Reader Expectations

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Feb 26 2009

When talking about sex in your books one reader commented (and I will paraphrase) that one of the difficulties writers face is that the sexiness factor of your first book often determines what level of sexuality readers expect from you in subsequent titles. She’s right. The difficulty you all face when getting published is living up to the expectations of your readers. There is no publicity as good as the publicity you get when you write a great book, and then your next book is even better. Let’s face it, we’re all fickle readers. We have limited incomes and when an author disappoints it’s often difficult to get us to spend our money on the next book.

Does that mean that if you write a hot, steamy book with six sex scenes (say that ten times fast) your next book needs to be hotter, steamier and include at least seven sex scenes? Not at all, it just means that you’ve set the bar of sensuality your readers are likely to expect. It means that you probably shouldn’t suddenly write about a very prudish heroine who will do little more than kiss, and even that is at the end of the book.

Keep in mind though that this post is about a whole lot more than just sex. Writing suspense? Your readers are going to expect the same level, if not a higher level, of suspense with your next book. What about fantasy? Your world building needs to be just as strong in your second book as it is in your first. The minute you become a published author you are writing for a lot more than yourself. You’re writing for your agent, your editor and, most important, your audience. Does that mean you need to write the books they think you should write? Not at all, but you do need to come as close as possible to matching the expectations you’ve now set for them.


19 responses to “Reader Expectations”

  1. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I’ve seen many authors switch from historicals to contemporary novels and, in doing so, they also cranked down their level of sexuality quite a bit. As established authors, aren’t they taking a big chance on losing thier readership or does switching genres, regardless of sexual intensity, do that automatically? I was expecting the same level of sexuality in the contemporary genre of one author as her historicals and ended up disappointed.

  2. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Oops. Sorry for the bad grammer in my last sentence. I haven’t had my coffee yet.

  3. Avatar AC says:

    I guess this is where pen names come in, right? I mean if you’re first book is a suspense but then you get this urge to write a paranormal, should you use a pen name for that book?

    I’ve tried to distinguish between the really hot, no holds barred type of stories and just steamy romantic suspense by creating a different name. Still, I get readers who expect both in either book. There is a high expectation once you’ve published that first book and with each new release the expectation heightens.

  4. I think that’s true as well. And that’s where an author’s voice comes in and plays an important role, not to mention the overall tone of the book itself. Although I’m still trying to get “the call” on one of my full length novels, I strive to make memorable characters in each novel. In my first paranormal novel, I’ve written in 3 sex scenes. Why? because the book called for it and their relationship needed it to happen. Now, almost finished with the sequel to that book, the H/H in this story have danced around the issue, and I’ll write in a scene before too long, but the story itself didn’t necessarily call for sex.

    You have to tell the story, not just drop in sex scenes because you think the market demands that kind of thing now.

  5. Avatar Sooki Scott says:

    I’ve always believed the real work begins once a writer publishes. Until then, expectations from family and friends are low. (And if you’re my mother-in-law, then expectations are laughable.)

    Unpublished pressure is self-imposed—easily rectified by switching to a new book or quitting. (Or alcohol.)

    Authors under contract rarely (if ever) have this option. Not to mention, (but I will) the wrath of a disappointed reader. Publishing isn’t for sissies, which I believe is why the difficult road to get there is important. It separates the committed from the uncommitted. In truth, none of us know which category we fall into until we try. How sweet it will be when we finally succeed.

    Thought-provoking post, Jessica. As always, my thanks.

    Goodness, my word verification is ‘dying’. Holy crud!

    Confucius says; man who drive like hell, bound to get there.

  6. Avatar ryan field says:

    It’s weird how on time this post is for me. I’ve been going over a situation like this all week.

