Monday, May 12, 2008

How Do "Bad Books" Get Published?

I received this question recently:

I just don't understand how so many "bad" books make it to the shelves. I might realize how they squeeze past the safeguard of the query, even slightly shrug at skipping through the synopsis, but how do they escape the steel claws of the agent, much less the probing publisher? Are there just too many to read or are agents having too many before they read them? (smile)

And while I’m quoting this particular reader, I do want to say that, sadly, this is something I hear all the time and something I’m not sure I know how to answer or even how to give a response to.

Publishing is subjective. When agents and editors choose to represent and buy a book they like that book. In fact, a lot of times they love that book. I can’t think of anyone who has ever represented or bought a book that they truly felt was bad—maybe not the best book ever written, but not bad. They also feel that there is a market for that book, that the writing and ideas appeal to readers at some level . . . you’ve heard it all before. Sigh

I have to say I think I’ll need some help here from readers. This kind of comment makes me mad, and it tires me out. 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. I wrote a while ago in defense of romance writing, but here I think I’m going to have to write in defense of commercial fiction in all genres because, let’s face it, when people criticize what’s being published, they are primarily criticizing commercial fiction.

These books aren’t bad, folks, they are just books that aren’t to your tastes. Sure, there are books where the writing is stronger than others, some have great characterization and others great plot. There are books that can do all three and those that can’t. There are plenty of books that have been published that I just hated and probably thought were bad, but often I could see the appeal to someone, it just wasn’t me.

So please do not try to tell me that a majority of the thousands of books in bookstores are “bad.” To me that sounds like sour grapes.



Chro said...

As you said, readers are subjective. Everyone is unique. For example, I couldn't stand Heart of Darkness, despite all its depth and vast praise. It just wasn't for me. To this day, it's the only book I've fallen asleep reading (in the middle of the day, no less!)

The primary reason writers ask this question is because they're frustrated by the 'rules'. They're told things like 'Stick to one PoV in a scene' or 'Keep your word count between 80k and 120k' or 'avoid adverbs', etc. Frustrated by the barriers to publication, they go out and find a bestselling author that breaks these rules and say, "THEY didn't follow the rules and they still made their agent/publisher gobs of money! I can do that too!"

Kimber Li said...

Isn't it true that a long-time published author gets less editing attention?

Example: STAR WARS ALLEGIENCE by Timothy Zahn. Mr. Zahn is my favorite Science Fiction author, but this last one of his was full of problems which could have been easily fixed. I'm familiar with his work and familiar with the editing process. It seemed to me this one went to press before the editor was done, or maybe she never even got started, or maybe she got started but Mr. Zahn wasn't allowed the time to finish.

Anonymous said...

Note: I am not the original poster.

What gets me upset, and what I call "bad books", are the ones that could have been fixed in editing. Typos, blatant grammar errors, character names changing, massive violations of fact/laws of physics, that kind of thing. I'm not talking plot, overwriting, or personal taste. I'm defining bad books as the ones that usually get weeded out in the slush pile.

I hate to say it, but I normally see these "bad books" from big name authors. What it comes across as to me is that once you get a big enough name, the editor doesn't want to make waves, and will let a draft through before it's ready.

Honestly, that might be one reason why slush can be so bad. People see books out there with basic errors, and think that they don't need to fix their errors since so-and-so didn't have to fix theirs. So they submit something that should have gone through three more rounds of drafts first, get rejected, and get pissy.

Anonymous said...

Having been through the mill (query/submission/edit/edit yet again) I know how many eyes look at a manuscript before it makes it to print. Most are polished and professional, even if they don't appeal to my taste. But I have to agree with the person who commented: periodically you pick up a book from a major publisher and everything is wrong with it--headhopping, plot holes, too many adjectives/adverbs, clunky sentences, even stupid typos, all in one package. It always leaves me incredulous that so many people signed off on the book.

bob said...

When people say "bad books" they forget that it is all subjective.

Spend a little time getting feedback from agents as you search for one and you get a big dose of "subjective". Your rejections if your getting more than form letters will cause a writer to wonder if they are close or still so far away from finding one. Meaning reasons can vary but I find it very hard to believe an agent would take on a book that they themselves didn't like.

Now I am not saying that an agent has to be completely in love - I would like to think that agents read with audience in mind as well but thats another post.

The writer of that question needs to be reminded that ones bad book might be anothers gem.

But if the writer of that question is saying bad and meaning erros I would also wonder what books they are speaking of. Because unless your speaking of grammar errors and typos - the rest can still be subjective to a point.

Anonymous said...

Ironically, I just ran across this link yesterday:

Elizabeth Moon's discussion about how "bad books" do well. I agree with what she says because as she describes why books succeed in spite of the parts of it that don't work well, she demonstrates that these book aren't, in fact, bad. At least to me. Even in a book that I personally think is bad, I can see, now that I'm a writer myself, the amount of work and sweat that went into creating it. I think this post illustrates that while certain books don't have all the things that some people like to see, they do have some value.

Anonymous said...

