Today I want to talk about something I don’t think I’ve discussed before. How writers can fulfill the promises they make to readers… and just how they make those promises.
You see, every reader will enter into a story with some kind of expectation, whether it is regarding the genre, the target age, the tone of the writing, or the level of maturity (think gore, sex, and language). They form those opinions based on a number of things, and if we as writers do not fulfill those expectations, the reader is likely to become angry, feel betrayed, and walk away from our writing. Sometimes for good.
But what promises are we making? What promises are readers seeing? Let’s take a closer look.
The first and biggest glimpse a reader will get into your story is through the cover. That’s right, readers DO judge books by their covers!
The purpose of a cover is twofold: grab readers’ attention and convey to those readers what they can expect.
First, we want our covers to be eye-catching. We want it to make readers stop scrolling through options and click on that link or that cover to find out more. It’s their first chance to learn about our story.
But the cover’s content will also determine which readers will stop on your book’s page. For example, a reader interested in clean fantasy is unlikely to stop on a book with two half-dressed people kissing on the cover. They will more likely stop on a cover with a castle or a dragon.
You see, the cover you give your book sets the mood for the story and, if it’s doing its job, tells readers about the genre. This is why it’s so important to be aware of what other authors’ book covers in your genre look like, because this is what readers are expecting. If you give them a cover that seems like it might be one thing when the story is really another, you may find yourself the not-so-proud owner of a one-star review. You will have unwittingly tricked the reader.
Your other work
While there are other ways you can make promises to readers, such as how you market the book, I only want to focus on one more today: your other work.
As an author, you may have already heard that your name is your brand. The things you write, the topics and themes you pursue, and the content and maturity level of your writing all influence what a reader will come to expect from your new works. This is why so many authors only publish in one genre… or do they?
Actually, this is one reason pen names exist. Readers will absolutely associate your name with the books you have already written. But if you want to write something completely different, they may expect it to be along the same type of work you’ve already done. Often, the solution is the creation of another pen name to associate with the new works.
Personally, I have one pen name, and that is the only name under which I share my work. But there may come a time in the future that I need to compartmentalize into another name, such as if I move from YA into adult or fantasy into fiction. And that is a possibility I know is open.
One good example of this is Mira Grant. Mira Grant is the pen name for an author who writes zombie fiction, specifically YA zombie fiction (The Newsflesh books). I found out a few years back that she is also the same author who writes one of the urban fantasy series I like, the October Daye series, under the name Seanan McGuire (who also penned some other fantasy reads). Readers have very different expectations from these two distinct names, and for that reason, she compartmentalizes her work into multiple names.
How do we fulfill these promises?
First and foremost, be cognizant of the way you present your work. Don’t misrepresent it, and do your research on how other authors in the same genre are presenting and marketing their work.
Second, make sure you aren’t breaking promises you’ve made through your other work. At a minimum, let your readers know when a book is different from what you’ve previously published. If it’s a minimal difference such as the level of maturity or how clean a read it is, you may not need anything else, particularly if it’s still in the same genre and age category. And if it’s very different, perhaps consider starting a new pen name and letting your current readers know, in case they want to follow along.
Finally, pay attention to your readers. If they are confused or you seem to be getting a lot of negative reviews along the lines of “this wasn’t what I expected,” then you may need to evaluate changing your target audience for the work or rebranding under a new name. Be open to the changes and listen to the advice of others (but of course, use that advice to make your own decisions).
These are the things I’ve come up with about times I’ve felt tricked by a cover or an author, but I know there are so many other examples, such as false advertising (Example: get this free book! Just kidding, it’s just a sample.).
Usually, it’s not intentional. Writers don’t want to trick their readers (except for plot twists!). But we still need to keep the possibility in mind and be sensitive to what our readers are telling us.
And now I want to hear from you. Was there a time you felt tricked by a writer or a book? How did it make you feel? What are your suggestions and other experiences for fulfilling promises to readers? Tell me below!