Yet again, the fact that George R.R. Martin has not completed The Winds of Winter, the next book in his exceedingly popular A Song of Ice and Fire series, has riled up the Internet. The growing length between releases has caused many fans to lament that Martin might unfortunately pass away before being able to complete his magnum opus.
This, of course, brings up the question of what authors ultimately “owe” their readers. This is a very broad question with many facets and complexities, but when it comes to authors passing away and leaving a major series unfinished, I think the answer is fairly straightforward: authors should strongly consider allowing another author, with permission, to finish their works after their deaths.
I am of the belief that when you write a book and release it to the public, that work ceases to become solely yours. On some level, you do owe it to your fans that they will see the conclusion of a series they have loyally followed and invested in for years. As long as a reputable or talented author has the ability to write an ending to your work that is true to your vision, I think you owe it to your fans to let them try.
Although admittedly I have not finished it yet, I am loving The Wheel of Time series by the late Robert Jordan. Would I have picked it up had the series remained unfinished? The answer is probably not because I, as a reader, would not want to get invested in an epic series where I know I will be disappointed by the lack of an ending. Fortunately, in this case, author Brandon Sanderson was allowed to finish the story from Mr. Jordan’s notes, and his conclusion has been met with, as I understand it, a positive reaction from the fanbase.
Another reason to do this is financial. As I mentioned above, it is a natural human reaction to not want to pick up a series you know will remain unfinished. In the case of some (very lucky) authors, this could easily influence the royalties you are able to leave to your family upon your passing.
Obviously, this isn’t always simple. Another unfortunate example is the story of Japanese animator Satoshi Kon losing his fight against pancreatic cancer in 2010, leaving his final film, Dreaming Machine, uncompleted. Kon expressed fear and sorrow at being unable to complete the film to the point where animation studio Madhouse co-founder Masao Maruyama promised him that they would figure something out and get it completed. Unfortunately, funding issues as well as being unable to find a director of Kon’s caliber to finish the work has left the film in limbo and looking increasingly unlikely it will ever be completed.
That all being said, there are authors who do not wish to have their work completed by another author if they are unable to finish it before their deaths. Sue Grafton, author of the famous “alphabet series” of mysteries (leaving the series unfinished just shy of the end, at Y) was one of the most recent, well-known examples. That is their right as the creator and owner of their intellectual property. I completely see their point of view, and even shared it once.
(I would like to add, however, that I had read A Is For Alibi before that announcement, and while I liked it, I now have no plans to finish the series either. This is just my personal experience, but I believe it is the same for many other, if not most, readers. If you want new fans to read and enjoy your books after your passing, you need to ensure your series is finished.)
Sometimes the original author is the only one with the vision and style to truly tell their story. But in other cases, tragedy takes artists from us too soon, but the show must go on.
So often we forget that writing is also a business and we are selling a product, as every independent author knows. If you disappoint your fans, they will stop buying your books. So at the very least consider what your readers expect and want when writing your masterpiece. Be sure you give them a good story, well told, that matches what you promised at the beginning. And if you’re writing a series people are reading, it’s implied in that agreement that you owe them an ending.