While I do agree this whole business is terribly subjective, I think that well-known or established authors with a decent fan base are allowed to get away with writing one, two, sometimes even three not so great books. Why? I think we all know the simple reason is that their fans will buy the book anyway. It takes fans awhile for their favs to lose their status as 'instant buy'. Also, these books sometimes don't even go through the agents because the author is dealing pretty must exclusively with the editor. The editor knows people will buy the book because the author is popular. I'm sure editors don't take the same kind of time they would if it were a new author. They figure that author has been around the block and fans love their books, so they will buy this one, even if it's not their best.

Sandra Cormier said...

I think most readers who declare that a book is bad are writers, too.

Your average reader will skip the wooden dialogue, the head-hopping, the dream sequences and the overuse of the word 'that', and will simply get into the story without counting commas.

Writers are picky. They want every book they open to be flawless. If it isn't flawless, it's 'bad'. (Does the period come before or after the single quote mark?)

I'm guilty. Since I started writing, I picked up books that were written by popular authors in my chosen genre. I had a difficult time getting into them because many so-called rules were broken. I had to work hard to turn off my inner editor and just enjoy the story.

New writers are caught in a difficult spot -- they are required to jump through hoops in order to get published. Some are bitter because the established authors are allowed to do whatever they want because the name on the cover sells the book and a lot of readers will still buy it.

I say, get over it. Write the best book you can and maybe some of you will enjoy that freedom.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, well, I tend to judge books more harshly if they contain all the no-nos I've been taught to avoid by countless agents, critique partners, editing books, etc. Why is it okay for this author to do all of these things, but not me? (and, Chro, these are not just arbitrary 'rules' to follow, they are really markers of amateur writing. Read an author who has adverbs everywhere and one who doesn't and choose the stronger book...)

1) dumping of the back story in chapter one
2) using adverbs like candy in every sentence
3) using 'was -ing' construction when just plain past tense would make the writing much better & stronger
4) archetype characters rather than 'real' ones

And most of the time, the story is not that original to merit overlooking these issues. So, no, I don't think it's jealousy of an unpubbed author. It's confusion...why am I told not to do these things, when published authors do? Even brand new authors???

I recently read a book that was pubbed in 2006. The author had clearly written the book 10 years earlier as there were references to computer terminology and internet/email that was horridly out of date...and the book was supposed to take place in 2006! That is just BAD.

Jessica Nelson said...

It sounds like sour grapes to me. I've read books I didn't like, thought were boring, etc., but no really BAD books. They all had plots, characterization and good grammar. Sorry you have to keep hearing this.

PatriciaW said...

I have to agree with the first Anoymous and Chumplet. There's a difference between books that are not one's taste and "bad books", i.e. not well-written, grammar and spelling errors, wooden dialogue, head-hopping, etc.

I always wonder how the "bad books" get through too. I don't take it to mean all editors and agents are the problem. But as with any profession, there are going to be those who are not quite as skilled as others, perhaps simply due to inexperience. There will also be those who choose quantity over quality, recognizing that the average reader might be relatively forgiving. (Readers who are also writers are probably the least forgiving.)

The good news is the vast majority of books that I read wouldn't qualify as "bad books", not even the ones that I don't care for. So I guess editors and agents need a thick skin as much as writers do.

Cat Hellisen said...

Regarding what kimber an and a few others have mentiones:

What does actually happen when a writer starts to believe that they no longer require the fine red line of the editorial pen? Does the agent sit down and attempt to convince them otherwise?

And if they do, how does an agent respond if Big Name Writer still refuses to "hack their baby"?

It's something that's always interested me.

Ulysses said...

I used to wonder about bad books. Then I started researching publishing and realized how many people have to absolutely love a book and champion it before it makes it to the shelf.

Now when I walk into a store and see a book, I remember that a lot of people other than the author fought for it.

I may not agree with their taste, but I hope someday someone sees something in my work that inspires that kind of devotion.

Christie Craig said...

I love chocolate ice cream with almonds and ribbons of caramel. I have a friend who will only eat vanilla. I love grilled fish with a squirt of lemon; a friend of mine won’t go near seafood. I love English peas, my son-in-law would rather be shot than forced to eat them. Liver and onions? Yuck. Sushi? Please, it’s raw! Cook that stuff!

It’s called taste. Our taste in reading materials varies just as it does with food. I know plenty of well-published, best-selling authors whom I do not enjoy reading.

When I was reading for market research, to try to get an idea of which publishers/editors might be the right market for my own work, I would buy four or five from the same publisher. When I came upon a book that didn’t intrigue me, I was tempted to put it down. But then I realized that reading books that didn’t thrill me, especially the books by new authors, was a great learning tool. I found by myself studying them in an attempt to see exactly what it was the agent/editor saw in this book. I think Jessica is right, editors and agents don’t buy and attempt to sell books that they think are bad.

Generally, I always found what I considered to be the reason a book was published. I may not have liked the plot, but realized the level of sensuality in the book was higher than most. Hmmm, maybe I should see if I could up my level of sensuality in my own books? I may not have grown to love the characters in another book, but had to admit the book was very fast paced. Hmmm, how did my own book compare in pacing?

