What do I “owe” my readers?

h5A196D35I’ve been seeing this phrase more and more as authors and readers interact on Facebook and Twitter and blogs. I’ve seen it in e-mails. I’ve read it in reviews of books I’ve written and books I’ve read from other authors.

“You owe it to your readers to…”

I find myself dismissing everything that comes after that phrase. But since I don’t want to be a dismissive person, I asked myself this morning, “What do I owe my readers?”

After all, you’ve spent money on a book that I wrote and published. So yes, I do think I owe you some things. But what do I owe you? When I really started to think about it, I came up with this short list.

I, as the writer (and publisher) of a book you have paid money for, owe you:

1. A well-written and edited book.

You’ve paid me your cash; I owe you a story that is readable and free from distracting typos. I’m not deluding myself that my books are perfect, and typos happen (YES, even in the holy grail of traditionally published books.) But I should do my best to give you a professional product, from cover to formatting. I hope I do this. I try. I hire people who help me make my writing better. Obviously, I’m not perfect.

2. A story that makes sense.

Now, notice I did NOT say “a story that satisfies your every expectation as a reader.” I’ll tell you a secret: That isn’t ever going to happen. Never. Because every reader has a different set of expectations (as they should) and I am the one writing the story. I’m going to write the story that I want. It’s my book.

BUT, I do think I have a responsibility as a writer to make a storyline or a character plausible. I have a responsibility to guide you along a narrative line where you may be surprised, but you shouldn’t get to the end of the book and make this face.

Wh-what just happened?

Wh-what just happened?

Meaning, characters should act in consistent ways (unless that inconsistency is a plot point or part of their character) and the resolution of the book shouldn’t come completely out of left field as aliens descend on the werewolf-filled forest in steam powered dirigibles and shoot everyone with their AK-47s. (I mean, unless you’ve set that up in some way that makes sense, and if you have, I really want to read it.)

Writing a story that makes sense is just good writing, and yes, readers have a right to expect that if they’re paying for a book. But keep in mind, just because you don’t like a book personally, that doesn’t mean it’s necessary “bad writing.” That’s very subjective. Also remember, that no one is forcing you to buy any book you don’t want. No one is blackmailing you.

Blackmail noteDISCLAIMER: If you are, in fact, being blackmailed by the Writers’ Mafia, please alert your local authorities. Blackmail is not acceptable. Emotional manipulation, yes. Blackmail, no.

3. Marketing that is true to the product.

I’m going to be careful with this one, because for a long time, writers had little choice in publishing. If you wanted your book read by a lot of people, you pretty much had to go with a traditional publisher. Now, sometimes, that was awesome! And sometimes, it wasn’t. Meaning, for some writers, they had little or no say about what cover their book had or how it was marketed.

But if you’re self-published, you have total control over this. So (because I am also the publisher) I have a responsibility to my readers to put a cover on a book that gives them an idea about what genre it is. I don’t want to put a scifi cover on a contemporary romance, for instance. And I have a responsibility to write a summary that gives readers an idea about what kind of book it is and how long it is. Is it a novel? Novella? Short story? Is it YA or adult? Don’t sell readers a bull and hand over a bunny. Not cool.

And those are the three things I could come up with. Other than that? Well… it’s really up to me. As Neil Gaiman famously said, “George R. R. Martin is not your bitch.” Writers write the stories they want because, in the end, that is what will make the reader most happy. You’re reading our books (presumably) because you like the characters and worlds we create.

So we’re going to write what inspires us. What we’re passionate about. And that is what creates the most compelling fiction.

Thanks for reading,

Elizabeth

Posted in Reader Stuff, Writing and tagged , , .

