Rebutting Neil Gaiman’s Entitlement post

So today Neil Gaiman wrote a post called Entitlement issues… in which he answers a reader’s question about whether or not it is realistic for that reader to feel let down [an odd way to phrase things, but I’m just using that readers’ words] by the slow progress that George R R Martin is making on the next Song of Ice and Fire book. The reader asks what responsibility Martin has to finish the story.

Gaiman’s response: “George R. R. Martin is not your bitch.”

Teach that fan to respectfully ask a question, I guess. But anyway, Gaiman elaborates:

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. You were paying your ten dollars for the book you were reading, and I assume that you enjoyed it because you want to know what happens next.

To which I say, bullshit.

Now, before I go any farther, I’m not hating on Martin. I’m addressing the issue in more theoretical terms here.

So anyway, yeah, Gaiman’s answer is bullshit. There is most definitely a social contract in place here. When I buy book 1 of a series, it is not a stand-alone story. I’m buying the first part of the story with the understanding that the rest of the story will be forthcoming. Without the rest of the story, the first book is just unfinished business. Essentially, when I buy book 1 I’m investing in the author, helping him pay the bills so he can continue to work on finishing the story. My $10 for Book 1 is a down payment on the $30 story I’m intending to buy (assuming it takes 3 volumes to tell the story).

If someone can genuinely convince me that this isn’t the case…that I can’t in good faith expect a half-told story I’ve paid money for to eventually be finished, then I’ll make sure never to buy part of a series until the entire series is completed. And maybe that’s the answer. Maybe these books shouldn’t be published until the whole tale is told. But publishers won’t do that. Why? Because they need us “investing” in the story in order to finance the rest of it being written.

Gaiman finishes his post by re-phrasing his first line like this: “George R. R. Martin is not working for you.”

Oh really? If Martin, or any author making his living from writing books, isn’t working for me, who is he working for? When he puts dinner down in front of his family, where did the money for that dinner ultimately come from? I don’t see many ads in the pages of the novels I’m reading. I don’t see any indication of a corporate sponsor. As far as I can see, the only source of revenue comes from the people buying the books. The customers. He is absolutely working for me. So is Mr. Gaiman, for that matter.

I write code for a living. Other people design buildings, or write soundtracks for movies, or create balanced and delicious menus for charity dinners, or build custom cabinets… many, many people use the creative sides of their minds in order to do their job. And pretty much all of them have commitments and deadlines and manage to make their deadlines, regardless of whether they’ve fallen into or out of love recently (see Gaiman’s post for that reference).

This idea that writing is some kind of holy behavior that can’t be tainted by being held to deadlines is, in my opinion, bullshit. And frankly, 99% of fiction authors can’t get away with missing deadlines, either.

And the idea the an author will sell you part 1 of a story and just decide “Naa, I’ve decided I’m not going to write the rest of that story. You can just make up your own ending.” and that we should be OK with that, is ludicrous. And the reality is, any author that regularly pulled such a stunt would soon find him or herself without a readership.

Again, I’m not hating on Martin. Because for people in all walks of life, shit sometimes happens. Contracts get broken, deadlines get missed in spite of our best intentions, we bite off more than we can chew and get into trouble [which seems to be where Martin is]. That’s part of being human and it happens to everyone. I feel for Martin. He must feel completely trapped at this point.

But I’ve also decided not to buy any more pieces of A Song of Fire & Ice until he finishes it, because I’m not sure he’ll be able and willing to finish it, at least not in my lifetime. My choosing not to purchase his most recent piece of the story isn’t malice on my part. That’s me investing wisely. I work hard for my money and I have to be choosy about where I spend it. My time is also valuable, and I prefer devoting it to complete stories, or stories that I’m confident will be completed.

So yes, there is a contract in place, and in spite of the best intentions on everyone’s part, sometimes the contract will be broken. When that happens, the people who had entered into the contract have every right to be disappointed, every right to feel let down. Telling a reader that he has no right to feel let down is astonishingly disrespectful, in my opinion.

Gaiman should keep in mind that we readers aren’t his bitch, either. Authors who work for us should be mindful of the fact that if you let us down enough times, we’re going to stop reading your work. And if we all stop reading your work, you’re going to have to find a new job.

26 thoughts on “Rebutting Neil Gaiman’s Entitlement post

  1. I agree completely. Furthermore, if the author decides to start a blog, then it only stands to reason that the author should inform readers of his progress on the series in question. That was the first half of the reader’s question, and Gaiman completely ignored it. In my opinion, if you’re going to break that contract of delivering the series in a timely fashion, then you owe it to your readers to let them know why you’re doing so.

