Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Reader Loyalty

As many of you admitted yesterday on “Use Me, Abuse Me” we all have authors we just keep going back to despite our disappointment. This has led me to try to figure out why, only realize the answer is part of a much larger question, “What creates a loyal reader?”

Let’s face it, every one of our favorite authors probably has a book we like slightly less than the rest. Sometimes this is because it truly is a weaker book, while other times it may be due to changes in writing style, a different editor, a rushed deadline or some other factor. More often than not, this is the book we don’t reread, it’s the one we give away to our friends or trade in at the used bookshop, but it doesn’t stop us from buying the next novel (though it might make us hesitate).

The novel may not be weaker at all, but a departure from the author’s established genre to one where many fans don’t wish to follow. I can’t count the number of times that an author has switched genres and I, as a bookseller, hear about it. Often reader loyalty will bring them to pick up this new book, only to be disappointed by the radical changes the author has made to fit his/her plotline into this new arena.

Is our ability to forgive based on the strength of an author’s backlist? Are we more likely to forgive an author that slumps on the fourth book than on his/her sophomore effort? Will the placement of the slump dictate whether this author is still bought in hardback, paperback, or checked out from the library? And what makes us go back at all, why not quit cold turkey?

Going cold turkey would mean (to me at least) we thought the author was irredeemable. If my abusive author/reader relationship of choice could be proved irredeemable, I would walk away and never look back, but much like cigarettes there are defined addicted qualities that reel me back in:

  • The books represent a calming influence during a point of upheaval: We all have books that we read when we are stressed out or feeling depressed that offer the escape we need. It is only later, when our emotions have settled and we try to reread them that we realize these books are not the GREATEST. THING. EVER, but do, in fact, suck donkey balls. Bring back that stress, however, and you’ll go crawling back to that author faster than you can book a therapy session.

  • The book represents disappointed potential: Once upon a time I “volunteered” to be a teacher’s assistant for a class of college freshmen and reading their first essays had to be one of the most painful experiences of my life. This was not because they were all bad (although some had me wondering if maybe mom or dad had written their kid’s entrance essay), but because no one seemed to know how to trim the fat. Underneath the layers of repetition and hanging threads were some great ideas just waiting to bust free, but it took a lot of slash and burn editing to get to them. This potential is the same thing I recognize in the authors I keep going back to, whether it is in the plot, characterizations, writing style or all of the above. It’s why I keep picking up the next book with the hope that it will be better, that an editor or the writer will have gotten ruthless, taken a page from Carver (just a page, not a whole book which can be a bitch to handle at times), and did a little showing instead of telling.

  • Disappointed Potential Redux or “the first few books were great and then…:” You’re following a series and it is great, wonderful, stu-fucking-pendous. You can’t wait to tell your family, friends, neighbors and book group about it. Then the fourth or fifth book comes out and that worshipful love starts to dim. The plot has started to repeat itself, characters are acting differently without precedent, villains are brought back from the dead for no apparent reason, and there is no end in sight. But you love this series and you’ve been following it for years. You have to know how it ends because each story has advanced the overarching plot. Besides, s/he has to finish the books soon, right?

I’m sure there are many more reasons we go back, or different nuances to the ones I’ve posted above. And we all have our own limitations, the point where we say enough is enough and never look back. Still, I have to wonder what influences that decision and how much we are willing to forgive and forget. If you knew that an author was going through a hard time in their personal life would you be happy that even managed to put out a book (despite the fact that it wasn’t up to previous standards) or would you wish they had waited? Would you have stayed loyal during that wait or moved on and forgotten the author’s name?

The questions are endless, but I would love to read your thoughts on those already posed, as well as any you come up with.


Kendall said...

For me, it's usually "Disappointed Potential Redux" (great name!). I don't want to just quit a series part-way through; what happens next?

I'm okay with authors changing genres, but I want F/SF (with a little H), so I rarely follow them. I'm loyal; if there's a hint of F/SF, then I'll try their mystery, romance, etc. But if not...well, I'm really a one-genre reader, so I just wait. ;-)

Christine said...

I enjoy(ed) Marth Grimes. I tried reading one of her Richard Jury mysteries this week and I ended up skimming it. I haven't read her most current book, but it really seems to me that despite the good writing, the deaths, and the British - all of the things I read her for - the main characters are not really going anywhere. I am getting really, really bored.

Annie Dean said...

I guess it would be attachment, for me. The last couple of Evanovich novels were a little, well, not awesome, but they were familiar and comforting in their sameness. I'll probably keep reading; I call the Stephanie Plum books 'mac and cheese for the mind.' Same with Simon Green's John Taylor. He has some really kickass titles too. But the books don't always live up to the first ones in the series. Still, I keep buying them.

Marta said...

"Going cold turkey would mean (to me at least) we thought the author was irredeemable."

