Discussion: Do authors owe books to their readers?

I’m sure we’ve all experienced the disappointment of reading an excellent book only to find that its sequel won’t be released until a later month in a distant year. Sometimes, there is a complete lack of information about a follow-up, leaving readers feeling hopeless about ever diving back into their favorite worlds. As years pass, that feeling can morph into resentment and even outrage that an author has failed to provide a satisfactory conclusion to to a story. GRRM, Patrick Rothfuss, and Scott Lynch are common subjects (victims?) of these complaints, which have turned to bitter proclamations that a reader will refuse to buy their future works, or pirate them so that the author won’t get their money. On the other end of the scale, readers like D.R. Baker, author of the article Authors Don’t Owe You Books on Book Riot, implore that readers remember that these authors are human too—and they don’t owe you books. Thus, the topic of this discussion.

So which one is it? Are authors obligated to finish everything they put out into the world, or are we graced by anything they are able to produce?

One thing we must consider is that authors are people making a living creating art. It is a singular niche in our capitalist society because it is an art form with a fairly dependable market but its content is highly dependent on an individual. It is more widely available than fine art, but also not corporation-produced like movies and TV shows. And, unlike other forms of writing like journalism or nonfiction, this phenomenon is occurring for writing that is purely for entertainment purposes (don’t get me wrong, I know these stories hold a deeper place in many readers’ hearts, but that is a side effect rather than the goal). When was the last time someone raged online because there was no second edition of their favorite academic paper? What is it about these fictional stories, this one little category of consumerism, that produces such reactions?

I guess a first step in reaching some sort of conclusion is determining what causes people to lash out, unprovoked, with such vitriol. I’ve seen claims that readers are an author’s base of success—they are their income, their support. That author would be nothing without them. And that’s true. But, as consumers, this is true of everything we buy. Hungry customers allow restaurants to succeed. The desire for beauty drives patronage at hair and nail salons. And, while these services differ in that they fulfill recurring needs, they work in the same way books do: you get what you pay for. So yes, you (probably) paid for those excellent books that authors put out. But… did you pay in advance for anything else? Did you invest to ensure future content?

That’s a rhetorical question. No, you didn’t, because that’s not how this works. You paid for something that an author poured their heart and soul into, that they spent years crafting so that it could be presentable to the world. If anything, shouldn’t we be grateful that something with such a low price (probably never more than $30) touched us so deeply that we feel the need for more? Any time we put in to books is our choice. Any emotions they make us feel can only serve to make us more empathetic human beings. Does an incomplete story render that time and emotion useless, a waste of energy? I guess I’m getting a bit off-topic, and while typing this I’ve definitely solidified my opinion.

Another common stance on this is that authors don’t owe us books, but they owe us updates. Letting readers know that there is a completed first draft or that editing has commenced can reassure them that there is hope. Some claim that any sort of silence on the subject is selfish and indicates a lack of gratitude or respect for a fan base. But what if the author didn’t write that book for you? Does releasing that book to the public erase the personal ownership the author has over the story? Does it now belong to the reader or the writer?

I understand the frustration that people feel when they can’t have more of something they love. It is that love in the first place that leads to such passionate desire for more. That love is why we read. But ownership of a physical book is different from ownership over an author’s career. Especially when that career is an art form that is highly intertwined with the emotions and health of its creator. This point, however, brings up a counter argument : reading is an act of vulnerability for every party involved. Perhaps that is why some feel the need to turn their backs on authors when they feel their vulnerability has been exploited.

I really would love to hear your opinions about this, even if (nay, especially if) they are contrary to mine.

Happy reading (but don’t send death threats to authors from whom you are waiting for a sequel)!

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