Where does a fan’s responsibility lie? Amazon’s screw-up with A Dance with Dragons

It is by no means any secret now that Amazon in Germany screwed up and shipping about 180 copies of George R. R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons to people who had placed orders. Martin is furious about this, as he should be. A Dance with Dragons is book 5 in the Song of Ice and Fire series, and a long-awaited addition to the series, particularly after HBO completed its airing of the first season of Game of Thrones. I have read the first two books (my thoughts here and here), and I’m partway through the third book, A Storm of Swords, and I am enjoying the series quite a bit. Like many people out there, I don’t to know what is coming next until I have the book in my hands and can read it myself. Put another way, I want to avoid spoilers.

But what I find most interesting about this recent Amazon debacle is that it feels like regardless of what Amazon’s responsibility is in the matter, it will be the fans who have received the book early that we will depend on to hold their tongues for another couple of weeks. It seems as if it is implicit on fans in this situation to keep their mouths shut, despite the fact that mistake that was made was not their own. Should one of these fans write a post about the book, others might react negatively to it, and I’m not sure that is right.

After all, there is no contract between an author and a fan. The fan is there to be entertained, and part of that entertainment is discussing what they’ve read with others. Now, there are some generally accepted practices when it comes to spoilers, and the first and foremost is to be sensitive to others who have not yet read the book. If you are going to write about it, be sure to warn readers that spoilers are included. That is what a good, conscientious fan would do. But even that is not a responsibility of the fan. They don’t have to do it. Doing it makes them a good neighbor.

And yet, in this case, if a fan were to post his or her thoughts on the book and even include a clear warning that there are spoilers present, I imagine that fan would take some heat. I imagine that they might be pressured by the publisher to hold off. Whether or not the publisher could actually do anything is another question. But for me what it comes down to is a question of ¬†what is a fan’s responsibility in this case?¬†If one of these early recipients decides to write about the book, and clearly warns that there are spoilers, the decision is pretty simple for people who come across the post: either read it, or don’t. Either case the person reading the post comes out a winner: if they don’t want to wait, they’ll read it and what they read may spoil the book for them. But in that case, their primary driver was not to read the book but to know what happens. Those who choose to ignore the post can read the book in innocence when it is released. They get the pleasure of discovery that has filled the series so far, along with just about everyone else who reads it.

I guess what frustrates me about this whole thing is that it feels like an unreasonable burden is placed on a fan for something that wasn’t their fault. Why hold it against them if they post spoilers in such as a way as to make it clear that the post contains them? You can choose not to read the post!

It’s true. You can browse the Internet on a regular basis and still avoid learning some things. I only ever read the first Harry Potter book. I’ve seen all of the movies, but I still to this day don’t know how the story ends. I simply avoid anything that refers to that last book. It’s worked for me so far. Of course, it takes some willpower. Those who have it will avoid the spoiler and those who don’t won’t.

I want to be clear here: Amazon is the one who screwed up. This shouldn’t even be an issue, and if anyone is at fault, they are. But now that the books are out there and spoilers are appearing, the responsibility of keeping things quiet lies with those who have received and read the book. Because most of these folks are good people, they will keep quiet. Some few will put out spoilers, but it is likely to be the same kind of people who deliberately try to spoil things (for whatever nefarious reason) all the time. I just think it seems unfair to ask those people who received the book through a mistake outside their control to behave one way or another. They did nothing wrong.

I empathize with George R. R. Martin’s frustration and anger. He has every right to be angry. But not at the fans who got the books. He should be angry with Amazon.

I’m really on the fence about this one. What do you think? Where does a fan’s responsibility lie when it comes to spoilers?

9 thoughts on “Where does a fan’s responsibility lie? Amazon’s screw-up with A Dance with Dragons

  1. Well, how different is this from, for example, receiving an ARC? If I were to accidentally receive ADwD or any other book in this way, I would be respectful of spoilers or other things that would ruin, not enhance the book for others.

    But, then, I try to be respectful of spoilers I review even in books that are relatively old.

  2. See, I was thinking along the same lines, Paul. It does imply that there is some responsibility a fan carries with them: to be sensitive to other readers by at the very least explicitly identifying that spoilers are contained within their review. How many readers realize they are taking on this responsibility when the decide to post about a book? And has there ever been some kind of study that shows whether or not reading a spoiler ahead of time results in fewer sales or less enjoyment?

  3. You can choose not to read a post, but only if it’s labeled. I could tell you right here how HP ends. But I’m nice, so I won’t.

    This shouldn’t be any different than someone reading the book the day it comes out and then happily posting spoilers all over the place. Or getting an ARC. In both of those cases, the fan wanted to get the book early/as soon as available, so maybe would be more likely to be the type of person who’d respect others’ desire to avoid spoilers.

  4. I agree about labeling the post. But that does imply that a fan (or even a generic reader) has some kind of responsibility for not giving away the story. I think timing is an important component and that is perhaps why this particular case is getting as much buzz as it is. So another question might be: does the timing of the spoilers (reviews, blog posts, etc.) effect the overall readership in a negative way. Is is more damaging before actual release as in this case? Is there a period of time in which it should be avoided, and thereafter it is open season? Part of the reason I’m so fascinated by this is that I am going to be on a panel at Readercon that touches on this subject.

  5. I think timing matters. At some point people have to accept that if they haven’t read a book 1, 5, 20 years after it’s released, they can’t blame anyone but themselves.

    But I don’t know what that number is.

    I suppose it could be more damaging before release if it keeps people from buying it. (If in book 5 all the characters turn into Smurfs, I won’t be reading it.)

  6. From my own experience I’ve been very impressed at how good readers are at keeping secrets.

    Writing a series I’m always concerned about spoilers getting out, but I haven’t seen it. For the most part, professional and semi-professional reviewers are far more apt to tell too much. Fans have always shown themselves to be remarkably self-censoring. I honestly never expected so many people would be so considerate (even those who don’t like my work) so this and it came as a wonderful surprise.

  7. Michael, I tend to think that most fans are considerate in this respect, but I still wonder as to whether there is a perceived responsibility here. When I started my Vacation in the Golden Age posts, I avoided spoilers on stories from the old Astounding magazines, until someone brought up the fact that many of those old stories aren’t available anymore or are very hard to come by. But even when I did start including some spoilers for stories that were not easy to come by, I still felt a responsibility to alert readers to the fact that spoilers existed in what followed.

    I would think that professional reviewers have some sort of code of ethics that they follow in this regard. If a reviewer went around spreading spoilers, they wouldn’t be considered a “professional” for very long. Indeed publishers my stop sending them advance copies. But perhaps that isn’t the case.

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