I remember the first time I felt naive as an author.
It was several years into my writing career, and I had a couple bestsellers under my belt. I was at a gathering of authors and the subject of another writer’s upcoming novel came up. The early manuscript had been sent to me for a “blurb” — that tantalizing recommendation that appears on the front cover of many novels. You’ve seen them: “This book was A++.” — Maggie Stiefvater, New York Times Bestselling Author.
The other author asked me if I was going to blurb this novel and I said something along the lines of, no, I hadn’t cared for it; it didn’t seem very truthful to the human experience to me and I didn’t think my readers would be wild for it. The other author nodded, agreed, and then said she was blurbing it, even though she thought it was awful. Why? Because the marketing push behind this novel was so enormous that she said it was like free advertising, her name as an expert on every single copy.
I felt very naive.
Of course, later, I discovered this wasn’t unusual. That blurbs were often favors traded, marketing moves, publicity dances. Authors told me they blurbed some books unread because the “optics were good.” Optics!
Bullshit. Even if the dishonesty of it didn’t make me curl up like a slug under salt, the betrayal did: the betrayal of an author’s responsibility to their reader.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the responsibility authors have to their readers, not just because I have a new novel coming out in May, but also because I’m closing in on the end of a series, and also because I am coming off a full-on decade of touring and am looking at what it means to be an author if I’m not on the road every second of every day instead. I’m asking myself “what am I writing next” but also “how do I intend to move about the cabin as an author?”
Because it is not just in the creation of words where authors have responsibility to the reader, surely. It’s in how we conduct ourselves as authors in professional spaces. It means that if I put my name on a book, I should have done my best for that to mean something. If it’s a novel I’ve written, I want it to have been worth the reader’s time. If it’s a novel I’m recommending, I want it to mean that I expect readers who enjoy my work will also enjoy it. Readers deserve to have me think about them. To respect their time.
And it goes beyond that. I’m in the process of signing several thousand pieces of paper for my upcoming May release. Some are bookplates, some are tip-in sheets that will end up in books, some are the books themselves. I’ve had multiple people suggest I either train someone else to do my signature or get a stamp or acquire pre-printed bookplates. Again, this feels like a betrayal of the responsibility to the reader. If I ask what my hand and wrist would like, surely it would like to not sign a lot of things while listening to old movies I know very well. If I ask myself what a reader wants, though, I assume what they want is to know that each of these pieces of paper was touched by me, that I was thinking about how each of these signatures would please a reader who in many cases went out of their way to support me or an independent bookstore. That’s worthwhile to me. One day, I might not be able to sign all these bookplates, but if that day comes, I’ll just stop offering them. That feels honest. Respectful of my readers.
Now I also think authors have responsibility to their readers as writers, or at least I feel it keenly: I want my books to be worth their time. I’ve written quite a lot of novels by now, and I don’t expect readers to like them all equally, or even for them to be equally objectively good; it’s impossible. But I do want, generally, for them to be worthwhile. If you pick up a Stiefvater book thinking “I hope this is a Stiefvater book experience!” I would like you to put it down several hours later saying “that was a Stiefvater book experience!” I want every bit of happiness to feel earned, every bit of suffering to be justified, every chapter to have done a little bit of magic behind the curtain so that the reader went somewhere else for a little bit. I might not give the reader what they wanted, but I always try to give them what they needed. As a reader, that’s what I long for: an author who takes care of me. I don’t know what I’m getting, but I know I’ll like it in the end.
This is where it gets to the reader’s responsibility to an author. I’ve been shouted at quite a lot as we get to the middle of this latest trilogy— readers want x plot to happen, y plot to not happen, z event to happen, etc. In some cases, it is simply impossible: the reader is talking about a book long since written; they’re an old man shouting at cloud. Nothing can be done. But in all other cases, it’s simply unfair. Readers get to shout after the book comes out. Beforehand, it is their responsibility to let writers write.
Now—I’m not asking readers to trust me. Readers are entitled to as much doubt or fear or pessimism as they like, and only the book will prove them wrong or right. They’re also entitled to discuss those feelings with each other online as much as they like. They can even come to me with their fears as much as they like. It’s not going to hurt my feelings. You’re worried I will break your hearts, let you down, waste your time. I understand. I’m a reader too. I’ve had authors fail to take care of me, and I don’t forget, and I rarely forgive, and my wallet seals its lips petulantly when the next one comes along. I am completely with you on this one.
But I am not a jukebox; I do not take requests. I write what I want to write while keeping the reader very much in mind. I don’t think I could do it the other way around. It has to start with my story, told in such a way to hopefully satisfy the reader. Otherwise I think my novels would feel empty very quickly.
It’s a cycle, though. Because once the book comes out, then I begin to listen. I’m listening to hear if I’ve done my job; if most people were satisfied; if it was worth their time. They asked for a Stiefvater novel, I gave them a Stiefvater novel. “This is a Stiefvater book.” — New York Times Bestselling Author Maggie Stiefvater. You can’t please everyone, of course, but one can test the general temperature of the room. If I got something wrong, there’s the next book to try to do better. If people unexpectedly love an aspect I didn’t expect, I take that on board, too. The other day, my eye doctor said to me “your vision is really messed up, but it corrects well,” and it struck me that it was a good metaphor for my outlook/ work/ technique in general.
In an ideal world, there’s an author-reader-author-reader responsibility cycle. I have my responsibility to the reader: I want to respect their creative time, both as author and as writer. The reader has a responsibility to me: they want to respect my creative time, both as buyer and as reader. It’s symbiotic, like those shrimp that jump onto fish and vacuum them.
Consider this post my promise: I’ll always try to be a good shrimp, and I trust you guys to always be good fish, or vice versa. I can’t tell which of us is the shrimp in this scenario. Either way, I’m going to close here with a photo of one of the shrimp from Lover’s fish tank. He seems happy.