Part One was the delivery of promises and Part Two was about the promise itself. Part Three is about the breaking of promises or what I like to think of as When Good Authors Go Bad. There are spoilers in the post below, so reader beware.
There was a lively discussion back in September about what constituted a promise from an author. I argued that authors, by their books, make implicit promises to readers. Readers buy into those promises and look for a similar evocative feel each time they pick up an author’s book. I believe this is why series are so successful. Authors did not like this pigeonholing of their writing skills and there are certainly authors whose brand or promise is to write different stories each time. Inevitably, though, the need for a brand remains. Angie W reported from the NJRW agent panel that agents are looking for authors who are actively seeking to create a brand for themselves.
Jill Monroe had a hilarious take on this. Apparently she refers to her book, Share the Darkness, as STD. It finally took one of her friends to point out the inadvertent “brand” she was giving her book, particularly given the word “share” in the title. Blue Moon offers an online article called “The Basics of Author Branding” which stated that branding was the creation of an “emotional velcro” wherein just the author’s name, by being associated with something positive, can get a reader to buy the book, regardless of the contents.
Of course, negative associations can happen which lead a reader away from buying a book. Or lopping off a writer’s name from the AutoBuy list. I’ve compiled a short list of examples. I am sure other readers have better ones or that some may take exception to my list.
Randomly killing off main characters. Charlaine Harris wrote a cozy mystery series featuring Roe Teagarden, a librarian who solves mysteries. She was introduced as a southern widow lady in her 30s. During the series, Roe fell in and out of love with different individuals but seemed to have finally found her match with Martin. Roe hadnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢t had much relationship success and her connection with Martin was a relief. In a Fool and His Honey, we see the two married and enjoying their new lives as newlyweds. The end of the book, however, ends with Harris killing Martin off. Like one Amazon reviewer said, I kept waiting for it to be a dream sequence. Another amazon commenter stated
As an author, Charlaine Harris has the right to take her characters and storyline wherever she desires….as a reader, I have the right to say that she’s gone too far, and never pick up another one of her books.
According to a Crescent Blues interview, Harris admits that A Fool and His Honey is her most reviled book but she just wanted to do it. One of my friends says that with Harris, you have about 4 books until she totally screws things up. We are eternally grateful that the Shakespeare series didnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢t sell well and Harris wrote only 4 books in that series. She didnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢t have the time to eviscerate all that we fans have grown to love. Her Southern Vampire series is a perfect example of HarrisÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢ inability to stop ruining her series. Sookie Stackhouse is becoming a laughing stock, a character whom EVERY male wants to bone and whose powers seem to grow with every book. Hmm. That sounds like a suspiciously similar fictional character.
- Breaking your own rules. Laurell K Hamilton is my best example of this although I am pretty sure it happens all the time. Anita Blake began as a tough nosed necromancer with very human vulnerabilities and an attachment to furry stuffed penguins. Her greatest fear in solving mysteries and fighting beasts was losing her humanity. The series also had a great underpinning of romance. There was a love triangle of sorts between Richard, the ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œnormalÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚? one (as normal as a werewolf could be) and Jean Claude, the undead vampire.
Then LKH got divorced, proceeded to eviscerate the character of Richard (LKH had publicly declared her husband was the basis of this character), turned Anita into a sex fiend who had to have sex to feed her ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œarduerÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚?, brought in another character called Micah to represent her new husband, gave him the biggest dick possible, proceeded to give interviews and blog about her personal sex life and how that it formed the basis of her books (ugh TMI!!!!) and basically ruined one of the best female urban fantasy series going at the time. Note: Ms. Hamilton currently denies her ex husband being the inspiration for Richard despite having said this repeatedly at book signings early in her career.
- Moving to mainstream and being dismissive of your romance roots I started reading Iris Johansen in the 90s when she was writing for Loveswept. One of my earliest memories of her books is Wild Silver featuring a very bratty heroine and an overbearing but impossibly sexy Russian. Johansen authored some favorite epic romances, not the least of which would be the Wind Dancer series. She moved into suspense for good with the hardcover publication, The Ugly Duckling. When the Wind Dancer series was republished, Johansen rewrote the book and removed many traces of romance, particularly the sex scenes. She has been dismissive on her romance roots and prefers to call her past books “romantic novels” instead of romances. I find that a bit humorous.
