The Business Rusch: The Bad Book
This week, I finished reading a bad book by one of my favorite authors. Well, “finished reading” isn’t accurate. “Paged through the last half” is probably better.
The book was astoundingly bad. The author decided to go 50 Shades of Grey on me when she’d never written more than a fade-to-black sex scene before. But that wasn’t the worst. The worst was that her protagonist was, as the romance readers say, TSTL. Too Stupid To Live.
In fact, there would have been no book if her protagonist hadn’t made mistake after mistake after mistake. Everyone she knew as well as the news, the weather reports, an old book of spells, and the entire town told her not to do those things.
Whew. Vented. I’d like to say I feel better, but I don’t. If you were a fan of this writer’s work, we’d probably have a long discussion about the merits (or lack thereof) in this book.
Now you know how peeved I am at it. You want to know what I did when I finished scanning the stupid thing?
I went onto Amazon to see if I could preorder her next book.
Seriously. I’m a reader first, a writer second, and an editor third, and only one of my identities believes a writer should hit it out of the park every time.
You wanna guess which one that is? Well, I’ll give you a clue: it’s not the reader or editor.
Every reader has a magic number in his head. That’s the number of bad books a favorite author has to publish before the reader gives up. The number varies from reader to reader. There are readers who give up after only one bad book. (Bad reader! No cookie!) But most readers give their favorite author two or three bad books in a row before giving up.
If the favorite author writes two books for every bad one, the reader will acknowledge that, sigh to himself, and say, Well, she missed me on this one. But she’ll get me on the next.
The ratio for the author I’m dealing with above? Ten good books for every bad one. That’s why she’s a favorite author. I have authors I like who write two good books for every bad one. They’re not favorites, but I read them repeatedly. Just not first if I have the choice of a favorite instead.
As I started editing Fiction River, I noticed that my outside reading slowed down. I was worried about this: One reason I quit editing sixteen years ago was that I had stopped reading with enjoyment altogether. I was worried that my critical voice was on too high, that I couldn’t see the good in anything.
I stopped and analyzed this latest slowdown, and what I realized is this: since I started editing again, I had become an even more gentle reader. I am giving the writer more of a chance than I have in years, partly because Editor Me knows that no writer hits it out of the park every single time.
If the story isn’t working well for me as an editor, I slog through and see if I can offer good suggestions for repair or if the author needs to try me again with something else. So far, only two authors have had to try again with something new. I’ve asked for a mountain of tweaks and redrafts from other writers, however.
Now, realize that I am not reading slush. Fiction River is by invitation only. I will never read slush again. That’s a brutal overwhelming process in which an author must catch me on the first page or I move onto the next. I vowed I would never do that again, and so far, I’ve kept that promise to myself.
I let this bad book by the favorite author slow me down because I had switched from reading for entertainment to reading for repair somewhere in the middle of the novel. Once I realized it, I scanned forward (she’s good enough that she didn’t let me out entirely) and decided the book got worse instead of better. If I had been her book editor, we’d have been having some pretty serious conversations.
(Of course, I suspect that whole 50 Shades of Grey thing was her traditional editor’s idea: It sells so much better, Writer. Try it. This is the perfect book for it. Not.)
Here’s the other thing that I know from a long history as a reader and an editor: there is no perfect story, no idealized version of any novel, no piece of writing that will please everyone who reads it. I dealt with this last summer in my post on “Perfection” and the posts that followed, and I collected it all into a short book just this year. It’s an important concept for writers to know.
But after this reading experience last week and the workshop experience that I had week before, I had to add one important thing. My bad book is someone else’s favorite book.
At the beginning of March, John Helfers, Kerrie Hughes, Dean Wesley Smith, and I ran a workshop for professionals that we call the anthology workshop. Dean and I have done a variation on this workshop for nearly a decade now, and we’ll do one next year with six professional editors instead of the four. (Watch here for the announcement and realize the workshop is hard to get into)
What we do is this: we have what we call “live” anthologies—anthologies that have already sold to a publisher, anthologies that have a roster of Big Names attached—and we give the writers in attendance the chance to get one of their stories into the anthology.
This would be easy for us editors if the writers were beginners. Nine workshops out of ten, not one of the editors would buy a story from a beginner’s workshop. But these attendees are professional writers, just not Big Name writers, and their stories are all of high quality. So we have a lot of good stories to choose from. An embarrassment of riches, which is always extremely difficult for editors to deal with.
Still, the four of us disagreed as to which stories were best. The editor of the live anthology got the final say, of course, but the rest of us went over the stories as if we were editing for different markets. When Dean and I weren’t editing our own anthologies, we playacted editing for Pulphouse Magazine (Dean) or The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (me). Even if John and Kerrie were editing for the same anthology (one of them actually editing it and the other pretend-editing), they still didn’t agree as to which stories would go where.
What I love most about this workshop is this: Editor #1 would say, I love this story. I’ll buy it as is. Editor #2 would say, It’s a good story. Not right for my market, though, so I quit reading and moved onto something else. Editor #3 would say, I really didn’t care for the story. I don’t think it worked. I’m going to pass. And Editor #4 (always the live anthology editor) would say, I liked it. I would want you to fix x, y, and z, and maybe I’ll buy it.
The order would switch for some stories. Sometimes the live anthology editor wouldn’t like a story that the remaining three editors liked. It’s disappointing for the author, but not that unusual. The take-away? That story should be on the market.
The writers often missed the editor interactions though. What the writers didn’t see most of the time were the glances that happened between the editors.
One editor would say, This is brilliant! I would buy it as is. And another editor would look at them sideways, an incredulous expression on his face that clearly said, Are you frickin’ kidding me? That story was the worst thing I read in this entire workshop.
If we sat around a table late at night with no writers around, we would have actually expressed those opinions. One of the reasons that Dean and I asked John and Kerrie to edit for Fiction River was because our opinions vary so widely. We knew that John and Kerrie would bring in writers and types of stories that Dean and I would never consider. Just like Dean brings in writers and types of stories that I would never consider. And vice versa.
