’m not your bitch!”

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?

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28 thoughts on “Writers as bitches and the investment of readers

  1. I think you’ve nailed it pretty well about the unwritten obligation and commitment. I especially agree with the “Buy now, read later” thing.

    I do, however, have an urge to go out and read “Gragnar’s Epic Magical Dragon Quest Trilogy: Book 1” now. Not sure I’ll be able to wait for the next two books.

  2. This is tricky. Like everyone else I want, and expect, that a story be finished. That the characters I’ve invested my time and money in reach some sort of conclusion. However, I don’t think you can rush writing, or any form of art. I don’t want to feel as if the story was sub par because I pushed an author into writing before he/she was ready.
    Maybe with ebooks, we can give up on the idea of an epic fantasy trilogy. Let the writer write the whole thing and then we can download the entire 10,000 page monster.

  3. He might not be “our” bitch, but he’s definitely making us his bitches when he takes 11 years for two books. I don’t like the word “obligation” in this context, but it could certainly be construed as a broken promise if an author promises a certain number of books and doesn’t deliver. But what if the author doesn’t have a plan for a certain number, and just tells the story as it unfolds in her/his mind? Sort of a literary exploration of the universe (s)he’s created? Does (s)he “owe” the readers a certain number of installments? A completion of the series? I don’t know the answer- just tossing it out there.

    In Martin’s defense, I’ll point that he’s 63 years old, and though he’s had a nice career, he only reached this high level of success and popularity in the last decade or so. I can’t blame him for getting out, traveling around and enjoying the fruits of his success. You only live once and you never know when it’s going to end.

  4. All good points. I think, for me, it’s as simple as this:

    If a series isn’t finished, I won’t blame the author or hold them in poor regard, but I will feel a bit let down. I do feel that there’s a certain obligation there, but we don’t all meet our obligations all the time.

    And I was impressed with how vibrant and on the ball Martin was when I met him briefly at Worldcon last year. Hopefully he has many years left to enjoy his success AND write out the rest of the story. He’s already said he has the ending in mind. He knows how he wants to wrap it up, even if he doesn’t yet know all the details of the journey to get there.

    So fingers crossed on all counts!

  5. My favourite posts are the ones that I wanted to write, never got around to, and are then written by someone else. In this case, you’re absolutely right, Alan. Yes, GRRM (for example), isn’t our bitch, but by pissing around finishing a series for what, 15 years now, the relationship with the reader is deservedly strained. The last thing you want to say to a reader in those circumstances is ‘tough shit, I don’t owe you anything’. Well… We writers owe our readers /everything/, since without them we’d just be mental patients typing away…as opposed to mental patients who gain a modicum of public respectability by having readers enjoy our ravings…

    So, agreed wholeheartedly, Alan. Personally, I don’t even buy series anymore until they are all written. Of course, this is bad because if everyone did it there would be no more series, but it’s good because I never have to worry about the author’s blood pressure or a publisher’s whimsy. Frankly, I prefer my series to consist of stand-alone books anyway, that way everyone wins.

  6. I’m not a GRRM fan. I read the first one — interesting, but not enough plot for me. But I find, with other authors, that if too much time passes between books, I simply stop looking any more. Given that a lot of series suddenly get dropped by the publisher, it’s hard to keep looking when this might be a very real possibly. Several years ago, I picked up a great mystery series involving an art forger. I checked out the author’s website to see how many books there were and discovered a contest for a painting. I entered it, and won. The author, who was doing the painting, took about a year to paint it, and it was big and exciting to both of us in the beginning. When I got the painting, the author was more perfunctory, like she was getting it out of the way. Since I had to print the prize info for the IRS, I returned to the site and discovered that the series had been dropped by the publisher! At the bookstore, there was still a copy of one of the books, so it was hard to tell it had been dropped. It just looked like nothing had come out.

  7. This makes me think of Raymond E Feist. Since he sucked me in with Magician I’ve been reading everything since (Despite the series going downhill faster than that cheese race they do in Gloucestershire), but he’s had the FULL series up on the official website’s bibliography, including past and future publishing years (although these appear to have been removed now) for some time.