I think most unpublished authors who spend a lot of time whining about the bad books in the market, could probably spend their energy wiser by trying to figure out what it was that the editors and agent saw in that “bad” book that led it to being published.

It doesn’t mean that you will ever love those books, or that you need to write like them, but you might find a key to improving your own writing, making your own work more marketable, or perhaps you might find that you shouldn’t be attempting to publish in certain genres.

However, I will not sway in my belief that liver and onions are gross and sushi should be cooked.


Anonymous said...

I agree with Ulysses. It takes a lot of people to love a book to get it published, and that's why it's so important that all the parts comes together. You may find an agent to take you on as a client, but if that agent doesn't love your book and your writing, how far will they go to see it succeed? And how fast will they dump you if it's a tough sell?
Ditto for the editor. If that editor loves the writing, they will fight for it.
As for typos and the rest, that's just bad proofreading.

Christine Fletcher said...

I started writing in response to a "bad" book. Clunky dialogue and cheesy characters and melodrama, oh my! Surely I could write better than that, become wildly successful and quit my day job!

In no time at all I'd gained a whole new respect for the author of that "bad" book. As others have mentioned, books that are poorly written (from my view) invariably have elements of success: rising conflict, fast pacing, something. I thought The DaVinci Code was terribly written--but Dan Brown still hooked me in so well, I had to finish it. There was a big lesson there.

As far as typos--now that I KNOW how many eyes are searching for those buggers, from manuscript to first pass pages--I'm a lot more forgiving.

Liz Wolfe said...

Absolutely the entire process is subjective. And there's no way around that. We aren't all going to love the same movies, tv shows, foods, music -- or books. Even using the term "bad books" is subjective. What makes them bad? Just the fact that someone didn't like them. And there were (obviously) people who DID like them.
I certainly have read books and then wondered who thought they were worthy of being published. On the other hand, I'm sure someone read one of my books and wondered the same thing. And sometimes, I think it IS sour grapes. When you've slaved over your manuscript and you love your story and then you can't find anyone interested in representing it or in publishing it -- well, it stings. But if you're in this to get published, you'd better develop a thick skin.
Instead of asking how all those "bad books" got published, we need to ask ourselves "how can I improve my own writing".

Anonymous said...

I would say that the majority of books are good books - even if I don't care for all of them. Tastes are personal. I do think there are bad books published, and when I start to read one, I can't even believe it made it through the publishing process. It isn't sour grapes. I've begun to read some books that are atrociously written. For instance, there are sentences that are a paragraph long and are not only overly long, but grammatically incorrect. Sometimes the author has the character think something and then say the exact same thing in dialogue two sentences later - over and over again throughout the book. Many books have stiff and unrealistic dialogue, but most of them have other aspects that make them appealing. But not all of them. Some are simply poorly written, with flat characters, and a bad plot. On top of the obvious problems, they are often extremely boring books. It is those books that I wonder about.

Karen Duvall said...

Whoever sent in this question also seems to be saying that an agent or editor who turns down her book doesn't know a good book when she reads one.

However, flipping that coin over it can also mean that her book gets rejected by an agent or editor because it is a "bad" book.

We all know that neither of the above is true. Unless, of course, her book really is bad. 8^)

Suzanne Nam said...

there really are plenty of bad books on the shelves. sure we all have different tastes but whether you're reading beach romance, sci fi, chick lit or whatever, there are plenty of good books and plenty of bad ones, too.

the publishing process isn't perfect, and in some ways it's about getting a product on the shelves, so why would it ensure that only good books get published?

there's plenty of crummy food on the market, crappy clothes, bad shoes, junky electronics. why is publishing any different?

Anonymous said...

I agree with superwench83 and Elizabeth Moon. I think as writers, we sometimes forget how to take a breather and just enjoy the story sans any mechanics or execution. We forget how to read for pleasure.

I ran across another blog this a.m. that broaches the same subject:

I wonder how many other blogs there are out there that address this issue?

Anonymous said...

Good point. Sour grapes? Probably. Envy? Definitely. Just not to my taste? Yep. Hmmm...would that one of my books got published. Then it would be: damn good book! While those still unpublished might sigh, and say: 'Hrumph, why in heck-far would anyone publish this trash. It boils down to taste and what baggage you bring.

Matthew Hissong said...

Um... I guess I'm the lone dissenter.

