Reader Expectations?

The other day I got an email from a male reader who “finally read” The Soprano Sorceress… and enjoyed it and says he’s looking forward to the others. What was interesting about the e-mail was that this reader — a careerist serving in the military — admitted he’d put off reading the book because the protagonist was female. After receiving that email and then getting the early sales reports on Arms-Commander, I got to thinking matters over. I’ve written a number of books with female protagonists, and frankly, while they’ve sold well, they haven’t sold as well as other comparable books of mine with male protagonists, even though, in general, they’ve gotten far better reviews.

Now… obviously, female protagonists don’t kill book sales in general, or Patty Briggs or Marjorie Liu or any number of other authors wouldn’t be on The New York Times bestseller lists. So, if my books with female protagonists, which get better reviews, don’t sell as well as those with male protagonists, why is that so? I’d certainly hope that it’s not that better written books don’t sell as well.

What I’ve tentatively concluded is that readers form expectations of writers, and when an author writes something that appears to go against those expectations in a negative way, sales suffer. I’d been writing professionally for 25 years when the first book I wrote from a female viewpoint — and, yes, it was The Soprano Sorceress — was published, and I had eighteen books in print by then, all of which featured strong male characters and many of which were military/action oriented. Although I have always written strong female characters, they were usually viewed from the male perspective.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I upset the expectations I’d inadvertently established over more than twenty years. In a way, perhaps I should have been grateful that the fall-off in sales was merely “noticeable,” rather than catastrophic. Part of the loss in readers was probably alleviated because I’d been publishing fantasy for some six years before I took on writing a fantasy with a female protagonist, so that the shift was likely not so wrenching as it might have been to some readers.

And yet, at the same time, why didn’t I pick up more readers from among those who like strong female protagonists? For exactly the same reason! Those readers had likely scanned earlier books of mine and decided they were not to their tastes, and having done so, were not likely to return to peruse later works of mine unless someone called one to their attention.

This sort of expectation-generation, unfortunately, is not helped by current publisher marketing strategies, where all too many authors are encouraged to use one pen name for one type of book, and another for a different type, and where an author’s name is a stringently and narrowly defined “brand.” That strategy is akin to applying fast-food marketing techniques to books, and while it might sell more books in the short run, it definitely has the downside of limiting publication of books and/or authors that don’t “brand” easily.

This”branding” also has the side-effect of effectively reducing reader exposure to a wider range of fiction. For example, I write, under my own name, straight SF, fantasy, alternate world SF, what might be called science fantasy, and I write from both male and female points-of-view, and I use different tenses in different books. Offhand, I don’t know of another author who does all that — not under the same name, although I do know some writers with multiple pen names for differing styles.

In the end, though, I have to ask, just what are readers losing by the creation of such rigid expectations of author names? What discoveries will they never make… what intellectual and mental challenges will they never encounter… what unexpected pleasures will they miss?

11 Responses to “Reader Expectations?”

  1. Michael Bourgon says:

    I don't think it's the expectations, to be honest (disclaimer: I read your sci-fi, and I can't remember how many of those have a female lead).
    I think it's more that people expect female-lead novels to focus more on certain elements than other – not to be crude or rude or disrespectful, but people I know (and, okay, I do this too) expect them to be more touchy-feely, maybe a bit more on the romance side. Regardless of veracity, that's the view.

    I am surprised, however, that you didn't get a BOOST from that, especially given how many Female-lead-urban-fantasy novels are out right now. Doubly so given your name on the cover, since (in my experience) names with initials tend to mark female writers.

    Feel free to flame me – I'm not trying to be incendiary, but rather give my honest take on it. I should get my wife to respond here – she tends to read all your fantasy stuff, while I focus on the science fiction.

    (OT: any plans to do another book tour? Spoke with you on your Chaos tour years and years ago, and enjoyed it immensely)

  2. L.E. Modesitt says:

    There's no reason for me to be critical. You offered an honest and not nasty opinion. I do think my female characters do have more sensitivity, but perhaps not so much as is expected by some readers.

  3. Sanguinius says:

    I think it may be simpler than that…I know I always get /very/ leery with writers who have main characters of the other gender than themselves, and while I hesitate for a moment on females-writing-males, I usually stop and seriously think about males-writing-females.

    And, from my (heh, anecdotal) experience, there's much more reason to worry about male-writing-female books in the fantasy genre. Now, I'm surprised that anyone who has read /any/ of your books would fall into the patterns that built this painful experience, but it's possible they didn't want to be disappointed.