34 Comments

  1. Until you wrote that I as a reader had never realised that an author owed me, the reader, anything at all. It is my choice to read/buy a book and without a doubt I’ll have an opinion on it and maybe wish It had gone another way, but that will only determine whether or not i’ll buy the next one. As someone who reads 1-3 books a week I am eternally grateful that books exist, that I am able to exist in fantasy worlds, meet amazing characters and just take me outside of myself. I also applaud the increase in self publishing as so many of the books I enjoy these days are self published and when I enjoy the book I leave an honest review. I would never pester an author or moan at them, call me old fashioned but it’s just bad manners! Blogs, Facebook and forums make the author that much more accessible these days and not always for the better, so can I just say that you as an author enrich my life and for that I thank you very much!

  2. Thank you! I don’t know your stand on the ending of Charlaine Harris’ SVM series, but your sentiments on what authors ‘owe’ their readers is much the same as mine. While in my romantic heart of hearts I wanted Sookie to end up with Eric, I was fairly certain all along that it would not happen. Ms. Harris laid down too many direct and indirect plot and character developments to make that ending plausible. I love reading and I don’t always like the way those books end, but I have very seldom been able to say that the ending came out of left field.

    The thing that has surprised me about reader reaction to the ending of her is series was the degree to which they were willing to attack the author on a PERSONAL level. That disgusts me. I believe that a reader is free to say in great specificity what they like/don’t like a book or series, but to attack the author personally is beyond the pale. I have unsubscribed from several forums because of the high degree of vitriol and after having been attacked for taking a less caustic position in reviewing her books.

    So, once again, thank you for speaking out on this. I appreciate your rational thinking and your talents as an author.

  3. I agree 100% with Sarah. I choose my books based on the summary and/or recommendations of others. Bottom line is that I am in power of the choice I make in my reading material, the amount of money I spend on a book and what author I ultimately read. Does that author owe me anything? Aside from what you wrote I really don’t think so.
    I find it amazing that authors like you Elizabeth, allow yourself to be vulnerable by making it so easy for your fans to have access to you. To allow us a step closer to you (getting nervous yet) hahaha. That you treat us with online free versions of your books. Book give aways and not just once in a while – you do that quite a lot. I think that you go far above anything that others would say you “owe” your readers.
    So I say thank you for the characters and stories that we can escape with, for a moment or day when we cannot out the book down. Thank you for even asking yourself that question. That alone shows how much your fan base means to you.

  4. You owe us nothing more than to write the books to the best of your ability, it is our choice to buy the books & whether we enjoy it or not it was still our choice. You already do far more the just write brilliant books but you also take your own time to keep your readers happy with Facebook & blogs also amazing competition’s which I was lucky enough to win a signed book :-).

  5. “Emotional manipulation, yes. Blackmail, no.”

    You know, I love this about your writing and it’s really cool to see how it shows through in your fiction and your articles. You’re discussing something serious (because I think this whole “owing” thing can be a serious source of drama) and addressing it in an intelligent way that makes us go “hell yeah! Of course!” and then… Bam! Humor!

    Love your writing as it is, Elizabeth. And while I do think authors owe their readers the best book they can possibly write, that expectation is, as you point out, purely technical: solid plot, solid characters. Otherwise, it’s your story and we just want to be along for the ride 🙂

  6. Not to go overboard on this but, but authors in general “owe” their readership little more that a well written book, plot, story line. end of story. An honestly written book that internally makes sense, without typo’s and other errors, yes. As you stated- so it is. If one doesn’t like the book, authors world view etc. no harm, no foul, don’t read that author. It is the same with TV, Radio, Sports and any and every other area of entertainment. No one is forcing anyone to read, view, listen or watch. In this country, we still have what is loosely described as “freedom”. Freedom of choice, specifically. It is why I personally have such a big issue with those who want to ban this book, or censor that radio personality. Don’t like what someone has to say? Tune out. that is the choice we have. God bless us.
    On a more personal note, let me say for the umpteenth time what a great writer I personally think you are and how much I enjoy your books and your thoughts, so clearly expressed.

