Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Reader expectations - Romance novels

Recently, I saw a freebie advertised for an author I like, an author I met at a conference when her first book had been published. She's very prolific, and market savvy, and I've enjoyed most of her books, so I clicked through figuring to download. Then I hesitated.

Authors like reviews. They need to see where they're hitting the mark and where they're missing, so even 1 star reviews, while demoralizing, have value. 

We (authors) don't get it right every time. Sometimes we hit a sour note with our readers, and based on the reviews I read of this author's latest promo, she missed the mark. The first review (and I hate when something like this is the first review you see because it's very subjective) said, "... no one had mentioned the 2 sex scenes near the end." She gave the book 1 star. I tossed that review aside because--come on--this is a romance. You have a better than 50/50 chance it's going to have sex in it. Or have reader expectations changed? 

I went on to read more reviews, because that one seemed out of touch with the market. There were other complaints about the book, things I believe should have been in the book description--the blurb. Based on what the reviews said, the cover was also grossly misleading, so now I'm getting a better picture of "what's wrong with this book?" The whole first page of reviews were three stars or less.

So, two points I want to make. 

  • First - Books are put into categories. Romances often include sex. Some people buy them expressly for that reason. The level of stuff "on the page" varies, from erotic, which is all about the sex, to steamy, which means the sex has to be a natural evolution of the romance (but should NOT be gratuitous). These scenes have been part of the romance genre for decades. In the old days, they were referred to as bodice rippers. Nowadays, the women in the stories have much more control over the action (as well they should!).
For readers who don't want the steamy stuff on the page, they can choose a category called "Sweet." There is also the "door closed" phrase, which means when the characters get down to business, they close the door and don't invite the reader in.
HOWEVER, going back to that gratuitous thing - Some authors believe readers expect a sex scene from them and it becomes "obligatory." I'm here to tell you I don't buy into that. Maybe readers are looking for something steamy from certain authors, but if it doesn't flow naturally with the rest of the story, it feels obligatory. It shouldn't be there out of obligation, but rather as a natural course of events between the characters, something that moves the story forward instead of "and then they had sex." (I just read another of this same author's books where she threw in a sex scene near the end because she probably felt obliged to and it ruined the book for me--I'm sensing a pattern...)
  • Second - The blurb tells the reader what the book is about and helps them determine if this is something that would appeal to them. If you leave out an important detail, readers are going to be unhappy. End of story. In the example I'm using, the hero is disabled. He lost a leg in the war. The book cover shows him standing on two feet embracing the woman. Nice romance cover, but misleading. Nowhere in the blurb does it mention the hero is disabled. I learned that detail from the reviews. In fact, in reading the reviews, much of what readers highlighted that made them unhappy was not covered in the blurb--unpleasant surprises. That's a problem. I've read disabled heroes before and enjoyed the stories. Mary Balogh is very good at making this type of man both sympathetic and heroic. Here's one of her blurbs:

"Desperate to escape his mother’s matchmaking, Vincent Hunt, Viscount Darleigh, flees to a remote country village. But even there, another marital trap is sprung. So when Miss Sophia Fry’s intervention on his behalf finds her unceremoniously booted from her guardian’s home, Vincent is compelled to act. He may have been blinded in battle, but he can see a solution to both their problems: marriage."
Marketing books is about setting reader's expectations. It's not an easy balance, but withholding important information isn't always preventing a "spoiler." Giving your reader an unexpected surprise might not be appreciated. 

Readers need to understand what they're buying, what to expect from a genre - that's on the reader. Authors need to properly market their books and let the readers know what they're getting - that's on the author.

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  1. I agree, Karla. Before you plunk down your money (or time in the case of a freebie,) it's only fair to know what you're getting, and if an author includes a scene "because it's supposed to be there" but it doesn't arise organically from the characters and plot, it reminds me of my high school English teacher way back in the day when books that included sex scenes were just getting out of the "It'll arrive in a plain brown wrapper" phase. He said "If you want to write a best-seller, just open the story up, stick in a sex scene somewhere, and that's it."
    I'm glad we've progressed beyond that.
    As for what to reveal in book descriptions--that's always a challenge. Reader expectations vs spoilers.
    On the flip side, I recently placed an order with the Two Blind Brothers where you don't know what you're getting. They have a no-questions-asked return policy, and they donate profits to charity, so I gave it a try.

    1. An intentional leap of faith with no downside! No room for complaining and lots of chance to be pleasantly surprised.