    I generally like authors branching out, and I have decided not to read several books because it was a man writing a female character in a fantasy setting and the cover art and/or the blurb on the back worried me.

  4. Bob says:

    I completed a reread of the Soprano Sorceress series within the last couple of weeks. I find the characters and story more engaging each time I revisit the series. (Although, my wife does not care for it.) That the lead character(s) is female is immaterial. The books are good stories with interesting plots, subplots, characters, and backdrops. These are the hallmarks of master storytellers. These are why we read.

    I'd prefer authors use the same pen name for all their works. I enjoy the artistry, skill, and talents displayed across a range of styles. However, few do it with as consistent quality as you and with such a range of genres. Other favorites who seem to work seamlessly and comfortably in both SF and fantasy are Janny Wurts and C.S. Friedman.

    I have all your books (the SF are my favorites) and have read each several times across the years. If your name is on the conver I know I will read and enjoy. I know I will find food for thought…and reread in the future, enjoy as much or more the next time, and be fascinated by other facets of the philosophy or story.

    When the author adopts another name for stylistically different works, I may miss them. I'm not enough of a fanboy to keep up with such open secrets. The days of Ace paperbacks and doubles @ $0.40 or $0.60 each are long gone along with my youth :) The cost of learning new authors is stiffer and steeper now…and opportunities to read more precious.

  5. Michael Bourgon says:

    Mr. Modesitt, thanks.

    And I speak more in general, not about your novels in particular. The way I figure it, if people read _you_, they're reading you regardless of the novels' specifics. If they don't know you as an author, they have to go by their suppositions and biases. Hence the part about the touchy-feely – in many of the female-lead novels I've read (admittedly few, that's the case.

  6. Diz says:

    Hi, I'm a woman and personally very anti-fighting, anti-war so I can bring a different angle to this discussion. I have been a fan of female-authored fantasy and SF for 20 + years and only began to read your books when the Spell Song series appeared. I don't know whether I am typical of women SF and fantasy readers but I tend to avoid books with war plots. I'd read them and enjoy them for the creative magic or technology but only when nothing else caught my imagination.

    Then came the Soprano Sorceress and I could identify with the thinking behind all that devastation along with the hard choices. I've read and re-read most of the Recluce series now and all the SF books I have found with your name on. It took a female protagonist to open my eyes and help me see past the background of fighting, discovering your wonderful characters and magically believable underlying concepts. You have gained at least one reader.

  7. L.E. Modesitt says:

    Thank you… I do appreciate your comments and insight — and support.

  8. Constance Brewer says:

    I don't make a distinction between gender of writer and gender of protagonist in their novel in choosing what to read. A good writer is a good writer and brings nuance to their characters, no matter the gender.

    I'm disappointed people may not read any military science fiction I may write because I'm female – it's sad I'd have to push my military background as credibility when a male writer gets an automatic pass, assumption being they served, or that they just know that type of thing. We don't seem to be growing out of our gender biases as time goes on. Pity. I can understand a bit better why some female science fiction/fantasy writers choose to use their initials when they write.

  9. Jessica says:

    I may not be representative of a fantasy or science fiction reader, in that I've read lots of genres for years, including military fiction and military sf fiction. I've read both your fantasy and sf books, and like them both for different reasons, since they tend to be somewhat dissimilar.

    While I don't usually discriminate between male and female authors (or the gender of their protaganists), it does seem that other readers do so. I know several women who only read women-authored books. Since all of your books tend to be more "hard" than "soft", either fantasy or sf, I'm not surprised that your female fanbase is not huge.

    As far as "branding" goes, I agree that publishers seem more conservative now than previously. While I try to follow my favorite authors' various pseudonyms, I doubt most readers do, and I wonder if they gain or lose sales by the tactic, all totaled. It certainly is easier on your fans that you write everything under one name.

  10. Caitlin says:

    It would be interesting reading if a study was done about what differences people expect between a male and a female protagonist. It would also be interesting to see what sort of stereotypes come up as a result…

  11. Somewhat Sane says:

    Many of the women in the recluse series were very strong characters, so I find it hard to believe that people would be floored by strong female leads in your books. I've read several of them and enjoyed them. For me, the most interesting part of the book is generally political interplay. Also the references to economy and military strategy are fascinating.