I believe there's good taste and bad taste. I think taste can stretch quite a ways, such that what I would never read(sex-strewn romance) could still be within the bounds of good taste(kind of. Maybe.). But the primary thing I want to say is that just because a book is bad doesn't mean that it doesn't have a market. Those ideas don't have direct logical association, so please, everyone, stop implying that.
Now, the most important thing is to set down some definitions here. Sure, we can say that ultimately literature can be very subjective. A person can like a book that most would say is bad(the popular opinion judge of taste) and can like that book even if there is some proto-truth to language that it violates left and right(Platonic judge of taste). We can harangue one another about whether Platonic truth to language exists(because it evolves over time and there are usually flaws in the languages themselves), but that's not immediately relevant. I just wanted to point out that in the grand scope of literature, there is a use to saying X book is bad and Y book is good for Z reasons. And in every case you have to say what is bad about it because usually in a bad book, there's still something that's good. But I worry that literature can fall into a hole of relativism if some folks don't stand up and say, "This doesn't work." The experimental and the avant-garde can be good or bad, that's not what I'm referring to. Just please, don't stop making judgments on books. Expand your mindsets by all means, but make decisions about quality. That's how you get better as writers, agents, editors, etc.- as long as they're challenged by others.
That is all. Please resume your one-sided conversation.

Anonymous said...

This is a great post! It's brought out such interesting insights from both sides of the fence.

Just to clarify, I'm the blogger anon mentioned above ( for dropping by anon!) and my feeling toward the "bad" book issue is that as writers, we are sometimes biased as to what makes a bad book. We see things typical readers don't see.

Or maybe LOOK for things they don't look for.

Most readers just want a story by an author who can trasport them into another place and time for a few hours or days.

Ultimately, any book that can do that, whether or not it has a few grammatical errors or an unusual writing style, is going to be a good book to the masses, regardless what those of us who know the "rules" might think of it.

Just seems to be the way of it.

Tiffany Clare said...

Oh man, I wrote a long post that blogger just ate... grrr..

I'll make this quick. Yes writing is subjective, yes it's all personal taste. But to say there are no bad books published is a crock. There are poorly executed plots, terrible character developments/ARCs... and I won't go on in fear of this being eaten again.
These things haven't anything to do with personal taste so much. I've read plenty of books there were only a 'meh' but the writing was good. I don't call those bad books. Those are the books not to my taste.
Really, editors are human too, they make bad calls on some writers, writers who shouldn't have ever made it through the slush pile. To say bad books are not published? I don't come across a lot of badly written stories, but occasionally I hit a true wallbanger.

Spy Scribbler said...

Ohmigawd, one of my best friends loves cilantro. Cilantro! It tastes like soap. I just don't get it. I asked her if she likes the taste of soap, and she says no, but ... then she turns around and eats more cilantro!

I've been on a quest to read the perfect book. I don't think it exists. Readers will forgive lots of stuff, and I think there's something to forgive in every book.

The people who have a hard time with stuff like this are mostly in the business, I think. People in the business, (and I mean all writers, whether published or not yet), are much pickier. We're the ones not so forgiving.

But the majority of book-buyers are not writers, at least not to my knowledge. We buy tons, but ...

green_knight said...

I think there are different kinds of books that are called bad. There are books that fulfill the needs of a certain readership (Romance readers will accept headhopping, readers of literary fiction will accept a lot of stuff - *as long as* they get what they want*. Other books do not match the needs of any audience, particularly not that of their intended readership.

Some books are clearly... well, 'weak' might be a better word. PoV violations. Lots of internalisation and backstory, little action. Tense violations. Plot holes. Abysmal research failures.
I've owned one children's books where two boys find a dog, and of them looks after him while the other is disinterested and rather unsympathetic - and two thirds of the book, _their roles change_ and both undergo a complete character transformation from one paragraph to the next.

These books are generally books that would have benefited from strict editing... and for some reason didn't get it. It's not up to me to know whether that was because the mss was delivered late, or the author is a diva whose words are golden, or the wrong version went to the printer, or the book was brought forward by nine months, or the acquiring editor who championed it left and their successor doesn't want to bother: there are hundreds of reasons why a mss gets insufficiently edited, *and they all have happened to someone*. These are the books that can, IMHO, justifiably be pointed to and named as 'bad books'.

I've read a few. They *do* exist, and they stand out, and it *is* tempting to wonder why _that_ book was bought, and your own (or those of your friends) get rejected.

Most books that seem bad, are, I'll agree, books that don't match a particular reader's expectations. Writers tend to be picky; many other readers do not care as long as they get something out of it.

I've found it more profitable to look for that something - I'm learning more looking for what's good about a popular book than looking for mistakes.

Anonymous said...

I sooo agree with Anon 9:05 --

Authors that sell big on their first book and get an automatic following can get away with a lot that others can't. The pub knows they'll sell a bunch anyway, so no need to care that books 2 and 3 wouldn't get out of the slush without that "name."

That's why I always really consider the story/writing of a book if it's the 2, 3, or 4 by someone who is now a "name" author. I've been burned one to many times.

Kristin Laughtin said...

I think Christie Craig makes a really good point about why "bad" books might be published- there is some element that hooked the agent/editor/market, and analyzing that can be a learning experience. At the same time, analyzing what didn't work in a story can also be beneficial for your writing. If you can apply your knowledge of what worked in another story to your own, while improving/avoiding the aspects that didn't, wouldn't that make your story much stronger, and more likely to be published?

Elissa M said...

There are "bad" books published all the time. As many posters here have noted, writers seem to be the only ones who even care. Most readers care only if the story sucks them in, or the characters are engaging, or the mystery puzzling, etc. A book may break many "rules", but if business professionals believe readers will buy it, it will get published.