But what’s most confounding to writers who think like writers (not like readers) is that one editor, editing for Project A, might buy a totally brilliant story, but if the editor were editing for Project Z, she’d let the story slip through her fingers despite the brilliance.
Each project had a different audience. For example, if I were editing the anthology that Kerrie was editing live—an urban fantasy anthology—I would have bought ten stories out of that workshop. Since I was play editing F&SF from my old editing days, I would have only bought one story. Just one. Because F&SF had a long history of buying urban fantasy, back when it was called contemporary fantasy, and readers of long-standing didn’t want to see yet another werewolf/vampire/shapeshifter thing set in New York. Or a story with witches in London. Unless that story had slightly off-skew element—an emotional punch, an insight, a different way of handling old tropes.
I’m the same person. But different projects will have different needs. A perfect story for one project might be the wrong story for another project.
During the workshop, I watched light bulbs go on over the heads of two writers whose work I just adore who tried for years to sell me stories at F&SF. I couldn’t buy their stories for that magazine, but when Dean and I started Fiction River, one of those writers was among the first I invited into one of the anthologies I edited. I felt so happy to invite her—not because I felt I owed her, but because I finally had a project that would fit her voice and style and would be the perfect venue for one of her excellent stories.
You do the same thing as a reader. When your best friend, who never ever ever reads urban fantasy, asks you for a book recommendation, you don’t haul out your favorite Patricia Briggs novel. When your uncle, who can’t sleep if he reads horror fiction, asks you to loan him your favorite novel from last year, you bypass the Stephen King you loved for the John Grisham novel that kept you enthralled.
You tailor your recommendations to your audience, because you know that haranguing your friends and family to change their tastes doesn’t work. They know that if they suddenly “discover” George R.R. Martin, then you might know other books—similar books—they can read. And they’ll ask. That’s you haul out all those books you’ve been waiting to share.
When writers think about their own work, however, they never think like readers or editors. Writers believe that one bad book, one bad story, hell, one bad sentence will kill their entire career. Then they’ll finish their writing day, head to the couch, and pick up their favorite author’s latest, knowing that author disappointed with her last outing, but her next is still worth reading.
This is an especially hard lesson for those of us who write in multiple genres to learn. Traditional publishers have told us for years that writing outside our genre is a kiss of death. And for marketing reasons, it used to be. The sales force wouldn’t know how to market a romance writer who suddenly became a thriller writer.
(Oh, wait! Lisa Jackson pulled it off. And Tami Hoag. But publisher of the almighty Nora Roberts made her change her name when she branched into sf/mystery/with romantic suspense elements. And there are bestsellers who write under a dozen different names because one publisher frowned on switching genres. No, I won’t tell you who those bestsellers are.)
Readers are proving adept in this new world at moving with their favorite authors. I’ve had readers ask me to stop using pen names. As a reader, I prefer the branding of pen names. It’s a quick and easy way to know if the story will be light or dark, funny or gory. I admit to all but a few of my pen names, and I do so openly so that my readers can find them. But my pen name preference, once the only way to survive in traditional publishing, has remained only because it’s what I prefer as a reader myself.
For example, a writer I’d invited into one of the Fiction River anthologies just turned in the story. It had a byline that made me smile. I’m familiar with this writer’s various pen names, and this pen name is my favorite of the writer’s work. Remember, I’m the reader who loves Barbara Michaels and hates Elizabeth Peters even though they are both the writer Barbara Mertz. I pick up the Michaels books and ignore the Peters books, and have since the 1970s.
One of the reasons professional writers come to our anthology workshop is to remind themselves of this lesson. Not every editor is the same. Not every reader is the same.
One editor’s best story ever is another editor’s are you kidding me? story. One reader’s best story is another reader’s worst book ever by a favorite author.
And writers have to be careful: Just because a book was hard to write or dealt with a difficult topic doesn’t make it a bad book. I was at a book signing with a now-dead bestselling author. A long-time fan brought a cherished book to the signing. This book had been read so many times the cover was falling off. She wanted her favorite writer to sign this brilliant work.
The writer took one look at it, and said to the other professional writers in the room, “I have no idea why readers want us to sign the crappy books.”
She signed it and didn’t even notice that her fan left in tears. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the fan tossed the book in the dumpster on the way to the car.
What disrespect the writer had for her fans. What disrespect we writers have for the people who read our work. Our readers don’t expect perfection every time we publish a book. They expect a good read, something to take them from their lives for a few hours. They hope to get a memorable read, but escape will do. They’ll even settle for a bad read now and then, if you’ve already provided them with hours and hours of pleasure before.
We writers know that if we put on our reader caps. We forget it as writers. We’re as bad as that horrible bestseller, tossing our books back at our fans with a sneer—or worse—not letting the readers decide what’s good and what isn’t.
Our job as writers is to do the best we can, declare the book finished at a certain point, and put it on the market. Then we need to move onto the next book. Our readers will decide which of our works are worth their time.
How do they decide that? By talking to their friends. I do that every month. I post my recommended reading list. If I love a book, it goes on the list. I never ever ever slash another writer’s work and advise you not to read it. That is a waste of my time and yours. Instead, I point you to writing I’ve loved in the hopes that you will find something you like.
If I don’t love a book by a favorite author, I don’t recommend it. Bottom line.
I’m making decisions as a reader for other readers. As a writer, I do the best I can, finish the work, get it on the market and move onto the next.
Oh, and when a fan in line at a book signing tells me some book is her favorite and I personally hate that book of mine, I never tell her that. I don’t sneer at my own work, because I’m sneering at my reader too. If I put the book out there, then the fans have the right to respond to it. They have the right to their own opinion.
The readers will make sure the good books survive and the bad books get read only by completists. Charles Dickens wrote fifteen novels, five novellas, and hundreds of short stories. If I pressed you to name three right now, you’d all name A Christmas Carol. Then you’d name two others, probably different ones than I’d name. I doubt any of us would name Barnaby Rudge or Domby and Son, although I’ll bet some of you completists out there have read them.
