Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
Remember when you were a kid and cereal boxes regularly offered you prizes tucked inside? Sometimes those prizes were terrific–like a glittery ring or a miniature of an action hero. Other times, the surprise was so disappointing, you regretted the four bowls of cereal you ate to locate the prize.
Books are the same way. As a reader, you expectantly launch into the adventure promised in each book, whether it be fiction or non-. Sometimes we’re pleasantly surprised; the book is so much better than we anticipated. Other times…not so much. Or worse yet, the book surprises you with how intensely disappointed you are.
As a writer, you aim for the pleasant surprise, and you don’t ever want to hear about a reader who was unpleasantly surprised. What causes a reader to be disappointed in a book? Generally when the book over-promises or promises the wrong thing.
Over-promising occurs when a book’s title assures you that, if you follow the author’s advice, you’ll become a billionaire, or save the world. Or, more subtly, the title and back cover copy suggest a scintillating adventure story awaits when it’s actually a slow-paced novel that bogs the reader down with a plot that’s unbelievable peopled by equally implausible characters.
Promising the Wrong Thing
With a book that mis-promises, the title, back cover copy and endorsements might promise that the book is about one thing, when it isn’t really.
I read a book a few weeks ago that promised the wrong thing. Well, the truth of the matter is I tried to read the book, but I was so miffed that the book mis-promised, I only made it through 50 pages. The book was a selection in my book club; so I heard responses from nine other readers. Pretty much everyone in the group agreed that the book wasn’t about what it said it would be. But some readers just shrugged and kept reading.
Entitled, The End of Your Life Book Club, the sort-of memoir was supposed to be about a grown son and his terminally-ill mother who spontaneously formed a two-person book club as they whiled away the many hours in medical facilities reading the same book and discussing it. I thought the book conversations might be pretty interesting. I noted in the back of the book a list of the titles discussed and was pleasantly surprised to find I’d read many of the same books. I looked forward to what the mother and son thought of the books.
But, as I plowed my way through the beginning chapters, I was unpleasantly surprised to discover:
- the book isn’t really about the end of your life book club; it’s a tribute to the mother written by the son.
- the books they read were each covered by the author in a few sentences or a few paragraphs.
- several books were raced through in each chapter, even though the chapter titles were each of one book club read. So even the chapter titles were a sad surprise.
When you think about it, the author and the publishing personnel most likely realized more people would want to buy the book club book than the tribute book. So the construct was smart; the book sold a lot of copies. I wonder how many readers, like me, didn’t bother finishing the book. In my book club, 4 out of 10 made it to the end.
What are the lessons for you as an author?
- Don’t hype your title. It’s okay to make a hefty promise in your title as long as your book really delivers.
- Make sure that the title, ad copy, and book’s construct are a true reflection of your content.
- Don’t try to rationalize that your book is kind of like what the title says or the ad copy promises. Make sure that, if you make a promise, you deliver on it.
When did a book surprise you–for better or worse?
Note: I’m at the International Christian Retailers Show today, rushing from one editor-publisher appointment to another. So I won’t be able to join in on the conversation, but I’ll read your responses when I return.
How can an author avoid disappointing readers? Click to tweet.
What core problem in a book causes readers to be disappointed? Click to tweet.
“The End of Your Life Book CLub” seems to try to follow in the footsteps of “Tuesdays With Morrie”and “The Last Lecture” – a noble path, but unfortunately one taken without realizing that while every death is a small tragedy, and every person deserving of memorialization…it takes a storyline to make a book.
Emotion and a sense of loss alone simply don’t do it – with no disrespect intended.
But that said, there are some points to consider when a book doesn’t meet our expectations –
* Are we judging the book on what it isn’t, rather than on what it is? We do this to people – including our spouses – all the time. Why should a book deserve better?
* Are we taking into account our own readiness to understand the message of the title and ad copy? “The Sky Suspended” is advertised as Jim Bailey’s memoir of flying in the Battle of Britain, and the title is from Housman’s “Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries” (Bailey was South African). Sounds like a good adventure, right? Top Gun of 1940!