  2. The idea of a social contract as opposed to a legal contract is an interesting one. In times past, and I still believe this can occur, if a groom left the bride at the altar, or even broke the engagement, he was able to be sued for breach of contract — I’m not sure if that was a legal or social contract, I think it was the latter.

    So does that mean the breaking of a social contract also has legal ramifications? Can GRR Martin be sued for not completing the next book in the series?

    Another thought, are we bloggers also taking on a social contract when we start blogging? Do the expectations that our readers have, both those we have encouraged and those they took up on their own, also have legal ramifications?

    Does this apply more to more popular bloggers? Is more expected of Tobold than me?

  3. Unless you were to charge me for a membership to your blog then scarper off and not update it for ages… then no. There isn’t the same kind of ‘social contract’.

    I think Gaiman is wrongheaded here, but then no one is forcing me to buy “Volume 1 of the Doomswords of the Underdork Cycle of Doom”. I usually avoid those type of books anyway. I like series where each book properly wraps up a complete story… even if it isn’t the whole story. No cliff-hangers please. (GW’s Gotrek and Felix and Koontz’ Odd Thomas come to mind.)

  4. There is a social contract, yes, but stuff happens and sometimes the last book never gets written. The author has writer’s block; the publisher rejects the book; the author gets sick or dies; the most-recent book in the series didn’t sell well enough …. Remember too, he can’t just go shop book 5 in the series to a different publisher, so if his publisher decides not to buy it, he’s SOL. I’ve had more than one series I enjoyed that never finished because of that 🙁 I don’t know enough about this series to know what was implicitly promised. Was it a trilogy that picked up a 4th book and left people wanting/expecting more (that happens a lot with world books) or was it always intended to be a 5 or 6 book series?

  5. @Loredena – “but stuff happens and sometimes the last book never gets written”

    Agreed, and I said exactly that in my post. I wasn’t aiming my rebut directly at Martin, but more at Gaiman’s concept that the author is under no obligation to finish a series.

    Spinning the idea on its heel a bit, if you’re in the bookstore browsing and you pick up a book and inside the cover it says “This is Book 1 of a 3-Book Storyline, but the Author has no plans on writing Books 2 or 3” would you still buy the book?

  6. There is a distinction between code, which is written to accomplish a specific and concrete task, and a creative work, which is intended to entertain. If someone contracts you to write a program to track their inventory, a third party can examine the work you produced and determine whether it satisfies your obligations under the contract. I also hope that neither you nor your employer would enter into that relationship without a written agreement spelling out what is required and happens if the work is not done on time, etc (though unclear or nonexistent contracts happen all the time, causing lots of trouble to both sides).

    By contrast, George could dash off a quick line that says “Everyone was eaten by The Others. The End”. He’s the author, the world is his intellectual property, and that’s what happened if he says that’s what happened. But does this fulfill the terms of the unwritten contract? What about if he publishes something that isn’t so flippant, but also clearly is not up to the level of quality that the rest of the series to date? What if the ending is the best thing George has ever written, but is so bittersweet that no one likes it? What are the readers’ remedies if they feel that the author has not lived up to the deal? I hope you’re not suggesting that we should let the fans sue the author for breach of contract if they’re not satisfied with the ending (if for no other reason than because the fans who actually liked the ending would countersue).

    Tolkein’s day job apparently included time to write tales of Middle Earth, but, by and large, very few employers are going to pay someone to disappear into a writing den for the decades it takes to produce an epic work on the scale of LOTR, ASOIAF, or Harry Potter. Would we really have been better off if those works had not been written, for fear of creating a contract that the author might not be able to honor? Is anything actually better if Neil says “yes, George is a bad and selfish man, and should feel sorry for disappointing you”? In the end, for most projects where creativity matters, I would rather have the work – be it a kitchen cabinet, a book, or an MMORPG – be done properly than rushed to satisfy the demands of a contract.

  7. Well that’s an interesting reply.

    “If someone contracts you to write a program to track their inventory, a third party can examine the work you produced and determine whether it satisfies your obligations under the contract.”

    In the case of an author, that 3rd party is an editor, and the author has signed a contract with the publisher to produce the work.

    But I’m not talking about legal contracts, I’m talking about social contracts. The generally assumed understanding that if I do A, you will do B. In this case, the general understanding that if I buy Part 1 of your story, you will do your best to write Part 2.

    Again, my post wasn’t an attack on Martin. It was a rebut to Gaiman’s assertion that a person who buys part one of a multi-part story has no right to be upset if the author chooses not to write the rest of the story. That the author owes the reader absolutely nothing.

