Why Do Bad Books Get Published?

One of the most common beefs among writers is that the industry is glutted with bad books.

A common riff of encouragement in writing how-to books and blogs is that unpublished authors should take heart because all they have to do is open a recent bestseller and claim the mantra, I can write better than this! Of course, when these authors remain unpublished, this thinking can eventually wind its way into grumpiness and discouragement: If this is the sort gunk being published, obviously good books like mine stand no chance!

I say this with my tongue tickling my cheek, but the very prevalence of the question makes it a worthwhile one. So why do bad books get published? And what does that mean for unpublished authors who are writing quality stuff? Let’s split this answer into three parts.

“Bad” Books Are Subjective

One person’s doorstop is another’s all-time favorite book. We all have different tastes and expectations. I think Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series is the height of style and brilliance, but several people to whom I’ve recommended the books have loathed them. By the same token, I’ve had others recommend a book to me as being the all-time bomb only have it turn out, in my opinion, to be an all-time dud.

Who’s right? Me, them? How about all of us—including the agents and editors who greenlit all these books in the first place. Agent Jessica Faust says the comment about “bad” books make her mad because it:

…implies that editors and agents, those of us in the business, have no taste and don’t know what makes good writing or a good book, and it implies that readers have no taste, because if we’re catering to them, obviously someone likes these so-called bad books.

Readers Aren’t Writers

That brings us to Point #2. Writers make up a specialized but very small part of the reading public. As specialists of the craft, we’re naturally hyper-aware of technical gaffes and structural problems. The average reader isn’t going to be anywhere near as likely to notice or care about all the little things that drive us (rightfully, if perhaps over-zealously) mad. They just care that they’re given a good story.

As an analogy, I used to have many musician friends whom I enjoyed watching perform. Inevitably, when they came offstage, they would apologize for a wrong note or a missed lyric, and I’m was  always, Huh, what? As a non-musician music lover, I hardly ever caught the mistakes they were so worried about. I just knew I enjoyed the show.

All of which is to say that what an author calls a “bad” book may pass the average reader’s test with flags waving.

Sales Are King

Tough to swallow as it may sometimes be, you can’t argue with sales. If a hundred gazillion people loved a book enough to buy it in hardback and write gushing reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, then its technical “badness” just doesn’t matter. It may be shoddy, clichéd writing (or maybe not) with a decided focus on entertainment over quality storycraft (or maybe not), but the very fact that it’s selling means the news isn’t all bad—especially to the publisher, editor, agent, writer, and, yep, the readers.

At the end of the day, it’s the readers who tell the publishing houses what’s good and what’s not—and it’s their money that does the talking. Agent Sarah LaPolla once pointed out:

Big blockbuster novels are like big blockbuster movies…. In the publishing world, “good” doesn’t always mean “well-written.”… 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.

Don’t Much Like These Answers?

Well, to be honest, neither do I. And you know why? ’Cuz I want everyone to agree with my opinion of what makes a good book. I want all those readers with their talking money to support the kind of stories write. I want art and quality as I see it to trump grungy ol’ entertainment and commercialism. But, of course, that’s not the way the world or the publishing industry (traditional or independent) works.

So what can you do about it? Well, to begin with, you can write the best book you’re capable of writing. Write a book you know you would be thrilled to read. And, while you’re doing that, it’s also probably worthwhile to consider some wise words from yet another agent, Rachelle Gardner:

If you’re just a reader, someone outside the community of people who produce books, you can complain and criticize all you want. But once you decide to join the club, I think it’s time to take the high road. I think the appropriate thing to do is to try our darnedest to lift other writers up, not put them down. I think it’s best to try and honor the process of other writers, even if we can’t admire their work. And we need to acknowledge that if a “bad book” is selling, there must be people who like it. [T]he truth is, when we put down other writers, it sounds like we’re saying “I can do better than this” and it’s unattractive, no matter how true. If you can do better, then do it.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Why do you think “bad” books get published? Tell me in the comments!