Not hardly. It’s a sensitive meditation on life, death, and flight penned by a scared yet resolute young man, who often wished himself elsewhere. And for that, it was castigated by reviewers on Amazon, to the point where I was reluctant to read the book, after having been given a copy.
I’m glad I overcame it, and grew into the book. It’s a good, thoughtful read. The reference to Housman in the title doesn’t really conjure heroism, and neither does the poem. It’s merely resolution, resignation…someone’s got to do this.
* Finally, are we holding the author hostage to other titles in the genre? There are standouts, and then there are those who also stand and wait. If we read a history by Stephen Ambrose, then John Eisenhower’s work, read immediately afterward, will seem plodding. But absent Ambrose, Eisenhower’s writing is fine. It’s just very different, more academic, less animated – and yet, the titles and ad copy would make us think them more similar than they are.
Eisenhower wrote for the scholar, and Ambrose for the layman, but there are a lot more laymen than scholars, and guess how the ad copy will slant?
When you measure disappointment…first check the accuracy of the yardstick in your own heart.
Goes for the rest of life, too.
Great points, Andrew. I think the more we read and learn, the harder we become on others’ works. We need to soften our hearts before approaching a work, and go in with no expectations. A book could be written on that! But I’m sure people in the publishing industry come to expect the best … but again “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” (My knowledge is limited, so I really should keep quiet!)
I think, Shelli, that with your open and Godly heart…you should be the one to write that book.
This is a reminder to be genuine. To be real. Now I’m tickled thinking … what a statement for a fiction writer! But it’s also a reminder that “real” is different for everyone. And what one person detests, another will love.
I’ve sat through some boring movies/books, but amazingly walked away with a gem. I walked away with the one thing I needed to hear at that moment. I’ve noticed that God often talks to me in the least likely places!
So true, Shelli, that God picks times and places of His choosing to talk with us.
‘Boring’ is also a function of conditioning. Movies used to have slow starts and opening credits…but when do you see that now? The action starts immediately.
Look at the Star Trek reboot, compared with some of the earlier feature films. Now there is action from the opening frame; in the older films, there was character development, and a gradual transition to the audience’s involvement.
It’s hard to go back; our senses have been coarsened, as our palates might be after a diet of highly spiced foods.
Isn’t that the truth?! In this middle grade novel I’m working on … I start out in the characters’ typical setting. First chapter … their typical setting, and the “action” doesn’t come until near the end of that first chapter. I lead into it. Someone suggested that I start out at the “action” … I’ve thought about it. And maybe I should. But it doesn’t feel right. I have been reading some classics (to learn … and I have much to learn) … think of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe … it doesn’t start out with Lucy in the wardrobe, but by the middle/end of the first chapter, she is there. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
Hey … another question. On the most recent movie of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe … I believe it is when Lucy is walking toward the wardrobe, they take the time to focus in on a fly on a window ledge. I’ve always wondered why. Did you ever notice that? The book writes, “There was nothing else in the room at all except a dead blue-bottle on the window-sill.”
I’ve always been curious about that. I’m odd that way! 🙂
Andrew, I just discovered that there is a blue-bottle fly!!
Sheeli, too ill to be here anymore now.
Good conversation today Janet begin. Help carry this torch.
be the miracle
Praying for you, Andrew.
I’m praying and believing God for great things for you, Andrew
One of my favorite scriptures that always helps me through difficult days:
“Because He has set His love upon me,
therefore I will deliver him;
I will set him on high, because he
has known My name.
He will call upon Me, and I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble;
I will deliver him and honor him.” Psalm 91:14-15
Prayers going up for you now, Andrew.
I very much prefer to have no expectations for a book (or movie) going in. Of course I’m going to have some idea about it–title and genre for instance. Still, I’ve found I always enjoy a book more if I know very little else, and especially if I haven’t been told how much I’m going to “love” it.
I agree that it’s not a good idea for an author (or publisher) to do a bait-and-switch. You can’t stop readers from forming their own (possibly false) expectations, but you certainly shouldn’t help them do so.
With fiction, I find it hard to connect to a story with awkward pacing. When focus is given to details or settings that have no future bearing on the unfolding of the story, it’s hard to stick around.
When I see an opportunity where the author could’ve heaped conflict and drama on the POV character, and chose not to, my interest can very easily wane.