    I don’t know how many more times I can put in the original post that I wasn’t attacking Martin. I genuinely believe that he’s written himself into a corner and is struggling like mad to get out of it. I have an incredible amount of sympathy for him. But I still maintain that I can also be upset that I I’ve invested time and money in the first part of his work and there’s little indication that investment will pay off.

    I know writing is hard. I’ve written two short novels, unpublished and never to be published. I write a daily blog post, which isn’t fiction and so is easier, but it is still hard. I know fiction is even harder.

    I’m not calling for anyone’s head on a platter. I’m just saying it is absolutely OK to be upset that the rest of the story isn’t forthcoming, and that Neil Gaiman is wrong in saying that the author owes nothing to the people who support him.

  8. This social contract should also go both ways, right? How many times has someone purchased Book 1 of a series only to discover its not their cup of tea and don’t purchase anymore books? So now someone owes the author $20.00 more dollars by your account correct?

  9. No one owes anyone any money. I haven’t said “The author owes me a refund.” I’ve said “I’m entitled to be upset.”

    So yes, the social contract goes both ways. If an author writes book 1, I read it and send him mail saying “I loved your book.” and then he writes book 2 and I send him mail and say “I’m not buying book 2” then yes, the author absolutely has the right to feel upset by that.

    If I like book 1, then I feel I owe it to the author to consider purchasing book 2.

    The extreme contrast would be organizing 500,000 people to buy Book 1 of a series with no intention of buying Book 2. That would send a false message to the author and publisher, causing them to print too many copies and wind up stuck with them, thus costing them money and emotional pain.

  10. But, that isn’t what Gaiman said. He didn’t say you don’t get to be upset that it is not written at all, he said you don’t get to be upset that it isn’t written on your schedule. You, personally, do not employ the author, and do not dictate the writing schedule.

    And certainly, if a book states that it is the first part of a trilogy in which the remainder will not be forthcoming, what’s the point in reading it? But that’s rarely the case — usually the author has every intention of the rest of the books being written, but sometimes things go wrong. And as to the specific case Gaiman was discussing, well, I looked it up, and it really did start out as a trilogy. The remaining books grew from that, but I don’t think there is a social contract that states — I liked the first trilogy, so now you have to keep writing in this world forever.

    To compare to an author I actually read — I love Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books. I’ve really not liked any other series by her as well. But what started as a trilogy has over a dozen books in it now, and she burnt out. A few years ago she posted that she was taking a break from the world, because she would rather not write in it that write in it badly. And since the previous few books had shown signs of burn out, I think that was a good call. Was I disappointed? Sure, I enjoy that world. But better that than have the world ruined for me by bad books, which has happened with other authors.

    And on the flip side — there are worlds where I started out really enjoying the books, but eventually either they began to seem to be echoes, to me, or I simply aged-out — just as I consider the author to have no moral obligation to keep writing in that world indefinitely, I have no moral obligation to keep buying them. It’s really not the same as that planned trilogy, of which only book one was written or published.

  11. How about if you bought the DVD set for a television series that was cancelled before it ran to it’s conclusion? Was the same contract there? What about long running comic book series cancelled in midstream due to poor numbers? Are they under contract to put those books out whether anyone is buying them or not?

    You’ve paid for what you’ve paid for and that is all. You can be disappointed all you want, but no one is under any obligation to you. So good for you for not buying any more of his books until the series is finished. That’s the only rational way to react.

  12. @Loredena – Thanks for coming back. I’ll have to re-read Gaiman’s post… *goes and does that*

    OK, you are correct, Gaiman never gives authors a pass in as far as just deciding not to finish a series, so in that I stand corrected. Thank you for pointing that out; last night I was racing against fatigue to get my post out and read things that weren’t there.

    However, I still stand by my original assertion that an author does work for his/her readers, and that readers who buy part of a story deserve a completion to that story eventually.

    ‘Eventually’ is a squirrelly word though. There’s a point where the amount of time that has passed goes beyond reasonable, but I’m not prepared to say exactly what that measure of time is. Expecting an author to churn out a new volume of the story every year is unrealistic. Expecting a new volume of the story every 10 years seems very reasonable. Somewhere in between there is a fair amount of time to reasonably expect a new volume. 5 years, maybe?

    BTW, none of this really applies to the kinds of books that Grimjakk mentions… books that can stand alone and that take place in the same universe. (like Steven Erikson “Book of the Fallen” series, or David Weber’s Honor Harrington books). I’m talking about the kinds of series where a book just stops, as if the binding got too large to print efficiently, leaving the reader hanging and frustrated.

