So How Do Bad Books Get Published?

Anyone who has struggled and suffered, trying to get published, has lain awake nights banging his forehead against the brick wall of that question: How do bad books wind up getting published?

You can find a number of websites that address this question; but I haven’t found the answers convincing. Here is their argument, in a nutshell.

1. It’s all in the eye of the beholder, so, really, there’s no such thing as a really bad book. There are only books that some readers like and some readers don’t.

2. Editors, agents, and publishers are professionals and they know what they’re doing. After all, they don’t want to publish books that lose money.

3. If a book sells, that means a lot of people thought it was good and therefore it can’t be bad.

And now let’s have some honesty.

1. Of course there are absolutely bad books! And it’s not editors or readers who decide which books are bad. History decides, That’s why we still have Pilgrim’s Progress, but whatever was the equivalent, in those days, of Fifty Shades of Grey, has vanished without a trace. Check out the best-seller list from 100 years ago: you’ll see. It’s cold comfort to the struggling writer that the bad books that offend him will also offend history, and won’t prevail. But I guess it’s better than no comfort at all.

2. I beg to differ! Many agents, editors, and publishers have no taste at all and not the foggiest idea of what they’re doing. There are people who are editors only because they’ll work cheap. I have been told this by agents, editors, and publishers. Bad books are published by incompetent editors and publishers.

3. If mere sales were any criterion of intrinsic worth, then The Kardashians would be great dramatic art and people a thousand years from now will be studying Twilight instead of Shakespeare. You can always sell slop to people who like slop. Given the state of our educational system, what else would you expect?

Bad books are published because a) the people who publish them don’t know any better, b) and the people who buy them don’t know any better. And to b) we must add this:

How many times have you bought a book, fully expecting to enjoy it, only to wind up kicking it across the room and wishing you had your money back? But you’re out of luck, and it still counts as a sale.

18 comments on “So How Do Bad Books Get Published?

  1. Hitting the nail on ones thumb may hurt but you hit it right on the head which hurt worse.
    Today (and maybe yesterday) the way to sell a book is to “have a name” whether good or bad. Names sell books! If a person writes one book (good or bad) and, because of the author’s being a celebrity of some kind, it sells, all the rest of his books will sell, good, bad, or indifferent. A celebrity’s name sells books. Yep, it’s the “almighty dollar” that rules the roost.

    1. But then there are simply awful books by people you never heard of. How to account for them? There are scads and scads of books out there that are the literary equivalent of a fat ugly guy who can’t act being given a starring role in a feature film.

      Stephen King once bragged that they’d publish his grocery list, if he sent it in. There’s an element of truth to that. But why do they publish Joe Blow’s grocery list, too?

      You could go nuts, trying to figure it out.

  2. While this is ‘art’ rather than a book, it may explain this phenomenon, a least to a degree:

    The first line in the article says it all: “If this incident doesn’t show, once and for all, that modern/post-modern art is full of crap, devoid of standards and judgment, I don’t know what is.”

    In a nutshell – idiots will most likely be among us for the foreseeable future.

    1. Wow! That speaks volumes about the lemming-like behavior of our day. The Emperor’s New Clothes plays out before our eyes, time after time, after time.

    2. I keep tossing apple cores around museums and waiting to receive a massive grant, with which I will explore the life of a millionaire and drive a Ferrari for daily transport. Somehow, it just hasn’t happened yet. 🙂

    3. Well, it’s their loss. Someday when they see your apple core art pictured on a juice box, they’ll wish they hadn’t been so hasty 🙂

    4. That’ll show ’em. 🙂

      I’m glad this came up in discussion today. Tomorrow is trash day on my street and I need to make sure that the Conceptual Art Bin 🙂 is in place at the end of my driveway by 7:00 AM tomorrow.

    5. There have been many stories about janitors in museums accidentally throwing out “found art” exhibits, assuming they were trash. The janitors had better taste than the curators.

  3. I recently saw a documentary about the record business. As it turns out, the preponderance of hit music created in Southern California during the ’60s employed the same relative handful of musicians. The producers called the shots and the name artists, in m any cases, served only to sing their parts. If a song became a hit, they formed a band to support the artist and toured. If not, well, the session musicians earned their keep and the producers started anew, looking for the next hit tune.