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K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. When I refer to a book a “bad”, I’m not necessarily referring to a book that I didn’t like, I’m referring to books that aren’t written well. Books that have the exact same sentence structure through out the entire book, with out variation. Plots that weren’t thought out or things just don’t add up correctly. But just because I didn’t like a book doesn’t mean it’s bad.

    -Rachel

  2. Publishers — all publishers — are in business to make money. They don’t make money — and they don’t publish for very long. And they publish what they believe the market will buy. Three years ago, I bought a paperback at the supermarket to see what sold as “supermarket novels.” It was awful in almost every way — and three weeks later it was on the New York Times bestsellers list.

    What I find more problematic has to do with editing — too many books are published that are simply not edited well. A publisher asked me to review a book by a best-selling Christian novelist, the second book in a trilogy. The first had been good; the second was not, and it could have been easily fixed by a good editor.

    I understand selling what the market wants — but that’s still no excuse for poor editing.

  3. I think some “bad” books get published based simply on the name of the author who submitted it. Stephen King said in a recent interview, “I could send in my grocery list, and they would publish it.” So basically, he could turn in complete garbage and it would get published. I don’t read King, but IMO it is certainly true of other authors.

  4. bad is in the eye of the beholder. My sister recently sent me a book she thought I would love. It was by a well-known award winning author. I choked it down only because it was a gift but I did not much enjoy it. It was bloated, it had too many characters and not enough character development, and nobody really changed except for those who simply grew up. So who had bad taste, me or my sister? Neither obviously. And that’s why there is hope for all of us as yet unpublished writers. We should all be cheering the fact that stuff we despise gets published because it increases our chances of making it into the ‘club.’

  5. @Rachel: Good point. I’ve read plenty of books I didn’t like that were actually well written.

    @Glynn: I agree about the editing. Part of the problem is that time is money, and publishers are in a hurry to get books out as quickly as possible (see my post last week). Sometimes that means the editing – or the author’s ability to respond to the editing – gets shorted

    @Lorna: The only book of King’s I’ve read is The Green Mile. Due to his popularity and prevalence, I quite frankly expected the book to be pulpy trash, but I was not surprised, I was impressed. I can’t vouch for the quality of his more recent work, but I admire his honesty is telling it like it is in that quote.

  6. @mshatch: The other thing about taste is that evolves. Books I adored in years past sometimes have me shaking my head, wondering what I saw in them to begin with.

  7. It is certainly true tastes change. I’m rereading A Cat Abroad, a true story about the author and his four-legged traveling companion. While I still love his first book in the series, The Cat Who Went to Paris, A Cat Abroad lacks a lot of what I thought it once had. Norton the cat is still mentioned, but he seems to be shoved in the background. The book reads more like a travel book, where the author talks about the places he visits, where he stays, and the food he eats. I loved it when I first read it, but now I’m bored. The book is supposed to be about Norton in Paris, not the author in Paris.

  8. Did you see the movie The Green Mile after you read the book?

  9. Saw the movie first, actually. All in all, I like it better than the book, although they’re very similar.

  10. Honestly, I hate to label books as “bad”. They usually just don’t suit me. That being said, as someone who regularly has to read and critique publicly children’s books, I’ve been getting more comfortable labeling books as “bad”. And, I really truly believe many of these “bad books” that I’ve read as part of my job could have been fixed by a more thorough critique and an honest editor.

  11. I have no problem calling a book bad, and in my opinion, there *are* a lot of bad books being published. I avoid the vast majority of popular books, simply because I’ve learned through experience that few of them offer depth or nuance. But, at the end of the day, that’s still just my opinion. I respect the opinions of those who like what I consider “bad” books, even though I may not agree with them.

