Friday, June 01, 2012

When Bad Books Happen to Good Writers

I recently sat on an "Ask the Agent" panel in which a writer anonymously asked, "Why do so many bad books get published while so many good ones get rejected?"

My first thought after hearing this question was "whoa, someone is bitter." Then I quickly realized it wasn't an unreasonable question. In fact, it was a pretty good question. Being on the business side of things, I sometimes forget how certain book deals must look to the writers struggling to get their work noticed. The thing is, I roll my eyes as often as you do when I see celebrity book deals, bestsellers in dire need of editing, and mediocre work from popular authors who no longer worry about "building their audience" (not naming names, but we all know they exist).

What's important for writers to remember is that the publishing industry, at least a large percentage of it, is full of book people. We studied English lit, think of authors as rock stars, and have a deep appreciation for the written word. So why do we (sometimes) allow mediocrity to take precedent over masterpieces? The answer I gave on the panel was that the terms "good" and "bad" are subjective - which they are - and that literary writing does often get overlooked for more commercial writing, but it doesn't necessarily make commercial writing bad. 

All of that is true, but the longer version of that answer is...

Good and bad don't mean the same on the business side as they do on the writer's side, but more on that later. For the purpose of this blog post, I'm going to focus only on commercial and genre fiction because the success of literary fiction is always dependent on the quality of the writing. Commercial fiction isn't. Not always. Which is why seeing what becomes a bestseller can be frustrating to writers trying to publish their first novel. 

In our insular world of publishing blogs, author Twitter feeds, and writer's conferences, it's easy to forget that we are a minority. Reading anything off the bestseller list has long-been considered "for nerds." If we could only sell books to people like us - the book people - then I think writers wouldn't have as many complaints about "bad" books.

But publishing is a business. Like any business, we need to look outside ourselves and find a product that will sell to a wider audience. Most people just want to be entertained. Sometimes that means sacrificing stylized prose. Other times it means you get to have high quality writing and the type of story that hooks a majority of consumers. When the latter happens, we do a happy dance.

Big blockbuster novels are like big blockbuster movies - high concept plot, not a whole lot of character development, and maybe some sexy times. It's "entertainment for the masses," but is it bad? Not even a little bit. It's actually the opposite, and this is where writers - like the one from that panel - can get confused.

In the publishing world, "good" doesn't always mean "well-written." We want it to, and it's what we always look for first, but it's not the only thing. It can't be the only thing. We'd all be out of jobs. Well-written books are well-written books, but "good" books have a broader definition. In publishing terms, "good" means that a book connected with its intended audience, and maybe even crossed over to reach a wider audience. Or, put more simply, good = successful.

A "bad" book can still be well-written. Bad is when a novel fails to find an audience, even if everyone involved in producing that book believed in it. Some books just don't hook an audience, and to the publishing industry that can mean some pretty bad things, such as:

1) The publisher took a loss by not earning back the advance it gave the author.
2) The publisher may not invest money in the author's next project to avoid the same results.
3) The book gets poor reviews, which hurts not only the author's reputation, but also their agent's, editor's, and publisher's.
4) Too many "bad" books in a row may lead to an editor not wanting to work with that agent anymore, or a publisher not wanting to take chances on that editor's projects.

In other words, a lot is riding on your book finding an audience and being liked.

Don't worry though. The pressure gets taken off of you because of what the outside world calls "bad" books. When we give Snooki a book deal instead of an up-and-coming debut author, do we sell out? Of course. Integrity can't always pay the bills, unfortunately. Super Big Commercial Bestsellers are often, as their name suggests, publishing's version of commercials. They bring in enough revenue to pay those bills and give us enough leftover to take on the smaller, beautifully written projects you bring us. We call these our passion projects because we love them and need to bring them into the world, but we know it's unlikely that book will be discussed on Dr. Oz (you know, for example...).

The writer on that panel wasn't asking about well-written commercial novels, but I want to take a minute to recognize that not all commercially successful novels are poorly written. Most of them are very well-written! Creating entertainment for the masses is still an art form, and being able to write commercially is a hard skill to acquire. Not all talented writers are able to hit all the right notes in their market the way a commercial writer can. A few of these Big Novels aren't well-written though. I won't pretend they are. Those are the ones that author was referring to, and I understand the frustration.

The publishing industry never looks for poorly written books, but for various reasons we do allow them to slip through. If your novel was rejected or didn't sell well, don't get angry at the bestseller list or blame the publishing industry. Instead, look at why those other books are selling. Books never sell because they are poorly written. There's always something else that readers are connecting with. Find out how to bring those elements to your own writing, but stay true to your own writing style, and never think for a second that in order to be big you need to be bad.

11 comments:

  1. Pretty sure I'm writing a well-written book not a good one. I mean it's good to me. Maybe "good" is something a writer is less aware of, and he/she is more aware of "well-written."

    I liked this post. It makes me feel more at peace with the universe.