- Gone Fishin. I am pretty sure that Susan Johnson and Joan Wolf are just phoning in their books. Wolf is recycling characters, plots, and scenes. Susan Johnson hasnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢t published a book with a footnote since the 90s. These two very good authors works have been virtually unreadable for the last five years. Authors said that the only promise that authors owe a reader is a good book. Johnson and Wolf seem to be intent on violating that basic promise in the worst way.
- The invasion of the body snatchers. This happens when an author builds up a certain character in a series and then when the character gets his or her own book, the character changes. Two examples of this would be Wes from Suzanne Brockmann’s Tall Dark and Dangerous series and Travis from the Crazy series from Tara Janzen. Wes, in all the preceding novels was short, short, short. In his own book, he miraculously grew to several inches. His height was an issue and part of his character in the past and rather than dealing with it and making Wes attractive because of it, or in spite of it, Brockmann cheats and makes him taller.
Travis, in the Crazy series, started as sensitive artist who had never handled a gun and whose sole business was sexual imprinting (whatever that was). A few books later and he is a covert op trained by the Steele Street guys to kill without hesitation and to carry out delicate and secret missions. Additionally, a romance that was given a lot of page time in a previous novel has been completely shunted aside. WTF is my response.
- Writing about an adulterous deceased husband. I will never know why Stephanie Laurens chose to write the story of the marriage of Devil CynsterÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s parents, Sebastian and Helena. We know from the DevilÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s Bride and Scandal that Sebastian cheats on Helena with some woman in Scotland and then dies a relatively young man. How is this a romance? It violates the very basic premise of the HEA because we know that they don’t live HEA, not only does Sebastian cheat and beget a child with another woman that Helena is given to raise, but he also dies. What is worse is that the cheating episode and subsequent offspring of the adulterous affair is NEVER touched on in The Promise in a Kiss. Another WTF.
Making the reader feel stupid. I hate being made to feel stupid. Call me ugly, foul smelling, a bitch and IÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢ll laugh it off. Call me stupid and it stings. Making me feel stupid by reading a book and I will be angry. I suspect other readers are the same. In Eloisa JamesÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢ book, Taming of the Duke, the hero masquerades as his brother in order to woo the heroine. The demasking doesnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢t take place until the very end and many, many readers were very confused about this wondering if they could really believe in this HEA which seemed so contrived.
James wrote a spoiler trail which takes you through the book and points out all the obvious clues that indicate that the hero knew it was Rafe almost all along. She also wrote another chapter which is available online and to those who buy the reprinted version of the book. I am guessing if you have to write a spoiler trail and another chapter that it wasnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢t that obvious.
All of these authors are hugely successful. None of the above authorial actions seemed to have affected the authors much, if at all. Readers won’t abandon an author who has broken her promise so long as the author has a history of keeping the promise throughout a number of books. One misstep for an author without the same history and the author is summarily cut off from the auto TBB list. For me, it took 4 single title contemporaries for me to fall out of love with Julie Garwood. Her promise of a good story no longer held true for me. Charlaine Harris broke the reader/author bond with A Fool and His Honey. I don’t buy her anymore, contenting myself with reading her here and there from the library because I just don’t trust her to carelessly take out my heart and stomp all over it, and not in a good way.
When a reader says that an author is uneven, she is really saying that author hasn’t fulfilled the promise with each and every book. There are alot of readers who bemoan the loss of an author to a different genre. Usually it is a favorite author going from romance to mainstream. You hear alot of comments where readers feel betrayed and angry. That’s because readers felt that they had exchanged promises with authors. Authors were to write romances and in exchange, the reader would promote the heck out of them, buy them in hardcover, give them away to friends in conversion packages, release Internet fire bombs on any opposing online commenter, and generally love them forever. The reader didn’t get the memo that the exchange of promises is over and the reader is MAD.
To authors and publishers, I say, mess with your promises at your own peril. You can’t know that it will have a positive outcome.