Write a lot. Write well. Constantly strive to improve. Move forward. Market your work, then let the market decide its merit.
Stop asking this question: What if I write a bad book? Guaranteed, as a professional writer of long-standing, you will write a bad book. Only your readers will disagree as to which of your many books that is.
As I was winding this up, I decided to check the Amazon listing for the bad book I mentioned above by my favorite author. Twenty-six people agreed with me; this is the worst thing Favorite Author has ever written. Forty-three people believe this is the best thing Favorite Author has ever written. About a hundred other readers fall in-between those two extremes.
These rankings are almost identical to her other books. When I look back a year, two years, five years, I see similar splits. My opinion still differs with a number of the other readers: they hated one of my personal favorites; I hated this book.
I preordered Favorite Author’s next book. I don’t expect to be disappointed.
After all, a writer can’t hit it out of the park every time. But when a writer does hit it out of the park, well, that’s pretty damn special indeed.
I’m diving back into a novel I had to abandon to handle last month’s work. I told one reader I was working on a novel in this series, and he scrunched up his nose. “Can’t that wait until you write in [his favorite series]?”
Naw. I do what I do. When I do it.
And part of what I do is this business blog. I’m humbled by how many of you show up here every Thursday. If I don’t answer all the comments, it’s only because I’ve been swamped. But I do appreciate them.
Just like I appreciate the donations, letters, links, and referrals you all do for the blog. Without your support, I would stop doing the blog. So this is something I do because you guys let me know you’re interested.
I am quite grateful.
And please remember, if you see something you like or learned something here or in previous blogs, please leave a tip on the way out.
“The Business Rusch: “The Bad Book” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
So true, all of it!
As such, whether it elicits an inner cringe or an inner smile, I remember really enjoying that Star Trek: Voyager book you did with Dean – Echoes. (>^-‘)>
Thanks, AL. It’s a good memory. We had fun with that book.
There is a sci-fi author whose books I really enjoy. But as each series evolves, I have to wade through longer and longer conversations between the characters and I have to weigh just how much I want to wade through it to see where the characters stories I enjoy so much are headed. It is like a part of every book is a bad book. I must have at least 15 of them though.
These series also have the same problem as TV shows I have really enjoyed. They start out procedural, which draws me to them, then slowly change to character/relationship driven, which I understand draws a larger audience, but isn’t where I want to spend my time.
I may be a minority, but there must be quite a few others like me. Look how long the orginal Law and Order show ran.
I’m a tad late to this discussion (getting to be a parent does that), but…
A friend of mine with MS has an explanation on spoons (not originally hers). When you have MS you start with so many spoons a day, and everything you do robs you a number of spoons (one for reading the news, two for doing the dishes…). You don’t get spoons unless you sleep well, and there’s no carry over. Depending on your MS you get more or less spoons.
In my mind, writers have something similar with readers. I will tolerate things from certain writers I won’t tolerate with others. I will go through several bad books with some authors, none with some others. In this case, spoons *can* kind of carry over, but, besides that, it’s almost the same issue.
Ferran — here it is:
It’s an excellent way of explaining to a healthy person what it’s like living with a disability, especially one of the invisible disabilities that doesn’t blare like a neon sign over your head.
This is a great reminder of the reality of fans, reviews, and behavior. My favorite book I’ve written is always my last book. I think it’s because I grow with each book and know my writing is getting better. My ability to get to the story, the emotion, the underlying currents is becoming more fluid.
So far, I don’t hate any of my books. Perhaps it is because I haven’t yet published 20 books. Perhaps it is because I haven’t ever written something that someone else suggested I write (like your Fifty Shades trend author). I learned early on that I wasn’t capable of writing something that someone else suggested.
Every story I undertake speaks to me on a personal level and I fall in love with it as I write it. Yes, there are times I hate it–usually in the middle–but by the end I love it again. Even though my next book becomes my new love, I look back on the previous ones with fondness which reflects stages in my development as a writer, as well as places in my life.
Looking back at my books is like looking at old photos. The photos often have people in them I often don’t remember very well, but have a fond feeling for them anyway. I remember the fun, the lessons, the specific time of my life and experiences when the photo was taken. Books are that way too for me, whether as a reader or a writer. They are tied to me in a permanent way that leaves a mark, for better or worse, and moves me forward to the next experience.
Great description, Maggie. Old friends, old photos. Perfect.
And yeah, when interviewers ask me for the favorite of the books I’ve written, I always tell them it’s the book I’m working on, and I’m never lying.
The saddest part of a bad book is when you can tell that the author has become so well known, and so rushed to do so many projects, that some books no longer get edited, or the editor no longer says, “ah, you said this same thing in the last chapter,” or “I know you feel passionately about this political idea, but it has overwhelmed the plot. Can you say this more subtly?” After two of those books, in two different series, I stopped reading the author.
Lots of myths in your post, TXRed. Writers never do a bad job because they’re rushed or well known or because they’re no longer edited. (Well, sometimes a good editorial hand would be nice, but it would also be nice on mid-list and indie novels as well. Remember, the writer doesn’t always have to take the suggestions.) Probably what happened is this: the book isn’t to your taste. Again, if you go to Amazon or B&N and look at the rankings on those books you gave up on, dozens of other readers probably enjoyed them. It truly is about taste and not “writing fast” or “bad editing”
You’re probably right, Kris, but when an entire chapter is duplicated word for word in the same book, with only two slight differences at the beginning and end, I’m not sure that it’s just me. But yes, perhaps the author was trying for an effect that I just didn’t see.
Was that book traditionally published? Because for something like that to happen several things had to occur: 1) the editor never read the book; 2) the book was not copy edited; 3) the book was not proof read. I’ve published books that the editor only scanned. (Such a crapazoid editor that was too.) But there were copy editors & proof readers on all of them. The only other thing would have been deliberate sabotage on the part of a publishing employee, also something friends have experienced, back when traditional publishers laid people off and didn’t escort them out the door, but let them work to the end of the pay period.
