The Author-Reader Contract and Backseat Writers

I was originally going to call this entry “Neil Gaiman is my bitch,” but decided against it. Controversy is fun, but I don’t know if I could survive the hordes of Neil fans coming to rip me apart. There’s also, as cissa* pointed out, the misogynistic/sexist aspect of the whole “my bitch” slang.

Anyway, last week I linked to Gaiman’s post about readers and entitlement when it comes to things like completing a series on time. Being an author myself, my first response was “Hell yeah!” I haven’t missed a novel deadline yet, but it’s likely to happen sooner or later. So I tended to side with Gaiman on this one. Most of my reading list seemed to feel the same way … but then, a large part of my reading list is made up of writers.

Prompted in part by comments on my post, I decided to step back and take another look at this thing.

The easiest place to start is with the author’s contract to readers.  Legally, there is none.  My contract is with my publisher.  If I’m late, they have the right to take back the advance.  Yet this is very rare.  I’ll come back to this later.

So what responsibility does the writer have to the readers, and is it fair to feel like an author is letting you down if that author is late with the next book(s)?

Second question first.  Sure you’re allowed to feel that way!  You can feel however you’d like.  Disappointed, even angry.  Who am I to tell you how to feel?

The first question is harder.  I’ve got a series with at least four books planned.  I’ve posted that book three should be out in 2010, and book four in 2011.  With the understanding that these dates are ultimately up to my publisher, am I responsible for making sure I do everything I can to help my publisher release the books on time?  Well … yes.  I’ve made a commitment to my publisher to meet certain deadlines, and by telling you all about those dates, I’ve made a commitment to you as well.

Here’s the kicker.  Turning in the book on time is not my only responsibility.  I’m also responsible for making that book as good as it can be.  Not to mention other responsibilities, whether they’re big things like taking care of my son while he was in the hospital for a week or smaller ones like scooping dog crap.

I’m the one who has to decide how best to meet and balance those responsibilities.  Sometimes unexpected things get in the way.  Sometimes the book requires more time and work than expected.  So tell me, is it better to get a mediocre book out on time or an excellent book out late?

That was a rhetorical question, by the way.  Much as I love you all, I don’t care what you think on this one.  My book means my responsibility and my decision.  Every writer has to make that call for him or herself.

I don’t know anyone who enjoys missing deadlines or telling readers the book they’ve been waiting for is going to be late.  We’re disappointed and frustrated too.  So I don’t resent readers’ frustration.  I resent when they start second-guessing the writer.  I resent hearing readers say an author is late because he doesn’t care or he’s lazy or he wasted his time writing blog entries when he should have been writing.  I resent the judgment by people who don’t know.

Let’s pretend I’m anywhere near as popular as Martin or Rothfuss.  In this imaginary world, if I’m late on Red Hood’s Revenge, I’m going to have backseat writers judging me and second-guessing what I should have done.  How I spent too much time online, or at conventions, or watching House.

True, I don’t work on my book at cons, so that’s time away from my writing.  On the other hand, cons inspire and energize me, meaning when I do get back to the book, I write better.  Same thing with vacations.  They’re time to recharge, to allow me to write without burning out.  Bottom line, most readers don’t know what’s involved in writing a book.  As a writer, I’ve got a decent idea … for myself.  But I still don’t know what it takes for George R. R. Martin to write a book.  I’m in no position to judge anyone but myself.

I suspect that’s why publishers rarely punish authors for blowing deadlines.  Because the editors have enough experience to know this is how things work sometimes.  Because while editors are as eager as anyone to get the book out and start making money, they also trust the author is doing his/her best to get it done.

*Anyone know how to incorporate LJ user names into WordPress so they work with the crossposting?