  12. I’ve read some really bad books lately. When something is really popular, like young adult paranormal romance is these days, a lot of it is published really fast it seems and it does feel like they’d publish anything that’s even vaguely paranormal and romance (it also results in really terrible translations in foreign countries because they want in on the fun, too – I’m from Denmark and some are just so bad).

  13. My experiences with translated books are very limited (mostly French and Russian classics), but I can see how that could easily happen. Doesn’t make it much fun!

  14. I only just discovered “Experimental Fiction,” which I never heard of!! I happen to be reading a book now that’s in this genre, which is how I discovered it, quite by mistake. The description had me dying to read the book, and now that I’ve got it, it astonished me how many ‘rules’ it has broken…including “Show Don’t Tell.” It does nothing BUT show, and yet it was published. It has no real PLOT, and yet it was published. It actually upset me, because it’s like the rules were thrown out the window, so what does a writer do? I’ve been struggling for months trying to pay attention to the do’s and don’ts so carefully that it’s stalled the editing process to a crawl and tons of re-writes.

  15. OOPS! It does nothing but TELL…sorry!

  16. Did the book work for you? If it did, then the answer to why it was able to break the rules was undoubtedly the fact that it did so brilliantly. If it didn’t work, well, then, yes, that’s a mystery!

    Just keep at it. At the end of the day, you’ll never regret writing the highest quality book you possibly can, whether it’s ever published or not.

  17. I love this perspective! I have been trying so hard to do everything “right.” It’s good to hear that sometimes readers just want to be entertained. Yes!

    http://Www.summerjarviswrites.com

  18. A trend I’ve noticed — and admittedly I’ve not read as many books as I “should” — is that story trumps writing, while writing very rarely trumps story. I’ve been amazed at bestsellers whose writing is far below the standards of college Comp 201 — but they’re bestsellers. I think it’s like you’ve said: a lot of readers simply will not notice writing, but they will notice story. As you (or someone else wise) pointed out, readers should not notice writing as very good or very bad — if it is truly well-written, it will not be noticed (except, perhaps, by literary critics).

    So, I agree that “bad” books get published because I see things that millions of readers have not because it is my life to notice them in my own work. And how much easier it is to spot mistakes in someone else! It almost seems, sometimes, we actively seek them and celebrate once they are found. It is a way, sad indeed, to cover over our own sins. Rachelle Gardner’s advice is best.

  19. Bad books are published because more people want to buy bad books than good books. That’s the easy answer.

    Cold As Heaven

  20. @Summer: Entertainment is a crucial factor in any novel. It’s important to reach for other levels as well, since a book that can create deep emotional and intellectual resonance, as well as entertainment, is something any author can be proud of. But few books will last, no matter their deeper contributions, if they don’t *first* entertain. It’s always a balance.

    @Daniel: You’re absolutely right about story trumping technicalities of prose. There are egregious exceptions, of course, when the writing is so bad it gets in the way of the story. But those books rarely make it through the traditional publishing gauntlet.

  21. @Cold: Yep. Bottom line.

  22. “Bad books” also get published because a lot of people have tried to be publishers and probably eventually failed for having chosen badly, edited badly, and it didn’t get to a best seller list but did get into our hands somehow. Others make it because they appeal to a certain audience that doesn’t care about good writing or even coherent plots: they like a lot of blood, death, and mayhem, or whatever else it is that the book might have that readers want (how do B-rated horror movies with incoherent plots or C-rated romances get produced?) and because they made it to publishers who were content to serve that audience. The recent trend toward seeking best sellers instead of books that entertain a particular, less wide-spread audience (the one WE are writing for or are part of) is more problematic for those still hoping to get published. Besides not always appealing to the wide audience, it depends more than ever on agents and publishers recognizing that something might just appeal to that wide audience. Who can guess that it just might be the book that looks on the surface like it won’t fly outside core genre fans or a select age group. HP was expected to appeal only to very young readers and many questioned whether the length would survive that age group.

