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.