  7. I love it, you are absolutely right about everything. I would just say that when I find an author that I love and continue to purchase books from, the one thing I say is please don’t stop writing! If that was a possible promise than I would hope all of my authors including you could.

  8. If it isn’t too much to ask, maybe a second Cambio Springs book? I find myself emotionally attached to your characters and always wanting more. That is what proves the authors worth!
    Thank you so much for all your books!

  9. Nicely stated, I hate that phrase too. You don’t owe me, the reader, anything. I chose to purchase your book, the responsibility is mine for whether or not I enjoy it, barring horrible typos, grammar, etc. They’re your characters, their story is up to you. I do think it’s nice to warn people ahead of time if there is something truly disturbing for some in your story, as in the time I bought a book marketed as a fluffy romance that actually had a very disturbing rape scene in it. I just would have liked to be prepared and probably would not have chosen to buy that book. But I certainly didn’t attack the author, I did leave a review stating that there was a disturbing scene in the book as a warning for others.

  10. I do feel that I owe you, for every book you have written; that I have read. (and I am working through all of them ::smiling::); for all the enjoyment, entertainment, smiles and tears you have given me.
    I owe you a big thank you and a wide smile- I owe you appreciation for your hard work; work that I have so enjoyed…so you do need to be thanked…but owing people???
    I have found over the years that people have started to feel they are “owed” something by everyone…they think that everyone needs to give them what ever they feel they are owed. ..they need to get over it. 🙂

  11. What do you owe your readers? A good story. A story that makes you want to spend time with the characters and the lives that you create for them. Since you do that pretty much in spades you’re perfect. Keep writing , I’m looking forward to more from the Elemental Mysteries series, soon I hope. 😀

  12. This is as true in life as it is in reading/writing! No one owes me anything least of all the authors I choose to read! I choose you and your works because I derive pleasure from the experience of reading your efforts. I may not always like what I read (not you Elizabeth, I LOVE everything you write) but that is my problem and not necesarrily the fault of the author. Rock on, Elizabeth and thanks for addressing a topic that should never be a topic in the first place 🙂

  13. I agree with your statements of what you owe readers. I also agree with having the choice to read or not read something when I find I do not like the subject matter or style of writing. Typos really irritate me as does spell check when the incorrect word is chosen.

  14. Elizabeth, as usual, you got it just right! I get so tired of readers whinging about authors owing them this or that. To my mind, you summed it up perfectly. In exchange for my time and money I believe an author owes me a well told tale, one written in relatively good English with minimal typos. That’s it…service rendered, payment made.

    Buying a book is kinda like buying stock. You hope your investment turns out to be positive but if it doesn’t, pull up your big girl panties and move on. Your books are among some of the best ‘investments’ I’ve ever made. Thank you. Happy reading.

  15. Such a sensible post. I’ve never thought about what a writer “owes” a reader in such defined terms, but after reading this I can say that these three things are all things that I expect when I pick up a book. Everything else is going to come down to my subjective experiences and what I like/dislike. But the three things you listed are necessary for me. The first two are deal breakers, but the last one is surprisingly important. I read from a wide variety of genres, so one would probably be justified in thinking that I don’t need to know what I’m getting in to. But I find that if I don’t have a general idea of what to expect (HEA from a romance, steampunk, urban fantasy, sci-fi, epic fantasy, etc) I get frustrated and irritated.

    The one other thing I appreciate is publishing a book within a certain amount of time of your announced publication date, as much as possible. I do realize that real life gets in the way from time to time, but if you tell me that you’re going to have a book out in June 2014, I’d really like to see that book sometime in 2014. *Continual* delays isn’t going to make me mad or make me think you owe me, but it will make me forget about an author and I’ll likely not buy the book when it does finally come out.

  16. We have a symbiotic relationship. You (the author) writes and we (the readers) read. Both of us benefit from this. (

  17. Pingback: Ramblings: IS IT STILL FUN? Thoughts on reader/writer interaction. Oh, and book news too. | ELIZABETH HUNTER

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