  23. Although the choices of traditional gatekeepers are being questioned more and more lately, I do have to give them credit where credit is due. The influx of tiny POD presses and independent publishing has shown that the trad gatekeepers certainly served their purpose in helping the public weed out subpar writing and/or books that just weren’t yet ready to face the world.

    But, as you’ve pointed out, the trad gatekeepers have imposed their own problematic standards (though for understandable reasons), which are slowly but surely limiting the scope of their arena.

    We’re living in an interest era, as we watch the traditional sector stagnate in many ways, while the wild west of the independent movement has yet to stabilize into dependable quality.

  24. I’ve found bad books from frontline writers. So I see it like this – ever had a bad meal at a restaurant? Every bought a car that you now consider to be a lemon? Ever bought shoes that hurt your feet? How about a trip to the dentist that left you in pain and searching for a new dentist? Ever had a bad relationship?

    All books cannot be perfect. There must be some bad ones. I like most authors put everything into my writing. I try and make every word and idea as good as possible. But I know, some stories turn out bad, for whatever reason.

    This is life; you have to take the bad with the good. Don’t beat yourself up about writing something bad. There is always something else that you want to write and if you’ve written something bad, you know how to make something new, good.

  25. Great thoughts. One thing I’ve noticed about myself is that the more I write and the more my writing is available for others to read and judge, the more aware I am of my judgments of other writers. I have no problem calling things as I see them, but I’m now more hesitant to berate other authors for “bad” work than I might have been in the past. Subjectivity aside, I can only imagine that my criticism of their books stings them in just the same way I’m stung by criticism of my work. There’s also the little truth of “what comes around goes around.” If we’re going to dish it on other writers, we have to be willing to take it in return. How much better to “do unto others”?

  26. The only books that I would call bad, are books with a lot of description about things I’d rather not know about.. or books that endorse or encourage a lifestyle/belief that is harmful.

    Of course, there are many “good” books I don’t enjoy reading for various reasons…
    For example, Ivanhoe is a great book, but I just don’t really enjoy it, because it’s too “drab” for me… plus, diving into it when I was 12 didn’t help.. lol

  27. Who knows? You may try Ivanhoe again one of these days and love it! Art is subjective even within the life of one reader.

  28. This made me grin. It’s the answers I give over and over when this comes up in conversation and classes, but to see this topic covered in a blog is priceless. Thank you! Still grinning…

  29. Glad it brought a smile to your face! These aren’t usually answers that make authors happy. 😉

  30. My conclusion is that bad books sell for the same reasons “reality television” exists. Reality Tv didn’t destroy the movie industry. It’s another genre in itself. I view poorly written but uber-catchy books this same way. People will still want well-written books. All these genres just serve different appetites, sometimes even in the same consumer.

    I don’t think anyone needs to feel threatened, especially authors who are working on creating a quality product. There is ALWAYS an audience for quality.

  31. What a great post! I love quite a few books that other people have labeled ‘bad.’ Often it’s their simplicity and different take on the genre that draws me in:-) I like what you said…we just need to put our best out there 🙂 I like what Rachelle said that we still need to honor other writers even thought we might not like their work…so true 🙂 Lots of great thoughts…thanks!

  32. I have been trying to find the answer to this question ever since I started writing. Yes, it’s the Sales story – if a book, however flawed appeals to an auduence, then it’s a best seller. Yet, if agents and publishers go ahead and let a presumed but poorly written bestseller loose on an eager reading public, why are so many other good books turned down? We are always told to produce the best MS possible. OK, I agree. But when I read some real horrors in the grammar etc dept, I begin to wonder. Is this the level of the reading public? Are publishers thinking they’ll just toss a ‘maybe’ bestseller into the fray and see what happens? I hesitate to mention Fifty Shades of Grey, but when Random House printed all three books in their seriously flawed glory, my respect for the publisher dropped. Did RH think, never mind about cleaning up this drivel; just send it out. Readers will never notice. In my humble opinion, it’s readers who have to demand the high standards that once defined the book production game. I review a lot of books and I find some once-respected authors (who know their game) writing what I call ‘cannon fodder’ because it’s guaranteed to make money quickly, never mind the embarrassing state of the work. Again, readers must demand better books.

