What does a series writer owe to readers?

PG-13 language ahead…

You read the first book in a series. You love it. You can’t wait for more. But what happens when the next books don’t meet your expectations? It is your fault or the author’s fault?

I remember being enraged by the end of Meredith Anne Pierce’s Darkangel trilogy, a story about a girl married against her will to a vampire. The ending of the final book The Pearl of the Soul of the World, seemed exactly opposite from what the author had set up in the first book. I felt betrayed, cheated. And yet, I also feel forced to admit that the author has the right to spin her story as she pleases.

In our day of constant online communication, the give and take between an author and her readers only exacerbates the problem of unmet expectations. Since fans have the chance to tell an author exactly what they want to read, the pressure builds for an author to deliver it.

I was intrigued when Linda Joy Singleton recently wrote (in regards to writing a series), “I like to have two very different guys for my heroine to choose from, and then I wait to hear back from readers which direction to go.” I love the idea of getting online and telling Linda which guy I want to win the girl. I love the thought of reading the final book in one of her series and getting exactly what I want. And if Linda isn’t married to the idea of choosing one guy over the other, the only problem can be that she will disappoint the minority of her fans.

But what about authors who aren’t open to dictation from their fans? Of course, the recent uproar over Meyer’s Breaking Dawn comes to mind. A huge number of fans were dissatisfied by the way the Twilight trilogy ended; some started a campaign to return copies of Breaking Dawn. Apparently, Meyers didn’t feel that she owed her fans anything other than what she gave them. “There’s no way to make everybody happy,” she said in an MTV interview. She didn’t apologize for decisions she made about her characters–she simply told her fans to take the book or leave it.

Then there’s the fury surrounding the missing fifth book of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series. When Martin posted about attending football games and other leisure activities, fans chastised him for not spending every spare moment getting his fifth book to market (thus far, they’ve been waiting four or five years for the book). Neil Gaiman’s response to this situation is hilarious. He tells Martin’s fans: “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.”

In essence, Gaiman claims Martin has the right to finish his series or not, and he has the right to do whatever it takes to get his muse back. Gaiman says,  “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.”

What do you think? Does a contract exist between a series author and her fans? What does an author owe to her readers–the right ending, prompt delivery, happy romance?

Parker Peevyhouse just finished the first book of Martin’s series and wonders if it’s too soon to start worrying about the fifth


Filed under Parker Peevyhouse

27 responses to “What does a series writer owe to readers?

  1. Oh, GREAT topic!!

    I rarely find myself in the position of defending S. Meyer, but I’m with her and Neil on this one. While I think it would be utterly cool to have such rabid fans, the author’s only responsibility, IMO, is to the story as they see and want to tell it. As a kid, I always found those “choose your own story” adventures silly because it’s not realistic that all possibilities would be plausible, or that causes (choices) do not lead to necessary effects. And I thought Neil was a bit harsh in that particular post… but correct. But then, I also fall on the side of literature’s first purpose being art, and only second business/commercial, and think that too much emphasis on the latter is what floods TV and most movies, and increasingly, books, with insipid claptrap designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Those who disagree with me about the art/business thing are likely to be on the other side of the “please your fans” argument, too, I suspect.

    I can’t wait to read other opinions and logic here, though!

    • Parker Peevyhouse

      The other extreme, though, is when a book is so artistic as to be incomprehensible to readers. In that case, has the author failed to deliver what was owed? Or is it buyer beware?

      • I’m assuming that an editor and house somewhere saw fit to publish. In which case, it’s buyer beware. I have no problem with art for an elite, I don’t think. (Heaven knows that for some of us, certain visual art movements seem to fit that category.)

        I wouldn’t give copies of Joyce’s Ulysses to friends. That doesn’t mean I don’t think it should have been published or that he failed on any obligation.

      • Parker Peevyhouse

        Joni, my friends and I were talking about this idea in relation to David Lynch films. We wondered if we should be angry that we pay money to be absolutely stupefied or if we should just not recommend his stuff to friends and leave it at that.

  2. When an author writes the first book in the series there’s no way of predicting what readers will expect. The book is the author’s vision but as fans read the book they develop their vision, too. It sucks when that vision doesn’t match, but it happens. I thank the internet for the luxury of connecting to fans and finding out what they want. While I can’t promise to write per request, I do always listen and take fans into consideration–like when in THE SEER series they kept wanting Dominic to hook up with Sabine. Well they hook up very romantically, sharing a secret treetop hideout, in upcoming #6 THE SEER which as of today I can officially announce will be titled MAGICIAN’S MUSE (my suggested title).

  3. My books won’t be choose-your-own-adventure. I know their arcs from the get-go, and each book (or series) will have the ending I find most appropriate and compelling, storywise. That’s what I feel I owe my readers. That, and sticking to the rules of any universe I create.

