You can’t please all readers all the time

Over at JA Konrath’s blog today, Joe talks about keeping your readers happy by giving them what they expect.  After writing two books that featured serial killers, he says:

 “But in DIRTY MARTINI, I have no serial killers, and now I’m concerned my readership is going to say, ‘We expected serial killers—where are the serial killers?’

“As writers, I believe we owe our readers something. We have to walk a line between giving them more of what they liked, and giving them something new.”

Unfortunately, no matter which line we walk, some reader somewhere is going to whine and complain about our latest book.  And boy, have I been at the receiving end of those complaints.

After writing three medical thrillers (HARVEST, LIFE SUPPORT, and BLOODSTREAM) I wanted to try something completely different.  I had a story I couldn’t wait to write, about a subject I’ve long been fascinated by: space travel.  GRAVITY was still a medical thriller, but it happened to be set aboard the space station, and there was no villain involved.  No evil guy, no dastardly conspiracy.  I loved that book. 

But the readers?  They complained, oh how they complained.  “This isn’t like your other books!  We didn’t expect this!  Why did you do this to us?”  I had not met their expectations, and they were pissed.

So next I wrote THE SURGEON.  Not a medical thriller, but a crime thriller, with a serial killer.  Fresh complaints came in.  “This isn’t a medical thriller!  This is just a serial killer novel!”

I followed it up with THE APPRENTICE, featuring another serial killer.  Now the complaint was: “She wrote the same damn book again!”

Then came THE SINNER, about the cover-up of a corporate disaster in India.  No serial killer in this one.  So guess what the complaint was?  “Where’s the serial killer?  I wanted another serial killer novel!”

With THE MEPHISTO CLUB, I tried to do something different yet again.  I wanted to bring archaeology and Biblical history into the story, subjects that I’ve been fascinated with since my years as an anthropology major in college.  I wanted to skirt the line between the real and the metaphysical.  

Naturally the complaints came in.  “You stepped over the line!” “This one was too weird, too different!”

What’s the lesson here?  It’s this:  readers can be a cruel, nitpicky, bunch.  They will punish you with one-star Amazon reviews no matter what you write.  Write two similar books, and they’ll complain you’re uncreative.  Write a wildly creative book, and they’ll complain you stepped over the line.  They’ll complain if there’s a romance subplot.  They’ll complain if there isn’t a romance subplot.  MEPHISTO CLUB was called “nothing but a Harlequin romance” by one reader.  Another reader complained that it was graphically gory and upsetting.  Yet another reader called it a blasphemous attack on Christianity.

They were all talking about the same book.

So my advice to Joe (and every other writer) is this: just say to hell with it.  Don’t obsess over trying to meet readers’ expectations, because someone’s going to complain no matter what you write.  So you might as well write the book you want to write, the book that will fulfill YOUR expectations.  Because you’re probably the toughest critic of your own work, anyway.

And to all those nitpicky readers, the ones who think they’re so much smarter than the writer they’re complaining about, here’s a revolutionary idea: go write your own damn book.

20 replies
  1. dsurrett
    dsurrett says:

    I was in a session at a recent writers conference where you talked about the research behind “Gravity.” I was so intrigued I picked up a copy the next week – and I wasn’t disappointed. It was great!
    As a minister I didn’t necessarily agree with all of the theology in “Mephisto,” but thought it also was great. People need to realize novels are FICTION.
    If people look for something to disagree with, they can find it anywhere. I read to enter someone else’s world and see what’s going on there.
    Tess, with your track record I hope you’ll go with whatever idea pops into your head next. Whatever it is, it’ll make a tremendous book!

  2. sabrinawstan
    sabrinawstan says:

    Hi Tess
    Sometime later, when you have the time, can you talk about how a writer can improve his/her manuscript to get noticed and accepted by publishers?

    Is it the manuscript? Or the pitch letter that will get you somewhere? Or a bit of both?

    Many authors want to make it big, but somehow there are equally also a high failing rate.

    Cheers

  3. Barbie Roberts
    Barbie Roberts says:

    My response after reading “Gravity” was that this was a book I’d love to see made into a movie. And I don’t think that about most books I read. I was really disappointed that the option on this book didn’t pan out. Of course, there’s no guarantee that, if made, the movie would actually resemble the book Tess wrote. Still, I found it to be a thrilling, couldn’t-put-it-down read.

  4. Charissa
    Charissa says:

    Religion is something that gets everyone uptight, the amount of debates just inside our own family on different religious belief(s) is countless.