  33. I try not to judge another author’s work when I read it. That is, I feel a liberal amount of respect for what they’ve gone through writing the work, and concentrate on the story itself and not all the errors when I review/recommend a book. I pretty forgiving of a lot of things, I’m able to remove the “writer” in me and just read. If the piece touches me in some way, I feel it was worth it. More books than not, I enjoy reading, so I’m lucky in that I can separate my professional and entertainment modes.

  34. if anyone can write any way they want as long as it sells, then why are there creative writing classes? for that matter, why are there books, articles, and blogs telling writers the correct way to write? there are bad books in a clearly objective sense. and yet, they’re published and read, and it boggles my mind. i don’t like dickens, but i understand why he is considered a great writer. flat pop-lit offends me by its very existence. no one is made better by reading it, and that has to be one of the key elements of considering the value of any book. i am almost mobilized into initiating an anti-pop-lit movement. there is a standard, but why does it exist when it can be so easily dismissed?

  35. @Christine: You make a great point. There are rare moments when I crave a fluffy piece of writing, same as I crave the occasional donut.

    @Lorna: Ultimately, it comes down to both professionalism and simple brotherly love. Slamming someone else in public is rarely good form and certainly not kind or worthy.

    @Fiona: Unfortunately, there’s a lot of truth to that. If we compare the average national (or probably even international) reading comprehension to what it was even a hundred years ago, we suffer in comparison. Publishers are both catering to the needs of the public – and perpetuating them.

    @Traci: For me, that kind of emotional connection will get me to forgive all kinds of flaws. If the book moves me, I don’t care (too much) if the technical stuff is all wonky. But, of course, emotional connections are much easier to achieve when the technical structure is solid.

  36. @Neal: Art degenerates along with the morals of any culture, and I think we’re seeing that in popular literature as much as any other art form. If readers don’t start out with high cultural standards, why should publishing companies bother trying to raise them?

  37. Nice piece. I totally felt you with this. Personally, while I obviously can’t rule out the entire category as “bad,” I find a lot of classic literature to be overrated in humble opinion. For the amount of praise that it gets, I was terribly disappointed when I read the Great Gatsby in high school.

    Your point about writers as readers and musicians as music-lovers was very well taken, too. My last girlfriend was a pianist, and when I would go to her shows she would often be disappointed with her performance afterwards and get down on herself, and I wouldn’t know what the heck she was talking about. Sounded great to me!

  38. Excellent points, and definitely something to keep in mind as a writer.

    However, I agree with what a lot of the folks above have noted: even if I don’t like a particular book/series (which is opinion), it should still be somewhat decent in terms of the writing itself.

    What irks me in terms of a “bad” book is when it appears to not be properly edited. When I read a book and spot half a dozen typos per chapter, it says to me that someone somewhere got lazy with their job. Books are entertainment, sure, but they’re also marketing documents. They’re sold for people to make money, so why would they flake on ensuring a final product is in its best possible condition before releasing it?

    It seems that too many people are so eager to release book-after-book that they’re not putting as much effort into the revision/crafting process and therefore we get 1st drafts instead of 4th/5th/8th drafts as it should be.

    When I read a book that has a noticeable abundance of errors or contradictions to previously-stated facts, I pick up on it. Maybe it’s trivial and can be overlooked by the average consumer. But if *I’m* going to spend money on a book as a consumer, I want to know I’m getting something more out of it than an ever-growing fear that my own works might some day fall victim to the mass-production of a flawed manuscript.

    Sure, everyone makes mistakes. It happens. But I’m a perfectionist. I want to know that my hard work is put into good editor’s/publisher’s hands, with someone who agrees that my writing shouldn’t be published until it has reached its highest, CLEANEST potential.

