Cherishing Reader Trust

Sexy Games by Jeffe KennedySharing with you all the Italian cover of Going Under – “translated” as Sexy Games over there. I totally want those shoes!

(Google translate tells me that tagline says “when the offense runs in network,” which I’m sure is more like “when transgressions happen online,” but if anyone knows Italian, please chime in!)

I’ve had this blog topic on my list for a couple of weeks now, since I read a book that left me both furious and fragile. With the brouhaha surrounding yesterday’s release of J.R. Ward’s new Black Dagger Brotherhood book, this seems like a good time to talk about the contract with the reader. (If you don’t know about what’s happened with this book, here is a good summary, but very full of spoilers, so be warned.) Essentially, Ward made the choice to end this book with non-HEA (Happy Ever After. By all accounts, it’s a sad ending. She wrote a Goodreads post about why she felt compelled to do this. In that, she says:

I don’t “choose” things. I don’t get to pick who ends up with whom, or what happens. I appreciate from the outside how it must appear, that the author is some how “in control,” but that is simply not my experience.

I get this. I really do. In fact, just yesterday I had lunch with a visual artist friend and she asked me about writing my heroine Amelia in The Tears of the Rose and why I’d chosen to make her difficult to like at first. That was the answer I gave – I didn’t choose Amelia. That’s how she came to me. Also, though, I’ve always been fascinated by the effects of physical beauty on a person’s character. At the beginning, Ami is spoiled, self-centered and totally buys her own press. Over the course of the story she grows up and, I hope, redeems herself. Many readers corroborate that they were cheering for her by the end. Some readers didn’t get that far. I could have made it easier on myself by making a different choice, but this was the story I wanted to tell.

So, my point is that, while authors don’t “choose” certain things, we are ultimately in control of how we go about fulfilling the Reader Contract.

In romance, that contract is always always always that there’s an HEA or HFN (Happy For Now) at the END OF THE BOOK. Plot threads can be left open, but the lovers must be at least temporarily united.

Otherwise it’s not a romance.


Do all books need to end this way? No. But then they’re *not* romances, you feel me? (Little BDB joke there for you.)

Okay, so this is what happened to me.

I read a debut book by a self-published author. I mention this last because I think it’s key. She gave me a copy and I read it with every intention – if I liked it enough – of pimping it far and wide. And I loved it! Smart, sexy, compelling heroine, interesting conflict. I was so happy that I’d be able to spread the word for her.

Then I reached the end.

Now, first, before the actual ending, some new conflict arose. It didn’t make me nervous as a reader so much as flag a potential problem. As a writer I’m sensitive to story structure and this new conflict felt both somewhat contrived and out of rhythm with the action of the story. It occurred at a place where I expected the existing conflict to peak and start resolving. But no.


Then the hero and heroine have their big falling out, they’re estranged and the heroine gets a call that something terrible has happened to the hero and


The End.

Because, of course, there’s a sequel.

One that I will never read. I very likely won’t read this author again because now I can’t trust her. The betrayal cut that much deeper because she did write such a great story, seducing me to be invested in the characters. I read with great anticipation for how she’d resolve their conflict and I ended up feeling almost physically ill from the disappointment.

Seriously. I couldn’t believe how upset I felt. This wasn’t a deliciously tragic ending or a book that haunted me with the emotional resonance – The Prince of Tides is one of my all-time favorites – this was a smack in the face. The author didn’t care about our contract, which is why I mentioned that she self-published it and therefore didn’t have someone to warn her about this.

As writers, I know we sometimes rebel against genre conventions. I felt compelled to write Ami’s story the way I did but I *could* have chosen not to.I made a deliberate choice, knowing that it would be a risky one.

But I would never betray reader trust in this way. It’s not edgy or artistic or meaningful. That kind of thing is disrespecting the emotional investment readers trust us with.

A very real thing that we should cherish.

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