The things readers hate…or do we?

A recent post at Mysterious Matters has me worried. The blog’s host works in publishing and in this post gave a list of things that, if he sees them in a manuscript he is considering, decrease the likelihood of that manuscript being selected for publication. What has me worried is that most of the statements don’t apply to me. And if everyone in publishing is working from a similar understanding of what readers hate, where do readers like me get our fix?

I’ve copied the list here but for a full explanation please visit Mysterious Matters

1. An ambiguous ending. Lord, do readers hate an unresolved ending. Even when a new series is getting started, each book has to be a complete whole

Not true at all in my case. I honestly don’t mind a lack of resolution or even those endings that can be interpreted differently by different readers. One of the books vying for my best read of this year is Karin Fossum’s THE CALLER and it has a deliciously ambiguous ending.

2. An unhappy ending. Here’s one way in which books and movies are similar. Readers hate an unhappy ending – where the protagonist dies, the guy doesn’t get the girl, where one is left with a bleak feeling upon closing the book.

Again not true for me. I struggle with books that are unrelentingly grim from beginning to end but that is more to do with the fact the book has only a single emotional note. I’d be equally dismissive of terminally happy books but there aren’t a lot of them in crime fiction. I like some ups and downs but I can quite easily deal with a book that ends badly, especially if it is unexpected. Ken Bruen’s THE DRAMATIST is one of the best books I’ve read in recent years and it has the unhappiest ending possible. But it was so unexpected…and so right for the story that I couldn’t help but love it.

3. Too much detail. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard readers say, “I can’t stand pages and pages of description. And all those historical details – endless details – I just skip over it.” I think many readers perceive too much detail as self-indulgence on the writer’s part.

On this one I’m in sometimes agreement. I nearly went into a coma reading Kate Moreton’s THE FORGOTTEN GARDEN because I just didn’t care about the minutiae she included. And don’t get me started on Elizabeth George’s research-stuffed rambles which have virtually done away with narrative all together. But as the original post does go on to discuss, the best writers get the amount of detail just right. Too little of it is equally un-engaging for me (think Lee Child or James Patterson whose books bore me rigid partly because there really is no detail to help me become immersed in a world of the author’s making).

4. Stupidity. …There’s one area where readers simply can’t stand too much reality, and that has to do with the intelligence of the main characters. Despite the fact that we’re surrounded by stupidity in the real world, readers simply can’t accept stupid main characters, or main characters acting in stupid ways.

Here I am a hundred percent in agreement with the mainstream reading public. I just wrote a review in which I acknowledged one of my problems with the book was the main character’s utter stupidity. I know people in real life who are infinitely more stupid than that character so I suppose I should accept them in fictional life too (to be fair to me though I don’t like spending time with real stupid people so the fact I don’t want to spend time with fictional stupid people is at least consistent).

5. Financial Manipulation by Author or Publisher. The most horrific example of this phenomenon, in recent years, was James Patterson going on national TV to say, “If you don’t read this book, I’ll kill Alex Cross” (or words to that effect).

Unlike Mr Mysterious Matters’ other things readers hate I don’t believe this to be true for the masses (though perversely it is true for me). If the masses had cared about Patterson’s gambit then surely my local book store would have found 30 or 40 other authors to occupy the space once dedicated to the tomes he churns out almost weekly. And the other example provided, where several authors were recently proven to have engaged in the practice of positively reviewing their own books and denigrating the books of other authors at sites such as Amazon, is, I fear, equally irrelevant. Although there was a bit of a furore in the twitterverse (and even a couple of articles in the mainstream media) I suspect this will blow over fairly quickly and most people will keep buying books by Stephen Leather, R J Ellory and the rest. In short I don’t think the majority of readers really notice this stuff. Or if they do they don’t care enough about it to let it change their behaviour.

My point is not to take issue with the list (aside from that last item on it). I’m sure a working editor does know what sells far better than I do. My point however is to say that the reading public, even the crime reading public, is not a single amorphous blob who all think in the same way and it worries me that the industry, increasingly, treats us as if we are.

I was recently caught without a book to read (the backup, second backup and tertiary backup that I never leave the house without all failed me for reasons that are just too tedious to go into) and so I strolled into a bookshop to buy something to read during a long and unexpected stint in a hospital waiting room. In the 20 minutes or so I had to browse I couldn’t find a single thing I wanted to buy in the crime section. To be fair I already own about a dozen of the books I saw which I didn’t want duplicates of but that probably accounted for half a shelf of the 15 shelves of books on offer. Nothing else was worth risking $20-$33 on (the only book cheaper than that was by the aforementioned Mr Patterson).