    Will it still have flaws? Undoubtedly! Like I said, everyone makes mistakes. But frankly, I’d be embarrassed if I found out my published material was littered with said flaws. I want to look back over time and appreciate my stylistic evolution, not feel distracted by an increase in failed edits prior to publication.

  39. @Blue Shoe: Much of the brouhaha about the classics is based the weight of time. Is it likely Dickens or Fitzgerald would have been published in today’s market, much less considered competitively great? Probably not. Story technique evolves. What cut it in a different era wouldn’t necessarily do the same today – and vice versa.

    @Zaelyna: I am totally with you on the pitfalls of rushing manuscripts into print before they’re truly ready. As I discussed in this post last week, most stories will be better off for having a little more patience applied to them.

  40. It’s all about taste, and I’m totally aware of that. And that’s one of the things that encourages me. No single book is for everyone, but every book might just find a happy reader. That gives me hope!

  41. “Art degenerates along with the morals of any culture.” Interesting idea, and I agree. But as I think about it, it seems a sort of possible chicken-and-egg situation. does the art follow the morals of a culture or do the morals follow the art? Or both? It is a puzzlement.

  42. @Julie: Exactly! If *you* would love reading the book you’re writing, you can rest assured others will too.

    @Neal: It’s definitely a hand-in-glove scenario. Art both reflects and influences society. It’s a never-ending cycle.

  43. Great post! As one commenter already noted, story often trumps quality. If I write a sorry story with fantastic prose, it’ll be useless. If, however, I write an amazing story with barely-adequate prose, it’ll have a much better chance in the publishing world.

    Sorry stories with sorry prose do get published, however. As C. S. Lewis once said, “We are far too easily pleased.” Modern-day readers read a book and don’t actually realize the potential of a quality story because they’re content with what the publishers are giving them. There’s a reason classics are classics; it’s because their quality is combined with their story. A story alone comes and goes; but a quality story endures. But we don’t realize that until we get a taste of what story SHOULD be – such as in Tolkien’s sweeping epic.

  44. I’ve made it a personal goal to read all the classics before I die (so far I’m up to the authors whose last names begin with “F”). It has been a sometimes tedious pursuit, but also one that has been incredibly rewarding and broadening.

  45. Since I am a writer, I actually know how much work it takes to write even a bad book, so I’m not angry at those best sellers who write horrible books and I don’t think I am better than them.

    BUT at the same time, I get upset when I hear agents saying that they only sign on the best of the best. No, they sign on what they believe will sell. Not the best writing out there. While I don’t think I am better than those bestsellers, I do not believe many of them have written one of the best novels in the world.

  46. And, ultimately, the “best of the best” can never be as superlative as it sounds simply because what one agent believes is the “best” isn’t necessarily going to garner unanimous agreement.

  47. I think bad books get published because of the contracts and tight deadlines. Well-known writer has to produce a book to meet the deadline. Maybe he’s out of ideas or tired of the series, but he’s still got that deadline. Publisher knows that it will sell because the writer is a known name and doesn’t matter if it doesn’t quite work. I’ve seen this a lot with authors who are best sellers — and these are ones that I have liked to read! I read one where it looked to me the author was up against a tight deadline and got to the end and ran out of time. Why would there be any other reason to have a book about a murder in the Supreme Court and then make it a random killing at the end?

  48. This was a great post! Thank you!

    And it´s all true. You will get published if you sell, and we all have a different way to perceive books.

    There´s a certain series I particularly dislike and once I was saying “I have no idea how THAT book can sell”, and someone told me “Are you nuts? OF course it will sell…” with a bunch of reasons, all of them related to the vicarious experience a book can offer.

    And, I´ll stick to your last line: IF you can do better, do it! 🙂

    Hugs,

    M.