    See, my aunty would be one of the (few) people to complain about your book, The Mephisto Club. Not because it isn’t beautifully written, or a truly amazing, and unique story, because it is. (Haha, she would secretly think that like I do!) But she would get uptight and feel like she had to defend her beliefs. She would most likely twist the story around in her mind until the book actually ridiculed(sp?) her religion, or her beliefs. When really, it doesn’t at all! And that, is why I’m cautious about who I lend my books too — and who I discuss them with.

    But then, she is just one person, and I know so many people who just love The Mephisto Club. Including my Gran who just couldn’t put it down — and says it’s her favourite so far!

  5. Allison Brennan
    Allison Brennan says:

    I actually was surprised when a month or so ago you posted about people being upset with THE MEPHISTO CLUB because of religion. I’m a practicing Catholic and I had no problem with the story; in fact, since I do believe in the Devil and demons and forces of good and evil that are not human, I was completely caught up in the story. I thought it balanced the metaphysical with “see it to believe it” beliefs very nicely, and I certainly wasn’t offended.

    My mom didn’t like it as much because she doesn’t like ANYTHING with a paranormal element. She also didn’t like Nora’s paranormal trilogy nor does she read the JD Robb, but loves everything Nora writes.

    It’s the old “you can’t please all the people all the time” but if you’re true to yourself and what you want to write, it will shine through in the story and THAT is what people will, in the end, respond to.

  6. JA Konrath
    JA Konrath says:

    Good points, Tess.

    Do you write for a specific reader? Stephen King often says he writes for his wife. I do the same thing (for my wife, not his.)

    While I’m writing, I think about how my demographic (Maria) will react to the story. And on several occassions, my demographic didn’t like something, and I went back and chaged it before sending it to my editor.

    So I do have an audience in mind when I’m writing, and I feel I owe it to that audience to entertain them (her.)

    You need to serve the story, and you need to please yourself, but I think there’s a difference between writing something that a certain percentage of your readers don’t like, and writing something that more than half of your readers don’t like.

    You can visit Amazon and look at your reviews (not less than a four star average for any of your books) and then look at Patricia Cornwell, Anne Rice, and Thomas Harris (who averaged two stars or less on several titles–this is average, not a few oddballs.)

    These authors have let down their fans, and I believe it’s because they didn’t take their readers into consideration. Perhaps they didn’t listen to their editors, because they “knew better.” Perhaps they simply stopped enjoying the writing process, but kept doing it for the money. Perhaps they never enjoyed the books that made them successes, and want to do something different but aren’t allowed.

    Whatever the case, they’re failing their readers.

    When I get the occassional bad review or hate mail, I try to figure out how I went wrong with that reader, and if it is indeed my fault. So far, the few bad things people have said have been few and far between compared to all of the good things. But if my book got 500 reviews on Amazon and averaged one and a half stars, I probably need to take a closer look at what I’m doing.

  7. Jaye Patrick
    Jaye Patrick says:

    I loved Gravity; I thought the idea and research behind it brilliant. It didn’t need a villain, nor a conspiracy, just a tense countdown, and you did it well.

    I don’t think there’s a Tess Gerritsen I don’t like. Why? Because each story is different. It’s the style, the tension, the characters and the story that make them great reads. If you wrote urban fantasy, sword and sorcery, I’d still read it because of the talent behind the ideas.

    Only bad writing deserves criticism. If I don’t like the subject matter, I won’t read the damn book! And hey, it’s my choice, the writer has nothing to do with that.

  8. Jude Hardin
    Jude Hardin says:

    If I had to pick a favorite, Gravity would probably be the one. I thought it was awesome.

    Great post here, Tess!

  9. GerritsenFever10
    GerritsenFever10 says:

    Being the bigmouth that I am (also being an avid and voracious reader) I have to respond to your blog. I love what you write and I will follow your novels wherever you choose to take them, just as I do with Stephen King and others. But to react that way to your fans is really like kicking yourself in the behind, don’t you think? I mean, we buy your books, and if no one bought your books you could be published until hell froze over and not get anything of it. The very few idiots who gave you bad reviews had to read your novels first, right? So saying that, even the bad reviewers payed money to read what they thought was mediocre, or horrible. So us readers actually have a duty to voice what we think about your novels (albeit some people are damn too cruel about it) so that you can judge whether writing a different type of novel is worth losing a lot of money (and fan base) over. Those readers who respond to your novels with hatred shouldn’t be given the chance to respond at all. If I were to give you criticism about a book you wrote, it wouldn’t be hate filled, but more constructive than anything. As I have nothing bad to say about your writing, I’ll end here. But you, Dr. G, are an amazing writer, and if I were you (which I could only dream of being so good) I wouldn’t give those nasty, spiteful readers one chance to offend me. But I’d think constructive, helpful criticism humbles authors to the fact that even though you’re a New York Times Bestseller, you are still just like everyone else; human.

