Have you ever been in a restaurant and ordered a steak, only to be brought a hamburger? (I hope not, but work with me here!) It might be the best hamburger on the planet, something you’d savor if that was what you were in the mood for, but because you wanted a steak, the hamburger feels like a cop out. The same happens with books.
Reader expectations are THE single hardest thing to manage as a writing professional. A lot of factors add up to create them: The cover art, the back copy, the marketing ploy, the tag line, even things the author says about it on their blog.
Guilty pleasures, bubblegum books, whatever you call them, sometimes, a book just hits me just right. It might not be the best book ever. It might be sorta superficial, and trite, and super predictable… but I’ll like it anyway. But I HAVE to know that’s what I’m picking up when I sit down to read it. I have to WANT that when I sit down to read it.
Contrast these two stories (names and details changed to protect egos. These aren’t friends novels, just inspired by 2 I’ve read this year):
A YA contemporary with a steampunk angle, we’ll call it Bells and Whistles. Bells and Whistles follows the adventures of Mary Sue when she falls through a crack in the world to dinosaur land that no one knows about, and only she can unlock the secrets of the Paleozoic era, because she’s a special snowflake with a magical familiar who is totally not just an author intrusion device, really! It has a dark, somber cover, with a blurb that makes it sound like there’s some great mystery that she has to solve and wonderful conflicts between her and the other characters that can rock her world down to their foundations.
A YA contemporary playing off fairy tales, we’ll call it Wands. It’s about a girl who learns she has magical powers, and then has to juggle her mundane fail of a social life with her sudden time travel ability, while falling for a guy she knows she can never have. The entire magical system is handwaved with “Because history”, and there’s a very clear scene/act/reaction structure that makes the bones of the story stick out. The cover is bright and has shiny objects on it, and the blurb is as superficial and light as the story itself.
Now, some of those things are out of the author’s hands on traditional publishing, but let’s assume for the moment these were both self-published endeavors and thus the author had total approval control. Both stories handwave their magic systems. Both stories have Mary Sue type characters who are somehow super special despite humble/nonspecial backgrounds. Both have the tension of guys she likes being totally out of her league, and her fumbling to figure out what she wants out of her life.
The biggest difference between these novels is the way they’re packaged.
Dark, brooding cover and Serious Drama blurb vs bright, cheery, sparkley cover vs No Bones About it Fluff blurb.
Guess which one I went into expecting far more than was delivered? Yep, the first. I found myself being more analytical on it from the start, because I expected it to have depth, and was disappointed when it felt like a kiddie pool. There’s nothing wrong with lighthearted books… in fact, quite the opposite. The ones I’ve actually recommended in my internship have mostly been lighthearted, fun romps that didn’t pretend to be anything more than that. Setting reader expectations is absolutely key. I won’t read a romper book when I’m in the mood for tense drama, and I don’t want to read a tense drama when I’m in the mood for lighthearted fun. Maybe I’m strange, because I do read across genres so much, but it seems like a simple and controllable factor. In publishing, so much can be beyond your control. Why set anything up for failure you don’t need to?