  49. @garridon: A lot of truth to that, I think. However, there are plenty of “bad” debut novels as well, IMO. It’s a shame the whole process has to be so rushed.

    @Meryl: For all that we complain about “bad” books, there’s no denying people, as a whole, *like* sentimental, melodramatic, unrealistic, over-the-top mush (some of us more than others!). So, yeah, there’s a reason it sells.

  50. I recently bought, in hardcover, an author I have always enjoyed and the book was so bad I struggled to finish it! It was as though she had a 3 book deal and had to get this last book out there she sent in the synopsis and no one bothered to edit it, they just sent it to print!!! Pity because I won’t buy another!!!!
    She is often found on the best seller list!

  51. Always sad when that happens, since you *know* the author had the ability to knock it out of the park.

  52. I’m sorry but give me a break. Anyone in publishing knows that a large percentage of books get published because agents and editors are friends and agents like their particular writers EVEN IF THEIR BOOK SUCKS! Also, editors and agents will push a book they like even if it’s a bad book. They pride themselves on this. And who suffers because of it? Everyone. Publishers lose money, agents lose money and writers are encouraged to write books that won’t sell.

  53. Do some objectively bad books get published? Definitely. Are editors and agents sometimes willing (or even just apathetic) participants in this? Undoubtedly. But the fact remains that publishing houses don’t print books they don’t believe will make them money. So long as readers buy these books, that’s what’s most important to them – which is something we all have to keep in mind as both book consumers and book makers.

  54. Anonymous says

    How can it be both? Are they publishing books “they” love or are they publishing books that will make them money? There are a lot of book that I love that are good that I know won’t make money. They need to not need to “love” books and look at what they are selling and pitching from a less emotional point of view.

  55. Some books gets sold because of their prospective money-making ability. Some get sold because of the passion of the team behind them. But money makes the mare go ’round. The book business is, at it’s heart, a business. It’s true enough that art and commercialism don’t always make good bed partners.

  56. This post was very humbling and informative. As a first time author and voracious reader, I’ve had the privilege and the bad fortune of reading both well written and not so well written books from various authors and genres over the years. Ultimately why a book sells is more a matter of what the consumer wants and in this day and age of instant gratification the reading public wants to be entertained now. When I completed the first draft of my first novel my editor informed me that if I wanted the book to be read by a very low percentage of the public (1%) then by all means submit to a publisher. However, if the goal was to make the book commercially successful then it would have to be written in a more fluid and updated style befitting the needs of the readership. It was a valuable lesson which I continue to apply as I embark on my second novel.

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  58. As writers, we have to know *why* we’re writing a particular story. If the answer is “to get published and sell like hotcakes,” then the hard and simple truth is that we may end up having to make some concessions to the marketplace.

  59. So true. I write because I absolutely love to write and don’t care much about fame or fortune and after more than twenty-five years of writing short stories and novels without ever submitting a single one to an agent or publisher I finally plucked up the courage about two years ago and entered the fray. If my novel or novels sell, then great. If they don’t, then they don’t. The payoff for me is that I’m finally doing something I enjoy and will continue to do so for the rest of my life.

  60. Ernie Pilson says

    After just reading Divergent, I was mulling this very question. Divergent is a best selling YA book with a movie coming out shortly, but is full of stilted writing, plot holes, and nonsense. But it does have an interesting premise (albeit overused these days) and the story clips along.

    I think the comments have it right. There is a large market today for entertaining stories, even with poor technical writing, shallow characters, and plot nonsense. This is fine. What would be depressing, however, is if this type of novel was becoming the majority of published fiction and crowding out other types (such as entertaining stories that are also written well, have deep characters, and coherent plot).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Story is king. If the story and/or the characters are awesome, it makes up for a lot of other ills.