    * * *

    I had no idea Misty Lackey had continued writing Valdemar books, by the way. I read The Last Herald Mage lifetimes ago. I’ll have to check out some of her others!

  13. @Anjin — Oops, your comment was in moderation, I didn’t mean to just ‘skip over you.’

    But yes, in the TV example you posit, the same contract exists, which is why people hate Fox as much as they do; they’re constantly breaking the social contract.

    They show a series, leave off at a cliffhanger ending… then cancel the series with no closure.

    Show me a fan that’s happy with that kind of treatment and I’ll…well, I’ll be really surprised.

    I don’t read comics, so honestly can’t address that situation.

    [ANOTHER EDIT] One difference that does exist with television is that the producers don’t work directly for us. Money comes in from sponsors and advertisers, so the relationship isn’t as ‘clean’ as with books.

  14. Well I bought ALTERNATE REALITY: The CIty computer game because they said it was the first of a 6 or 7 part series. The second game ALTERNATE REALITY: THe DUNGEON was only realeased on one platform and then the series was dropped.
    I was mislead!

  15. Yeah, gaming is rotten with examples of broken social contracts. You don’t have to go back nearly that far. Play Too Human on the 360 and get left with a story half (or not even) told. Ask me if I’ll trust Dennis Dyack again!

    [EDIT] Of course the different here is that it costs a lot more to make a game than it does to write a book, and often the desire on the part of the designers exists; they just can’t get the funding.

  16. Martin is busy adapting the first book in the series for HBO as is. If the pilot is well received then each book will be spread out over a 12 episode mini season. He then would be under some sort of pressure to complete the series. However HBO could drop the adaptations in the middle of the sotry ala what they did to Deadwood.

  17. I think I understand now, you want the right to be upset that the book isn’t done yet. The answer to that is Hell Yas. But does the author owe you anything, not really. A nice explanation would be nice as to why it’s late, but they don’t even have to finish the series. I’m sure if the did that, their rep would be ruined and they would have to start writing under a ghost name, just to make money, but in this day and age, they don’t owe us as readers squat.

  18. Perhaps the idea of discussing this as an matter of contracts — especially social contracts, a topic hotly debated for hundreds of years — is distracting from the core issue: expectations.

    Merchants of any kind, intentionally or unwittingly, create an relationship of expectation with their customers. Pragmatism aside, consumers then decide how they *feel* about whether their expectations have been satisfied.

    As anyone who has been in a long-term romantic relationship knows or will learn, one party cannot attempt to dictate the feelings of the other without damaging results. Parties in successful relationships, business or professional, are best served dealing with the reality of emotion before rashly evaluating “validity”.

    None of us need Mr. Gaiman or anyone else’s permission to feel upset, disappointed or “let down”.

  19. Yeah, “contracts” was a bad phrase to use on my part. I was trying to tie in to Gaiman’s statement that Martin doesn’t work for us, and I do think that he does, at least in a way. A writer needs readers if the writer wants to be compensated for his writing.

    I read Gaiman’s post, perhaps unfairly, as “You’ll take what we give you, you’ll gladly pay for it, and then you’ll sit down, shut up, and wait quietly until such time as we feel the urge to produce more for you to buy.” (I think his “bitch” line set my teeth on edge and had me pre-disposed to being outraged before I got to the meat of the post).

    I still maintain that a writer (and his publisher, for that matter) have some level of responsibility to finish a story that they’ve started publishing. I do think they owe the customers/readers that much…to at least attempt to complete the storyline. Even if you take exception to the terms “responsibility” and “owe” I think most people would at least agree that an author is going to generate some degree of disappointment/ill-will if they just *choose* not to finish a story (being unable to is a different situation).

  20. I don’t disagree with the sentiment behind anything you’ve said. Gaiman was the one who locked onto the questioner’s use of the word “responsibility” and then related that to the concept of “contract” which is more than a bit of a red herring when taken in context with his obnoxious attitude at the beginning and very end of the post.

    The middle of the piece is a reasonable explanation why sometimes series-writers fail to meet their readers’ expectations. Instead of trying to assign blame to their customers, he probably should have just left it at that.

  21. I’m not buying the “authors work for the readers” argument. Just my opinion. I’m a wannabe writer myself but once the manuscript is complete I have to shop around for a publisher. The publisher pays me, not the readers, because I DON’T HAVE ANY YET. Let’s say I manage to become the next J. K. Rowling or whatever and my first book is wildly popular. Should I decide to write a followup book — either creating a series or a whole new standalone — I may have a built-in readership due to the first book but it’s still the publisher paying me based off *projected* sales initially. There are more variables to that particular equation of course, but that’s enough to make the basic point.