    THAT’s an author setting an obligation and becoming the reader’s bitch.

  8. I wholeheartedly agree with you and Brent Weeks, both – I’m not about to repost my exact comment I left over on his blog here … and I can totally see, where you are coming from.

    I am one of those “never again buy an unfinished series” readers, burnt by the GRRM debacle for 16 years now (that’s right, been there since 1996). This time around I resisted. I can quit smoking, so I can quit reading GRRM. I’m done.

    On a related note: of late I find myself smiling when I read the phrase: “pulling a GRRM” which describes year long delays in publishing the next installment (A Storm of Swords to A Feast for Crows: 5 years. A Feast for Crows to A Dance with Dragons: 6 years). It has aready become a meme.

    Which brings me to a mistake there in your article. There’s not TWO more books to come, it’s going to be at least THREE. GRRM and his wife have hinted at that several times now …

    That being said, let me read my brandnew Weeks first, then I’ll give your series a shot – if for nothing else (but maybe I end up loving it!) as a way of expressing my support for you to speak your mind.

  9. It’s interesting how many people seem to agree with me. But I do still advocate buying the first of a series that you think will interest you, for the reasons stated above. Readers and writers operate in a symbiotic relationship, so if readers do their bit, hopefully writers will too, and very few will ever “pull a GRRM”. 🙂

  10. “I’ll write this series.” The reader says, “Cool, I’ll buy it and read it”

    this does not seem right. who buys the first book of a series, and commits themselves to buy all the rest of the unpublished books in the series because of that purchase? a writer produces the first book in a series, a reader buys it, and various factors determine if the second book will be published and whether the reader will bother reading it.

    is there a one-way street where the author has an obligation to the reader, and not the other way around? i really don’t think readers have an obligation to a writer by buying their book. they can throw it into a fire, they can read one chapter and decide they hate it, they can turn it into a coaster. that is their right.

    they have no obligation. and in that case, the writer doesn’t have any kind of obligation either. i don’t expect anything for my money except the book i have received. if it is good, i will wait, missed deadlines and all. they are not personal promises to me, so there’s no reason to take it personally.

    will i be disappointed if a series i like ends unfinished? sure. tv viewers have this happen every season, and no one spends a great deal of time and energy shouting about alleged obligations that networks are failing to live up to (mostly people talk about how stupid the network is being, or how stupid tv viewers are for not having watched it and boosted its ratings).

    so chalk me up as a disagreement on this topic. you don’t owe this particular reader anything, so far as he is concerned, alan.

  11. You’re right, Alan, and Brent is as well. For the people defending the non-existent work ethics of GRRM and his ilk, I ask you this: How many of you would buy a book advertised as “Read the exciting first book in a never-to-be-finished series by famous editor George Martin!”? I know wouldn’t.

  12. ‘watch the first exciting season of never-to-be-finished tv series firefly’

    lots and lots of dvds sold for that one despite the overarching and deeper story never seeing completion.

    if the book is good, it is good. if it left you wanting more then it did something right. i don’t know about everyone, but my guess is most people enjoy their experiences as they have them.

  13. I agree with you, Alan. I often buy the second and third books in a series after reading just one and don’t read them until the series is finished. I hate, hate, HATE waiting to find out what happens without a guarantee that the story will have some kind of ending.

    After being burned by several T.V. series and fanfic sagas in a row, I vowed to stay away from even reading stories in progress until I ran out of stand-alone material to consume. That’s why when people start talking about Dexter or ASoIaF (Game of Thrones books) in front of me, I tell them to stuff it until I’m out of earshot, because I’m taping and saving those stories for when I can devour them in big chunks, darn it!

  14. valmont – you seem to agree with me more than you realise! The last paragraph of my post says:

    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.

    Frank – I think that’s a little harsh! I’m sure GRRM had and has every intention of finishing his series. After all, his own sense of accomplishment is surely tied into that as well.