  4. Meyer had the right to a happy ending or the hope-in-the-midst-of-tragedy ending I was expecting or whatever else she might envision. She did have the responsibility to make that ending believable and authentic within the universe she had created. That’s where she failed as far as I’m concerned.

    • Parker Peevyhouse

      It does seem like cheating when you break your own rules. I think Meyer holds that she didn’t break her own rules, though, am I right? I know many readers disagree. I haven’t read Breaking Dawn yet to know where I stand on that.

  5. Very interesting topic. And full of such heated debate! Now that authors have come to the forefront of media and readers are ever in tune with what they’re doing, it seems readers are every gaining a sense of entitlement.

    I think this is more of a reflection on our self-centered society than anything. Everybody thinks the world revolves around them and when something isn’t to our liking we want our money back.

    As far as what happens in the book? Nobody owes anyone anything. I was not enthralled Breaking Dawn. I had many criticism, but I don’t feel Ms. Meyer owes me or anyone else anything. It’s her book. She started writing the books for herself and she finished them for herself. If it doesn’t resonate with the writer, what is the value anyway? I can criticize how a book turned out all I want and be disappointed all I want, but guess what? We don’t all get what we want. Maybe that’s one of the values of series fiction. We don’t get everything we want.

    Getting the next book out: As far as marketing and sales and fans go, I say the quicker you can get them out the better. But what of the quality? Isn’t this just another reflection of our impatient, selfish society? We want what we want when we want it. But you get what you pay for…you get out of it what you put into it…good things come to those who WAIT. People need to chill. Nobody owes anybody anything.

    • Parker Peevyhouse

      I guess we’ve been self-centered for a while then. Even Doyle and Christy caught so much grief from fans that they had to bring back their beloved detectives from the grave! Talk about being chained to a series…

      I agree with you that if readers want quality, they’ve got to have patience.

    • You go, Liesl.

      And not only self-centered, perhaps, but also leveled/democratized. So while a lot of people would agree that a believable or satisfying ending, for instance, is at least partly a matter of opinion, THEIR opinion about it is now just as, or more, valid than, say, the author’s, or the publisher’s, or a critic’s. So fewer people think the author might know best anymore?

      Or… the idea that the masses should dictate what happens in a story may also be a reflection of the weakening of the concept of intellectual property. Authors “own” their works less and less, thanks to piracy, fan fic, failing revenue models, and some of the other good and bad effects of the web. Their right to control the content of what they only tentatively own is just one aspect of that.

      Man, this topic could keep us busy for a week. Ten points, P.

      • Parker Peevyhouse

        Makes me wonder what happened when Dickens killed off Nell. I bet a lot of people thought Dickens didn’t “know best” about that.

  6. Great post! And too freaking funny on NG’s response about GRRM. That is hilarious! Which reminds me I need to read book 4. Didn’t the mom get her head cut off at the end of book 3 or something?

    I do kind of think writers owe their readers something. The readers are the customer, aren’t they? Not to say every waking moment should be spent on the books or that the author should compromise. But it is a job, right?

    • Parker Peevyhouse

      No spoilers, PJ!! Actually, I’m glad you told me that so I won’t be so shocked now when I get to the end of Book 3. I was already pretty shocked by the end of Book 1.

  7. Regarding George R.R. Martin, I completely agree with Neil Gaiman. So much so that I wrote a song called “George R.R. Martin is Not Your Bitch”.
    I think a creative person has a right to do whatever he or she wants with their creations.

  8. What’s the point in starting a series one isn’t going to finish? It seems like cheating. It’s one thing to have other books coming out and appeasing your fans, but to simply leave a story unfinished is torture. One author I’ve fallen in love with finished her trilogy and then proceeded to open her website to questions from readers. She even explains a bit of what takes place BEYOND the books.

    However, in books, as in life, we can’t always get what we want. So there should be no complaints about Character A hooking up with Boy C unless Boy C was never in the story until the very end, which is just poor writing.

  9. I just published book one in a series of eleven books. The only people I owe anything to at this point are the publishers. I owe them completed manuscripts in a timely fashion. The story is mine.

    I have all eleven books in rough draft form, so I’m in good shape to deliver. But what if the fans are angry about something that happens in book 3? Too bad. What happens in book 3 impacts what happens in book 6, 8, 9, and 10. I can’t change book 3 to make them happy without having to change the entire series.

    If I were a painter, I’d paint what I wanted unless someone commissioned me to paint a particular picture. It’s the same with books. The reader is not my employer, though they consume the end product. Suggestions and ideas are fine, but the story is mine. They don’t know where I’m going with the story or where I want to end. They don’t have the same vision I do; that’s part of why I write, to communicate my vision. As with all art, how they want to interpret my writing is their choice.

