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?”
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.
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.
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.
1) The publisher took a loss by not earning back the advance it gave the author.
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.