  15. Alan, I quote the man himself as he referred to Dance as being “three bitches and a bastard” to write and delaying the start of Winds of Winter (at least) to 2012. This doesn’t sound very reassuring. I devoutly hope he can turn the series around to the brilliance of the first three books but I doubt it. He wouldn’t be the first writer to give up on a series or (even worse in my opinion) to drag it out needlessly (the infamous Crossroads of Twilight comes to mind).

    And that is another argument that backs your stance, Alan: the inherent promise of a writer to tell a story over several books which often results in books that cannot stand alone so well – the dreaded “middle book syndrom” in a series. The writer tells the reader to bear with him, to read (ands buy) the “middle” book even if nothing much happens in it because it “sets up” further entries in the series. (Martin’s Feast and Dance suffered massively in this aspect). The reader says, ok, I’ll buy it even if it can’t stand on his own because I expect a pay-off in the next book. Now when the next book is delayed or never is written at all, the writer has not fulfilled his promise to the reader. It’s as simple as that.

    And that’s why your analogy with Firefly fails, valmont. The Firefly episodes are able to stand alone, you can watch each of them separately as each has a story of its own. Firefly doesn’t just break off without resolution or ends on a massive cliffhanger (like Dance with Dragons). Sure, it would be fun to see more of the Firefly universe but it is not essential. There are no “middle series syndroms” there.

  16. i don’t know, there’s a bigger storyline that will never get resolved. i can go ahead and read ned’s chapters all alone if i like, they tell a complete story. or catelyn’s. or finish up with jon becoming lord commander. these are all distinct storylines, some that complete episodically, some complete quite finally. that there are other stories out there, that some stories aren’t complete, is very much the same thing as a show with a mythos and deep story that gets revealed in fragments, as in firefly with the men with the blue gloves and so on.

    i just don’t find this view point convincing. so long as i don’t owe an author anything, i don’t think they owe me anything.

    alan, my disappointment is the same disappointment if i buy a book and it turns out to be a clunker. its natural to be disappointed when things don’t go as we want. but i was responding to your claim that authors have an obligation to a reader, and i think that only makes sense if readers have an obligation to authors. i don’t think that’s the case.

  17. Nah valmont, try as you might, your comparison between television and book series holds no water. To renew a season for TV depends on so many factors (ratings, budget, dozens if not hundreds of people involved) that people never know for sure if they see seasons 2 or 3.

    Totally different with a book: there is one person responsible – the writer (and to a small degree, the publisher, if he/she drops the series due to lack of sales). The obligation you so ardently deny is inherent in the writer’s project to tell a big story in many segments (hence, a trilogy or a 10 book series etc.) The writer asks his readers to buy Part 1 of his new project because there will be a Part 2 and some day the final part. Otherwise readers wouldn’t buy, it’s very simple. Ask Steven Erikson who dutifully published a book each year in his Malazan saga until the 10 book series was complete. Ask him if he thought he had no obligation to his fans and loyal buyers.

    The aftermath of the whole Martin debacle is the problem Alan commented on – that “while you wait for book 3, authors die!” Because readers become suspicious and wait till a series is finished before buying, and rightly so. I won’t ever again purchase a new starting book from a new series by George Martin (or Melanie Rawn on that matter) because I don’t trust the author any more to hold true to his promise to finish the series. I will buy one by Alan Baxter though, as his blog post has given me faith that this author takes his obligation to his fans seriously.

    And by the way, you couldn’t refute my argument that “middle books” happen exclusively in series and that these books don’t work as stand-alones. Try reading Dance with Dragons, some of the middle Malazan books and a lot of the Wheel of Time books on their own and you know I’m right. In a way these middle or “set-up” books are the readers’ way of believing in an author’s obligation to finish the series. By buying them they fulfil their “obligation” to the author. They forgive him/her one or two weak entries as long as the writer keeps on writing, publishing and at the end finishes the series.

    To deny an obligation between authors and readers sows disharmony and mistrust and thus serves none.

  18. On the Firefly analogy, it’s worth bearing in mind that the story did get some resolution with the Serenity movie, a previously unheard of event in TV/movie history. But I agree that a TV show is very different to a book series produced by a single author.

    I’ll repost another paragraph from my original post above, which I think is important to my position on this:

    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, “Fuck you, I’m not your bitch!”

