On Why Authors Have More Power than Readers
I had originally intended to write a follow-up post to last week’s piece on feminism and the Romance genre, but the enormous Kickstarter debate kicked me back to a post on authors and power I had intended to write some months back after the Kathleen Hale incident. During that debate, I suggested that when authors say they feel powerless relative to readers, that there was a confusion between power and risk. That authors, by virtue of the fact that they are offering their creative content for commercial sale, assume more risk, and therefore feel like they have less power than readers, when, in fact, they generally have more.
Let me explain.
Professional authors offer books for commercial sale. That means they are businesses, and those businesses are built around whatever pen names the author is using for her work. Authors acquire readers and fans, and the more popular the author, the more protective and powerful the fanbase. And in the furtherance of their commercial success, authors call on their fans to assist in promotion and marketing, perhaps through the creation of “street teams,” which have readers functioning as local promotional agents on behalf of their favorite authors’ books.
When authors are acting as commercial businesses, they are often engaging in commercial speech, which, is speech aimed at marketing, promoting, and selling their work. As I have talked about before, commercial speech is considered more powerful (potentially influential) and therefore receives less First Amendment protection (assuming we’re talking about a US context). Authors also have professional networks, which include professional groups for the advancement of their genre or craft, like RWA or the Authors Guild.
Additionally, authors have the benefit of enacting two roles, author and reader, or private individual and commercial business. In fact, many authors maintain separate identities as readers, so that they can keep the two separate in public discourse. There are some contexts in which authors will designate themselves as “readers first,” or will talk about putting on their ‘reader hat,’ as a way to shift between perspectives and interests.
Readers, on the other hand, are consumers of products that are offered for commercial sale, even if they acquire them at a library or through a friend or at a used bookstore. Readers may write reviews of books they buy and read. They are not represented by a professional organization, do not have professional networks, and do not have the authority of a commercial voice. For the most part, readers represent themselves and function in an individual capacity.
If we draw a line from the most popular author to the least connected reader, we have the progression from least powerful to most powerful. Popular authors can mobilize their fanbases with minimal effort; in fact, sometimes fanbases will mobilize on an author’s behalf, even if the author isn’t asking for advocacy on her behalf. Pure readers, on the other hand, basically have the influence of a single voice, a single opinion, a ‘one’ among ‘many.’
Most of us online fall somewhere in between the most powerful author and the least powerful reader. Some readers have blogs, from which we review, which means we acquire ARCs. Some readers are paid reviewers; some readers (like me) do freelance work like editing, cover design, web design, or the like. Similarly, some authors have only one or two books published and do not have a massive fanbase. Some authors are working multiple jobs to make ends meet and are publishing their own books, hoping to break out into mainstream popularity. Some authors were initially bloggers or reviewers, and therefore have one reputation that they are trying to build into another. There are many variables here.
I have heard a number of authors say that they don’t feel very powerful at all. That they don’t have huge fanbases or huge incomes from their writing. They say that readers hold all the power because we can say what we want without consequence and we can give a book a negative review without worrying about the author’s career. That we run the market, because publishers are always trying to figure out what we will buy. That readers are king. Again, I think this perspective relies on a confusion between risk and power.
Let me explain.
Authors take on risk when they enter the commercial marketplace. They write a book that may offend readers or that may just not be popular. They may say something publicly that alienates some reader. They often have to bear the burden of promotion and marketing, even when they may have a publisher who they technically pay to do that. As independent contractors, they have to measure risks against rewards when they sign contracts or act as their own publisher. They may invest all sorts of time and even money into a project that doesn’t take off. They may never be able to quit their day jobs to write full time.
Readers, on the other hand, seem to bear little risk. They have a seemingly endless supply of books and other entertainment options from which to choose. They can, theoretically, say what they want about a book and not worry how it affects their own career, which is separate from their reading. They have publishers trying to figure out what they will buy, and, in turn, acquiring books they believe will succeed in the marketplace.