Hi, BSC, I think there's another way to look at this. Some writers have only one or a few terrific books in them. Harper Lee and John Kennedy Toole are examples. Do we think less of them because they only wrote one great book? Nope, we are grateful for that one novel. Other writers only have four or five or part of a series in them.

Heck, that's an amazing accomplishment. To say that their newer writing is "irredeemable" is a harsh assessment.

The writer/reader relationship is two-way. Not only does the writer progress, but the reader goes through things that change our perception of a novel. I read Bridehead Revisited when I was young and read it again more recently. It was a different book to me (though still marvelous).

That said, Jonathan Gash's writing drives me crazy. It is so sloppy, unedited, and idiosyncratic. But I keep going back to the Lovejoy series because of the twisted plots, conniving characters, and his depth of knowledge about the antiques scam business.

Colleen Gleason said...

So...in the case of Disappointed Potential Redux, is the cure for the author to write a new series?

Is it because the characters have grown/developed as much as they can (because maybe the author only meant to write a trilogy, but now has to stretch the series because of editor or reader pressure?)?

Or is it that the author did, as Marta suggests, only have two or three books in him/her?

Any examples of an author saving him/herself after a Disappointed Potential Redux by changing characters/series?

pacatrue said...

I think I am a disappointed potential kind of guy. The main example I can think of is the SF series by David Wingrove called Chung Kuo. Very killer ideas in the first book or two, but, from then it just seemed to wander. Momentous events promised from Book 1 burst on the scene as pussycats instead of a lions. 7 books when probably 4 would have been fine. But I was just sure that the next one would be better and that he'd finally succeed at what he was trying to do. Nope.

But, every once in a while, I still think about re-reading them. Haven't yet.

Diane said...

I'm piping in here as both an author and a reader. What I've noticed as an author is that the story itself matters most to a reader, often more than the writing or the editing or even the structure. My readers love different books of mine because the stories themselves resonate for them. The next story I write might not.

As a reader, i can't say I've given up on any of my long-time faves--I call them the "A" women: Anita Shreve, Alice Hoffman, Ann Rivers Siddons, Alison Lurie, Ann Tyler--but I find that some of the stories don't appeal as much as others. The next one might, though, so I check out the review and buy it if I think it will. Also, as Marta pointed out, readers change and grow. And so do authors. I cringe when I hear that someone is reading a book I wrote 20 years ago. Oh, those simpering, self-absorbed characters! The themes in my life, as in my books, were totally different than they are now. I just hope my readers change and grow along with me.

BuffySquirrel said...

I gave up on Greg Egan. I loved Quarantine (still do, altho the house has eaten my copy). It was full of exciting ideas and has a brilliant twist. But after that it was all downhill. Permutation City was boring to the point of screaming, Distress was an inferior re-run of Quarantine, Teranesia seemed contrived, and as for Diaspora...I gave up. I couldn't finish it. These people repeatedly change their incomprehensible technology and occasionally wander into a local village to stare at the natives, and on and on and on exactly the same. I tried skipping the technobabble and only reading the plot, but found there wasn't any plot to speak of.

So. Five books, out of which I only liked one. He's written more since, but I've always managed to resist, despite the little part of me that thinks 'maybe, just maybe, another Quarantine...'.

Bernita said...

I did that with first year engineers.
Really painful.

Keetha said...

If an author has stuff going on her personal life she needs to work on, I'd prefer they wait and then write the book. I can wait. If it's a great author, I don't forget.
I have wondered what happened to Melissa Bank. Her first book was so enjoyable and fresh. Her follow up, which I really wanted to like, I didn't all that much. Disappointing. Yet if she writes another one, I'll certainly read it.

Susan Adrian said...


I'm sad to say that I have permanently given up on one of my formerly favorite authors. Walked away, not looking back. No matter what is written from here on, it's too late to get me back.

It was pretty heartrending to make the mental break. But it was a series problem. The first was fabulous, the second great, the third so-so, the fourth dreck. And so on. I kept coming back, hoping it would change...but it is rather like an abusive relationship. After a while you've taken as much as you can, and you find someone else or strike out on your own. {s}

Maya said...

You put your finger right on the reason for my attachment to Robert B. Parker. He is the equivalent of pasta y fagioli (macaroni and bean) soup for me. He's comfort food for my soul.

Spencer and Hawk each have a moral compass that ALWAYS points due north (not the same due north necessarily, but due north). Picking up a RBP book is to fall into a routine that is absolutely comforting, no matter what is going on in the world.

I have a friend who owns every one of the Perry Mason mysteries. I read a couple and gagged. They are unbelievably formulaic. However, I now suspect that they represent that same familiar pattern that makes me cherish RBP even while I'm asking myself, "Why the hell am I still reading these novels?"