As someone who learned to read before she learned to write, and who has read a whole lot more books than she's written, I like to consider myself a defender of the rights of readers first, and of the rights of writers second. The fact those rights are very different does impact my prioritization.
Writing is a solitary occupation. Even those writers who have partners still must come up with their individual contribution out of their own solitary imaginations. Taking the words from the brain and putting them into fixed format, either virtual or physical, needs no other human input. Writers don't need readers to write.
Writers probably should have the input of other writers, at least in the form of having read other writers' works before trying to write their own. Any writer who has manuscripts or partial manuscripts collecting dust on a shelf or in a drawer or taking up space on the hard drive knows that it is possible to write without ever sharing those words with another reader.
It probably is a good idea, though, to go ahead and share those words with readers to get some feedback. Would Aunt Jerusha like your story about the ballerina who fell in love with the truck driver? You'll never know if you don't let Aunt Jerusha read it. Even if Aunt Jerusha knows nothing about internal consistency, character motivation, plot structure, or acceptable grammar and spelling, she can give her (maybe honest) opinion on it.
Taking the process any further than sharing the writing with friends and family moves the work into another dimension. When the writer offers the work to the public -- that's what "publishing" means, after all -- the writer gives up control of who reads it and how they react to it.
In the olden days before the internet, there was a physical as well as virtual wall between writers and readers. A writer who didn't want contact with readers at all could do so quite easily. A book was written and handed off to a publisher who took care of everything from editing and proofreading to cover design to printing to distribution to accounting to paying out royalties to negotiating subsidiary rights and so on. A writer with an agent had another level of privacy. Readers had a few newsletters or magazines in which reader views might be printed, and there were a few events that readers could attend to mingle with the writers, or an individual writer might appear to sign copies of his or her books. But by and large, the readers and the writers were in very different and very isolated sectors. They rarely crossed back and forth between the two.
The internet changed all that.
Even before the advent of digital self-publishing, the internet changed the relationship between readers and writers in dramatic fashion. It broke down the barriers that the traditional publishing industry had erected that isolated readers from writers. Not only could writers and readers interact online, but so could editors and agents and publicists and reviewers. When a noted agent conducted an "auction" for her as-yet-unpublished client's books and kind of, sort of fabricated some of the bids in an attempt to up the ante, it hit the Prodigy discussion boards. I was there when it happened, I participated in the discussion, I had friends who were clients of the same agent. And I knew then -- early 1990s -- that publishing would never be the same.
After that, of course, came the age of digital self-publishing, when anyone who could slap a bunch of words together could call it a book and call herself a published author. Many of these writers uploaded their works without any of the training or education or experience or apprenticeship that would make their work acceptable to readers. All of that knowledge -- and maybe wisdom, too -- is usually only available from working with, talking to, and listening to other writers, but again: It's not necessary to have any other help or input for the writer to write. The writer can still write, and many do.
Publishing, however, puts the work into the hands of readers, innocent readers who had traditionally come to expect basic readability in the books they were buying. As has been said so many times by so many people, buying a book involves not only an investment of cash but an investment of time. The act of buying a book, of going to the bookstore or logging in to an online retailer, of looking at the cover art, of reading the description, of reading the reviews, of reading the sample is an investment of time. (By the way, writers, this is also true of the reader who doesn't actually buy your book but borrows it from the library, whether physical edition or electronic.)
It is an investment that the writer asks the reader to make.
The writer has already made her investment. She has written the book and published it and put it out there, naked and alone, for all the world to see. She didn't have to do it, but she chose to do so of her own free will. By doing so, she has offered her potential readers the implied quality of the work.
If the reader makes that initial investment and feels she has not received adequate return on the investment, the burden is on the writer. ALL the burden is on the writer, even if the reader has misread the description or deliberately chosen a book she knows she's not going to like just to leave a bad review.
Why is the burden on the writer when it's clearly the reader's own choice?
Because the writer always had the choice not to put the book out there. Once she does, she loses all control.
Once the book is published, it is a commercial product, subject to all the consumer reaction to any other commercial product.