I suppose all the books that were available had unambiguous, happy endings with not much detail and no stupid characters.

I ended up buying a Sudoku book and a pencil. And wishing that I didn’t always have to plan my reading carefully because the kind of books I like to read are not readily available.


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16 Responses to The things readers hate…or do we?

  1. Bernadette – You are so right that readers are all different. There’s a very wide diversity of reader taste and what’s more, things like the reader’s mood, life situation and so on also play an important role in the way we choose what to read. To make blanket statements about readers is not only inaccurate; it’s also letting go of potentially strong markets for readers who don’t ‘fit the norm.’ An excellent, excellent post!


  2. Oh that’s so interesting! We are all different, and like different things from books (and I would be much closer to your views than the original list) – so such sweeping generalizations are a bit worrying in someone who works in publishing. A quick look at the amazon reviews of any popular book will show the same work being describe in multiple different ways, often the complete opposite to each other. I get very tired with publishing people being so confident they know what’s good and what people like, when all the evidence is that a) they don’t and b) they can’t decide whether they want to publish something ‘good’ or they want to make money. Oh, and c) that they don’t have good editors any more and their books are full of typos, awkwardnesses and mistakes. I could live with that (maybe) if they weren’t so snooty about self-published books…
    Thank you for encouraging me to rant…


  3. Sarah says:

    Fascinating and thanks for highlighting this. I’m with the blogger on 1 – I HATE ambiguous endings but I did quite like the ending of McKinty’s ‘Falling Glass’ but I have made my own assumptions about what happens. I like descriptive prose (3) and the more the better as far as I’m concerned. I find some books too dialogue heavy which can be exhausting to read.


  4. Maxine says:

    One thing that occurred to me on reading that MM post is that the blog (and its author) are US-based. I don’t suppose US publishing/readers necessarily translates into other countries as some books that do well in one market don’t do well in others. I don’t think there is any simple answer to these questions (or all publishers would be rolling in money from their mega-sales!) but as you say, there are examples and counter-examples to most points.

    I think that some books sell in the stratosphere, but once you get below these authors to those who sell “respectably”, I presume this is because we are seeing this effect, of readers different and eclectic interests.

    Incidentally I have just the same experience as you in trying to physically buy a book. I don’t get out much these days but the other week I got a lift to our (large) Waterstones which has a big crime fiction section, and I just could not find a single book I wanted to buy/read, even though I was desperate to find something that looked even half-way decent. I suppose that there just are not enough books being published to cater for one’s own specialist reading tastes 😉


    • I’m glad in a way to hear that you’ve had a similar experience in a book shop as I did think myself a bit daft for a while – surely there was something I could find is what I kept thinking but it was all serial killers similar nonsense.


  5. Maxine says:

    Eek, after Moira’s point, grammar meltdown – lack of apostrophe here:

    readers’ different and eclectic interests


  6. Rob Kitchin says:

    I’m with you on points 1 and 2. I have no problems with ambiguous or sad ends. Life is ambiguous, the bad guys don’t always get caught, life can be crappy and sad. I’m happy for my fiction to reflect life and not simply be an escape from it. I don’t mind stupid characters within context, but I get frustrated when stupidity is used as a plot device only. I’m not one for too much detail – I want show not tell. And I want publishers who recognise the diversity of readers and not try to put us into single category boxes and play to the lowest common denominator.


  7. Agatho says:

    This is Agatho, author of the original post to which you responded so effectively. I agree with much of what you’ve said, and in fact I enjoy an ambiguous ending (when well done) and can handle a downbeat ending if it’s the natural result of what has preceded. However, in the States at least, much of a book’s initial buzz is created by review journals like Publishers’ Weekly, Booklist, Library Journal, and so on. All of those publications review with the reading public in mind, and they’re frequently very tough on books that fit the descriptors in my original blog post. It’s so difficult to get any new writer to break through, and these publications can be opinion leaders in getting attention for a new writer’s work. Sadly, as an industry we cannot be successful catering to the needs of what I would consider the elite group of crime-fiction readers, whose tastes are often wider-ranging than those of the people who want a quick book to read on a beach or airplane. For a writer to be truly successful in any genre, s/he must cross over into the wider reading public, which leads us publishers to have lists in our heads like the one I detailed in my original post. Art vs. commerce, in a nutshell.


