Entitled to Entitlement Issues

Posted by E Halsey Miles on May 16, 2009 - 8:52pm.

This is cross-posted from my LiveJournal, but I wanted to preserve it here since I'm kind of wearing my wannabe author hat.

Wow. Today is just my day to be disagreeable. I don't know why. Sure I'm a little cranky but I don't think it's just that. First I disagree that Star Trek was all that and a bag of chips (and I don't think it was bad but for me it just isn't Star Trek.) But this time it's a blog post I've read, which is apparently going around and being loudly applauded by many. Apparently it's changing some people's perspectives, and I'm actually a bit concerned about that.

What's this? Yes I'm disagreeing -- in part, not in whole -- with Neil Gaiman's comments on entitlement. In this blog post, Neil Gaiman responds to a letter from a reader asking if it's ok to be frustrated with George R. R. Martin for being uncommunicative about an upcoming book in his series, and asks a few questions about blogging, whether or not there is too much access, and if the writer has a responsibility toward his fans and, if so, how much.

First, let me explain. I work very hard in a position where I deal with a LOT of people who have an overdeveloped sense of entitlement, and I fully understand exactly the position that could lead to this. But when I read this post, the first reaction I have is that Gaiman has very eloquently attacked someone who wrote in for asking some very reasonable questions, acting as though the questions themselves were unreasonable.

Second, let me backtrack a bit. I don't wholly disagree with him. Gaiman response to this questioner that George R. R. Martin is not your bitch.. I completely agree with this statement. Had the letter Mr. Gaiman responded to been a little bit harsher, I would probably have been jumping up and down, hollerin' and hootin'. "Yeah, get 'im, Neil!" But frankly, I thought that the letter as written was incredibly reasonable, and the author of this letter clearly felt of two minds about his frustration and was looking for an unrelated author's opinion. And he got it!

Part of what's going on in my mind is that I just returned from a trip to New York. Out on the East Coast, there is a wonderful burger chain which makes huge, calorie laden, absolutely delicious burgers. And french fries. And that's about it. They compare favorably to In-n-out, where they do almost exactly the same thing, yet when you put the burgers side by side they compare like apples and oranges. Both delicious, both unmistakably burgers, yet somehow they aren't even the same kind of food. At this Five Guys I got to read their mission statement, which they post prominently at various spots throughout their store:

Thank You Customers

You the customer are the most important visitor on our premises. You are not dependent on us, we are dependent on you. You are not an outsider in our business – you are a part of it. We are not doing you a favor by serving you – you are doing us a favor by giving us the opportunity to do so.

Thank You

Five Guys

So to be fair, this particular item is fresh in my mind, and while reading Mr. Gaiman's article, I had this memory running through it. And I have to say, neither Neil Gaiman nor George R. R. Martin are putting something out there for free that all their fans get to use. As authors it is not as though they get nothing out of this fanbase. On the contrary, most authors I know believe that writing is absolutely the best job in the world, even if it's a really, really hard job to do well. And it is a job, and when you're doing a job, you do have obligations toward that job. . And in this job, Martin has created a series. The whole reason that series do well in fiction is that they set up a world, a shared experience if you will, and that world keeps a fan base, which in turn sells more books. At least, if it is successful.

By selling more books, that author then gets the luxury of not having to do something else to support his or her lifestyle. Some authors are so successful they don't need series to support themselves, but by and large authors I know rely on their series to keep people coming back for more. Yes, big names can sell books, but recognizable worlds, stories that have already made good on promises can sell more books. It's easy to look at the paychecks, signed by his publisher, and the deadlines, also set by the publisher, and assume that the boss is wholly the publisher, but the readers pay the publisher in order to pay the author. So yes, I am going to agree 100% with Gaiman that George R. R. Martin is not your bitch.. But I'm going to turn around and state that by putting himself in this vehicle, Martin actually has accepted some obligation toward his fans. And please don't take this as me saying that Martin has to take shit from his fans just because they're the ones that pay his bills, but that isn't the same thing as completely blowing off your fanbase either.

The next book in Martin's series was announced two years ago, and it hasn't materialized. There is no sense, right now, of when it will materialize. I haven't read any of these books, nor his blog, so I admit I do not have any idea what has really been said about this. So maybe Martin has already said everything that needs to be said, maybe not. But in making this announcement, Martin has given his fans something, and of course they expect him to follow through. I ask you, if I tell you that I have this fine product, please buy it, and in another year, the next installment of that product will be out. Three years later, yes, the fans who expect the next installment do, in fact, have a right to be upset that it's not there. That is how expectations are set. This is not entitlement. This is the way of business in America. If Martin is unable to deliver on the implied promise, these things do happen. Life happens, writers have them and they can interfere in ways that people can't even describe. I can fully understand why Martin might need to work on other books, do other things, or not write at all, if that's what's going on.

The part that doesn't work for me is that if Martin has given no explanation as to why he hasn't fulfilled what he announced, it is not wrong to question why this might be. Of course fans are going to be upset. But I've also found that Sci fi fans are surprisingly accepting of a good answer. Look at Robert Asprin's problems. He wrote several awesome, if somewhat low-brow books, and then his life went to hell and things have kind of sucked since then. But you know what? People may grumble and grouse but there are fans who will buy his stuff anyway. Partly because they know what's going on, partly because of what he's done in the past.

No, writers do not work on your schedule. Writers do not do what you want to do. And writers are not obligated to put up with shit just because a person gave you fifty cents (or if you're a big name writer, maybe you got a dollar or two of what they paid!) to read your book. But in any place in this world, it is absolutely not entitlement to want an explanation if you said you'd do something and then don't do it. And if you're a writer, and you're blogging, it's because you are out there and want to interact with the people who read your books, and you can't blame the person who found your blog and read it and asked questions for finding you.

As an author of a popular open source project, I put up with crap from 'fans' every day. There are bugs, people want features, they have needs and desires. I don't always treat them well either, so maybe I'm the wrong person to be on the soap box about this here, but f I fail to live up to something I've actually said I'd do, at the very least I'm going to come out there with an "I'm sorry," and accept the consequences. On the other hand, some of these issues are my own fault, because as part of doing this, as part of writing and supporting this project, I also have to manage the expectations of the people who use it. By the same token, an author who blogs needs to manage the expectations of what is going to appear in that blog, and what the interactions with the fanbase will be.

If an author sets an expectation, and fails to live up to it, it is not the reader who is at fault. George R. R. Martin is not your bitch. But without people reading his books, he wouldn't be an author, either. Somewhere in between your bitch and author is a medium that must be met.

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