    Just like technically politicians “work for us” because “we pay their salaries” they work for us as a collective. I as an individual don’t get to dictate what a politician does because I decide he works for me. The politician isn’t there to represent only my wants and needs, but those of the entire group of society he was elected to represent.

    As for Too Human, if I’m not mistaken that was marketed the entire time as a trilogy, no? 🙂 Sales will determine if it continues, however. Advent Rising was also supposed to be a trilogy but the first game was released with so many glitches and performance issues that it sold horribly and the series was canceled. Does Majesco owe me?

    Fox still hasn’t put out DVDs for the full Ally McBeal series in the US either. I’m annoyed by that but I don’t feel they “owe” me. It’s not like I paid to watch the show back when it was on.

    Maybe I should re-read A Song of Fire and Ice someday. I read it 10+ years ago and it didn’t do much for me at the time other than I made a mental note that I’d never before, or since, read the word “bastard” so many times…

  22. The publisher is a middle-man/investor. If they publish your book, and no one buys it, then all you’re getting is the advance; you won’t get any royalties, and you probably won’t get another deal with that publisher. If a publisher picks only authors like you, then the publisher goes out of business. Why, because they whole process works off the dollars of readers.

    If you get a publisher and NO ONE buys your book, you aren’t going to be the next JK Rowling. That’s up to the people who purchase the books, not your publisher.

    The difference with politicians is that we don’t choose whether or not to pay the taxes that pay their wages. For your analogy to hold, at tax time each tax payer would have the choice to say “I approve of the work this politician did, I’ll pay my portion of his salary.”

    Yes, Too Human was marketed as a trilogy; that’s my point. And yes, Majesco owes anyone who bought Advent Rising in good faith believing the whole story would be published. Put another way, after seeing what happened with Advent Rising and Too Human, how willing would you be to buy part 1 of a 3-part narrative-driven game now? (Assuming you were playing primarily for the story, not the game-play, which is why games aren’t really the same thing — most people don’t play games *only* for the storyline.)

    TV (as I’ve said) isn’t the same thing, but by admitting that you’re annoyed by the fact that all of Ally McBeal hasn’t been released on DVD, you’re jumping the fence into my camp. Someday the rest of the series might come out on DVD, and according to Gaiman, you don’t have the right to be annoyed by the fact that you were left high and dry.

    Understand once again that when I saw they ‘owe’ us, I’m not talking about them needing to cut us a check. I’m talking a much less tangible “owe” as in, if we’re going to remain loyal customers and keep spending our money on their product, they owe it to us not to screw us over.

    I honestly believe that the only reason I’m getting so much push-back on this is because it doesn’t happen very often. And it doesn’t happen very often because authors (and their publishers) DO understand that they owe it to the reader to finish any multi-volume story that they start to sell.

  23. I agree completely, Pete. An author who writes a series of books as essentially one story, as opposed to complete stories with related characters and events (like some Tom Clancy novels), has an inherent moral obligation to complete the series… especially when the readers are paying him through purchases. The timeliness of that completion is subjective, of course. But, at the very least, the author has an obligation to inform his audience of whether or not to expect the series to continue within a general timeframe.

  24. Time Frame? Who decides that? Isn’t the author best to judge when the work is completed? Who are we to force the uncompleted work into the light when the author himself hasn’t deemed it ready for public consumption. What is reasonable?

    Another idea is what if it never intended to be a series? What if upon reading the first draft of the book, the publisher said “Lets make it into three books” where as the author doesn’t even know where the story will be by the end of book two, so now he has to struggle to make this happen or he won’t get the book deal? Everything is motivated by greed. We are greedy for the next book, the publisher is greedy for a larger pay off of the investment and the author is greedy for the audience…and the money of course, but no one just starts writing to make tons of money they do it to express what they have looked up in their imagination.

    These are all factors that we as the reader can’t even begin to know, so my feeling is, it’s ready when it’s ready and as consumers of such things we just have to be prepared for long delays.

  25. If it was never intended to be a series, presumably the author would’ve written it as a book that can stand alone, so it wouldn’t apply to what I’m talking about.

    We’ll just have to agree to disagree, Oakstout. It’s good there are people like you who are willing to support the authors between the time part 1 of a story comes out and when the end of it does (if it does).

    If this discussion has taught me anything, it’s to avoid any multi-part story series that isn’t yet completed (and again, I’m specifying mutli-part series that do not stand alone… so Harry Potter, Honor Harrington, Book of the Fallen — series like that where you have a persistent universe but each book tells a full story — don’t fit into this category).

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