Writing is art only until you want to sell it. Then it's a business, and sales trump "good" writing. Of course, "bad" and "good" are totally subjective concepts. If a writer gets angry that so many "bad" books get published when she can't even get an agent, then it's definitely sour grapes. If a writer focuses instead on perfecting her own writing, the grapes she eventually harvests will be sweet indeed.

Phoenix Sullivan said...

I have one word: Gigli

A lot of people supported the production of this movie - to the tune of $54 million. It grossed $7 million worldwide.

A lot of someones thought it would do well enough to sink that kind of funding into it.

Critics bashed it. The movie-going public eschewed it. But producers, studio heads and distributors all had to give it the nod many times over before it was produced and released.

Bad movies get produced, bad books get published, bad art gets hung. Why? Maybe the premise sounded good but the execution was so flawed it would cost too much to spend the time to fix, or the people responsible just hope they can break even or not lose much if they go ahead with the release as is.

In the end, it's all a business decision and a gamble on choices editors and publishers make. And bad decisions are made in business all the time. Just don't gamble that a bad decision will be made with your book. :o)

Vivi Anna said...

I agree. I think statements like this are mostly about sour grapes.

This whole business is subjective. What floats one agents boat might not float another, same goes with editors...and ultimately readers.

There are some books I've read that I thought were crap, but ultimately at least one agent and one editor loved it enough to risk their reputation to publish it.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes bad books by established authors get published simply because the publisher knows there's a market for those books.

There's a particular long-time author of cozy mysteries whose work I won't buy anymore. Twenty years ago, this author's books were very good. Now, sorry to say, they're crap. There are plot holes big enough to drive a Humvee through, plot elements that contradict plot elements in earlier books in the series, and other plot elements that are borrowed from earlier books but presented as if they're new. In one book, there wasn't even a real mystery!

This is an author whose work I used to love. For several years after the quality of these books declined, I kept buying them hoping the next one would be better than the last. It never was. But as long as people continue to buy the books based on the author's earlier reputation, that author is going to get published.

Anonymous said...

spyscribbler said...

I've been on a quest to read the perfect book. I don't think it exists.

Exactly! Even my favorite authors in the whole world do things that make me say, "Well, I think he should have done that differently. I don't like that." It's just that the books I really hate do that more often than others. But I know that other people thought some of my favorite books were just atrocious. Subjective.

Cilantro, taste like soap? I guess that makes sense. It does have a clean, fresh flavor.

Anonymous said...

I don't see a lot of genuinely terrible books. I do see a lot of books that are forgettable, mediocre, and largely interchangeable with the rest of their categories. Those are the frustrating ones. At least the awful books are usually unique somehow.

Anonymous said...

To say that none of the, what, hundreds of thousands of books that are published each year are bad is like saying the publishing industry is infallible, and we know that can't be. But maybe it's our definition of bad that's at issue. I consider a "mediocre" book to be a bad book--why do agents and publishers bother with mediocre books? Either they don't know the difference, and I think this is sometimes true, or they know or assume the books will sell regardless, and we know plenty of mediocre books sell. Is that sour grapes? In a sense: I regret spending time/money on mediocre books, for sure! And yes, I'm a writer, so my standards are higher, but this gives me more grounds, not less, on which to defend my disappointment.

Anonymous said...

Uhm ... sorry but have you ever read a Nicholas Sparks novel?

I rest my case.

If that's sour grapes, so be it.

Santa said...

Great response, Jessica. The old adage remains forever true here - beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes bad books happen to good people.

Frankly, although we'd like everything to be perfect in a book, errors will occur. If I'm deeply involved in the meat of the story the rest falls to the sides.

And I do think it is sour grapes when one bemoans the presence of books on the market. The one difference with that bad book being there and your book is still on your hard drive is that book was sent out and queried, feedback was given and followed and sent right back out there again.

At least that's how I see it.

Liana Brooks said...

I'm agreeing with Chumplet.... There are a lot of books on the shelves that I won't give the time of day to. The plots been done, the writing is stale, somewhere along the line something was spelled incorrectly. But I read, on average, over 400 books a year. The plots I've seen done before may be fresh and exciting to someone who doesn't have the literary background I do.

I can see why so many writers are frustrated. Writers see more plotlines than the average reader. They're constantly in the mix of writing, rewriting, reviewing work for their critique group, and sucking up every last hint from agent's blogs. With all that work no one's surprised when an author flips when some well-known name publishes a trite, formulaic, book. Yes, no doubt someone loves that book, but if the author had started with that book it would have been "Not right for me." The author is trading on their name and the unpublished masses are, understandably, jealous.

That said, many of those books that make people like me claw our eyes out in frustration are actually good. For the average person browsing the bookshelves it's going to be a fun read. The author worked hard, so did the agent and editors. A lot of effort was put into it. And we can always hope the next book will be even better/

Anonymous said...