    I haven’t read the Twilight series, so I won’t comment on it.

  10. It’s a good question, but a difficult one.

    I wanted to say, at first, that a writer owes the reader nothing more than their best effort…

    And yet, a lot of perfectly decent books have been churned out by writers who are just trying to keep a roof over their heads, and they skimp on ambition in favor of quantity and a steady stream of income. They’re not really trying they’re best — they’re just aiming at “good enough”.

    Are these writers short-changing the readers who are happy with what they’re producing? I don’t think so, is the thing. Maybe they’re cheating themselves, but if mediocrity fulfills a need and people appreciate it, who are we to judge?

    Ultimately, it’s all between the writer and their own conscience. The end result will doubtless impact sales one way or another, and then maybe it’ll be time for their conscience to have a chat with their bank account.

  11. I agree that ultimately it is up to the writer to write the books that she needs to write, however it is nice when a writer takes into at least partial consideration the opinions of her fans – they’re the ones who decree success after all.
    I think that if the story unwinds in an organic and honest way then even if you can’t please everyone there should be acceptance if not understanding of the ending of the series whatever that might be. Did anyone feel cheated that Harry Potter didn’t die?
    On the other hand (- and I’ll try not to include any spoilers for Breaking Dawn), there were plot inconsistencies in the book particularly the way the whole Jacob/ Bella triangle unfolded.
    I’m a huge George RR Martin fan and I love the Fire and Ice books. I’ve been disappointed that there’s been such a long stretch between books but I can always re-read and the wait makes the inevitable (I hope) publication of # 5 all the more special. He throws curveballs too. I remember the first book shocked the hell out of me because the people you thought were going to be the main characters, patently were not.
    I blogged recently on the double-edged sword of having a hugely successful series and being forced practically (like Conan Doyle) into writing forever about the same characters and even having to bring them back to life.
    Stephen King was evidently onto something in MISERY.

    • Parker Peevyhouse

      I too was floored by the end of Martin’s A Game of Thrones. I had to rethink the entire book and my expectations of the series.

  12. They owe us a book that is similar to the earlier ones, or sufficient warning.

    If the first is suitable for kids, the sequels should be the same. JK Rowlings did enough advertising that the intended audience would get older with the characters, so no complaints there. Likewise if the first is humourous, erotic, action-filled or romantic. If a series safe for work (and nosy male coworkers), it should stay that way.

    I understand readers’ frustration at seeing the author drop it. They want to see how it ends. On the other hand, I can see why an author would no longer love a series, especially if the fans start claiming it for their own. It’s a tough call.

    • Parker Peevyhouse

      They owe us a book that is similar to the earlier ones, or sufficient warning.

      Interesting point! It wouldn’t seem fair to read a sequel that seemed far from the first book. Does this mean the quality must be similar too? I suppose that’s harder for the author to control sometimes. It seems like very long series tend to drop off in quality, but that’s usually because ghostwriters take over after a certain point.

      • Similar quality would be appreciated. I’d rather wait for the sequel than a poor-quality one. On the other hand, sometimes the sequel just doesn’t come together as well as the first. Sometimes as you write, you realize there’s a major plot hole, or the characters fade.

        Thinking about my earlier comment, I don’t mean writers should fall in to the “every book the same” trap. It depends on the genre. Some genres have almost a chapter-by-chapter formula. Others, like McMaster’s Vorkosigan saga, vary widely — coming of age, action, espionage, regency romance. I never know what type of story I’ll get, but I can safely look forward to characters I enjoy, a sense of humour, safe to read around coworkers, and level of concentration needed on my part.

  13. Interesting topic. On one hand, as a reader, I really want a book and/or series to end the way I want it to. On the other hand, as a writer, I feel like the writer has to decide what they want to do with the story and what’s best for it. Sometimes I hate the ending, but agree that the writer had to go there for the ending to work. Other times, I was expecting something and hoping for it, when the writer turned around and surprised me with something so much better.

    So I guess my vote is for trusting the writer to tell the best story and letting them tell the story they want to tell.

    Neil Gaiman’s whole article/rant/blog entry on George R. R. Martin was great, but the quote was brilliant.

    Linda Joy’s idea of writing 2 romantic possibilities and letting the fans choose was really interesting. As a reader, I think it would be really fun to vote on something like that!

  14. jazaa

    I think that only thing series writer owes to readers is to finish series he/she started. I havent heard about any unfinished series, but that is worst thing author can do after fans have used lots of time and money to buy and read his books.

    I can understand feeling of dissapointment when author doesnt do what you want him to do with story (like killing major character). However in the end it is author’s story.. his “vision” and he can do whatever he wants to with it. He isnt obligated to write what fans want… unless he cares only about money and wants to sell as many copies as possible…

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