  61. I must disagree. There is such a thing as absolutely bad, devoid of artistic merit. It’s not all in the eye of the beholder. There is no defense for a fantasy novel in which the Elf turns to the Dwarf and says, “We must all learn to respect diverse lifestyles.” The publication of such bilge is proof positive that yes, there are editors who have no taste and are thoroughly incompetent. To say a bad book is not really bad because it “sells” won’t wash. How many times have you bought a book, firmly expecting it to be enjoyable, only to cast it aside with a curse? But nah-nah-nah, you still bought it! And it still counts as a sale.

    I believe there must be hidden metaphysical factors accounting for the success of such an abomination as “Fifty Shades of Grey” and its sequels. If we knew what those factors were, it would probably shake our sanity. So maybe we are better off, albeit frustrated, not knowing why atrociously bad books get published.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Designations of good and bad can’t help but bear some weight of subjectivity. Few, if any books, have ever been disliked by 100% of the people who read it. You might think it’s bad. I might think it’s bad. But it’s guaranteed to work for someone – and in some obvious instances hundreds of thousands of someones. It isn’t right or fair of any one of to set our personal opinion up as the definitive measuring stick of judgement.

      • In the end it’s not the publishing industry or the reading public who decides what has literary merit. It’s time. Time gradually erases the bad books while the good remain. Look at a best-seller list from 100 or even just 50 years ago. A lot of those books have been forgotten even by their authors’ nearest and dearest.

  62. Funny but truth. Usually, when I read a really good book with all artistic qualities and stuff, and bumping with excitement to open goodreads and read all the awesome reviews it must have gotten. Then suddenly,,,, I get in my skulking mood. Is my taste weird or these reader’s?
    It really makes me scare, if I get so defensive in others novel, what will I do when my own baby gets out in this harsh reviewers world. Maybe sooner or later, I will develop a thick skin.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Reviews can be rough. But we have to learn to develop an objective mindset. Reviewers have a right to their opinion, but their opinions are subjective and don’t *necessarily* reflect upon the book’s inherent worth.

      • I often find in goodreads a bad review, lost at where has the reviewer pointed the actual bad thing about this book. It is just filled with how much they hated it.
        But some of them, yes, they have pretty good points. So it is just a matter of learning to be objective (or subjective, or whatever)

  63. I would tend to agree that money makes the publishing world, and pretty much any other world, go ’round. So as far as your initial question, ‘Why to bad books get published?’ that pretty much sums up the answer.
    However, after reading many many books over the last half century in both English and French, in a variety of genres, I do not believe that the label of ‘bad’ book is subjective. In fact, I think some books tend to sell the same way some idiotic trends catch on…the right people deciding to promote them.
    I am one of those people who thought, “I can do better.” It’s written and I’m querying agents. All I can hope for now is that someone sees $$$ when they read my first 10 pages.

  64. I agree with everything written here, but I do have some quibbles with the idea that bad books are subjective, and that readers don’t care about a lot of the things that drive writers mad.

    This is very true, but I also think it’s at the core of a lot of writers’ frustration with publishing, and why they lament that “bad books” get published. The fact is, agents, editors, and industry insiders critique the books they reject on the technicalities of the craft as much as they do for subjective reasons; when you get feedback from an agent who requested a full manuscript, or an acquisitions editor from a small publisher, they will often critique your work on how well it follows the conventions of the craft. It is these critiques–that the characters don’t have a believable stake; that the pacing isn’t perfect; that the plot doesn’t arc well enough; that there is too much telling and not enough showing–that make writers feel as though worse books get published while theirs are picked apart for every little imperfection.

    So, while it’s absolutely true that the average reader is not in tune with all these conventions, and that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ writing are highly subjective, the fact remains that most rejected writers are critiqued based on an impossible standard that many published books simply don’t meet, and this is where that sense of injustice comes from. Of course, that being said, I do also think that how well someone “follow the conventions” is something that can also be subjective; what might be convincing stakes to one person might not be to another… and this is where we really run into the absurd fickleness of personal taste.

  65. Escribir no tan facil como parece…

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