If it wasn’t traditionally published, then the author did not hire the right help, if indeed he/she/it hired help at all.
With all due respect, I think I agree with the person you’re responding to.
I’m not talking about something small – but I have seen something as blatantly wrong about the editing as ending a chapter with a pair of characters cleaning up a campsite after a battle and choosing specific things to take with them. Then the POV switched to another set of characters and when they returned to the first set, the characters finish the battle, start cleaning up the campsite and choose often entirely different (but similar) items as the first time they cleaned up the campsite.
Anyone reading the story would have picked up on it, so it’s clear no one did any editing on that (very popular) writer’s work. And her books have been suffering from less and less editing over the last few years. (She’s always had a problem with keeping minor characters straight and forgetting that x event happened in y manner – but it was always stuff I’d only catch on the second or third read.) As much as I love her works, watching the editing deteriorate like that has turned me off picking up her books.
And for such things to happen, there has to be a major failing inside the traditional publishing house. There are 3 different processes that will catch those kinds of mistakes. Three. All three have to fail for that to happen. Yes, a lot of bestsellers do not get content edits, but they all get copy and line edits, as well as proofs. So even if the content editor doesn’t do her job or isn’t allowed to do her job, the others do theirs. So either the authors in question have a huge ego and demand that everything is published as is, or something is very, very wrong with the publisher. Since I’ve been around traditional publishing for more than 30 years, I vote for author ego on this one. It’s nearly impossible for those mistakes to get through the three-part editing process otherwise. If you don’t understand what I mean by the editing process, look here: https://kriswrites.com/2013/01/23/the-business-rusch-editorial-revisions/ and realize that I did not include the proof reader in this because they have a somewhat different job. So really, the only nexus point in this process is the writer, and the writer has to be exceedingly hard to work with for such problems to occur with that kind of regularity. (Or extremely late on all deadlines so the book goes from turn-in to print within less than a month.)
I hadn’t seen your previous post about the three stages when I wrote the reply (I think I’d had the window open for a bit and then came back and started reading the comments) – so, apologies if you thought I were ignoring that post!
I’m not familiar with the personality of the author in question, so I could only hazard a guess based on a few passing comments authors who submit to the author’s universe’s anthologies, and that’s not really fair since it might not be the author herself making those calls on the anthology policies.
But I will say that she was one of my first real fantasy authors I ever followed and it was rather sad for me going from, “Buy EVERYTHING!” to “buy only certain series” to “library first…” to “I don’t want to be thrown out of the story about once a chapter because of the horrible typos, continuity problems, and the general not-even-proofed feel of the story”. I guess I kind of hope it isn’t author ego, because then I could hope she could ruffle her feathers a bit and get the editing necessary or go it on her own and get competent people to do something with it. And, of course, if it’s author ego, then whether she goes it on her own or doesn’t, I still wouldn’t be able to read her work, and that’s depressing. (I wouldn’t even say that I’m excessively picky. But if something would be caught in the first pass by anyone actually reading, rather than skimming, then it’s bothersome.)
Apologies for rambling. 🙂
It’s okay, C. I don’t expect everyone to read everything. I barely do. (Wait! That’s not true.
Anyway, if she’s traditionally published, those steps are all there. She’s just ignoring them or her publisher has been instructed to ignore them. (When an author gets really big, they can have anything they want.) If she’s not traditionally published, she needs to hire someone to help her ASAP. Not that you can tell her these things.
To be fair, sometimes the publisher just assumes that the writer will be a problem and orders hands-off without the author’s permission. Even then, someone does copy edit and proof. Maybe just not for continuity. But still, the kinds of errors you’re talking about either go to an author who continually misses/pushes the deadline (with maybe a month before publication which isn’t enough in traditional publishing) or doesn’t want her precious words messed with. [sigh]
On the other hand, we’re finding all kinds of fun issues with scanned manuscripts when we’re dealing with some of my backlist at WMG. Wow. It’s becoming cheaper to type everything in than it is to scan because of the formatting stuff that shows up in different tablet/ebook readers. It’s amazing. Partly because my digital manuscripts are (in some cases) twenty years old, and those don’t work any better than scans.
I’ve come to the conclusion, when it comes to my own work, I have no idea what is good or bad. It seems the stuff I’m convinced is terrible, senseless garbage (about 90% of what I write 🙂 ) ends up receiving the most praise.
For example, an indie-published short story I was considering taking down because it was very early work (and had to be terrible, right?) just received its first review–5-stars, with an amazing write up.
On the other hand, I recently wrote a short story I was convinced was FANTASTIC. I submitted it to a magazine that had sent me a personal rejection on the last story I sent them, telling me it had come “very close.” So this new story was a shoe-in, right? Or at least worthy of another complimentary personal rejection. BAM! That form rejection came back in two weeks.
I have no idea what the hell I’m doing. So I guess I’ll just keep writing and let somebody else decide if it’s good or not.
Great column, Kris! Until reviewing books (and everything) became an Internet staple, I think few writers realized how much reading tastes varied: that many, many readers will “hate” a universally acknowledged “good” book and adore a universally acknowledged “bad” book. And nowadays the feedback will be instant, rude and public, not genteel and buried in print trade magazines. From my newspaper days, I saw that readers who have negative feelings exercise them in print early and often. Happy customers move on. And buy more. Poor Lilian Jackson Braun, who wrote gentle cat cozy mysteries until very late in life, was excoriated by readers when her plots and memory began slipping. You’d think her “gentle” readers would have been more understanding. They say the price of American success is to be built up and then torn down. So today’s writers will do themselves a favor by avoiding the online review “noise” and realize the readers who love what they do will find them.
Great post, Carole. Exactly. 🙂
People who are blah blah blah against books they take for granted as “bad” are getting under my skin lately. Okay, I did it, too. I probably deserve it.
