Sunday, July 13, 2014

Do authors owe their readers anything?

George R.R. Martin has apparently had it up to here with some of his fans. As "Game of Thrones," the HBO version of A Song of Ice and Fire, closes in on the end of the story published so far, certain of Martin's fans are renewing their drumbeat for him to finish writing the books, already.

ASoIaF was originally supposed to be five books, if memory serves. The first three books came out in two-year intervals, starting in 1996. Then book 4, A Feast for Crows, got to be too long, so Martin split it in two. Even so, it was five years before A Feast for Crows was published, and another six years before book 5, A Dance with Dragons, saw the light of day on bookstore shelves.

That was in 2011, the same year "Game of Thrones" began airing on HBO. Now, Martin is working on book 6, The Winds of Winter. There will definitely be a seventh book (tentatively titled A Dream of Spring), and Martin has hinted that the series may stretch to eight books before he's done. If everybody keeps to the current schedule, and if the HBO series goes to seven or eight seasons as planned -- well, you can do the math, but my calculator says everybody could know the ending of the story via HBO somewhere between twelve and eighteen years before Martin writes "The End" on the final book. That eventuality has certainly occurred to the producers of the HBO series, who have already met with Martin to find out how he plans to end it.

ISoIaF fans have never been reticent about urging the author to get on with it. During the last hiatus, a number of them criticized him for taking vacations and working on other projects instead of finishing their beloved series. That's bad enough. But this latest round of complaining has taken an ugly turn, with some people mentioning the author's age and size while wondering whether he'll survive to finish his magnum opus.

In an interview with a Swiss newspaper this week, as reported by the Guardian, Martin gave those fans the kind of wave that doesn't use all of his fingers: "I find that question pretty offensive, frankly, when people start speculating about my death and my health, so fuck you to those people."

I feel for the guy. I do. But I also understand the fans' point of view. It doesn't help Martin's case that early on, he made promises about his upcoming publishing schedule and then didn't keep them. Sure, he's run into problems with the narrative -- the story is massive in scope, and I gather he didn't fully understand how massive it was 'til he got in the middle of it -- but fans who aren't writers have no idea how much effort it takes to keep all of those balls in the air. All they see is that the guy's not keeping his word to them, and they're not happy about it.

Is there such a thing as an author-reader contract? Does Martin owe his fans anything? In general, do authors owe anything to their fans?

The answer to that question in Martin's situation is complicated by whatever contract he has with his publisher; one can only assume his agent has been kept busy renegotiating the terms of the deal. That sort of contract isn't something indies have to worry about. But for those of us who write series, it's still a viable question: Do we owe our fans "The End"?

Some authors take on the task of writing a series solely to make money. I can see someone like that feeling zero responsibility to continue, if the first book doesn't sell like hotcakes -- never mind the handful of fans who are eager to read more.

But even authors with the best of intentions can fall victim to real life. Serious illness, natural disaster, even a computer virus can upset the best-laid authorial plans. Hopefully, fans would be understanding and willing to wait -- and would still be there to read the next book whenever it comes out (a significant concern in today's nanosecond-attention-span culture).

As for me? Of course, I'm in this to sell books; if I wasn't, I would just shove my manuscripts in a virtual drawer instead of publishing and promoting them. But that's not the only reason I write.

I like to think that I'm writing the books I wish I could read. In that sense, I have a contract with my own internal reader: to keep writing to find out how the story ends. I would never intentionally bail on that contract. So you guys, gods willing, will reap the benefit.

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These moments of contractual blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service by Lynne Cantwell.
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