Giving Your Readers What You Owe Them

“Give your audience what they want, but not in the way they expect it.” –Robert McKee, Story

One of the most memorable stories I have read was a book called Cryptonomicon, written by Neal Stephenson. But it was almost a book I didn’t finish. The book is about 800 pages long, like most of his books. The first 650 or so pages were so-so, weaving an intricate story that was highly complex and sometimes hard to follow. But the last 150 page…wow! They got you by the throat and didn’t let go. It shook me to the core. I promptly went out and got his three-volume set, the Baroque Cycle.

This series is about banking in medieval Europe. I waded through the first book, trying to be patient. A few things happened, but nothing earth shaking, and I had a hard time caring about the characters. I got halfway through the second book before finally giving up. It was a major investment for me to read THREE books for one payoff, and no reward so far. I had been so impressed with Cryptonomicon, and I kept thinking about it, wondering where’s the payoff? But it wasn’t there. And remember: these books are each 800-1,000 pages long.

So about a year ago, my colleague here at the University loaned me another Neal Stephenson book, this one entitled Anathem. I read about 50 pages before I gave up.  I didn’t have the patience any more. My friend had loved the book, but I just couldn’t invest myself for that amount of time before seeing results.

There are scores of different types of books for different types of readers. I try to tell parents who are teaching their kids to read: “Find things that your child is interested in first. Don’t force them to read stuff that’s boring.” The public library was on my way home from elementary school, and I used to consistently get in trouble because I would stop there for hours instead of coming home. I knew that old library like the back of my hand.

But if you are a fan of romance books, you have certain expectations for the book you are reading. The same goes when you are reading science fiction, or adventure, or a western, or horror. You want your horror story to be, well, horrible. You don’t want it to linger on romance. If you don’t get what you are expecting, you not only will put the book down, chances are you will cross that author off your potential list.

It’s a good thing for authors to remember. As your build your marketing platform, think in terms of what you are promising your readers. What will they get when they read your books? Adventure? Romance? Horror? Whatever it is, make sure you consistently provide it. That’s the way you build a reliable audience. Do it well, and you are on your way to developing a market for yourself.

Like I said, there are many Neal Stephenson fans out there. And I did enjoy Cryptonomicon immensely. But I found that I needed my reward sooner. So I will be looking for an author that provides a “carrot” more often in the book, rather than keeping me wandering in the wastelands, hoping that someday we will make it to the Promised Land.