Hey Skyscribbler,

There is a genetic marker that certain people have that makes cilantro taste like soap. They are the only ones who taste it that way. It's like being colorblind For the other %90 percent of the population it is a refreshingly spicy yet still pleasantly mild herb.

I'm also a cilantro = soap person, so I try to avoid it, but I can't knock it's popularity because I've got a weird anti-cilantro gene.

Doesn't that add a strange spin to the subjective tastes argument?

Maybe I also have an anti-first person POV gene.

Anonymous said...

I think that people forget that writing is an art, and is therefore, completely subjective. The varying taste of the public is the very reason that hundreds of thousand of books get printed every year. There are people who consider the Harry Potter series Satanic. Mark Twain has been banned from more than one library. If everyone read the same books, publishers would only need to print a hundred or so a year. Imagine how difficult it would be to get a book published under those conditions.

Anonymous said...

All the books on the shelves of the bookstores? I look at them of glimmers of hope and possibility! Because publishing is subjective - I am very hopeful an agent, editor and publisher will love my book - as well as a (large) segment of the book buying public. I've picked up books and not enjoyed them, but known that others have -- and just look at it as a sign that there is room for all of us.

Keep your chins up and your heads high -- it does no good to antagonize your peers or look on oneself as better. We're all just...different.

Lucky us!

K J Gillenwater said...

Hey, I know this isn't the topic...but I hate cilantro, too. In fact, it actually makes me physically ill to eat that or any other spice in the same family...

I wish restaurants would stop putting it in 90% of their food, plus in all fresh-made salsas and guacamole. Ugh.

As for the 'bad books' I think I agree with the idea that yes, there have to be *bad* books...just because there is no way the publishing industry makes no mistakes. I have read books that I just don't like but are well-written...and then I've read some that are just bad, bad, bad...grammar or plot or stupid dialogue. They exist! And I don't think it's sour grapes to say that!

Anonymous said...

Lady, the writer never mentions that he/she regards the MAJORITY of books to be 'bad'. I think the term used was 'so many'. And it is true. I think you should be tied down and made to read a pile of them. You may not represent writers of 'bad' books, but they are out there. Oh yes.

Kate Douglas said...

Reading is SO subjective--books that I love may bore someone else to tears--but to add a comment on the "bad books" issue...the bulk of us who read this blog are probably writers. If you write, you've got a pretty well-developed "internal editor," which means you're going to read anything with a more critical eye. A book someone else might love might irritate the ever-lovin' hell out of that internal editor who wants to rewrite most of the story. Just sayin'...

Kate Douglas said...

Reading is SO subjective--books that I love may bore someone else to tears--but to add a comment on the "bad books" issue...the bulk of us who read this blog are probably writers. If you write, you've got a pretty well-developed "internal editor," which means you're going to read anything with a more critical eye. A book someone else might love might irritate the ever-lovin' hell out of that internal editor who wants to rewrite most of the story. Just sayin'...

Anonymous said...

I think some "bad" books are published in spite of their errors, not because editors thought they were perfect. One fantasy author springs to mind. In my favourite of his books, he violates PoV at the climax, to trick his readers into thinking something happened that didn't. Bad author, bad. But that book still made me cry. It'd be even better if he hadn't done that, but I'm still very glad it got published.

So if I think a book's bad, I reckon it's worth thinking about whether there's something in it that's so good that it overwhelms the errors. That's the kind of something I want in my books too (without the errors, of course).

Anonymous said...

Bad books? Try Robin Cook's Seizure and then tell me there aren't BAD books on the shelves. I know that Jessica didn't say there weren't ANY bad books.

This book didn't review well and there were more 1 star reviews on Amazon than 3, 4 & 5 star reviews combined. There are bad books being published.

Mark Terry said...

If you ever get the chance, read Peter Lefcourt's "The Deal," which, although dated, is a hilarious caper novel about a film maker trying to get a film made.

At one point the woman with the studio asks him if he honestly thinks the script he's peddling is good. (It was originally a historical script about Benjamin Disraeli, which he had rewritten to be an action film). The main character says he doesn't know what a good script is. As far as he's concerned, a good script is one that gets made into a movie.

She's appalled, and accuses him of being cynical, which of course, he is, in a way.

But I sometimes think he was on to something, and it applies to novel manuscripts and the books they become.

What's a good book? One that gets published.

Am I saying all published books are good?

Define "good."

Does that mean all unpublished novel manuscripts are bad?

Well, I hope not, but apparently they were unpublishable for whatever reason, which doesn't make them good.

Anonymous said...

Wow. This really sparked some debate. I know I'm weighing in late, but I felt the need to comment.

"Bad" is such a subjective term, itself. Even in your comments you all seem to define "bad" differently. Is it a book with a ton of typos? A plot hole? Awkward mechanics? So if not everyone can agree on what defines a bad book, how can you possibly agree on which books are bad? Which goes back to Jessica's whole argument that it's all subjective.

I don't think Jessica was saying that there aren't flawed books on the market. We'd agree there's plenty of them. We're not arrogant or even blind enough to say that every book that is published is perfect. Of course not! But more than one publishing professional read that book and deemed it publishable. A book that some readership would deem entertaining. And that's what it all comes down to, doesn't it?

