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The Author-Reader Contract
by Victoria Grossack
Return to Crafting Fabulous Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version
September 18, 2014
What Authors Owe Readers: Meeting Expectations
I believe that authors have a duty to readers to do their utmost to fulfill the expectations they themselves have created. It would be unfair to advertise a diet book and deliver a novel about vampires (although hiring a vampire to drink your blood would be an effective, albeit dangerous, way to lose weight). Expectations may have been generated by the title, by the blurbs describing the contents and by the author's own reputation, frequently based on earlier works.
Sometimes false expectations may be created by telling the truth. Dan Brown has written several exciting, bestselling thrillers. He cannot be the only man in the world named Dan Brown writing books, but the others probably have different styles. Other Dan Browns may want to make sure that they make it clear that they are not the Dan Brown of The Da Vinci Code.
Some prolific authors, if they switch usual genres, will write under a different name, or make their names different enough so that their usual reading public does not buy a book with wrong expectations. Nora Roberts is the pen name of the romance writer Eleanor Marie Robertson; she has used that name for literally hundreds of novels. She has a second line, under the pseudonym J.D. Robb, for her mysteries. J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame is now writing detective novels under the name Robert Galbraith. These are situations in which expectations are kept realistic by the use of pseudonyms.
Another item I believe that authors owe to readers is a properly formatted product with as few typos as possible. Typos are a greater hazard as more works are going straight to publication without the usual editors to clean up the manuscripts. Even with traditional publishers there is no guarantee that this minimum standard will be met. I once read a Pulitzer prize-winning book that was littered with typos in the e-version, which infuriated me as the e-version was actually more expensive than the one made from dead trees.
So far what I have described may seem like very low thresholds; nevertheless, as these minimum standards are not always met, they are worth mentioning. Furthermore, I think that authors owe more to their readers. When we start a series -- especially one with unanswered questions that continue from novel to novel rather than a set of standalone books such as Hercule Poirot detective novels -- we have a duty to finish the series. I think we should answer key questions that we ourselves have created, as it is cruel to whet curiosity and then fail to satisfy it.
What Do Readers Owe Authors?
Nothing, again, could be the first response.
Readers are not required to buy our books. Even if they do buy them, they are under no obligation to read them. Even if they read them, they are not obliged to like them.
Nevertheless, I think in today's digital age we should establish some minimal obligations on the part of readers. I think that readers should not steal books and articles. When I first started this column I was horrified by how many times my columns were copied and posted on other websites without my permission. Moira Allen, the editor at Writing-World.com, ended up writing several pieces on the problem and increasing the visibility of warnings against such behavior. It is also important to give credit where credit is due. A group of high school students made a YouTube video based on one of my novels, but originally neglected to include the names of the authors of the book.
Some people are also stealing books. I have noticed that some readers are returning books they buy for the Kindle and demanding refunds -- well after they have had enough time to read them. This means that the author's royalty is revoked. The books are not expensive, yet some people feel that they should still be able to pay nothing for the read. A few dollars is very little compensation when an author has put in months or even years of hard work. I think returning books this way is wrong, even if the reader was disappointed. I think it's justified only when the book was bought in error.
I think returning books may also be justified by terrible formatting, especially if when they are expensive. However, if readers have paid only $2.99 for an e-book, perhaps their expectations should be lower.
So far my expectations of readers may seem fairly low: not to steal, and also to give credit where credit is due. Let's move on to the subject of reviews. I also believe that readers should not to give ratings, good or bad, to books that they have not read, either in full or in part -- or if they do such a thing, that they admit that they did not finish the book.
Furthermore, when a reader decides to review a book, I hope that the reader will judge the book fairly. Of course, readers will not like all books. That's OK. But if a reader who loves detective stories and hate romances nevertheless reads a romance, he should not complain too loudly when a romance is romantic instead of suspenseful.
Finally, I hope readers will not resort to bullying. Even if they believe a novel is poorly written, I hope that they will limit their criticism to the novel and not make personal remarks about the author. Believe me, authors will feel sufficiently depressed if their creative works are disliked. There is no need to insult their hair, their weight or to wish them ill.
The Worst Author-Reader Relationship In Fiction
Let's consider an extremely dysfunctional author-reader relationship explored in Stephen King's Misery. In Misery, an author called Paul Sheldon is in a terrible car accident. He is both rescued and kidnapped by a crazy ex-nurse, Annie Wilkes. It turns out that Annie is a great fan of Paul Sheldon's novels. She is very upset with him because in his latest novel he killed Misery, the heroine of his series. Because of his injuries, Annie now has Paul Sheldon at her mercy, and she forces him to continue his series.
Misery illustrates two important points in its pages. First, when authors have successfully created characters in a series, the fans have a fairly reasonable expectation of sequels. Naturally, there are times when these sequels cannot be written. The author may be dead or too ill to continue.
There is a second relevant matter within the pages of King's Misery. Sheldon's initial draft of his new novel contradicts what he wrote before. Wilkes objects violently to this cheating on his art. Sheldon's faithful and fanatical reader forces him to come up with a new and extremely innovative solution to Misery's pickle. This is a reminder that readers expect us not to contradict what we wrote in previous pages, and that readers really appreciate twisted, unusual and creative answers to problems.
Your Own Pledge To Readers
I think that we authors should try to meet the minimum requirements above, but I also think that each of us should ask what we personally believe is important to offer readers. For example, in our Tapestry of Bronze series, based on Greek myths, despite these stories having fantastical elements, we have nothing that does not also have a natural explanation. These explanations may be hard for the characters to understand, but readers should catch most of them.
Your own standards of quality may be different. Perhaps you want to avoid profanity. Perhaps you feel it is important to show the point of view of a particular religion. These are your works of art, representing what you believe is important. It is up to you determine what your own standards are and to decide what you want to pledge your readers. Perhaps you will manage to achieve what you are attempting to do; perhaps you will not, but you are more likely to get closer if you try. To quote Leo Burnett, the famous advertising executive, "When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won't come up with a handful of mud either" (you can find more quotes at brainyquote.com).
The relationship between the author and the reader has always been in flux, and in these days of the internet and of social networking, is changing at a faster pace than ever. It is possible to see what readers really think of our works much more easily than it was in the past.
This article has described the minimum standards that I think belong to the author-reader contract. Of course, in some cases the law is actually involved: plagiarism is illegal. Bullying, too, can be against the law and may create conditions of liability. On the other hand, it is not usually illegal to offer an opinion about a book that you have not read, but it is probably inappropriate.
Beyond the minimum standards, I think it is important to ask what you, as an author, are pledging to your readers. And when you read, ask yourself what you, as a reader, owe authors.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.