I recently came across a phrase somewhere on social media, “When you buy a book, you buy a promise.”
It started me thinking about what we promise to readers when we sell them a story. While we all know that book ‘buying’ is a separate hobby from book ‘reading’, every author has to assume that sooner or later, the reader will make time to read the stories they buy and the manifestation of the promises in the book description will determine whether they ever want to read another of the author’s books again.
The purpose of a book description goes beyond just making a sale. The description sends the reader’s imagination into speculation about the story to come. This raises expectations in the reader’s mind. To some extent, the reader has already told themselves a story before the author gets a chance to give them the details and a few surprises.
Readers have imagination, more or less the same as writers, so many details of a story or character are filled in by the reader’s interpretation of the words on the book blurb or the first few pages of the story. We make promises to those expectations when we choose the genre, approve a book cover or write what our story is about.
For example, if a reader buys a book from the Fantasy section, they expect to go on an adventure outside of normal reality. They might encounter wizards, dragons, djinn, fairies or other mythological or magical creatures, depending what the book description has promised. If, on the other hand, they choose a mystery, they are promised a secret to uncover and a puzzle to work out from clues dropped into the interactions of the characters.
Many Romance readers would feel cheated if they didn’t get a happy ending, no matter how excruciating the emotional ride to get there. Similarly, Historical Fiction readers expect to experience the time and place where the story is set and can be let down if the writer doesn’t do sufficient research to offer that atmospheric journey.
Even the book cover art issues a form of promise. A dramatic depiction of a sword fight suggests exciting battle scenes, while a shadowy figure in a doorway looking over a prone body raises expectations of a murder or crime scene. An image of a beautiful beach scene implies a very different kind of story.
Even colours and fonts alone can promise a specific type of story. I recently acquired a deluxe hardcover edition of The Time Shifters Chronicles by Shanna Lauffey with an Eastern spine pattern in gold and shades of blue that looks awesome on the bookshelf, but more importantly, puts me in mind of exotic peoples and strange, perhaps even fantastical adventures. Having read the series already, I know this is a promise kept and one I will remember every time I see those book spines on my shelf, waiting for me to return to those adventures and experience that world again!
This is something I kept in mind when choosing book cover art for my first novel, Dance of the Goblins. I had seen too many Fantasy book covers that while they were amazing art, didn’t accurately portray the characters or events in the story. I wanted artwork that accurately promised what to expect from my story, because I always keep my promises.
I ran a contest on deviantart.com and received several excellent submissions. The winner depicted one of the most important aspects of the plot: The Dance. For the goblins, The Dance is a Shamanic experience and an important part of their culture. Not only was the artwork top level, but when I looked at the picture, I could hear the drumming and feel the trance induced through the freeform dancing in the goblin caverns.
As a reader as well as a writer, I look to book cover art and plot descriptions to make my choices of which books to buy. Every one is a promise of what I can expect from the story to come. Sometimes even the author’s name is included in that promise, as we all have favourite authors whose work we consistently enjoy.
What do you look for when choosing your own reading material? Do you think about the promise you make to readers when choosing your own covers and writing descriptions? Let’s have a discussion, both as readers and as writers, in the comments.
Books available at: