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Readers Don’t Owe Authors Anything

This is BS

This is BS

As a long time reader I have been more than little dismayed at some of the recent changes to the culture of books.

There seems to be a growing sentiment among some authors and writers that readers "owe" authors something. I don’t just mean the time we spend reading a work, the respectful attention we might give it, or even the money we might spend on an author’s work.

I’m referring to the assumption of a few misguided authors that readers "owe" authors things like: gushing praise on social media, book reviews on ebookstore websites, and other investments of our time and money.

Update: Before you read any further, you might want to read a post I wrote a month later. It offers a much more nuanced view of this topic.

And what’s even worse is that not only do some authors believe this, they’ve taken to making graphics like the one at right. That graphic was made by an author so other authors can use it to berate their readers.

Oh. Hell. No.

I’ve had my own run-ins with pushy authors, so naturally I think the idea expressed in that graphic is complete and utter nonsense. I’m glad to say that I am not alone. Over the past week or so I’ve been sharing a number of links from readers/bloggers who are pushing back against needy and demanding authors.

Today I read a post that finally jelled my position into a single statement:

  1. I won’t ever steal books, digital or otherwise. Not ever.

But I won’t (a) not use the library, (b) not buy used books, (c) not borrow books from friends. If I choose to do any of those things, I don’t (a) owe a tweet, (b) owe a blog review, (c) owe a word of mouth review. I am not betraying bookish culture if I (a) buy from Amazon or Chapters or Barnes and Noble, (b) wait to buy the paperback, (c) don’t buy at all. None of the above things are unethical or amoral or indicative of my deep failings as a reader or blogger or member of the bookish community.

Now, we could get into a debate over who is right and who is wrong, but I would hope that the authors who read this realize something first. The fact that this point has come up at all and the fact I took time to write this post and that readers are taking the time to express their irritation should be a warning sign.

Readers don’t agree with this idea.

Readers are getting pissed off at the suggestion that they "owe" something to authors.

I want you to look past why we are pissed and accept the fact that we are, because my point is pretty simple:

Pissed Off Readers == Marketing Failure

If nothing else, that alone should end the discussion.

I don’t mean to criticize all authors here, but I do want to jump on this misconception with both feet. In this day and age authors are more dependent on readers than ever, and authors are also much more visible and interact directly with readers more than they ever have before.

At the same time authors are also outnumbered by readers as well as other indie authors, so I would think it would make sense for an author to try their best to not drive readers away.

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Bob Mayer April 11, 2013 um 5:03 pm

Writers owe readers their money’s worth in terms of a good story. They’re our audience. I see those pleas to readers and just shake my head.

I’m grateful to every reader who takes the time (even if it’s a borrow and they don’t pay) to read my book, because time is the most valuable asset we have.

Dlbroox April 11, 2013 um 5:16 pm

That’s a really crazy rant coming from a blogger who has all the social media like buttons right above this comments section. How do you think your blog crept up into google’s algorithm? People read your stuff and either came back, liked it, or shared it.

Take all those buttons off your page. Or do you not think of yourself as a writer?

Nate Hoffelder April 11, 2013 um 5:21 pm

There’s a huge difference between the graphic embedded in this post and the social media buttons above and below it. The former is pushy while the latter simply makes the option available.

I don’t ask anyone to tweet or share my posts. In fact, I only added those buttons after a reader requested them.

ucfgrad93 April 11, 2013 um 5:37 pm

The ONLY thing I owe an author is to pay the price the author charges in order to read his work if I want to read it. They spent time and effort in creating a story and should be compensated if they want to be. That said, if I think the price is too high, I won’t purchase the book, nor will I pirate it.

Ingo Lembcke April 13, 2013 um 8:55 am

Hm, you are aware, that before self-publishing, the author had nothing to do with the price charged for a book?
No author charges me. It is the seller, who usually gets a price set from the publisher, which he can accept or not, it might be sold under price (in some instances breaking law).
That said, one of the reasons I bought a lot of used books: I do not accept the price of the book. That the author does not get anything from that sale (nor the publisher), well, tough luck, if it was cheaper new (or as an ebook), would have bought it new.