    I won’t hold it against GRRM personally, but I will be disappointed. I do think it’s damaging to potential future series from other authors. I do think it has an effect. As writers we’re engaging in a professional relationship and we need to take that relationship seriously and respect everyone involved, which includes readers. Saying, “He ain’t your bitch”, while true on one level, ignores this relationship to some degree.

    It’s a reason that I’m a fan of books in a series that are each a standalone story on their own. An overarching story through many books is great, but better, in my mind, when each book is a complete story in its own right as well.

    I keep being asked if there will be another Isiah book. RealmShift and MageSign make a duology, with MageSign being very much the direct sequel to RealmShift. But a reader could pick up one or the other and read a whole story. And while I’d love to write those characters again, I always respond with, “I’d love to write more, but no plans right now. If the right ideas come along, then sure, so never say never.”

    In the meantime, I’m working on new books in the same universe, but with all different characters and story. (Albeit with some cameo style crossovers). Basically, it’s very important to me not to promise something that I may not deliver.

    If GRRM doesn’t deliver, it doesn’t make him a bad person. But it will be a disappointment and it is damaging. The fact that people base their book buying habits on the possibility of an author “pulling a GRRM” speaks volumes.

  19. Decidedly “first world problem” IMO.

    There’s so many great books out there even within the specific genre that I can happily read something else until a book by my favourite author is out.

    And really unless as a writer you are living the dream and existing solely on your writing income then I’m sorry the only obligation I’d give too shits about is keeping the family fed and sheltered. Which will mean the reader can wait while the author works dead end jobs and spends months of late nights slaving over a text that will be devoured in an afternoon.

    Nah that writing is exponentially harder than sitting on your ass reading. Respect to the writers out there, you get me that book when you’re ready.

    The only obligation I feel the writer has toward me as a reader is to be entertaining within the the book container that I have spent $10-30 on.

    And I am growing a bit tired of the gendered language, can we not use something less inflammatory, like “The author is not your house slave”(too soon?).

  20. “And really unless as a writer you are living the dream and existing solely on your writing income”

    Well, I reckon GRRM is doing pretty well for himself. 🙂

    “And I am growing a bit tired of the gendered language, can we not use something less inflammatory”

    To be honest, I’m a big believer in the evolution of language. In this case, bitch has long since gone beyond gender boundaries, in my opinion. Guys get called bitches as much as girls ever were and it has a different meaning now in that context. I think it started with the whole “Bitch, please” meme.

  21. Alan,

    He may well be doing well for himself. But honestly there might, I think as others have suggested, be other things he wants to do – there is no contract, there is no obligation.

    I would say that authors might create expectations and constantly dashing those expectations might turn fans away. But I doubt GRRM or any author is truly contemptuous of their readership.

    On the gendered language I hope that you caught the facetious reference to the house slave debacle (not sure?). There’s a series undertone to my point though.

    Sure language evolves and usage changes, words die. But I think I would find a fair few readers and authors that would find the use of gendered language in certain contexts offensive. Gaiman even alters his language at the end of the article. It’s not cut and dried though because you will have those of seek to reclaim the word – Skepbitch(Dr Karen Stollznow) comes readily to mind.

    My policy is to avoid its usage when non gendered words will have just as much impact and get the message across without offending.

    You imply that word has gone beyond it’s original usage? You are a braver man than I. When I know its still used in to demean and verbally assault women I am not prepared to make that jump.

  22. I don’t think GRRM is contemptuous at all. And he has no fixed obligation. But that’s my point – he can do what he likes, but there is an unwritten agreement in place and just as he has every right to do what he likes, readers have every right to feel let down. And I do think it’s damaging in the long term for the possibility of future series.

    On the bitch thing – I don’t think the word has changed completely. I think, in context, it’s evolved to mean something else as well. And language is all about context.

  23. Personally I find Ice and Fire to be very episodic, strangely like a TV series 🙂 its one of the reasons why I don’t find it too engaging. I think the story could go on and on and…etc

    I quick twitter poll reveals that usage of “bitch” is fraught with danger :).

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