But I am sick of walking into writers’ groups where one class of books or another gets slammed, because of genre. I’m tired of talking to writers who look down on romance, or SF, or thrillers. I’m tired of going, “Look, X is selling millions of books. They must be doing something right.” I’m sick of hearing *writers* go, “X is the best that that there ever was or will be at writing Y books,” without actually reading anything else in the genre, or X’s antecedents. Sure, X is often good…but is often standing on the shoulders of giants A, B, and C, who often get dismissed because the books are “out of date.”
Readers who aren’t writers? Okay. They love what they love, and they’re not required to understand why or be open-minded about what they don’t like. But I expect better from writers, and I want to throttle them every time. “No! You have to stop it! Right now!”
I think a lot of writers suffer from an appalling need to be pretentious. Not sure where it comes from. But, as a non-artist, I’ve actually come to expect it, and not just from writers but from all practitioners of the “fine arts”. It’s as though they have some pathological need to prove how much smarter they are than anyone else. Of course, more often than not, this ends up making them look like idiotic, pompous asses, but don’t bother pointing that out.
You see it all the time. Most recently, in the attitude of pretty much every writer I’ve come across to 50 Shades. “Yeah whatever. It sold a lot of copies, but it sucks. It’s poorly written and has no literary value.” Nevermind that literary value has no meaning and is actually worthless, because how exactly do you measure it?
I would retort that 50 Shades is the best book – best written, best characters, best story, however you want to put it – of 2012. Why? Because it sold a metric butt-ton of copies. I haven’t looked to be sure, but I think it sold more than anyone else? If not, then fine it’s not THE best. But it’s up there. Because here’s the thing. It’s COMMERCIAL FICTION. By definition, that which sells best is the best in a commercial sense. Literary value, beautiful prose (and really what the hell does THAT mean?), and all that other tripe be damned. It’s about how much readers like it and how much money goes in the pocket. And readers loved the damn thing. And the author made a whole butt-ton of money.
So screw you, pompous literary wannabes. 50 Shades is better than your book. Deal with it.
Ok, that was a very long winded way of saying I agree with you.
Rant off. I’m going back to writing my book, and hoping I can do it as well as E L James did hers.
I’ve been a lurker for a while, but I wanted to say thank you for this post. This is something I’ve been struggling with a lot lately, and your post helped me put things into a better perspective.
I’ve been feeling very guilty looking back at some of my earlier books (the order I published them in isn’t necessarily the order I wrote them in) because they are not very representative of my best work. They were the best I could do with them at the time, but I have grown as a writer since then. Logically, I know that is a good thing, but I’d been beating myself up because each book was not perfection in digital paper form. I needed to be reminded, as a writer, that that’s okay. Thank you for that. 🙂
It is okay, Danyelle. In my very first published novel, I did something I am now “too educated” as a writer to do. It’s wrong, it shouldn’t work–and it’s the absolutely best thing about the novel. So sometimes our earlier selves know better than our more educated later selves.
And–you’re welcome. 🙂
How prolific an author is has a lot to do with the choices I make as a disappointed reader.
If it’s a very prolific writer, I don’t expect to like every book. I am, for example, a huge Michaels/Peters fan! If I don’t like two books in a row by her, which has happened, that’s still a minor blip on the road of a writers who’s written at least 3 dozen books that I enjoyed very much.
But if a writer who has “only” 4-6-8 books to choose from, I give them two books in a row. The ratio of positive experiences isn’t convincing enough to convince me to try again.
If I liked book #1 by a first-time author but did NOT like book #2, I almost never give them another try. I figure it was just serendipity that I liked the first book.
I might make different choices if my TBR pile were smaller… But given that there are always about 300 books in it… There’s just not sufficient time for me to be a better sport about giving another chance to a writer in whose work I’ve lost interest after two (or one) disappointing experiences.
I have to wonder how many “bad books” are due to the writer trying (or being asked to try by their agent or editor) to write something that isn’t their style, just because it’s hot at the moment. I don’t know how good my own books are (although feedback from the test readers and buyers has been pretty positive so far), but the main thing I want to do is remain true to my own vision of what my stories should be, without anyone telling me I should write something different. The funny thing is, the thing about the first novel I’ve put up for sale that I decided many years ago would make it unmarketable through conventional channels is one of the things that the readers seem to like most.
So it seems to me that writers would probably do better to stick with their own creative vision and what they love rather than trying to chase trends that just aren’t suited to them.
I think that’s the best thing an independent (self-publisers)author has going for them — they can write what they want and put it out to the people. No publisher to pressure the writer to write what’s trending at that moment.
Good stories are timeless: they outlast all trends and all attempts to make them “popular”
And, as we’re seeing, sometimes they start trends. 🙂 Like the aforementioned Fifty Shades of Grey. 🙂
‘most people don’t remember the name of a writer unless that writer enthralls them’
Such a lovely, lovely point. Especially for worried writers.
It is so self-centered to think people will remember your failures. Most people only care about themselves – they aren’t going to waste any of their energy thinking about how YOU disappointed THEM.
I got one bad book recently – it was cobbled together, badly, from blog posts: no editing, no attempt to create anything unified about it, different formats and fonts everywhere. It was so bad it wasn’t worth complaining about – it became the first book I’ve returned to Amazon – and I can’t tell you now what its title was. I couldn’t come up with the energy to even leave a 1-star review (though I might have, had I not been able to return it). It is simply off my radar.
I will remember your post – and this particular bad book (but not its title or author) – the next time I’m worried, so I can stop worrying.
One more thing off the To Do list.
Hope, on many different levels. Thanks…
I have a question — I just finished a marathon reading of Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum mysteries and when I was finished I went and read the reviews and I was surprised by how many people well into the series complained about the very things that made the series what it was (Grandma Mazur, her friend Lula, cars blowing up and even the Morrelli / Ranger relationship) — I have a question when do you change a series M.O. or how do you keep the very thing that brought you fans from getting stale? I watched this happen with the Charlaine Harris series where the faithful turned disenchanted to quite rabid by the end of the series. Although I’m pretty sure they’d still read another series of her at least out of curiosity to begin with.