Risk, however, is not the same thing as power (or, more specifically, powerlessness). Readers act as individuals. Any power they have is collective, but most often not because they are acting in a coordinated way. For example, when a publisher says that a book didn’t succeed because no one bought it, they see readers en masse, as the market. Readers who buy books they really want to see succeed, only to be told that the book didn’t sell well, understand how little power they have to influence a book’s success. Those readers who did buy the book, who wanted to support the book, are not even considered relevant. Conversely, when a book succeeds, all sorts of assumptions about what “readers” want are made, and readers get many more books that look like the successful book, even if they want something completely different. In both cases, readers is a comprehensive term that is based on no consciously coordinated actions on the part of individual readers. The power of the market is almost something that exists beyond and apart from individual readers, because each reader is contributing a single voice that is perceived as a whole from an outsider’s perspective.
Authors, on the other hand, have the combined roles of a commercial business and a private individual. They have the ability to move between those two identities and to use whichever seems more advantageous depending on the context. Because readers and author do not always share the same interest, the ability to shift between both identities can be very valuable. When they want less risk, they can be readers. When they want greater rewards, they can be authors. As authors they can an do engage in a consciously coordinated way, partnering up to do cross-promotion or marketing, maintaining listservs and author boards that allow them to exchange advice, strategies, and information. They network through professional organizations and have agents to represent them.
As a category, author is much more powerful than reader. And when we really see that power is when, for example, an author gets an essay published in The Guardian, in which she chronicles the stalking of a reader-reviewer, not only violating that reader’s privacy in her pursuit, but also in the article itself, where the reader-reviewer is identified, vilified, and represented in a way designed to engender sympathy for the author’s invasive conduct.
Or how about when authors line up in defense of one of their own, this time to call readers who dared to question a Kickstarter campaign everything from “bully” and “hater” to greedy, piratical, misogynistic ingrates who didn’t think authors deserved to be paid for their work. How many readers get Chuck Wendig to signal boost their ‘plight’ in a blog post or have a writer for a well-known online media outlet chastise readers for “bullying” an author, on nothing more than a “feeling” that she felt bullied?
In fact, the backlash against readers reminded me vividly of the Cassie Edwards plagiarism debacle, in which readers were, once again, lambasted by authors, criticized for speaking out and for criticizing an older woman. One prominent author even asked, “Did Cassie Edwards run over your dog?” in response to posts detailing the plagiarized passages. Hell, we see authors brazen out accusations of plagiarism almost routinely now.
Still, nothing demonstrated the power disparity between authors and readers better than the Hale incident, because the stark truth is that readers who are stalked and harassed have absolutely no recourse. Their reviews can be taken down at Goodreads or Amazon at the request of an author and they can be battered by an author’s protective fanbase. Authors can continue on in their careers, untouched by their publishers, leaving a reader feeling frightened and vulnerable.
Readers, on the other hand, can be doxxed and harassed in the alleged project of putting an end to bullying, and who will put themselves on the line to protect them. At that point, readers generally have a single choice: do they continue on, reading and reviewing, or do they get out, giving up an enjoyable hobby in order to protect their privacy and their safety.
Because authors have a real investment to protect in the form of their work’s profitability, they are less likely to leave the community. There is a higher risk in being an author, because the potential rewards are substantially higher, as well. For reader, their risk is lower because their reward is lower — the love of reading, of sharing books, and of engaging online with other readers. And because they have a lower reward, and fewer resources to protect it, they can more easily be driven from the online ecosystem than authors who have a professional livelihood to protect. In fact, how many times have we seen an author claim she is giving up publishing or giving up writing because some reader said something mean, only to have her fans and fellow authors cheer her on and encourage her to return triumphantly to the marketplace?
Yes, I know that individual authors often feel like they lack power. I get that they feel torn about speaking out, afraid of saying the “wrong” thing, frustrated at not selling enough books, worried about what readers will and won’t like, and a whole other host of concerns that make them feel vulnerable. But they still belong to the more powerful group interest, with the added benefit of being able to wear their reader hat when convenient. It may not always seem like a lot, but it’s still more than what the average reader has.