Even if the book is offered for free, because there is no such thing. Even if the writer puts a price of $0.00 on the Kindle edition, the reader still has to make that initial investment of time. No book is truly free for the reader.
Are there reasons why a commercial product would be offered with no intent for financial recompense to the writer? Of course there are, and the primary one is ego. We writers put our books out there because we truly believe they're good, that people will want to read them. And maybe there's the hope that eventually enough people will read them and love them that we can put other books out there that people will pay real money for and we can quit our sucky day jobs and live the high life as a best selling author.
We can't do that without readers.
Shall I say that again?
We can't sell books and make money and live like Nora Roberts or Anne Rice or Stephen King without readers.
A few weeks ago I self-published the first novel I've written in twenty years, The Looking-Glass Portrait. It never saw an editor other than myself. No proofreader ever scanned its lines for spelling errors or improper grammar. I shared the first few chapters of it with a critique group in the mid-1990s, but I'm not sure if I have any of their comments still in my files; if I do, I didn't dig them out and look at them. I take absolute and full responsibility for whatever reactions I get from readers on that book.
If someone calls me immoral or an unfit parent because of the sexual content, I'm prepared for that. (Don't get all hot and bothered; there's no explicit sex in the book.) If someone accuses me of being a satanist because there are ghosts, I'll not deny that there are ghosts. Those are reader reactions and that's what happens when the book is published.
It's possible that someone will claim there are dozens of typos and grammatical mistakes on every page. Well, there aren't, but . . . whatever.
It's possible that someone will choose to call out his minions and savage the book with vicious reviews the way he did my others, but . . . whatever.
Will it hurt if no one likes it, if the bullies 1-star the hell out of it? Yeah, it will, but . . . whatever. I didn't have to put it out there. I chose to do so, and I'm prepared for . . . whatever.
I suppose there is some irony in my suggesting that writers not tell readers how they are and aren't allowed to react, since I'm sort of telling them not to do what I'm doing. Here's where I think the difference comes in: You as a writer always have the choice to put your work out there or not, and you are the one who is voluntarily taking the risk in return for gain. You have said your piece and made your peace with the work. You have had your chance. You do not, in my never ever humble opinion, have the right to deny your reader the same voice. She, too, has made an investment in expectation of return. Now it's her turn.
If you choose to respond, if you choose to tell her her opinion isn't valid or you don't want to hear it or it wasn't couched in the appropriate language or delivered in a nice enough tone of voice or contained sufficient helpful criticism, then you have had two opportunities and she's only had one. You've silenced her; I haven't silenced you at all.
Do mean readers and their mean comments actually silence "genius" writers, as more than one overly sensitive writer has claimed? Well, if those writers were really geniuses, wouldn't readers have recognized their genius and given them good reviews? Is it not possible that negative reviews, even mean reviews, kept someone from wasting her time and effort trying to be something she's not? Or prompted her to get some assistance?
Mean reviews are not in and of themselves bullying. A coordinated effort to negatively review a writer's works, unread, and personally harass the writer with the objective of depriving the writer of readers and driving that writer out of publishing most certainly is bullying, but how often has that been seen? Once that I know of, because I was the intended victim. But how often have we seen attacks by writers on readers and reviewers, coordinated attacks that have intruded on the reader's personal life with the intention of silencing the reader?
But we've been there often enough in the past few years that that particular litany doesn't need to be recited again.
What it all boils down to is the writers who want to sell, who want to make money from their writing, cannot do so without readers. They can write without readers, and they can even publish without readers, but they cannot sell without someone to buy those books.
Writers need to treasure every last reader who buys a single copy, who reads a single page via Kindle Unlimited or borrows through a paid lending program. Writers need to respect the library patrons and the browsers of every used bookstore. In essence, writers, take their money and run -- and shut up, because the reader you piss off with your demands for niceness and your scolding finger may be the person who was going to buy my book but was turned off by the self-published label. That reader might have written a glowing review of my book and gained me lots of readers. Or that person may have written a horrible review that gained me lots of readers.
If you don't like what your readers are saying, don't read their reviews. Don't make your Facebook page available to the public. Don't give out your email address. Don't tweet.
And whatever you don't, don't insult or silence my readers. They could be yours, too.