I was just curious if you had thoughts on this. Thanks.
Josephine, shhhh. My answer here is secret. Don’t tell anyone. The minute I start writing with the fans in mind is the minute I ruin my work. I have to write a better book each time, yes, but sometimes that means I’ll kill off a favorite character or write a side story no one but me cares about. If I’m not interested, I can’t keep the fans interested. What’s fascinating to me about all the complaining with long-running series by now-famous writers is this: the fans buy the next book anyway. Yes, they carp and bitch and have complaints, but that’s because they’re invested in both time & money. Not quite as much time & money as the author, but invested all the same. They are important. But they also don’t want their favorite author to write by committee, which is what any writer who listens to fan complaints does. You need to write your books always, and then put them out there. And don’t read reviews. Or fan blogs.
Remember, the most vocal are often not the most representative. Did you have a good meal this week? Did you have a bad one? If you had both, which is the one you mentioned to friends? I’ll wager it’s the bad one and you never mentioned the good one. We’re all like that. We complain when we don’t like something but rarely mention what we like. Fans of books are like that too. If you asked those fans if they want Charlaine to quit writing, they’ll say no. If you ask them if they’ll buy her next book, they’ll probably say yes. Those are the two important questions. The rest is noise.
You’re right the negative fans are not representative and most readers aren’t reviewers (at least not formally) and so they don’t think to write a review when they are pleased with a book.
I like the idea of satisfying my writer’s need to write the story the way I see it first and let that guide a series. I guess when I was thinking about writing by committee I wasn’t thinking about all the small things that make up the world which a writer feels obliged to include or maybe gets comfortable including depending on their deadline.
Lots to think about thanks!
Josephine, I can’t address Harris’ series, which I quit after book #2 (I enjoyed the material but wasn’t engaged enough to keep reading more of the same), but I had very distinct reactions to Evanovich’s series:
I thoroughly enjoyed books 1-5. Found them fun, fresh, entertaining, amusing, etc. I found books #6 and #7 disappointing. It seemed to me that, rather than writing a new book in the series, the author was just taking ingredients from the previous books and adding water. The material seemed stale and recycled to me, so I lost interest and stopped reading the series.
However, because I had really enjoyed 5 books in a row by this author, I gave the series another chance around book 10 or 11, hoping maybe the author had just been going through a difficult phase in books 6-7 and had recovered and refocused by now. I absolutely hated it. I quit halfway through, I’ve never gone near the author’s work again. I felt this later book had gone that much farther down the road of watered-down, recycled, reused material.
Which is not the inexorable fate of a series. By contrast, for example, I’ve enjoyed every book (some more than others; but overall, quality remains high) in Linda Fairstein’s Alexandra Cooper series, which is around book #12 now.
I agree there is a lot of repetition and completely get why people don’t continue to read them — around book 9 I almost stopped or at least paused reading the series (which I hardly do when I sit down to read a series straight through), but I had writerly questions about the series I wanted answered which I needed to read further out on (that and an obsessive nature) so I continued through.
What I felt is if I were to do a long series I would have some personal goals for the protagonist that she would get closer to along the way. Stephanie never achieves closure even if its to not get beat up as much so she takes self-defense lessons; the closest I saw her come to it was she very quietly admitted she did bounty hunting because she liked it.
Now having said that the series is comfort food. A goto for when you want those predictable laughs and things – it’s not a drama. I did enjoy the books, she has the front door humor, but she has a subtle one too that can sneak up on you.
I read her book on writing and she does have a lot of hands in her writing pot, but I do believe she writes true to her own personal design. She is very aware this is a business, but I don’t think it means she stopped being ‘real’ writer. Maybe she writes it with the soap-opera moto ‘Never tell’em today what you can put off until tomorrow” (or next year or two).
I do understand though about the sameness (especially if you’re reading them one after another : ) ).
Your favorite books are REBECCA and THE GREAT GATSBY? Mine too. Thanks for all the good advice.
Don’t forget the reverse story, too; when a writer you think does a good enough job ends up blowing you out of the water with their newest release. That just happened with an author I’ve recently discovered. Liked her first book. Second was was all right. Third book?! Wow, one of my all-time favorite reads.
This is why we hang in there with authors. 🙂
A really great column, Kris! I can see exactly what you’re saying, b/c lately I’ve been reading a lot of books by single authors.
Lately I’ve been reading a TON of Nora Roberts. I started reading her as a craft exercise, to strengthen areas of my writing where Roberts is brilliant. But ahem, ah, I discovered, er (tugs nervously at collar) that I actually LOVE her work. (Please don’t tell anyone!) I was up to 1 am last night listening to one of her audiobooks.
But here’s the point. After reading a ton of her stuff I’ve come to believe that some of it’s unputdownable–and some just doesn’t appeal to me. Weird. And IMHO, her later work is stronger than her earlier work, which suggest she’s STILL GETTING BETTER.
BTW, I’ve read nearly everything Dean Koontz has ever written and I’ve seen the exact same pattern with him. Lots of brilliant but he misses occasionally. ::Shrugs:: Still love Koontz.
One more thing. I love Nora Roberts–but I have yet to make it through a JD Robb novel. The Robb books are too oogie for me, too SVU. Dislike one and love the other–and it’s the exact same human being writing both novels! I’m really glad she brands the books differently so I know what I’m picking up.
Since the JD Robb novels are all one series, probably JUST identifying a book as an “Eve Dallas” novel would serve the purpose of market/tone identification for readers–since I agree that the Robb novels are different enough in tone from the Roberts novels to need a market cue.
