What An Author Owes the Reader

Alma T. C. Boykin

The short answer is “probably nothing, unless you’ve paid for the story and I need to e-mail/ship it.” However, a lot of people, even those who will answer “nothing,” believe in an understood contract with readers, especially those of us who are indie writers. Traditionally published writers are a little more [OK a lot more] at the mercy of publishers when it comes to what the author can tell readers about a series or “when’s the next book coming out?”

These are NOT hard and fast requirements, and you may very well disagree with some or all of them. It’s more of a think-piece than solid advice.

If you have announced a publication window and then face a major problem with getting that book out, or any books at all out, especially if it involves a series, telling fans, “Hey, I know you are expecting that new book. I’m really sorry, but because of [Stuff], it’s going to be a while,” goes a long way to keeping good will. You don’t have to be specific, just sincere. There are fans in many genres who have gotten burned by unfinished series. Sometimes that is because of author problems, sometimes because the publishers decided, “Nah, book two didn’t do as well so don’t bother submitting book three,” sometimes other stuff happens. Or a publisher dumped an author for Reasons Unknown. Indie has reduced the likelihood of the latter two for some of us, but it still happens.

Readers want you to deliver what you advertised. This is partly “know your genre and what reader cookies are demanded” and partly “don’t advertise ice cream and deliver buttermilk.” There are people who like both, people who like neither, and people who will never buy ice cream from you ever again. Genre beats, cover art, ad copy, all those things are important to understand so you can sell a sci-fi romance to romance readers, and a sci-fi story that includes a romance to sci-fi fans.

Readers want to be entertained! They are trading beer-money for fun. There’s a place for slow, beautiful, deep literary fiction, for existential angst and nihilism (see a certain sub-genre of movies, often French). Don’t surprise readers with angst and philosophy if they pay you for a tale of high adventure, low treachery, and gun-fights in space. I think a lot of us got turned off of sci-fi in the 1980s when it veered into “we’re all going to dieeeeeee, the planet is doooooomed, humans are terrible, nuclear winter,” and so on and so forth. Well, the Horseclans novels had that as a starting point, and then went all out men’s adventure with large telepathic cats and a character with a genetic mutation for near instant healing. Were they great literature? Nah. Where they fun? Oh yeah, and that’s all they aimed to be. They promised something and delivered it.

Me personally, as a reader, I do not like cliffhanger endings in novels. I dropped two trad-pub series because in one case, the publisher decided to end the series after a book that had a cliffhanger. Not the author’s fault, but I wasn’t happy. In the other case, it was three years between books, and the next book completely shifted characters and scenes before eventually getting back to the character-in-distress. I felt robbed, and will not go back to that series until I know that a resolution is coming soon. The long delay was not the author’s fault, but the structure of the follow-up book was the author’s choice. This might not bother you, but it irks me.

Some readers were disappointed in me because the plot structure and some of the style of the last Merchant and Empire book were different from earlier stories in the series. (Yes, there is an additional problem that I am in the process of addressing.) Other readers really liked that difference and enjoyed the story. I can see where both groups are coming from. It still follows a single character, but it has a different focus from the rest of the series even though it is in the same world, and it doesn’t have the same kind of ending as other books in the series. The next one does. Will the earlier unhappiness hurt sales of the next book? It might. I may have burned some readers past the point of return. That’s a risk I didn’t think about when I wrote the book. Should I have considered it? Perhaps. Maybe I should have used different ad copy to warn that the book is not like others in the series, or announced on my blog that the ending would not have the same tone as earlier titles. 20/20 hindsight.

All the Mad Genii have said it over and over – don’t preach. Don’t “sacrifice your birthright for a pot of message” as R. A. Heinlein (PBUH) put it. You can have a message but first you must entertain. We’re competing with video games, coffee, beer, groceries, and other books. First entertain – give the reader fun, an escape, a break from reality. All else follows.

If we owe readers anything it is fun, satisfaction that the good guys won, the bad guys lost, and the time spent reading wasn’t wasted.

Image Credit: Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

12 thoughts on “What An Author Owes the Reader

  1. If it ends in a cliffhanger then it was only part of a story. Selling it as a story is fraud

  2. Yeah, I think cliffhangers are a cheap trick, too.

    The whole art of “long series” is best served by “local resolution / threat of more problems coming”. You don’t need to take that final breath after a series entry, but you do need to take a local one.

    At the end of a series, you can still leave a little breathing room. The reader may not know what happens next, but that’s like life itself. Your responsibility is to tie up all the strings you’ve exposed, not the entire universe. You’re finishing the story, not the lives.

