Sunday, November 8, 2015


The promise of books!
The readers website Goodreads is democracy in action. Any reader can post a review, assign stars, and gush great billows of praise—or snark— about a book she or he has read. Every review, from zero to five stars to dnf (did not finish) carries the same validity, and nothing is ever censored for language, grammar, content, or opinion.

I've occasionally heard of a reader launching a vendetta against an author (or vice versa). But Goodreads is a mostly useful place for an author to find out what the Public—as opposed to your friends and family—really think about your book.

The first thing an author learns about Goodreads is there's no such thing as a consensus of opinion. Reviews are all over the map, criticism-wise, at least for my books.

For all the readers who complained about the flashbacks to Captain Hook's past in Alias Hook, there were just as many who loved the historical backstory. For those who accused me of the dreaded "Insta-love" in the love story, there were others who claimed things finally perked up as soon as the romance kicked in. Some thought the thrilling finale made up for the book's dreary, boring beginning, while others thought the drawn-out finale went on forever.

Still, the canny author might discover certain trends threading through these disparate reviews. In my case, the trending theme was reader expectations. Alias Hook was not what they expected.
What do readers want?

Why not? Most of them were expecting it to be a YA (young adult) novel.

Never mind that it was never promoted as YA, that my publisher, Thomas Dunne Books, doesn't even have a YA line. Never mind that it says "adult fairy tale" right on the dust jacket. The subject is Captain Hook and Peter Pan, the genre is fantasy, ergo, according to the prevailing rationale, it must be YA.

This was not necessarily a bad thing. Sure, some readers were indignant about it, as if they'd been purposely hoodwinked. But others praised the difference between my book and the YA genre fantasies they're used to. (Usually in multi-volumes, with kick-ass heroines battling their way through fantastic family legacies, dystopian futures, or sci-fi/fairy tale landscapes.) Many commentators were also pleased by their ability to rise to the challenge of reading it. (One reader—who loved it—proudly proclaimed "this was the first adult novel I've ever read!")

But here's the thing: an author, scribbling away in her bubble, can't possibly know—let alone write to—a reader's expectations. It's out of our hands. Alias Hook was not written with any particular genre, focus group, or reading demographic in mind; the story unfolded the way it wanted to be told as I went along.

Scribbling away in the bubble...
As most books probably are. The whole idea of YA is a fairly recent construct in the centuries-old publishing biz, this odd notion that a book has to be pitched to a very narrow window of age levels. ("Children's," "Middle-grade," and the very recent "New Adult" are also thriving sub-genres, at the moment.)

Books have not always been so strictly stratified. Once upon a time, a book was released into the world without labels, to find its own readership, regardless of age group.

Consider these literary classics: Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, David Copperfield, To Kill A Mockingbird. All are read by teenagers in high school today. Would they have been published as YA, if that category had existed back in the day? Would readers have been expecting Ahab's Daughter: Blood Feud (Moby Dick #2)?

Back over at the Republic of Goodreads, reader expectations color reviews on every page. (One reader complained that because the word "alias" was in my book's title, she was expecting a spy novel. And was, of course, sorely disappointed.)

Neither authors, nor readers themselves, can control readers' expectations. When I switch into critical mode myself, to review a movie or a book, I'm as guilty as anyone else in that department. I feel the pain of those disappointed GR readers. If one's expectations aren't met, it's hard to review the entity in front of you, and not the one that might have been.

(Above top: Childrens Book Week poster, N. C. Wyeth, 1928)
(Above middle: Beautiful Reader by Christian Schloe)
(Above bottom: Art Nouveau poster advertising ink)

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