What do readers owe authors?

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Steven Lyle JordanMy recent efforts to figure out the future of my perennially zombie-fied writing sideline has naturally led to a lot of questions for myself, trying to justify my actions as an author, a promoter and an entrepreneur.  Front and center to these questions has been the role of social media to promote and sell my products, and attempts to better understand what works and why.

In my searches to better understand, I came across an old TeleRead article by Joanna Cabot, entitled “What do readers owe authors?”  The article investigates the idea that readers are encouraged by authors to help promote them, largely by utilizing the social media tools at their disposal—blogs, review columns, Facebook, Twitter, email, etc—and that doing so helps the authors to continue to produce for them.

Comments by many readers, however, state clearly that they feel under no obligation or reason to do so.  Of the comments submitted, a sampling:

“Marilynn makes a good point: ‘it makes selfish sense’ to spread the word about a writer whose work you enjoy. But no—no one owes anything to anyone for any reason in this scenario. It is no one’s responsibility to keep a writer ‘writing and fed’ except for the writer him/herself. And anyone who claims otherwise is living in a very backwards fantasy word. Full stop, son.”

“Demanding authors should be prepared to get what they ask for. All books do not suit all readers and a bad review is quite likely.”

Other comments made it clear that readers expect something from authors, but made no comment of what they were willing to do for those authors.  Joanna herself concludes that all a reader is obligated to do for an author is to read their books.

This strikes me as the typical sort of one-sided attitude that consumers practice across the board: Consumers will take a product that hard work was put into producing, but only on their terms.  They don’t care about an artisan’s sweat and tears, they only want the product cheap.  They don’t care how long it takes to produce something, they want it now.  And when it comes to thanking the producer, consumers are more likely to say, “You got my money, didn’t you?”  Even when the product is free, their response to entreaties to “spread the word” is generally, “I already downloaded it; that’s all I need to do.”

It also suggests that an author’s stories and words have no intrinsic value.  The attitude that “an author just wants to be read” may be a popular one… for artists, and those who want to leave that elusive mark upon posterity.  But books are also a commercial venture in the 21st century, and I’d wager most authors want more than back-slaps and high-fives for their efforts; they’d much prefer to get financial compensation equal to, if not greater than, their efforts.

It reminds me of Stephen King’s “The Plant” experiment, wherein he asked the public to contribute cash to his website to continue to get chapters of the story The Plant.  Though the public downloaded the essentially free chapters like there was no tomorrow, they largely didn’t follow up with the requested payments for his work; as a result, King stopped publishing… and received a not-unexpected public backlash for his trouble.

This is especially tragic given the whole point of social media, a system designed to enable and empower the common man to be heard outside of his own four walls… and which has proven invaluable for getting the word out about a product.  It is social media that has given the independent author the means to disseminate their works beyond their local community… has allowed readers to spread the word about their favorite writers and books… and has allowed writers like me to be read in the far corners of the world.  Social media is directly responsible for the growth of independent authorship and the rise of ebooks.  And it has been instrumental in the rise of many independent authors from total obscurity to fame and fortune.

Interestingly, when a consumer likes a product, and they themselves decide to tell their friends, they will eagerly turn to social media to do just that.  Yet, when those same people are asked, by anyone save themselves, to get that word out, suddenly it becomes an odious chore and they turn selfish: “I don’t have to do anything!  You wanna promote your product (which I think is great, BTW), you’re on your own!”

The way many of the post’s commenters flipped the question was to say, “Authors owe me a great book first.”  The way I would flip the question would be to reply, “Readers owe authors nothing… just as authors owe readers nothing to read.”  Why put hundreds to thousands of hours into a work, only to have readers berate you for asking for their promotional help?  Why strain to produce a flawless book if readers won’t be bothered to tell others how flawless it is?  Why, in fact, write at all?

No: Readers owe authors the same respect that authors give them when they create a piece of entertainment for them to consume.  And if that author is an independent, and you know their ability to entertain you is dependent on, among other things, how popular and well-received their work is, then it is the reader’s obligation to put in some small effort for the cause to which they have already benefited.

Readers seem to believe that, no matter what they do or don’t do, there will always be authors working to entertain them.  Maybe there will be.  But if the efforts of quality authors don’t pay, I wonder how many authors of quality there will be for the demanding, selfish reader.

So, maybe the answer is this: That authors owe readers the best books they can write; and readers owe writers the courtesy of acknowledging that effort by sharing that product’s existence with others, utilizing the powers of social media as they were designed to be used.  In other words, being human beings in a social environment, and exercising the ability to contribute positively to society… even if all they have to do to contribute is to click on a “share” button.

For me, the immediate answer would seem to be to shut up—to just stop promoting myself.  That way, anyone who does discover my work will be more likely to promote it themselves, as they will see it as their idea in the first place.  Maybe even taking steps to conceal my true identity or remove what information there is about me from the public eye, making myself a “man of mystery” to be investigated.  Since my promotional efforts have resulted in such miniscule returns… the “run silent, run deep” strategy can’t be any worse…

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2 thoughts on “What do readers owe authors?

  1. No, definitely do not stop promoting yourself. In this day and age, when anybody can whip up a few thousand words and self-publish through different outlets there is an overabundance of ebooks. It is hard for the reader to sort through the countless authors that are taking advantage of free and easy self-publishing, and your efforts to keep your name and brand visible can only help. I suspect that some help in the way of an increase of positive reviews on Amazon, Barnes and Nobles, and the other outlets will also help your reputation. Facebook and other social media outlets can help too, but will probably depend on the level of enthusiasm of your fanbase\.

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  2. That’s the problem in a nutshell: I have no fanbase. And social media has proven unworkable for building one, including the 4- and 5-star reviews I habitually pick up for my books at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

    Seriously, if anyone knows of an advertising strategy that’ll work for a guy with a day job, a mortgage and a car payment, I’m all ears. But since I haven’t been able to depend on readers to help, and I can’t afford most of the 20th century methods of promotion, my options are pretty limited.

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