    • Thanks for stopping by and for taking my comments in the intended spirit. In some ways I imagine the US market is different from ours but in others not. The vast bulk of the books on our shelves are American or English and so we are influenced by your publishing trends whether we want to be or not 🙂

      I suppose in some ways it doesn’t matter that publishing can’t cater to me and my fellow readers – I am generally able to find books I like (though not on a whim) but I do think that niche markets in the arts can be quite lucrative though I wouldn’t claim to know anything about the economics of publishing. I would be curious to know what constitutes ‘truly successful’ in your terms – a certain number of sales? And does a publishing house have an expectation of ‘x’ number of really successful authors and ‘x’ number of moderately successful ones? Or is the aim always to move authors into the upper range?

      While self publishing is something I’m not terribly interested in (the few books I’ve read via that route have generally not been very good) I can see that some version of it will increase in the future. In the music scene many niche artists are using crowd funding to generate the money that music labels once provided for things like studio recordings and the like (I just forked over some money for to help fund the next album by one of my favourite American folk artists for example – his last such crowd funding effort raised $100k) and I wonder whether this sort of thing will happen to publishing too. Or who knows possibly some other model not yet thought of might be able to help the niche/moderately successful authors and the readers who like what they do to find each other. Interesting times.


    • Oh and I should have added…thanks for your blog. I find it a must read, even when I want to argue 🙂


  8. I think you are on the money. Agree with all your points. The larger publishers take far too narrow a view of taste these days. That is why Serpent Tail and No Exit to name two small presses had the US authors of the underbelly like Sallis and Pelecanos. If you are a stylist, then you don’t fit in boxes!
    Keep up the good work. By the why will have a new website up soon with a blog about crime fiction.


  9. Pippa White says:

    ambiguous ending – no, that doesn’t annoy me, but 2 endings did. I didn’t want to choose.

    Unhappy ending? – I’ve read some pretty horrible endings that made me want to shout at the author, but I’d prefer an unhappy ending in the spirit of the book rather than a ‘pat’ ending. those annoy me much more – the modern version of they all lived happily ever after…

    Too much detail/not enough detail – I want to feel part of the scene, but I don’t want to over analyse my thoughts, the character’s thoughts, the tapestry in the corner. The very best writing makes it seem as if the detail is *just there* (much like the very best acting). A VERY long time ago reading Maddy Alone (Pamela Brown?) there was a line about actors. How a new actor would pick a cup up and it was obvious that they had remembered their cue to pick a cup up: the action was all about the cup and picking it up in the conversation. A more experienced actor would, of course, pick the cup up but in a way that looked natural… I like books that bung in the detail when it’s needed, where it fits with the pace of the book.

    Stupidity. I throw books that have stupid characters in. I don’t care if the stupidity makes the book, my life is far too short to spend on prats. End of. I like complicated characters with physical imperfections and character imperfections – verisimilitude works.

    financial stuff – eh? kill the character, it’s your publishing contract not mine.

    Interesting reading!


  10. JoV says:

    I don’t mind unhappy ending, but I don’t like ambiguous ones. Being a natural problem solver I can’t stand to put up with a vague answer! i only tolerate too much detail if the plot is good, otherwise don’t bother. As for stupidity, I agree with the writer, I can’t stand stupid characters. Here I am wondering if stupid equates underdogs and losers, because in Britain everyone seems to love an underdog. Nick Hornsby’s or Jonathan Coe’s losers characters or David Nicholl’s “One day” Dexter seems publicly loved and well received. I still have troubled with that.
    Interesting discussion you have got here Bernadette. Thanks!


  11. sue says:

    Of all those points the one that resonated with me was too much detail. I stopped reading Linda Fairstein because she is unable to leave out any of the reasearch she does for her books. And much as I could be interested in, say, the NY public library (and I am) I do not want to read whole slabs of research plonked in the book.

    As usual, Bernadette, an incisive review.


  12. Anonymous says:

    Hi Bernadette,

    Interesting post, thanks,

    I’m with you on most of your preferences. But if you stretch ‘ambiguous endings’ a tad to include incompetent plotting, loose ends, contradictions and the like, then that’s one I’d disagree about. For example, as per my very first post here months ago, my enjoyment of Julian Barnes’ ‘Sense of an Ending’ was badly spoiled by those flaws, whether deliberate or not.

    I’ll never be without a book or a dozen or a hundred backups You need an e-book reader! Hmm, hang on, I think my Kindle’s battery is running out…

    Terry, UK


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