On the flip side of what I mentioned above, In Golden Splendor by Michael K. Reynolds was filled to the brim with dramatic predicaments for his two POV characters. The prevalence of these conflicts and bumps in the road made for a fast-paced, enjoyable read.
Praying for your time at ICRS, Janet. Keep stepping out in red shoes and style. 🙂
My book titles carry the names of the characters I write about. I did plan a change with the second book but one of my sons suggested I should not, so I did not. I think it was a good decision.
You need to be careful, Shelli, in using a book written 50+ years ago as an example of what is selling now. I’m sure you’ve been reading recently published books and that’s what you should be focusing on if you’re trying to break into the market.
On another note, we’re all different types of readers and what appeals to one will not appeal to another. You need to write the book God puts on your heart and trust he knows what he’s doing.
I’ve also found I need to hold my expectations lightly–just because something needs to be written in my life, doesn’t mean it needs to be published.
Thank you, Michelle! I agree. Times are changing.
Excellent points. I SO agree.
I’m reading the post and follow-up comments and nodding. However, what is an author to do when the publisher is the one responsible for the misrepresentation?
I feel for the author of the tribute book. Will his credibility be called into question in subsequent books? My guess is yes. Most readers don’t realize the book is a collaboration with the final decisions generally resting with the publisher rather than the author.
So how do we as authors walk the fine line between regaining the reader’s trust while not disrespecting our publishers?
Kathleen, we, of course, don’t know how The End of Your Life Book Club came to have its title and construct, but I think the author built the book with that structure in mind.
That doesn’t mean the author doesn’t sometimes get caught in a misfire of his or her publisher’s making. Some of my clients’ projects have been titled and positioned in a way that isn’t true to what the author had in mind. All the author can do is strenuously object. For my clients, when I expressed those concerns, the publishers listened. May it always be so.
I heartily agree!
Shelli, I am one of those who prefers the book to start with action. But I also think back to Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder and see where it was important for Wilder to set the scene about the isolation of the Big Woods so that the sights and sounds of the woods and the thought of winter coming would create suspense.
Thank you, Cheryl! Right … I think the first chapter, the “set the scene,” helps explain the “why” of the rest of the story! But I can definitely shorten the “set the scene” … and I have worked on that. It’s evolving!! 🙂
I also had high expectations for The End of Your Life Book Club and was disappointed. Absolutely not the book it was advertised to be. I also wrote a 7-part series last November about a book that disappointed me mightily; part 6 was about the cover image and the back cover copy, both of which were completely misleading. Like you, I was ready to quit reading after the first chapter, but the next day decided I would read and edit it as it should have been. That’s the At Least I Got a Blog Post Out of It Phenomenon. 🙂
I feel fortunate that I’ve only come across a mis-promise twice in many years. One was a celebrity memoir and the other a self-published book on the 2012 prophecy.
One recent book that surprised me is A Comedy of Erin by Celia Bonaduce. It’s a romantic comedy about a playwright turned photographer who is trying to reinvent herself by taking a job producing a reality TV show. It was unique because the main characters don’t really care for each other in the beginning and they aren’t very likeable at the start. By the end, I could honestly say I loved the book because the author did such a fine job creating realistic characters.
My Motto: Bore No One is the reason my stories are “Far Better” when I use fewer words . . . and “Far Worse” when I use too many words.
Mother Teresa got it right:
Preach the Gospel at all times and use words only if necessary.
There is a lot of truth to what you have said, Donnie.
The first thing I have to admit is that I set way too much store by cover art. That’s my fault and not the author’s. However, I’m always disappointed when I pick up a book with cover art that totally intrigues me and the cover blurbs seem to support what the cover art is saying, and then the whole book has a different setting or even genre than what I had hoped.
Thanks for this Janet! Good stuff to consider…I read a fiction novel recently that promised the wrong thing. It wasn’t a bad book, but the back-cover blurb said it was about something that didn’t come into play until the book was halfway over. I finished the book, but I didn’t really enjoy it much. I’ve read many books that over-promised, too.
Janet, I only made it through the first few chapters of that book, then gave up. Glad I wasn’t the only one! I was SO surprised that I didn’t enjoy it.