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  2. Very well stated and diplomatic. I usually try to tell myself every time I have to put down a book that SOMEbody out there must like it. Besides, it's not like I've never written a 'bad' book before ;) I was just fortunate enough to never have it picked up and thus have to live with it.

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  3. I recently had a back-and-forth about this with a friend of mine who was confused about the success of the Twilight books and what it meant in terms of the importance of good writing. I told her that some books that aren't very well written nevertheless have other elements that make them very engaging. Different parts of a book might resonate with a smaller or larger audience or a moment in time. Some writers have a knack for writing engaging fiction, even if other aspects of their craft are poor, just like some writers who can put together a beautiful sentence can't produce an engaging novel. This kind of thing tortures writers, but IMHO you have to focus on what you can control, produce the kind of work you're passionate about, and take it from there.

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    1. I am finding lately the most successful books are ones people only sorta like. It's as if they recommend them to others to decide how they feel or as points of conversation. Is controversy trumping perfection?

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    2. Is that like Napoleon Dynamite where the funniest part of the movie was convincing somebody else to see it?

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  4. I think as writers all we can really worry about is writing the best damn book we can, and doing what we can to get it to an audience. Once it's published, it's really out of our hands whether it will be well-liked or respected or not. It really doesn't do any of us any good to get in a rage over the injustice of Celebrity du jour's mega-deal, or Super-established-author going through the motions on his latest. Throw up your hands, roll your eyes, shake your head, and get back to writing the best damn book possible.

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    1. Said better than I could think it. ;)

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  5. Fantastic post, Sarah. It needed to be said. I recently read the final installment in a NYT-bestselling series, and my internal copyeditor was lighting up the whole time.

    That said, I can't fault a publisher for putting out a book that they know is going to sell well (and in this case, not just well but spectacularly). It is a business, and as much as we'd like to believe that only the creamiest cream rises to the top, sometimes that's not the case. (Of course, I'm kind of glad it isn't, because otherwise I'd have no chance:) )

    THAT said, sometimes that is the case. As much as we unpublished writers would like to believe that the authors on all those lists are nothing but a bunch of brainless hacks, some of them are truly amazing wordsmiths who also just happen to know how to write thrilling, well-plotted books. And thank goodness for them.

    Long comment short: There will always be someone above us and below us on the talent totem pole, so we just have to accept it--even acknowledge it occasionally--and move on.

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  6. I was at that panel and I think the agents handled themselves gracefully and diplomatically in the face of what is a pretty heated issue.

    I also attended Jodi Thomas' class and she touched on the same topic. She explained it as: a successful story is one that touches people and makes them feel something, and that's true even if the writer isn't - as she put it - a wordsmith.

    At another panel I attended, we had the opportunity to read an excerpt from an upcoming YA release and while I found the actual writing a little clumsy, there was no denying that the story itself was fascinating. And I didn't even like the genre!

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  7. I appreciate this blog post. You always have a lot of great things to say.

    Let me just clarify how authors see things. I've queried a novel before (even sent you a query as well) and received only rejections. I thought about it and decided I agreed with the rejections. There were things my book was lacking that I could agree made it not high enough of quality to publish.

    I've read agents blog about how they only take on writers they truly believe in. We need to be good at what we do and always improving. I take full responsibility, even though I worked hard to do the best I could, for not being good enough with my last novel and am currently trying to produce something superior to it that will hopefully be of high enough quality.

    We get this idea in our heads that we just need to improve characterization more and stay away from certain plot holes or other mistakes we often make and then we'll be good enough. But then we start reading stuff on the best seller list and sometimes see people making the same mistakes even worse than we do or the same as we do and then get upset because it's like our world crumbled. Agents say they only sign contracts with the best literature and this isn't the best. And it becomes like everything we were told was a lie. And we think something arbitrary decides who gets published and who doesn't. And we don't know what direction to go in to reach our goals.

    I do get it. Something commercially good isn't the same as something literary good and commercial success matters the most. Like a lot of people hate Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey, but regardless of how bad they are in the literary category, they are doing amazingly well commercially, so that makes them good. So I agree with you. There are different levels of good, different areas that a book can be good in (beyond just literary and commercial categories), and it rarely hits all points. So it's much more complicated than just being able to easily fit all books into two slots: good and bad.

    I'm just saying this because I don't like when people think a writer is bitter and that's why they are upset about a certain book getting a contract when theirs is not. It's more complicated than that.

    Basically, this was a long, drawn out way of saying that I agree with you.

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  8. Just read this Blog and loved it. It's refreshing to hear that publishers do, indeed, sometimes forsake personal standards in order to achieve a nice payday. Welcome to the real world. This kind of self-serving behavior exists in every area of life. It's really no surprise. Just frustrating when you encounter it personally. I think it sort of insults our inner 'fairness' scale.

    I personally try to embrace the idea that success is so truly relative. I also hope that someday my writing will resonate with the masses!

    Thanks again for this post.

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