I'm a firm believer in having reasonable expectations. This doesn't mean you shouldn't set lofty goals or you should have a pessimistic attitude. It simply means accepting the reality of situations and knowing that not everything is going to go perfectly or as planned.
Many authors have lots of unreasonable expectations and I'd like to address a few. This is not meant to be mean and I'm not trying to be a downer. It's simple honesty and I believe the more reasonable your expectations, the better chance you have at exceeding them.
The Expectation: I'll be rich and famous
The Reality: I always laugh when people think we become authors for the money, but apparently, a lot of writers do have the expectation of wealth and fame. Unfortunately, there is only a very small percentage of authors who make six figures and there are more authors who make less then 10K. This isn't to say if you work hard and market yourself you can't get up to that eight-figure-four-book contract, but it's not going to happen with your debut novel. Fame is even less likely. Even authors who I deem famous (Dennis Lehane, Nora Roberts, Junot Diaz) are still unknown to many non and infrequent readers. If you want to be rich, go into finance. If you want to be famous, star on a reality TV show. Write because you want to write.
The Expectation: You'll go on an extensive book tour and pack bookstores across the country
The Reality: Aside from your home town, you will be lucky to have 5 people at your book signing. Many times, it will be you and the two bookstore employees. The reality is, it is very difficult to get people to go to book signings, even for well known authors. I attended a duel signing with Michael Connelly and George Pelecanos at the Borders downtown. There were about 20 people in attendance. That was for two bestselling authors. Over time, you'll build up an audience and there may be a few signings where you do pack the room. But don't be surprised or disappointed when attendance is light. It's just the reality.
The Expectation: Your book will be reviewed in the New York Times and Washington Post, you'll have a feature on the Today show, and your book will chosen for Oprah's book club.
The Reality: If you have a decent publicist, the odds of landing a handful of newspaper reviews and radio spots are good. Odds of appearing on network television? Slim. Big media is hard to land, especially if you're a debut or mid-list author. Even the bestsellers don't always have luck. Online reviews can be just as effective as those in newspapers and an appearance on Leno isn't a guarantee that your book will be pushed up into the NYT bestseller list. Work to attain any possible media coverage rather than focusing on the most prestigious.
The Expectation: You won't have to market or promote your book; that's what the publisher is for.
The Reality: Unfortunately, writers cannot simply sit at their desks and churn out product while their publisher handles the promotion. Bookstore visits, writing conferences, and utilization of social media are all necessary steps for a successful writing career. If you have a supportive publisher, they'll attempt to attain press, maybe take out a few ads, but the grassroots marketing is all up to you. The most successful authors are accessible to their fans, which means attending conventions and scheduling bookstore signings.
Feel free to comment with additional unrealistic expectations. The more aspiring authors know about the business, the better, even if the reality can sometimes be harsh.