Juli Monroe April 11, 2013 um 6:28 pm

I’m an author, and I don’t think readers owe me anything. I’m grateful when someone reviews my book. I will ask people to review, but I don’t hound them if they don’t, nor do I think badly of them. We’ve got lots of demands on our time. I’m delighted if I caught their attention long enough for them to read my book.

And this library hate I keep seeing is ridiculous. Readers have to find books first to read them and eventually buy them, and libraries are a great place to find books.

I’m not even rabidly anti-piracy. At some point I’ll get motivated enough to load my own books on the torrents. I figure it can only help.

Thomas April 12, 2013 um 4:03 am

I’ve bought hundred of books after reading them from libraries.

When I see a writer complaining about libraries, I really want to smack them upside the head and scream, "This is the best marketing you’re ever going to get, and they’re paying YOU to use it!"

Dan Meadows April 11, 2013 um 7:14 pm

There’s a lot of entitled people in the world. I’m not even convinced readers owe me money, even if they read my books or what have you. I’ve read who knows how many books in my lifetime, and a hefty percentage of them, I didn’t pay for. Someone gave me the book as a gift, I got it from the library, borrowed it from a friend, review copies I got in my former life as a magazine editor, etc. My local library’s having their annual spring used book sale in a couple weeks. Last year, I walked out of there with a shopping bag full of books for $10. The authors don’t get a cut of that. I’ve never once felt compelled to send a writer who’s book I read but didn’t pay for a check. Maybe I’d buy something of their’s down the road, maybe not. But I’ve never felt as if I owed them anything, and I certainly don’t feel like anyone who reads my stuff owes me in any way. If anything, I owe them my thanks for checking it out.

I’m a big believer in convincing readers to willingly want to pay. No sense of obligation needed or desired. I’m with you, this trend of writers thinking readers owe it to us to do our marketing for us for free is troubling and potentially massively counter productive. We’ve got enough problems with media companies acting like their entitled to get paid anytime somebody cracks a book or listens to a song. We certainly don’t need to be emulating that attitude.

The Rodent April 11, 2013 um 8:33 pm

This is the dawning of the Age of Entitlement when everyone is special and is owed something… 🙂 But you can keep watching the clock to yank ’em off stage when their 15 minutes are up.

Peter April 11, 2013 um 8:36 pm

Even more than the grotesque sense of entitlement, it’s the sheer stupidity of this approach that pisses me off. Yes, strong word of mouth is your Absolute Bestest Friend Evar as an author….but most of us can tell the difference between real grass-roots and astroturf. All 5-star-review spamming does is eliminate their worth (the same applies to social media campaigns).

D.G. April 11, 2013 um 8:49 pm

From a marketing standpoint, it makes sense that some Indie booksellers are using 'social conscience' (buying from Amazon/B&N, etc. is unethical) as their value proposition. After all, they won’t be able to compete with Amazon’s pricing or have the same promotion capabilities so they have to find something that differentiates them from Amazon in the mind of the consumer.

But as you say, Nate, that strategy may backfire in the long run. Consumers don’t like to be lectured that they are 'unethical' for choosing their own welfare over that of a stranger. If your choice is buying a book in an Indie bookstore for $20 or buy the same book in Amazon for $10 and put the other $10 in your child’s college fund, what do you think most people would do?

Peter Turner April 11, 2013 um 9:43 pm

It seems like the publisher as "enemy" of the reader has morphed into the "author" as enemy of the reader.

dave™© April 11, 2013 um 11:50 pm

I dunno – I guess I’m missing the reason for the "outrage" here. Seems like good tips for passing on a book you like. In the old days, it was called "word of mouth".