Anonymous said...

I know this is late but I just have to say I find this whole debate hilarious.

It's as humorous as trying to define something as subjective and intangible as "taste".

My dad always used to say to me when I was a girl: "One man's meat is another man's poison."

And that to me sums the whole argument up.

If a so called "bad" get published I'll bet that author did a happy dance. So it may not be my cup of tea but hey I'm glad for that author's success.

If my book gets accepted and published I'm sure as heck going to do a happy dance and to hell with the knockers who decree it's "bad".

If there's one thing certain in this game it is the inescapable fact there will be knockers.

Or as Jessica so succinctly put it "sour grapes."

Sarah J. MacManus said...

Well, it's supposed to be art - and art is a very subjective thing. Even "flaws"; plot holes, characters being OOC, incredible plot twists are part of the tone of the work, and what may amuse and delight someone else, may drive me batty. Some people like Picasso - I think he's boring. Who's right? I think ANY murder mystery is "bad", because I don't like them. And of course, I'm wrong.

That's the lovely thing about art and about our ability to share our world views through it - everyone has a different voice and a different perspective.

Cellophane Queen said...

I see a "what's the hot thing today" syndrome that shoves out the same-old because readers are lapping it up. Not much time spent considering whether or not it's really a good book as long as it has a hottie vampire on the cover or whatever the flavor of the month is.

The other bad books come from established writers who, apparently, don't have to go through an editing process. Their name is too big to bother them with such trivia, I guess. Besides, they're busy churning out the next cookie-cutter plot book.

Sequels are the worst: a steady degradation of originality and good writing. But the name sells, so why bother with quality?

Anonymous said...

I usually tend to shrug off comments about "bad" books because I truly believe writing is very subjective. And in every single so-called bad book I've read (usually Da Vinci code, Rowling, what have you), at least the prose has been pretty solid.

Then I read one of the current YA "blockbusters", and I was floored. This was such amateurish text with dialogue tags like "fished" and "qualified" -in fact, 90% of the dialogue tags were something else than "said". The writing was truly fanficcish (just visit and very clearly identifiable as author's "first book evah", and there was no plot in sight until some 300 pages later.

That one I still don't get. I've never ever seen such an amateurishly written book get picked up by a reputable agency and publisher. And I love to see books make it big, so sour grapes is not an option here. This book is just honestly badly written - and we're talking basic rules of writing here, like dialogue, POV, and plot.
So, as a result, I've stopped fretting about all the rules and "dos and don'ts" I read in agent and editor blogs. I refuse to work my fingers to the bone and obsessively try to polish every word any more. If writing like that can reach bestsellerdom, so can mine. :-)

Unknown said...

May I suggest the reason writers (and a good number of readers too) label some books as 'bad', is that these days we have no standard of what is 'good'?

Sure we have lots of rules - as so many have pointed out - but the very fact (if there is such a thing) that so many books break these rules and still make it big, tells us that rules don't account for personal taste. If we can't have a consensus on what is 'good' - then how can we begin to talk about 'bad'. You can't have either 'good' or 'bad' in a vacuum - or can you?

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Bad books are different than books that just aren't someone's taste.

What I've noticed is that book publishing is becoming like the acting business. No one can distinguish anymore what is good writing,just like very few people doing the auditioning of actors can distinguish what is good acting and what is superficial pasting on of a "character."

It also has to do with who you know or if you're already "connected" somehow to the publishing business.

One more thing I noticed is that as a writer you better not have "different" ideas than the politically correct ones, or you won't get an agent, no matter how well the book is written.

Political correctness has no place in writing, especially if the book is about things that REALLY happened.

Anonymous said...

My goodness! I was in Savannah when this was posted and wow! I didn't think my comment would cause this kind of debate! I sure didn't mean to piss anyone off but enjoyed reading all of your comments.

I still stand firm that there are "bad," books that are published. And it's not about taste. I've read books where I personally didn't like the plot, characters, etc., but I always finish any book that I start...just in case it improves or maybe I could learn something.

Maybe I should have titled it: "How Do "Bad" Writers Get Published?"

Kate Douglas said...

Anonymous 11:08, I'd like to disagree with just about everything you've said. I didn't know Jessica and she'd never heard of me when she first agreed to represent me, and I certainly didn't know anyone at Kensington when they not only bought my manuscript but chose to launch an entirely new imprint with it. Nor was--or is--my series politically correct. Wolf Tales is about as "non-PC" as a series can be. It is, however, some of the best writing I've ever done, and I'm very proud of my stories. It's not about who you know so much as how you write. It's also luck and timing--it so happened that my manuscript hit the editor's desk at exactly the right time, but if it hadn't been good enough, I have no doubt it would have been rejected.

Anonymous said...

