Recently I received a copy of a publication I had hoped to submit a story to. I wanted to check out this collection, as freelancers are told to do, so I would know the tone and tenor of the stories that made it in print. My expectations were quite high, to be honest. I supposed this particular publication to be of the literary variety, and probably my writing wouldn’t fit, but nevertheless, on that outside chance, I was willing to pay the price of the collection to find out.

When it arrived, I was a little taken aback. The cover was … a bit amateurish, but still, I looked forward to sitting down with it and diving into the stories. Except that most of the publication was not “stories,” but poetry and art work as well. OK, I could live with that, though I now also noticed the amateurish look of the entire publication.

When I finally did begin reading the stories, is it any wonder my mindset, once prepared to consider the stories on a plane above my own writing and admire them from afar, shifted? The look of the publication altered my expectations.

This is a little shocking to me, because I’ve claimed for a long time I hardly notice covers of books or the quality of the paper or the color of the font and such. Yet, undoubtedly those things and others have played a part in creating my expectations for stories.

The real lesson for me, however, is about meeting expectations. In some ways we authors create expectations. If I categorize myself as a fantasy writer, I need to create a fantasy world or some fantasy elements in this world. Otherwise, a reader coming to the work expecting to find a place that is Other would have unmet expectations.

I’m convinced unmet expectations are the greatest cause of reader dissatisfaction.

Which brings me to another point. When an author pitches a book, either to an agent or editor, or on the back cover to readers, he needs to be truthful. Because of marketing, I think we have fallen into hyperbole. But in reality, when I read “the next Tolkien” in an endorsement or a back cover blurb, I’m not sold. I sort of roll my eyes and think, One more in the crowd of NOT Tolkien.

In other words, if a book makes this comparison to the best, I’ve already written it off. Why is that? The claim creates an expectation I don’t think can be met. I’m disappointed before I ever start.

Could be no one else reacts this way. I’m interested, though, in what creates high expectations for others. Reading a review? A recommendation from a friend? The book cover? The forward matter (a cool map, for instance)? The feel of the paper? The back cover blurb? The first page? What gives you your reading experience expectations?

Published in: on July 28, 2008 at 12:53 pm  Comments (7)  
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  1. A cool cover does impact me–I love good covers because I believe they are the first sentence of the story.

    If the book is a new release–and I don’t care if it’s a new writer or an established writer–cheap covers and cheap “newsprint” for the pages immediately lowers my expectations. In fact, just a few minutes ago I was thinking how a hard cover says the publisher has high expectations for the book. They spent the extra dollars to produce it, set it up as something worthy of that extra expense, to present it as something special for the readers.

    The blurb on Wind River is a classic example of over-hype. This story is not a suspense novel. At all. Why did they do that? What it implies to me is they conjecture they won’t be able to sell it unless they “advertise/market” it as “suspense”.

    Some authors just create high expectations. If their first or first two books have captured your attention, you’re excited to read whatever they produce.

    As for those things that don’t affect my expectations: reviews (I don’t read them until I’ve finished the book), depends on the friend as far as their recommendations, the blurb better not reveal too much–just give me a basic, as you said “truthful” tease, and I don’t judge a story by the first several pages–way too soon to pronounce judgment.


  2. P.S. Hard cover doesn’t heighten my expectations, however. A book reads just as well in soft cover. 😉


  3. For me, usually the jacket blurb. I’m like you in that when I read it’s the next Tolkien or Lewis, I roll my eyes. They are who they are because their writing is so, so, well Tolkien and Lewis! Unique, one of a kind writers.

    I don’t put stock in recommendations that come on the book covers. I quit caring years ago when I read the exact same recommendation-word for word-on two books written by different authors.


  4. I don’t read the back cover if I can help it. They usually wind up telling me way too much. I do, however, judge the book by the cover and the movie by the trailer.

    Occasionally I’m wrong. I walked past The Light of Eidon on three different occasions because of the cover (I thought it was a romance). I am, ah, very glad I was wrong on that one. 0=)

    Endorsements and “they’re like so&so” doesn’t tell me anything. And Tolkien and Lewis are…Tolkien and Lewis.

    Cover picture and title, that’s it for me.

    No worries, Nicole, I’m still trying to convince people the Twilight series is not a romance.

    Also, for me it can be a scene, a line, a word-picture…small, simple things. Subtlety, intrigue. Too much in your face and it kinda inoculates me or something.

    Just to flip it around, for instance, my family recently rented a movie we picked strictly for the concept: Great concept. A world-wide earthquake, a missing body, an imperial cover-up, forbidden love, a spy ring, an underground church…

    And for whatever reason, the movie makers completely held back. The movie had potential for beautiful moments and completely failed to deliver, to the point we kinda mocked where we should have been riveted. It should have been twice as long and twice as breathtaking.

    So yeah. There you go.


  5. Great comments.

    Nicole, you brought up a good point about the success of one book creating expectations in the reader’s mind. I think this is the pressure pubbed authors live with, something I didn’t really understand before.

    Interesting about the endorsement blurbs, Cheryl. I’ve started noticing those more, and actually being swayed by them because I know a lot more of the authors who write them. Hmmm. Now I’ll have to pay closer attention to WHAT they’re saying. I know some do precious few endorsements, and those authors definitely carry more weight than the author whose name you see on just about everyone else’s book.

    Kaci, you gave a great example of disappointment. Nothing worse than the premise falling short. Worse than being misled by the cover of a book or a blurb on the back. YIKES!



  6. Becky — Yeah. Another reason I avoid them, I guess. What was sad was I could name whole scenes and elements that were gorgeous, but buried or half-done because of the over-restraint (I think they were afraid to be too violent or gruesome or to deviate too much from historical records or something).

    I liked what the did with the protagonist and his slave, for instance, but in the end they didn’t bring it home. And I love the Saul of Tarsus character, as well as his relation to Stephen. They just…didn’t follow through.


  7. The cover absolutely matters to me. I see the book as an entertainment package, and take a good look at everything but the actual story first. Like it or not, a good cover can set the tone for a book. Every word matters so much on the first page that if you can get a little help from the cover to, if nothing else, visually set a mood, so much the better.

    I’ve been disappointed by seductive covers that delivered no story (I can think of one in particular with a spectacular cover that was so flawed in content that it lessened my appreciation for the artwork!), but, though I’ve read some ugly-looking books that were quite good, I’ll always pick the pretty cover over the plain.

    I know. I’m shallow.


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