  10. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    tess-you couldn’t write the same book twice if you tried-you’re too eclectic minded and intellectually adventurous for that-so you’re in no danger of falling into a rut,like some writers do-as Admiral Farragut said at Mobile bay-“damn the torpedoes,full speed ahead”!!

  11. rxgoof
    rxgoof says:

    tess–i have to tell you i have NEVER been disappointed by ANY of your books. i am always eager for the next! you are truly amazing and i enjoy reading your work. all i can say, is i am eager for your next book!! and by the way, your books are read by my teenagers who also love them! (it has helped them to love reading a lot more! thank you!)

  12. struggler
    struggler says:

    Tess, first I’d like to say that your blog, along with JA Konrath’s, are the only two worth reading on the ‘net. Indispensable. (or is that indispensible? can’t be bothered to check). I own about 10 of your novels and there’s nothing but great entertainment across the board, I’m ravenous for more. Finally if I may quote that well-worn adage, if there’s one thing worse than people talking about you, it’s no-one talking about you. In the world of literary reviews/blogs/comment etc, there’s (almost) no such thing as bad news.

    The only writer I’ve felt compelled to rant about for a failure to please an army of fans is John Grisham. He had the Midas touch once upon a time, everything seemed to turn into a movie. Then I read The Broker and I felt like shouting at the pages in depair. Not because of the subject matter, but because of the obviously lazy style in which it was written. Joe mentions Patricia Cornwell too, and he’s right to say that she’s slipped in standard – if Amazon reviews are anything to go by, she’s failed consistently for more than a decade.

    You, meanwhile, go from strength to strength. I mentioned the ‘google-ometer’ a few weeks back (which made you five times as famous as a certain NYT reviewer you won’t be sending a Christmas card to), well I have compiled 30 lists on Amazon of all of the works by my favourite writers, and yours gets more ‘hits’ than any other. I have 22 books in your list, starting with Love’s Masquerade and Murder & Mayhem back in 1986….have I forgotten any?

  13. KWalt
    KWalt says:

    Tess!

    Don’t write for your readers. Don’t write as a ‘brand’. Write about what obsesses and moves YOU. That’s the only way to write anything with any juice or life to it.

    Otherwise, you’re just phoning it in.

    Please don’t do that. No writer worth anything wrote for the ‘market’. That’s not where good stories come from.

    Write what scares/intriques/angers/titillates YOU.

  14. JMH
    JMH says:

    Tess: While “to hell with it” is fine, and suits the author, readers who are already hooked on an author will be looking for more of the same, but not exactly the same. An author that strays too far will lose the underlying base readers but get newer ones. It a matter of the author shifting and the readers trying to catch up. You’ll lose some and get some. The important thing is to be happy while you’re sitting at the keyboard.

  15. Tess
    Tess says:

    JMH, that is one of the downsides of an author being “branded” as a particular product. Branding is a terrific advantage, marketing wise, and publishers love it because it makes the books easier to sell. But it does make some writers feel hemmed in as artists. It’s a tough line to walk (as Joe Konrath pointed out), being stuck between responding to one’s artistic drives and responding to what the market demands.

    The trouble is, we can’t always figure out what the market wants. And sometimes, a writer can write something so different, so utterly cool, that suddenly he can make a whole new market. SOMEONE had to write the first time-travel romance, the first vampire romance, and the first religious thriller. It took a bold writer to do something never before done.

  16. knaster
    knaster says:

    Hi Tess,

    It’s Abe. As an avid reader of your books, I have never been more proud of you. That’s right. If they think they can do better, let them try. If not, the hell with them. You go, girl!

  17. Becca
    Becca says:

    I must say, when Gravity first came out I had a very difficult time reading it. However, I have since grown as a reader, and therefore have since read Gravity. I liked it, I did not love it, but I have read worse, much worse. As for those who can’t stand the change of a new novel, how can they ever expect to grow as a reader if they read the same old books. Thank you, and I LOVE your books! 🙂

  18. CherylB
    CherylB says:

    My favorite Tess Gerritsen’s books are the Jane Rizzoli/Maura Isles series. I just finished “The Mephisto Club.” I loved it! I hope the new characters show up in a new series featuring Lily Saul. I hope to see more stories about Jane and Maura, too. I don’t think I ever want to see the last of Jane. 🙂

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