    What struck me about all of this was the fact that creating a “hit” is an art, unto itself. A hit is not necessarily timeless, Disco Duck was #1 for one week, #2 for another week, stayed in the top ten for a total of 10 weeks, but would have meaning today only for its novelty. This isn’t to criticize the song; it was a novelty tune that fit that moment in time and moved a lot of vinyl.

    And that’s the name of the game. I will risk making an assumption, at this point, and assume that selling books is at least somewhat similar to selling records, which is to say that there is a bit of impulse involved and a lot of zeitgeist.

    When epwe look back at music, or literature, we are viewing our subject through the filter of the ages. Ever listen to a radio station that plays the best of the ’50s and ’60s? Ever listen to a radio station that plays the forgotten garbage of the same era? For every memorable song, or every memorable book, there are countless others that flared into existence for a brief moment and will be forgotten again just as quickly.

    Fifty Shades of Gray was a sensation for a brief moment and will probably be forgotten. Had it not been for the media and Internet publicity, it probably would have not even been a blip on the charts. Much of what happens in our day is completely media driven. I doubt that it will be remembered for long at all, and if it is, that would only be caused by some sort of successful campaign to publicize it.

    Shakespeare is remembered today because it stood the test of time. It is a bestseller because of time, the ultimate long-tail. It’s sales are not driven by media hype. It’s status is based upon the perception of quality on the part of readers over the centuries. It may be media driven, but that media is the written word, not some cheeky appearance by the author on TV or some drummed up hype on the Internet.

    Ironically, the hits or bestsellers rarely coincide with what is the most memorable or of the highest quality. The people that produce and sell books have only one motive, sales and they exist in only one time, the immediate present. The same is true with the people that produce and distribute recorded music.

    I’ll end with one last thought. I grew up in the era of Rock n’ Roll and heard tell of any number of great Rock guitarists. But I also was exposed to guitarists outside of the Rock world, people like Chet Atkins and Wes Montgomery. When someone would tell me that Jimi Hendrix was the greatest guitarist alive (until he died from an overdose of illicit drugs) I did not accept that. I had heard more than just the songs played on some Top 40 station and I knew that there was more than just fuzzed out guitar sounds at ear-splitting volumes.

    Chet Atkins and Wes Montgomery did not become rich in the way that Rock Stars did, but their music is substantial and of the highest quality. You’ll never end up broke if you oander to the lowest common denominator, but taking the high road makes for a better night’s sleep.

  4. Actually, Shakespeare was a best-seller in his own time. His sonnets were famous and constantly being anthologized, right down to the present day. Many of his plays went through multiple editions during his lifetime, at a time when few plays were published at all, and as for performances, his plays were solid, long-running hits. He went out of style for a decade or so in the late 17th century, but by mid-18th-century everyone was either going to see his plays again, publishing copies of them, or (alas) rewriting them to give the tragedies happy endings or insert some topical humor. In America, the plays traveled the circuit throughout the 19th century, and entire plays or at least speeches from his plays, along with his sonnets, appeared in readers for school children as late as the 20th-century McGuffey readers.

    But yes, there were many plays that never saw print at the time, or if they did, they survive mainly as curiosities or material for scholarly research. You’ve probably never heard of “The Tragedy of Hoffman” or “The Bloody Banquet,” but I used to throw one or more of them into my Renaissance Drama courses to show students the difference between good (meaning enjoyable as well as well-written) plays and schlock. Of course, my students loved reading the schlock — but they could tell the difference. And to tell the truth, even Shakespeare wrote some schlock, e.g., “Titus Andronicus” — which my students also loved, once they knew they didn’t have to defend it as great drama. (One of my students, however, wrote an excellent paper that defended it as being a masterful working of its dubious genre as well as exhibiting slightly more class than others of its kind. The title of her paper was “Great Schlock.” She earned a solid “A” for the paper.)

    None of this, of course, has anything to do with your agent-editor-publisher topic. Sorry. When I start riding my hobby horse, it’s hard for me to stop.

    1. I wish I could’ve taken your course!
      Another best-seller in his own time, still being read today, was Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century. Just how hard was it to be a best-seller before the invention of printing? Geoffrey is mostly derided today as a liar and yarn-spinner, but his history of the Britons spawned the whole vast King Arthur industry.

  5. Got a few books that looked good for my Kindle. They were rotten and not worthy the money which is bad as they were free,

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