I’m not a Roberts reader, but I’ve enjoyed some of her novels. I’m not at all a squeamish reader or one who demands a book be “light,” but I found the only Robb novel I tried to squicky for my taste. Given that the Robb novels are -also- futuristic, as well as having a certain tone, I think they’re an example of the separate name (even for the same readers, since Robb/Roberts has a lot of crossover) being a good market cue for the material
Very true that our writer and reader brains sometimes don’t communicate well. Sometimes habits and book-think doesn’t cross over at all.
I know I’m at a basic level of storytelling. I’m taking classes, reading, trying new techniques to improve all the time. Some stories are better, some or worse… depending on the reader. I learned that part early in the game. And I’m glad I learned it.
How did I learn it? By polishing up the stories, getting them out there, then working on the next stories. To my surprise, the stories I thought were silly and not worth anything typically outsold the stories I really liked. One story I thought was a hack-job then came back with glowing reviews that the story actually made them cry (in happiness). So much for being a hack-job.
And so much for me as a judge of a good story. Actually, it makes me worry about myself, but for a different reason than detailed in your article. 😛
So, now, I follow this basic advice: Tell the story the best that I can, and then get it out there for the readers to decide. I know I cannot assume for them. It’s wonderfully freeing, although I will admit that the internal-editor does sometimes beat me down. And then that story sells a few copies… Shut up internal-editor. You obviously have no clue as to what you are talking about!
I’ve had writers who I think are very competent storytellers get mad at me for thinking this way. In their view, if they don’t like it, then no one will like it. (We won’t go into how some of them now view me for thinking otherwise. Apparently I’m now a bad writer for deciding the reader should decide and I’m now contributing to the ‘tsunami of cr@p’ out there.) They bury the story in their hard-drive, or even delete it! It’s a dangerous assumption, and a good way to kill your career before it even gets started.
I know that I’m the only one who can truly kill my career, and that’s by stopping. So, I let the readers decide. If they don’t like one story, then they may like a different one. I cannot second-guess which story will be the most popular, so why try? Might as well continue writing like crazy with the intention of getting it all out there in some fashion or the other!
(Oddly, I’ve also been lambasted for being too much “rah-rah!” on the writing part of that. Sigh. In trouble among writers for encouraging… more writing.)
Great post, Kris. It’s very upbeat and inspirational.
Agree with this. Especially “I know that I’m the only one who can truly kill my career, and that’s my stopping.” Agree with the “let the readers decide.” No deleting of stories, writer people!
By the way, when I said “I know I’m at a basic level of storytelling,” I meany\t I’m no longer a beginner. I have the basics, at the very least, down. Which means that my personal likes and dislikes of the resulting stories need to be ignored. I know how to tell a story. After I do, it’s time to let it go and let the readers decide if this will be a favorite or not. I just realized that sounded like I was putting myself down. I’m not. 😛
Good clarification, JA. 🙂 It’s really fun to let the readers decide. They always surprise.
On a similar but related note:
What I found most difficult to get my head around as a writer was that how good a book is doesn’t have much link to how well it sells.
I have one nonfiction book that received vast critical acclaim and rave reviews. Rights were sold in six languages. Translated into French and used by Doctors Without Borders. (If I’d known about that beforehand, I would have given them translation rights in exchange for bragging rights.)
My worst-selling book. Sold 25% as many as my next worst-selling book. Most translations except the French never actually appeared.
My next nonfiction book? I thought it was mediocre. Reviews were good, but not nearly so gung-ho. And the blasted thing sold enough to rate a second edition, which continues to sell quite well years later.
I’ve learned to remember the nice things people say and forget the bad. You shrug, and write another book. The best book you can at the time.
Because if you ponder it too much, you’ll stop writing.
And every so often, someone comes up to me and thanks me for writing my commercial failure.
The hard part, of course, is applying that same thinking to my fiction and my non-technical no-fiction. Because surely changing fields means that all the rules change. I mean, novelists and biographers and suchforth must have a solid correlation between how good a book is and how well it sells.
Kris, thank you for reminding all of us (as you and Dean have at workshops, too) that sometimes the no is “No, not right now,” or “No, I just bought something like that and I wish I’d seen yours first, but there you are,” etc.
I’ll never forget you saying that when you and Dean were editors, you sometimes had to tell a persistent writer no several times in a row, but you could see he or she was getting better with each story submitted, and you knew that some time soon you were going to buy one of that writer’s stories.
But then some of those writers gave up. Right before they were going to get that yes. And you were actually disappointed not to get any more stories from them.
How many indie writers are giving up too soon? Just because their sales aren’t huge right away?
I saw a great interview on 60 Minutes a few months ago with a very perky woman who was laid off as a stockbroker or some job in the financial industry, and decided to take her grandmother’s pickle recipe and build a business with it. She’s very outgoing, always getting her pickles into people’s hands (and mouths), and as a result, just got a contract last year to export her pickles to China.
Her attitude if someone tells her no? “That’s okay–some day you’re gonna want my pickles.”
So if our book sales numbers aren’t what we would like any particular month, that’s okay–some day they’re gonna want our pickles. We just have to keep writing them and bottling them in the meantime…
I love that saying! Thanks for sharing that. I’ll have to remember that.
Love it, Robin! I think it’s an issue of confidence without being overconfident. The overconfident indie writer who assumes, “the next one’s going to be a hit!” Is frequently disappointed. But if you’re confident enough in you ability to create viable, high-quality product on a consistent basis (I.e. the pickle lady), eventually you’ll build enough of a reputation or enough folks to buy your stuff to make a go of it.
Sure, like Kris says, there might be a “bad” jar of pickles in there as far as some people are concerned: too salty, too cucumbery, too…”pickle-y”…but her point that it’s a matter of taste is well taken indeed, and most folks will forgive the odd off jar of pickles or two if, on whole, the product is consistent.
Anyone else hungry for a burger?
My favorite thing about the authors I love who write something that falls flat, is that I’ve just become a better writer by knowing why. My absolute favorite thing about editing is passing on that knowledge.
