With the new season of Game of Thrones about to unleash itself on a ravenous and insatiable fan base, I thought it would be an apt time to explore the relationship between author and reader, in particular reference to book series. Do authors really owe their readers and fans the next novel at the expense of everything else, or are we a just a bunch of self-entitled content junkies demanding our next fix?
Like many people, I love a good series of books, whether they tell a new story with existing characters, or carry on the plot where the previous story left off. If I love the characters and the world, I want to spend as much time as possible in there, and I always want to know what happens next.
As individual books have a beginning, middle and end, so does a linked series. In your average trilogy, the first book will be an introduction, but will probably have a good sense of closure in case the other two are never written. Writing a proper ending to your first novel, even if it is an open one, is a really good idea if you’re a new author. We all have our grand plans of a Lord Of The Rings beater, but the reality of low sales and the huge time commitment needed means that many an epic lies forever as smudged scribbles in a dog-eared notepad. There’s no better way to annoy readers and lose them forever than to never offer them any closure. Even an end you disagree with (*cough* Lost) is better than none (see the V remake from my last post, or Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles).
When you get on to writing book two in the series, however, things start to get a bit more complicated. Plot threads are picked up and expanded upon, the cast and universe grows and suddenly you’re at 90,000 words and nowhere near a conclusion. The obvious solution is to finish with your characters in peril, or with an epoch-defining event on the horizon. Readers and bloggers up and down the internet will be chomping to know what happens next; a guaranteed audience for part three! Win!
And that’s where the problem starts. Below are two arguments and some nice devil’s advocate bias from me on both sides.
Case for the prosecution: “We made you! You owe us!”
I remember, many years ago, watching a news report on Hollywood stars complaining about their privacy being violated by the paparazzi. One of the accused photographer’s response to this was (paraphrased) “When they were starting out, they were begging us to take their picture. Now it’s time for us to collect on the debt.” And I do think the guy had a legitimate argument, up to a certain point, anyway. The wannabe stars had either wittingly or unwittingly entered into a contract with the press for their souls and privacy, and the photographers wanted their pound of flesh at the end of it.
In the case of separate stories from the same author, as a reader you are buying a book, and once it’s over, that’s it. If you’re lucky there will be a new tale on the shelves in a couple of years, which may or may not tickle your fancy. With a series, however, the author is saying to the reader: “Hey, come on this journey with me!” As an author, you’re asking the reader to invest in not one book, but several, sometimes over many years. You want them hooked in and buying those hardbacks as soon as they hit the shelves, to get those pre-orders whizzing you up the Amazon charts for even more exposure to new readers. You’ve instantly raised readers’ expectations and therefore the responsibility to manage them effectively (for example, giving regular updates or putting other projects to one side until the series is finished). If you’re getting rich or popular from the endeavour, then yes, you do owe readers the next book and a return on their investment, both in money and the extra word-of-mouth advertising boost they almost certainly gave your stories on social media.
George R. R. Martin gets a lot of stick for the time it takes to release books, but it’s not exactly an edge case. I’ve been waiting for the 4th Abarat book from Clive Barker to come out since 2011 as well, and it’s been 23 years since Everville and still little news of the third Book of the Art. Imagine if J. K. Rowling had announced she was taking a break from writing Harry Potter novels after book 5 for a few years while she focused on other projects? I think the internet would have melted.
Case for the defence: “I ain’t your property!”
On the other side of the coin, authors are not slaves, chained to the desk twenty-four seven until they churn out that book you so crave. As mentioned above, writing a book takes a long time. As a series progresses, the books tend to get larger and take even longer to write. If the series becomes popular, then the author may spend a larger proportion of their time promoting it and less time at the desk. Personally, I love a good long-haul flight to a scientific conference because I have about 10 hours of uninterrupted writing time, but many authors only write in their sanctuary at home.
Even so, the real question is “why should they do what a possibly vocal minority demand?” Nothing seems to annoy a rabid section of the fan base than an author daring to work on a side project instead of finishing what they’re ‘supposed to be doing’. But there are several good reasons for doing this, the most obvious of which is burnout. If your mind is stuck in the same universe for years at a time it’s easy to start getting bored and hating the very thing that you hold dear. Everyone needs a holiday, and writing a completely different book or even working in a different medium is a good way to reinvigorate the imagination. Authors often work on several projects at once, so sometimes a different story just takes the fore, or it may have been hanging around for ages and they just want to finish it off. As an example, The Scarlet Gospels took Clive Barker over a decade to write, on and off.
There’s also the issue of scheduling. Self-published authors can pretty much release books as and when they want, but traditionally-published authors are often at the mercy of the publishers. A hardback book comes out, and several months later after the initial sales have dropped, the paperback print run occurs. A year or so after that, the cycle begins with the next book. So if your favourite author releases a novel that’s not the next one in the series, then even if they’ve finished the one you really want, it’s not going to see the light of day for at least a year or so down the line.
Authors are not at your beck and call. They do not force anyone to read their books, and if a long series of books is planned then it may take decades to complete the story. As a reader, you buy a product and that’s it. Investment is risk, and sometimes not all investments pay off. If you were entertained when you read the latest book, then you got your money’s worth. Anything you think you are owed in addition to that is your problem.
So there you have it. Do authors owe us or are readers just being obnoxious in our constant demand for content? As with most things, the truth is somewhere in the middle, for me at least.
It’s true that no one forces anyone to buy into a book series and readers undoubtedly enjoy the content and get value for money, otherwise they wouldn’t be so excited about the next one. Authors need time and space to get the job done, and make their work as good as it can be. Personally, I’m prepared to wait longer for a high-quality product (up to a point, anyway).
Authors, however, also have to appreciate that they’ve raised expectations that the story they started to tell will be finished in a decent time frame (or indeed, at all), and they’ve asked the readers to come on a journey with them. You’ve inspired loyalty in your fan base in a world where there are a million other things they could be doing or spending their money on. Don’t take it for granted that they’ll still be there for you a few too many years down the line.
So what’s your opinion? Let me know in the comments section below!
Ed Ryder is a research scientist by day and writes in the evening when he can fit it in. Morula, the sequel to Why She Ran is now in production!