Reader expectations

The Robot Empire, Avon Science Fiction Reader cover

I grabbed this public domain image, just cause. Cover from the fantasy fiction magazine Avon Science Fiction Reader no. 3 (1952) featuring “The Robot Empire” by Frank Belknap Long.

As the newest JK Rowling book, Casual Vacancy, hits the stores, it comes at a time when I’m pondering genre and reader expectation. Rowling is in a position that she can publish what she bloody well pleases. In her own words to the BBC, “I had nothing to prove. I don’t mean that in an arrogant way. I can pay my bills every day, I am grateful for that fact. I don’t need to publish.” (from CNN)

I haven’t read the book. I don’t know if this book will cause backlash for her. I don’t know if this will hurt her “brand.” (Is that even possible?) Some would say she should’ve used a pen name, to separate the new book from the very different Harry Potter series. Genre differences, target audience differences. All these things are talked about. Then there’s the idea that, this is her name. She’s the same author, she should be proud and publish what she wants. (Let’s not even talk about the whiplash one could get following the career of Anne Rice).

Once an author is published, in essence, that book now belongs to the world. How much of the author does? Is it Rowling’s responsibility to continue in her original genre and to publish books targeted at the same audience (presumably children, though I think Harry Potter targets all ages).

Once an author is published in Science Fiction, how much responsibility does that author have to continue in that genre and fulfill reader expectations? What genres are allowable, if one is an author of SF? Is delving into Fantasy allowed? (some have argued, no). Is suspense? Action/Adventure? If you’re James Patterson, the answer seems to be, Yes. (The Maximum Ride series is SF while his popular Alex Cross series is more thriller/suspense).

What do you think? Does an author have a responsibility to genre?

***

Ella Drake is a dark paranormal and science fiction romance author. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, & Goodreads.

Her Science Fiction Romance, Desert Blade is a near-future post-apocalyptic romance from Carina Press. Currently available SFR: Silver Bound, Jaq’s Harp, Braided Silk & Firestorm on E’Terra. MetalMark, coming soon from Lyrical Press.

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20 comments

  1. My only expectation for authors is that they write what they’re passionate about, the assumption being that their passion will translate to their stories. I may or may not follow them across genres if they choose to mix it up, but they’re entitled to write whatever they want.

    Sometimes I wish authors would write more in a certain genre if I like what they’ve already done, but I’m not entitled to that.

    And career authors are trying to make a living. If they are equally passionate about writing in two genres, but one of them is more lucrative, then it’s prudent for them to make a choice that’s more financially sound.

    There’s a whole other level to genre hopping, though, when it comes to marketing. That’s when the issue becomes more complex. Marketing can constitute a promise to readers about what to expect.

    Strategies that are good for the mega bestseller may not work for the mid-list author or debut author. A newish author trying to build a fan base has to evaluate where the genre hopping falls into her marketing campaign. Will it help, hurt, or be a neutral factor?

    One issue that has me rather confused is the fact that while many publishers place a strong focus on building an author brand, they also create opportunities for authors to shift gears. “Say, historical romance author, paranormal romance is hot–write me a book like that and you’ve got a contract.”

    So I think there are some mixed messages out there about which choices are in an author’s best interest. And as a result sometimes readers end up with having to make a new choice–follow the author or follow the genre?

    However, if an author establishes early on that she’s a scribe of multiple genres, that’s a form of marketing that sets realistic expectations.

    1. I just saw your post when I uploaded mine. Yeah! What you said! Exactly. lol

      1. Not “post,” I meant comment. I just saw your comment. lol

    2. “However, if an author establishes early on that she’s a scribe of multiple genres, that’s a form of marketing that sets realistic expectations.”

      That’s exactly what I personally am trying to do.

    3. Great response Heather! I do agree that marketing comes into play with genre hopping. If a publisher can’t market you, will there be readers to have those expectations? But yeah, there’s the whole thing from a reader perspective about finding an author and wanting more, but they’ve moved onto another genre. It can be disappointing. But I understand wanting to keep it fresh and writing what works.

  2. I think it’s a decision each author has to make for themselves. If they’re content continuing in the same genre, if they have success there and enjoy writing it, that’s their call to make. If they want to branch out, because they’re bored or they have a great idea in another genre, why the heck not? I think a writer’s only responsibility to readers is to write great stories, but they also have a responsibility to themselves and their loved ones not to be miserable doing it. As a reader, I can’t stand it when an author churns out books in a series or in a particular genre “because it’s what the publisher/public wants” but the spark has obviously gone out of them.

    1. What amazes me is how long some series continue past that point that many would consider the spark having left. Maybe genre jumping is a way to keep it fresh, keep an author from burning out.

  3. “Does an author have a responsibility to genre?”

    I write in a few different genres, so I mull on this question pretty frequently. My decision to publish different genres under the same name was purely a selfish one – there was no way I could keep up with blogs, websites, etc. under a multitude of different pen names. My hope is that readers will figure out for themselves what they like or don’t like and act accordingly. I think they’re smart enough to do that.

    When trying to define myself as a “brand” I chose a tagline (writing science fiction, romance and horror – sometimes all in the same story) which I expect will turn off some readers, while acting as a lightning rod for others.

    I chose this specifically to let readers know what they might expect from my writing. I know there will be some stumbles along the way: “I got a twisted tale about psychopaths in love instead of the erotic romance I thought/wanted it to be. One star!” or “Yucky girl cootie romance in my sci fi? Ew. One star!” (Not real reviews *grin*)

    I think Rowling, Rice or whoever should be free to write what they want to write, and publish it under the name readers are familiar with. And readers are equally free to reject or embrace it.