Great remarks, Kris. I needed, personally, to hear that as an author, I have to get beyond the “bad book” fear. It’s paralyzed me for six years, and it wasn’t even that bad a book! In some ways, I wonder if having epublishing as an option will help. It is many good things, but for some of us, it will most importantly be a second chance to prove ourselves.
The writer took one look at it, and said to the other professional writers in the room, “I have no idea why readers want us to sign the crappy books.”
What a terrible thing to say to a fan!
It reminds me of when my sister-in-law’s friend invited us to her father’s house, her father being a well-known movie star back in the 1940s. He signed everything in sight, including a book authored by Henny Youngman! Of course I didn’t stop him from signing it; why would I? It was the only old time movie star I ever met, and figured I ever would meet (since most of them, including him, are gone now), so getting something signed in person by him was something that I never thought would happen.
I still have that signed book. It’s a treasure I’ll never throw away.
So sad to hear the writer didn’t consider that.
That I think is an important point that writers have to learn: One person “bad book” is another’s “I can’t put it down because it’s that good!” Kris, you don’t like the Elizabeth Peters novels, but my Mom LOVES Elizabeth Peters. Nothing wrong with that — its a matter of taste and expectation. It’s a matter of appealing to that reader’s reason for reading that story.
“50 Shades of Gray” — major bestseller, but I have yet to talk to anyone who has read it that actually likes it (I haven’t read it myself) One person I know called it “Badly written S&M” and I’ve read that it started as “Twilight” fanfiction. (The Twilight series is another one — bestseller, but I haven’t met anyone who likes it. It could be my associates are the wrong type to like either….)
For example, if I’m reading Clive Cussler, I know what I’m getting — a daring hero, a nasty villian, major action scenes, mostly set on or near a body of water, some snappy diologue, a major global threat or problem, and a little romance. I know what to expect from Mr. Cussler — pure escapism. Are all his novels great? No. Some are, most as worth reading and maybe a couple I wouldn’t read again (I reread a lot.)
But there are other readers who think Cussler is a hack — cardboard characters, unrealistic plots (Raise the Titanic? B******T!), and repeative scenes (Pitt destroying a classic car/boat/airplane during a chase, or Cussler’s cameo)turns readers off.
So, it is up to the writer to write good stories, but they also have to realize that a scene that makes sense and reads great when it is written may make a reader take the book and throw it across the room in discuss. Conversely, that same scene may be another reader’s favorate part of the book.
The writer has to write the strongest story they can — but there will never be a perfect book that everyone loves without reservation. The writer must be aware of that, or it’ll be a short writing career….
I know lots of people who love Twilight, Craig. Often people won’t admit to liking something that is really popular but sneered at through the “literary press” for fear of seeming stupid or tasteless. It’s better to look at what’s one someone’s to-read pile (not their shelves) to get their true opinions. Your last point is spot-on. I love two books without reservation: Rebecca and the Great Gatsby. Two, out of a lifetime of reading. And several shorter works, of course. Many shorter works. Including The Night They Buried Road Dog. 🙂
I know someone who not only likes Twilight, but who makes a very interesting case for Bella as a female character with a great deal of agency; she tends to get what she wants, even if what she wants isn’t always what the readers think it’s a good idea to want.
I don’t think I’d like Twilight (though I liked certain fanfic of it), but I very much appreciate that other view of it. It makes me think.
Spot on here, Kris. Often the more popular a work, the more it gets dissed as undeserving hackery.
I read a lot of popular but reportedly crappy stuff because I want to know why so many people enjoyed it. This includes Fifty Shades of Gray, The Da Vinci Code, and many others. I almost always find that these books are not in the ‘bad’ book category for me.
I do the same thing, Jak. I read as many of the bestsellers as I can, especially the run-away bestsellers to see what readers are enjoying about them. The really nice thing about this is that it forces me to read books I wouldn’t normally read. I love that. And you’re right: some are not to my taste, but none have hit my “bad book” category. Not a one.
What if the bad book, the book you don’t like when you’re reading, is the first book you’ve read by a particular author? Do you give the author another chance, on the theory that not every book can be awesome, or do you go find something else to read?
Erin, most people don’t remember the name of a writer unless that writer enthralls them. So three years from now, the same reader might pick up a book by the author’s work they hated and love the new book. As they work their way back through the backlist, they realize they had read an earlier book and disliked it. They shrug and keep reading. It’s one of the great things about writing. Readers are very forgiving.
In my case they go on my “find at the library” list. If the next book is worth rereading that author will move back to the “buy” list. If they get really bad, several books in a row, they get dropped even from the “library” list.
Every reader has a magic number in his head. That’s the number of bad books a favorite author has to publish before the reader gives up.
Agreed, although for me it varies from writer to writer, depending on how much squee/liking/enjoyment I have invested in them. Johanna Lindsey was one of the very first romance writers I ever read, and I loved her stuff, back in the day. I struggled through… at least six or seven “Meh” books before I finally stopped buying her stuff. And that was hard; it took a deliberate act of will, of my logical mind lecturing the emotional part of my mind that kept whining, “But maybe NEXT time…?”
Writers I have less invested in get lesser numbers of chances (in a row) to disappointment before I cross them off my list. I might give them two or three or four, especially if there was some specific thing I disliked in the last few books, and I see that that thing (setting, plot device, character type, whatever) isn’t present in their next one.
A writer I’ve never read before has one chance; if that book doesn’t work for me, I’m gone, and I won’t try anything else by them unless I get a very strong recommendation from someone whose taste I trust to be very similar to mine. Preferably more than one person. There are too many writers and too many books for me to give multiple chances to someone who disappointed me right off the bat. Although I have found one or two new favorite writers through such recommendations of Other Books by someone I’d crossed off my list earlier. Someone I dumped after the first date, as it were, can get back in with me; they just have to climb a higher wall the second time.
I love the first date analogy, Angie. Perfect. And really, it’s not a date so much as drinks. YOu might have a drink with a guy a second time–later, after he’s matured a little–but not dinner. Not twice. 🙂 Great.