By Paul Goat Allen
So, while the content included in this blog seems to be stating the obvious—it’s not always apparent to writers who have had their heads immersed in their respective writing project for years. (Insert “can’t see the forest for the trees” idiom here.)
I’m talking about understanding reader expectation: knowing what narrative attributes readers expect when they’re reading a particular kind of novel, and what aspects of a release satisfy that expectation. Ultimately, reader expectation is of monumental importance since it’s what oftentimes means the difference between readers purchasing your novel or not.
The first attribute is the most obvious—narrative content. Romance readers, for example, expect certain elements in their literary fare, like a deep focus on the relationship between the main characters and some form of an HEA (happily ever after). Thriller aficionados look for relentless pacing and tension, and plenty of bombshell plot twists. An obvious expectation for horror fans is a storyline that, in some way, explores the dark side of human nature.
A romance with little focus on the primary relationship or a lethargically paced thriller are guaranteed to bomb commercially—and that’s because they’re not satisfying reader expectation.
Going one step farther, it’s your job as an indie author to make sure that potential book buyers understand quickly and clearly that your storyline meets the reader expectation of that specific category when reading your novel’s back cover copy and/or synopsis.
After decades of reading these back cover blurbs, I’ve learned to spot trigger words that are ingeniously planted in the text—words that almost work on a subconscious level to hook potential readers. Erotic romance blurbs, for example, often include “steamy” and “unadulterated” while mysteries frequently use “complicated” and “investigation.” Words like these instantly condense that expectation down and give potential book buyers a glimpse into the reading experience to come.
Rascal on the Run by Howard Tate Scott—which recently received a starred review from BlueInk—is a perfect example of satisfying reader expectation immediately through a strong and clear synopsis. The first sentence conveys exactly what readers can expect—a legal thriller set in the South.
“Drawn into a web of small-town secrets, family drama, and the rusted tentacles of the Dixie Mafia, a young lawyer is forced to confront his own notions of justice, freedom, love, and sobriety…”
The trigger words here are obvious: “small-town,” “drama,” and “lawyer.”
“Peter Harris is a young, nerdy physicist with big dreams-and those dreams have finally come true. He has invented a ‘replicator,’ a machine that creates items for human survival using sub-atomic particles…”
Checklist #1: Ask yourself this—does your novel’s content meet the reader expectation for the specific category? How about your synopsis and back cover copy? If that reader expectation is not met, chances are good that your novel will be a commercial failure.
The second and third elements of satisfying reader expectation are intimately tied together—title and cover art.
The significance of a good title cannot be understated. The same goes for cover art—I’ve seen so many mediocre novels sell well because of a catchy title or stunning cover art. Both of these elements are directly connected to reader expectation. Readers absolutely do judge books by their covers, and by their titles.
But for a title—and a cover—to be successful, it needs to work within the confines of the expectations of that category, be it science fiction or epic fantasy or historical mystery, or any nonfiction category for that matter. Readers need to know what they’re getting when they pick a book up, or when they view the thumbnail on Amazon.
Will an erotic romance entitled Home Renovation Made Easy with a cartoon image of a red house surrounded by a white fence sell well? Probably not, because the title and the cover art don’t fulfill reader expectation. But if the title were changed to House Rules with a picture of a scantily clad beefcake standing in front of an open front door with a devilish grin on his face, well, that changes everything, doesn’t it? Sales are all but guaranteed to increase. Why? Because title and cover art meet reader expectation.
I was recently contacted by a debut novelist, the pseudonymous Hieronymus Hawkes. I met him years ago through Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction program, and although I never had him as a student, I remember having some great cafeteria conversations with him. When he asked me to do a critique of his upcoming novel (a science fiction thriller), I told him that I would when I had some free time—and, when I did finally read it, I was blown away by the quality of story. I loved it. An excerpt from my review is below:
“…Hawkes’ debut novel is an adrenaline-fueled near-future science fiction thriller that revolves around a revolutionary neurochip that has become so popular, it’s illegal not to have an implant. The chip does a variety of things, including manipulating hormones (who wouldn’t love a regular rush of endorphins?) and logging every moment of a person’s existence onto a lifelog… Readers who like cerebral thrillers like those by Michael Crichton should check out this impressive debut.”
But the title, and the cover art, missed the mark entirely when it came to reader expectation. The original title, Only a Little Blood, sounded like crime fiction, not science fiction. I called him and shared my thoughts. He agreed and ultimately changed the title and cover art to reflect that science fiction thriller vibe. The new title is Effacement and the cover art literally screams out SF thriller.
Hawkes explained the issue: “I have been playing with titles and cover art ideas for years. I started the first iteration of this novel in 2013, so it has been a while. I counted and I have had 14 different working titles for this book.”
Deciding to “lean into” the thriller aspect of the novel, he went with Only a Little Blood, and a cover that featured a stark winter landscape. After deciding to go with a more science fiction thriller title and cover art, he changed the title to Effacement with a stylized circuitry design as cover art.
He concludes, “I have had several people tell me they think the new cover is not only more suitable for the subject matter, but is actually better.” And he adds, “Breaking in as a new author is extremely difficult. Book sales are up online, which is good, but it is easy to get lost in the masses. Having the title and cover to match is key to catching a reader’s eye, and it makes a promise to the reader that they are going to get a particular type of story. Not matching the cover and title to the right subject matter in the interior breaks trust with the reader.”
Checklist #2: Does your title convey, in some way, the kind of narrative that readers can expect?
Checklist #3: Does your cover art accurately reflect, tonally or thematically, the reading experience within?
These three aspects of meeting reader expectation seem so obvious, right? But I review novels that fail in one or more of these categories frequently. If your goal as an indie writer is to make money selling your work, it would behoove you to release titles that satisfy your readers’ expectation, whether it be historical romances or adventure fantasy novels or psychological thrillers.
Bottom line: understanding reader expectation, and identifying who your audience is, will make it so much easier to sell your work. Give your readers what they want and they’ll always return for more.
Paul Goat Allen has been reviewing books for more than 25 years. In addition to BlueInk Review, his work has appeared with BarnesandNoble.com, The Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and more. He also teaches in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate writing program.