  7. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    I’m doing this right now, and I’m definitely curious to see how my readers will react. I broke into publishing with erotic paranormal romance — I’m currently writing a story that’s not erotic, though still paranormal, and will be doing it under the same name. I’m hoping that the switch from trade sized (for the erotic) to mass market for the straight paranormal will signal readers to expect something different from me. Since the new series won’t debut for at least a year, I’m hoping I have time to get the word out that the new books will be a lot different. From a writer’s point of view, I think it’s worth the risk to have a chance to try something new.

  8. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I’ve finally had a chance to read through the old posts of query pages, which were a HUGE help, but I noticed that there werent any synopsis examples posted that I could find. Since this is concidered a crutial portion of your submission to an agent and editor, it would seem likely that someone might be able to give a good format for a well known book, like Dickens or something that almost everyone has read, or at the very least heard of enough that they could buy or borrow a copy that they could see the progression through from synopsis to book as a reference.

  9. Avatar J. Mayhew says:

    I completely agree – I feel the same way about the series that I follow. If the first book is sexy and catchy, I expect that and a little more from the next book. I’m sure it’s hard to keep raising that bar for authors, but the readers to come to expect certain elements in each story.

  10. That is so true, especially if you’re writing a series. You have to be consistent in order to build a readership. It also means you have to stay within a genre for a few books before branching out into a different genre.

  11. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Anon 11:23:

    Check this out:


    P.S. Too funny. The first five letters of my word verification spell a certain word for a man’s body part, which starts with a “p.” (And its not “penis.”)

  12. Avatar L.C. Gant says:

    This post brings up an interesting point. Authors have to walk a fine line between meeting reader expectations and still finding ways to make their stories fresh and surprising. It’s a difficult balancing act.

    On one hand, you don’t want to catch your audience completely off-guard by changing your style too much from one book to another. At the same time, if your stories become too predictable, you risk losing readers that way, too. It’s a skill that comes with experience, I think.

  13. Avatar Jessica says:

    Great post, and so true!

  14. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Great post, thanks.

  15. Avatar Rick Chesler says:

    That’s part of the fun, though. As a writer, you want each book to be better than the last, to avoid plateauing or producing the exact same thing repeatedly. Delivering on heightened expectations with each book is what it’s all about.

  16. Avatar Bill Peschel says:

    There’s a couple threads on the Straight Dope bulletin board that might be of interest to the writers here. I can’t find the original one, which a number of fans of Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series discuss the books. Opinions ranged all over the place, but it tended to break down like this:

    1) The fans who still buy the books in hardcover as they appear;
    2) The fans who have been disappointed, but still want to follow the series. They wait for the paperback, get the book out of the library, or borrow it from friends.
    3) Those who have given up.

    this thread asks the musical question “Why is there so much hate for Robert Jordan’s series” It’ll give you an idea of the range of responses.

    Anyway, the point (if there is one) is that the most popular authors can get by with subpar work, and still get the publishing deals. Look at the reviews for the last few books by Robert B. Parker and Patricia Cornwell.

    Of course, 99% of the writers don’t have that comfort. Each book needs to be as good as you possibly can make it, especially these days.

  17. Avatar Anonymous says:

    You know, my worry is how much sex is too much sex for any one given genre. And along with that, what types of sex are acceptable in each genre.

    I worry not about how much or how little sex (I think passion for the story, the characters, and the readers shows regardless of the type or number of scenes) but about what’s acceptable and what’s not.

    Is M/M sex okay in “commercial fiction?”

    Is masturbation considered okay in “commercial fiction” or is it taboo?

    What about frottage and other semi-sexual encounters that do not culminate in coitus? Are they okay in a vampire urban fantasy novel, or are they always no-no?

    What’s off limits if you don’t want to end up an author who writes formula romance novels for female audiences only?

    I wish I knew the answers.

    Can anybody enlighten me?

  18. Avatar Kim Kasch says:

    Ohhhh…I’d better be careful then switching from MG to YA to MG

  19. Avatar Anonymous says:

    This is nicely informative, and rather subjective it also gives a writer something to think about.