    Interesting topic, Ella!

    1. Agree!

      And, PLEASE, someone leave the “yucky girl cooties in my sci-fi” review for me on Goodreads. I would quote the heck outta that. LMAO

    2. You know, your comments made me think–to make it more complicated, level of heat can add to this. Once a reader expects mild heat from a romance author, is it a jump if that same author writes a gritty erotic romance? Honestly, that might be a harder jump than genre.

      1. I think I’ve had more of a reaction to heat change than genre change. I was ‘marked down’ in a review because a book didn’t have the erotic edge the reader had come to expect from me.

  4. I think hopping within the speculative genres makes sense when you’re trying to make a name for yourself. Try new approaches. See what readers respond to. If you have success in one genre, try to repeat it, maybe focus on that for a while.

    This idea of branding from the outset is all well and good if you’re getting traction in that genre. If you’re not, how long are you supposed to keep plugging away, hoping it works out? Five years? Ten? By which time you’re thoroughly demoralized and wish you’d cast your net a bit wider earlier on.

    Almost everything about writing is a gamble, but putting all your eggs in one basket? Takes more guts than I’ve got.

    Right now I’m alternating SF and steampunk, which aren’t too dissimilar, both of which I love. I see Heather has the same idea. Based on my early sales figures steampunk is romping ahead, so that’ll likely be my focus next year. I’ll still write SF as well–my loyal SF readers got me here in the first place–but you can’t argue with sales.

    And if, worst case scenario, both those genres peter out, I’ll try horror, or fantasy, or action/adventure. Whatever it takes to keep writing and being read…so long as the genre stokes my imagination.

    1. I do tend to agree, that hopping within speculative genres makes sense. I’d think that even if a reader reads SF but not Fantasy, the expectations might not be broken.

      One of the reasons I’d been thinking so much of this topic is that I have what I call geek romances. They’re almost done and I wondered, is it still within expectations for an author of science fiction romance & paranormal romance to write contemporary romance? Beyond the thoughts of genre hopping, I think it falls within the idea of brand, since the main characters all have various forms of geekery going on. What are the expectations around that? It works for me, as an author. I loved writing the novellas. It’s happening, I’m doing it, but I wondered how the marketing might happen.

      By the way, I love a good action/adventure. I vote for that, if you’re looking for new genres!

      1. For me it would depend how much you emphasised the geekdom. I read and really enjoyed a Carina romance set entirely at a fan convention–Defying Convention, I think it’s called. From what I gather the marketing played up the romance and played down the geekdom, but I think genre fans would lap that story up if only they knew about it.

        I’m curious to see how they handle yours, Ella. And looking forward to reading them. Are they out on sub yet?

      2. The characters have a wide range of geekdom. It’s been fun to research how people can geek on vintage clothes or cars, not just on tech or gaming.

        These aren’t on sub. Not yet!

  5. selestedelaney · · Reply

    I absolutely don’t believe an author has to be stuck in one genre. That’s unfair to both the author as well as to readers. Now, if an author WANTS to write in the same genre always, more power to them, but more and more readers fall in love with the way a person writes than just a world or character these days. (I’ve seen several times where authors keep churning out books that have no spark because they’re selling. When die-hard fans are leaving in droves, it’s time to be done with a series/genre, IMO, at least for a while.)

    Having said that, as a parent, I’m not overly comfortable with the same names for middle grade/YA and adult fiction. Book stores don’t always shelve things correctly (as a case in point, more than one bookstore has chosen to shelve 50 Shades WITH Twilight). When the same name is used, it’s too easy for a kid to see the name of an author they love and grab the book.

    However, I don’t think it’s necessary to create a whole new persona. I have two very different author names because that’s what I wanted (and I write a variety of genres under my adult name). JK Rowling has a huge following, so of course she’d be silly to throw that away on a name like Susie Smith. But her first name is Joanne. Had she gone with Joanne Rowling for her adult stuff, the grown-ups would have no trouble figuring it out, but there would be clear delineation between her stuff “for kids” and her adult books. Lilith Saintcrow/Lili St. Crow did something similar. There’s still name recognition without risking the oops-this-isn’t-what-I-thought.

    1. “Having said that, as a parent, I’m not overly comfortable with the same names for middle grade/YA and adult fiction.”
      I completely understand this. And the example of Lilith Saintcrow/Lili St. Crow is excellent.

    2. YA vs “adult” would be the one genre hopper that I’d say requires a name change. I like your idea of using a *slightly* different name. Or, in my case, I was already known as “Jen Hilton” for my jewelry and am featured in art books, so when I started writing “adult” fiction, I used “J.L. Hilton” to distinguish between the art and the writing.

      On a kind of related subject, have you ever had a problem with people assuming you write YA? For some reason, I am pretty regularly coming across people who say, “Oh, I’ll tell my daughter about your book” or “I think this sounds good for my students” and I’m like, “Whoa, no, you don’t want to do that.” I had a ten minute convo with one of my doctors before I realized that he’d been promoting my book to 15 year olds. Well, it’s got video games in it, right? So it must be for kids?

      Anyone else have this problem? Maybe it’s a topic for my next Contact-IF post. 😀

      1. OMG yes! My mum is a private music teacher, mostly for kids, and continually tells all and sundry I write stories set in outer space. Yes, Mum, and they also feature exploding heads, interstellar strippers, and enough bad language to clear a pub on St. Paddy’s Day.

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