I think that a "bad" book is not necessarily unenjoyable. Readers are very forgiving. How do I know? When I am reading a book, I switch into reader mode. I ignore all the mechanics and get down to the story. I greatly enjoyed reading Paolini, a no-no on most internet writing communities I'm in. And there's plenty of "bad writing in that book. But as a reader, I was able to ignore it and enjoy the book. If I were to give a critique of that book, I'de have at least a page of red per page of black. There were so many "technical" problems iwth the book it wasn't even funny. But in every book I've ever red of decent size, I find planety of typos and mistakes. But if a writer can get me into the story, I can jump those chasms and make it to the end.

I agree that popular authors can and do sell books that are below their true ability. I think publishers and editors see these issues. But if every book was perfect before it was published, I wouldn't have anything to read.

Anonymous said...

I've read books that I've absolutely fallen in love with while there have been others that I threw in the wastepaper basket.

Bottom line?

Like you said, readers are subjective. Many people have said to me, "You have a great story that needs to be told to the world." Others could care less.

For instance, who cares that I was born deaf and became the first person with a disability to be instrument rated (fly on instruments in bad weather)? Who cares if I was a former award-winning stockbroker who went on to become a motivational speaker?

Who cares? Right?

But then there are those who do care and who want to hear my story. We all have stories. All it takes is one person who likes it and that's all that matters. (Well, maybe not just one - LOL).

Good point. It's all subjective, you're right. And as for every book I threw in the garbage, there was at least one person who highlighted the hell out of it and scribbled notes on the pages.

Subjective, indeed.

Anonymous said...

Even though I agree with a lot of what was said here and I DO know all the tears and sweat that goes into writing a book that doesn't excuse a bad story line.

I might be in writer mode when I read a book but I read for pleasure, not to edit another writers work.

Subjective has nothing to do with it. I've read books that were not in the genre I like but they were still well written.

For all the folks that agreed with me, thanks. For the ones that disagreed with me, you're right. Bad books do have there places.

In fact, one is behind my bedroom door serving as a door stop. Four are lifting the speaker of my surround sound from the molding of my entertainment center. And the others will be starting my fire when I go camping in June.

I can only hope when my book is published it will be gracing a table at some fancy dinner party holding up the main dish under a linen table cloth.

Melissa Blue said...

I agree with Matthew, to a certain extent. What sells and what's good are two different things. Same school of thought that writing and publishing are from two different galaxies.

So, yes there are such thing as "bad" published books. Yes, the book might have some stellar qualities. But I'm sorry if a writer gives the cab driver a POV who only shows up in ONE scene in the ENTIRE book then yeah I wonder. When there is headhopping, numerous dream sequences, flashbacks, infodump, exposition, poor characterization, when I can sit back and say "this is where the story really starts" after the first 100 pages then yeah I'm curious about "bad published books."

You can have something you can sell. You can even have good conflict. A great voice. A great character. Yet if a writer is lacking in the BASICS of craft then I'm sorry you wrote a bad book. You championed a bad book. Shame on you.

There won't ever be a perfect book. So with all that said it's up to the writer to respect their craft.

Lastly, craft isn't about taste, so this argument won't ever be settled. The definition of "bad" has to be decided first.

And before I jump off my soapbox for the year...Sour grapes is more than likey involved. Any writer whoever received a rejection because of grammar, headhopping, flashbacks, and the like are going to be mad when they open Such-n-Such Big Name and they've done it.

If you disagree you know where to find me. (Click the link.)

Timothy Fish said...

While we may not agree on the meaning of bad, there were certainly bad books that get published. Usually, I say a book is bad if it bores me to tears. If I ever reach a point where I can’t force myself to continue reading, it is bad. I have read some books by popular authors that I did not care for. I thought they had some corny stuff in their books, but I wouldn’t say they were bad. I will not call it by name, but one book that I attempted to read was awful. It is in the Harlequin fold, so I low expectations to begin with, but it left me wondering why even they would accept this book. It turns out that they accepted another book, but it wasn’t a romance, so they asked the author to turn it into a romance. I don’t know if that is what killed the book or if they really did accept a bad book, but it probably had to be liked by fewer people after they paid for it than before.

Anonymous said...

Fredrich Neitzsche explains it all for you.

"How Do "Bad Books" Get Published" caught my attention when it first came out, but since I didn't have a clear answer, and what's more, the answer I *did* have I didn't dare put my name on, I decided to remain silent. But then, in reading Nietzsche (from Human, All Too Human) I found that the philosopher was not afraid to rush in where I feared to tread. He had this to say:

BAD WRITERS NECESSARY: There will always have to be bad writers, for they reflect the taste of undeveloped, immature age groups, who have needs as much as the mature do. If human life were longer, there would be more of the individuals who have matured than of the immature, or at least as many. But as it is ... there are always many more undeveloped intellects with bad taste. Moreover, these people demand satisfaction of their needs with the greater vehemence of youth, and they *force* the existence of bad authors."

Helen DeWitt said...

every proposal we get from an agent MUST be treated seriously--even the crap. Agents filter out most unusable content for us. Also, they provide credibility, stability, and networking opportunities. I have bought projects from agents that I wasn't really interested in as projects for the sake of establishing good relationships with their agencies.
editorial ass

Anonymous said...