    1. I need to get better about warning the handful of people who read my wordpress blog when my release dates are slipping. I just went back through my blog entries and it looks like I went from saying in December 2022 that I was aiming for a late Jan/early Feb 2023 release for Spider Star to “Initial Spider Star revisions done, prepping it for proofreaders” on January 1, to “hi, here’s Spider Star in Kindle Unlimited” on March 6. Something I think I did get right was warn them about length of series slippage, from “three books, maybe four if they do really well” to “definitely three books,” to “apparently I only have enough plot for two books, so this is a duology.”

    2. Although, I do think Larry Correia’s right about blaming readers for being big babies who, just because they were burned by GRR Martin and Patrick Rothfuss, refuse to ever buy another series that isn’t yet finished.

      1. When it is a reasoned decision, I can respect it, but in a lot of cases, it’s just hipster virtue-signaling/hipster-two-minute-hate.

      2. I’ll admit that this is one place I disagree with Larry. I think the readers are being entirely rational in refusing to read the beginning of a long story without any sort of guarantee that there will ever be an ending, much less that the ending will be satisfying. It’s not JUST Martin and Rothfuss, even though they’re the most famous. There have been a lot of authors who start a story, then just vanish, whether this is their fault or the publishers, either way the reader gets burned. And then there have been all the authors who have said, “Suck it, readers! Writers don’t OWE you anything!”

        Under those circumstances, it seems entirely rational for the readers to say, “Okay, you don’t owe me an end to your story. But I don’t owe you my money for the beginning either.”

        1. A good point. I suspect putting the comment into reviews and one-starring a book just because it’s not the last one in the series was the final straw.

          I know I’d get irked if someone (or a group of someones) kept saying, “I’d like to read X, but I’m not going to buy any of your books until you finish the series.” Especially if I had to deal with a semi-trad-pub environment. If I was trad pub? I’d be livid at some point, since no sales = no more contract for the rest of the series. Or if they one-star the book on multiple sites “because the series isn’t done yet. The book was great but the series isn’t done, so I’m going to punish the author.”

          I can see both sides of the argument, both as singed reader and as author.

  3. (Nods) Thing is, you could probably sum up all of this in one sentence: Thou shalt not waste the audience’s time.

    Unfortunately, some authors (nobody here, of course) seem to be of the opinion that the audience is blessed to merely be in their presence, and that taking them into account is not only unnecessary but almost a betrayal of artistic integrity.

    That many of these authors are the ones complaining about how you can’t make money as an author these days is purely a coincidence.

  4. Yeah. Have been burned by those things. Have burned readers myself with a couple of those things.

    The trad publisher who killed my three-book YA fantasy series at before book three because it wasn’t doing Harry Potter numbers — and now, a quarter of a century later, with the rights reverted to me, I have half a dozen adults who never got to read the ending I didn’t get to write who are mad at me because I’m not writing it now.

    Because the audience for it now is, as far as I can tell, half a dozen adults. I can’t afford to write the damn thing, no matter how much I would love to.

    The trad publisher who published my first novel, which did really well. Who bought many more novels, but who did not actually edit the second one. And it was, unfortunately, a real sophomore novel, which meant it needed to have the main character show up in the first scene, not in the middle third.

    And the publisher who killed my massive, epic high barbarian horse-clan and magical city fantasy series at book two.

    I had damned good reasons for leaving commercial publishing to publish myself. The problem with publishing yourself is that all those books you dreamed of writing don’t have audiences anymore. So you write new, you build the audience who’s still with you, and you hold in the back of your mind the small, bright light of “Maybe someday I’ll be in a position to write the final books in those series I loved so much.”

    1. It really is a problem of sunk cost vs. current market vs. personal time and energy. “Do I have the time to take away from what is selling now to go back, try to reenter that brain space so I can finish the long-dead series and re-cover and republish the earlier books, and try to reignite the market for those works? Is my brain/heart willing to take it on?”

      My dissertation is still unpublished, in part because the last time I tried to revise it for publication with a University Press, I had anxiety attacks due to what one of the outside reviewers recommended I change/add/modify. It is worth my time and energy to go back and tackle it again? I don’t know, but at the moment the answer is “Not right now.”

  5. Or, “Thou shalt not promise and fail to deliver.” Well, there are all sorts of reasons why an author’s reach sometimes exceeds their grasp…it’s only human to attempt a big thing and fail. I’ve done that enough times already. Hence, I have a preference to not advertise my literary ambitions until I have a finished product.

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