Puhleeease April 11, 2013 um 11:54 pm

Oh come on. How many authors are doing this? Hell, I haven’t even visited the website of any author I’ve read since I don’t know when. If any of them are acting like cuckoo birds I wouldn’t even know to be OUTRAGED!!!!!!

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Thomas April 12, 2013 um 3:52 am

I don’t want a "relationship" with a needy, codependent author.

If I like a book, I will recommend it to a friend and maybe even write a review. Trying to guilt me into doing this is just tacky.

Ken April 12, 2013 um 7:32 am

My favorite lately though is being told how bad Amazon is and how Amazon is killing the book industry. To me Amazon is saving the book industry in the fact its trying to pull the whole thing into modern times and actually compete against Video Games, Music, Movies, Internet, Internet, Internet. Is Amazon perfect? No way. But I don’t see them being a monopoly in the future. Just competition is going to come from Apple, Google, etc. and not B&N. Ok…feels good to get that out.

Gregg B April 12, 2013 um 8:31 am

First of all, "… the money we migth spend …."


Secondly, I think you are painting with a fairly wide brush. There are narcissists in every profession who scream, "Me, me, me! Look at me review me like me look how amazing I am!" But that doesn’t define the profession nor everyone in it.

I personally know some novelists who would write whether anyone bought, read, reviewed, or whatever. They write because they are a little insane and if they didn’t write they would explode.

Your article above does them a disservice, sir.

Chris April 12, 2013 um 11:46 am

A few quick thoughts from a librarian:

1) Everyone chipped in to pay for the books on your library’s shelves (whether through taxes or tuition). Libraries buy lots of books that aren’t bestsellers. And for lots of academic authors, libraries are the *only* buyers of their books.

2) A recent Pew Internet survey of frequent library users found that about half had bought rather than borrowed the last book they read.

Will O’Neil April 12, 2013 um 10:57 pm

On the other hand, if you like a book and hope to see more like it, there is a point to helping to promote it so the author has some encouragement. If the author doesn’t get enough buyers for the first book or two in a projected series, there may not be any more.

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Charlie Gray May 11, 2013 um 3:47 pm

I think what most new authors don’t seem to understand is that writing, at least for a large percentage of their population, has always been a thankless art. For every success story out there (Stephen King comes to mind) there are thousands of authors like me, with enough loaded flash drives to decorate a Christmas tree and more composition notebooks than Staples can keep in stock at one time. Dozens of boxes of stories and random bits written on envelopes and paper napkins. Every musician does not become a rock star, nor does every artist become Monet. It’s a fact of life. You can publish your work and it can be an excellent piece of work. You can sell hundreds of copies and have dozens of five star reviews and still be as insignificant as a grain of sand in the larger scheme of things. Being an exceptional writer is never about paying off your houses or your credit cards or having a bank account large enough to buy an island. If this is what you strive for as an author then you’re in a wrong profession. Being compensated and adored for doing what you love to do is not your right. It is a privilege most people never get to experience.
I’ve moved half a dozen times in the last decade. Each time, the number of book boxes increases. If I have to move again I’ll need to hire another truck. There are books that have come with me from over seas, books I’ve owned since I was twelve. I’m on my third copy of Wally Lamb’s 'She’s Come Undone, on my fifth copy of 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' and I’ve lost track of the number of copies of 'Exodus' I’ve gone through in the last twenty years. I spent two years carrying a copy of 'Mrs Dalloway' with me wherever I went until the pages were worn as thin as wax paper. I might have paid for some of those but I don’t remember it. To me, compensating the author has never been a priority or a requirement because when I think of my work, out there in the world, the last thing I focus on is the money that might flow forth from it. Instead I hope someone has my book in the pocket of their jacket for years, until it’s faded, the spine cracked and the text unreadable. Until it doesn’t matter what it looks like any more because the reader knows it by heart and carries it only for the physical presence, the comfort of something magical and dear always being within reach.
That is the ultimate prize for an author. Not the compensation and not the fame, but touching one person in such a way that their life is forever changed by it.

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