January 9, 2014

What Are You Looking for in Your Reading Choices?

Stick figure hunting a heart in a maze with text: Choosing What to Read...

Last time, we talked about our reading habits and whether the price of an ebook affects its ranking in our to-be-read pile. (If you haven’t answered the polls with your answers to that question yet, please check out that post.) Today we’ll continue the reading-habits theme with two other issues that relate to reader expectations.

When we think about how we choose books, we often discuss reviews, buzz, recommendations from others, price, etc. Sometimes we’ll admit that we make snap decisions based on the book cover or a blurb. Occasionally, we’ll mention an intriguing title.

One of my readers emailed me yesterday asking my thoughts on whether book titles are important. While I’ve talked about the importance of book covers, I haven’t mentioned titles much, partly because I struggle with coming up with good ones, so I’m not skilled with “what to do” advice on that topic. *smile*

Book Titles: One Aspect of the Promise to the Reader

But Jan’s question is a good one. When we scroll through hundreds of books online, we see a thumbnail cover and a book title. The images of book covers might grab us faster, but (especially if we can’t read the title on a thumbnail) the title under the cover is likely to be the second thing we notice. So I do think they’re important.

However, given my lack of skill in the creative-title department, the best advice I can give for coming up with “good” titles is to know our readers and use a title that adds to the promise to meet their expectations. For example, Regency Romance readers love stories about English Regency nobility, so titles mentioning “lord,” “lady,” and “duke” abound. Those titles let readers know that, yes, this book will hit those buttons.

This echoes what I said about book covers and knowing our reader’s goal:

“Every genre and book category exists and has some amount of popularity because it meets a goal for readers: education, enlightenment, entertainment, etc. Put another way, readers read because it meets their goal.

Understanding readers’ goals for each genre is important when it comes to book covers. A book cover should give the impression that it will meet the reader’s goal. Each genre uses a different book cover style because it’s making a promise to the reader: “This book will meet your goal.””

The Promise of the Genre

As I mentioned in that post, readers’ expectations greatly depend on the genre, sometimes in surprising ways. The list of possible goals for a reader’s experience (education, enlightenment, entertainment, etc.) reminded me of a New Yorker article about author Jennifer Weiner.

Jennifer speaks out about the negative perceptions of women authors and their stories, but her points often apply to genre fiction (as opposed to literary fiction) in general. For example, in response to literary author Claire Messud’s quote, “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble,” Weiner responded:

“Why do we read? … “Yes, to understand the world, and, of course, to meet characters that are alive and visceral. But, at least to me, sometimes we do read to make friends. Sometimes we do read to escape, or find comfort, or to spend time in a world that is a little more fair and a little more kind than the world that we inhabit.””

I can relate to that. Reading, to me, isn’t about trying to expand my literary analysis skills from college. My favorite stories reflect that attitude.

The Multiple Levels of Expectations and Promises

love genre stories. I love feeling connected to characters that, yes, I think of as friends. Like Jennifer, no one could convince me that I’m “Doing Reading Wrong.”

Is my way of looking at reading the only way? Absolutely not. Others are welcome to have different goals for their reading.

But we might gain greater understanding of our readers if we grasp the different levels of goals they might have. On a superficial level, maybe they’re looking for something entertaining, funny, or escapism. While deeper down, maybe they’re looking for a sense of connection, friendship, or hope.

Other genres might attract readers who are superficially looking for education, inspiration, or to learn something new. Deeper down, those same readers might be looking to feel superior, knowledgeable, or capable.

Understanding the Deeper Promise

Those of us who read a lot of writing-related articles have probably noticed conflicting advice from various blogs or workshops. Some say character likability or relatability is all-important, and others point out exceptions. Some focus on three-dimensional characters, while others debate whether characters even need to change over the course of the story.

Those opposite opinions aren’t wrong.

Some genres do focus on tension and plot above all else, while other genres focus more on likability and well-rounded characters. It’s important to understand our genre, especially those deeper needs met by the genre’s stories.

The question—”Do you want to read about characters you like and relate to well enough that they feel like friends?”—and other questions like that get to the heart of why we read. There’s no wrong answer. Really.

What’s important is understanding how those deeper reasons are often the type of promise our readers are really looking to fulfill when they scroll through book sections.

As authors, when we come up with our marketing angles—cover, title, blurb, etc.—we can think about what needs our story and our genre meet on the different levels. Our blurbs can not only hit the buttons of the superficial aspects of the genre (it has a romance or a mystery or a whatever), but the descriptions can also allude to those deeper goals.

If we think our readers are looking to connect with characters who could be friends, then we know the likability factor is important and we could ensure the blurb reflects that aspect. While if we think our story would appeal to those who want to see things in new ways, we can emphasize that aspect in our story whether our genre is science fiction, travel adventure, or inspirational.

In other words, when we think about what our readers are looking for—why they’d read our book—we want to think about the obvious (genre, tropes, etc.) to include in our blurb, cover, and title. But we can also think about the deeper needs and goals that lie behind those reasons, and ensure we include those aspects as well.

For me, I’ll stick with my romantic fairy tales because they make me happy. I want my optimistic worldview reflected in the promised happy endings for characters I relate and connect to strongly enough to that they could be my friends. But your mileage may vary. *smile*

How important is a book title for grabbing your attention? What are some of the deeper reasons for why you read what you read? Does that affect which genres you prefer? What do you think are some of the deeper goals of readers for the genres you write? How can you reflect that in your marketing?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Taurean Watkins


For me, titles are one of the fun and unadulterated parts of storytelling, and I take care in picking them.

A lot of my favorite titles riff on something key in the book (Such as HP) or the budding aspect of characters (Melrose and Croc or Frog and Toad)

I’m not a fan of titles that while may make sense thematically aren’t directly in line with the actual story, in part because I can take them too literary (If you remember my mini editorial regarding “Dances with Wolves”)

I’m still working out my thoughts on the other points…

Stephanie Scott

So many different reasons to read a book! Sometimes it’s research. Or curiosity. Other times I am looking for an escape, a “friend” as stated. Then there are books I read because I will be challenged, or I should challenge myself to learn something if it’s non-fiction or widen my idea of a genre or type of story. I put far more emphasis on a good cover than a good title; rarely do I think a book has a bad title unless it’s just corny, seems over done, or in a recent case, seemed like a sexual euphimism that was inappropriate for a kid’s book, and I think the author just had no idea.

Julie Musil

I read for entertainment, but not the silly kind of entertainment. I love a romantic, heartfelt story. And titles…oh, titles. My favorite title of all time? “Hotel on the corner of bitter & sweet.” Still love that title, which fits the story perfectly.

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