[NOTE: we touched on this phenomenon briefly last time, but it’s worth exploring more because (1) it’s so prevalent, and (2) this stuff can drive you crazy if you experience it without understanding it.]
At one time or another (or, as the line from Casablanca goes, “Soon… and for the rest of your life.”) you’ll come across a book—a published book—that seems to be, umm… perhaps not of the best quality. To put it politely. Maybe even downright bad. And—in your opinion—almost certainly worse than the manuscript you submitted and had rejected… maybe even by the same publisher. And to make things worse, occasionally said book will become a bestseller. Or critically acclaimed. Or—more rarely but not unheard of—both.
What’s up with this? Let’s look at some possible reasons why…
1. Business is business. If an author’s previous work sold really well, their next one is going to get published. No matter what. Even if everyone—including the editor—realizes it’s not so hot. Simply because it’s likely to sell well, too. (Because that’s what fans do—they buy stuff put out by their favorite author/band/actor/singer/director/etc.) It may not sell as well as the previous one, but even half as big as a big hit is still, well… a big hit. This can continue for a long time, as long as the author’s books are selling well enough to justify publishing them.
2. Perhaps someone at the house thought this particular book could be a big seller, even if the author doesn’t have a best seller in their backlist. Maybe the book is following on a recent popular topic, maybe it seems appealing to a specific (and non-trivial) readership, maybe it seems award-worthy. Publishing is a gamble—for the publisher, as well as the author. And frequently a few big sellers help keep the rest of the list afloat. So if they think there’s a small-but-plausible chance that a book might break out, it may be deemed worth publishing on the hopes that the relatively modest initial investment might yield millions.
3. Maybe the editor simply loves it. If an editor with enough clout happens to find a manuscript that really resonates with her, there’s a good chance the book’s going to get bought and published, regardless of what you may see as “issues.” And they don’t have to ask our opinion first.
4. Politics are everywhere. Maybe more so now than ever, and the astute observer might see a certain amount of box-checking going on with some popular works, on either side of the aisle. This is understandable. Editors are people too, and it can be hard to become attached enough to a manuscript to acquire it if you have disagreements with some of the overall philosophies espoused within. The same can apply to publishing houses on a bigger scale. There are two well-known SF houses, for example, where one leans a little progressive in their offerings and the other’s known for having a more conservative bent. Not that there’s a strict litmus test for either one, but if you submit the wrong work to the wrong house, you may end up wondering what happened.
Interestingly enough, we just read a book that relates to all of the above. It was a novel written by an author whose previous effort was an unqualified success. And it—and the previous work—were acquired and edited by one of the most successful editors in the business. And it name-checks several issues de jour. And, in our opinion… it wasn’t very good. The type of book you can’t really imagine getting published on its own merits if it were the work of an unknown.
But maybe that’s just me, because…
5. Maybe the book is actually good (whatever that means) and it’s our assessment that’s not-so-hot. In other words, don’t write off the possibility that maybe we’re missing something. Or perhaps we’re simply looking for something in a book that’s vastly different than what most of the reading public is looking for. Regardless, if something we think is bad happens to really catch on, we’re missing an opportunity if our assessment stops at, “This sucks! I don’t know why anyone would love it…” I’m not saying you should try to like it. I’m saying you might learn something by trying to figure out why others like it.
There’s a very popular book that’s widely regarded as poorly written, so much so that it’s frequently used as the poster child for the “Hey, they published XYZ so they’ll publish anything” argument (usually made by other writers deriding publishers). But that might not be the most helpful way to view it. Sure, the book may be written in a style that not many writers wish to emulate, but something about it has reached—and connected with—its intended readership better than almost anything else in recent history. There are lots of lessons here. (The first and most important of which is: For many readers, the literary quality of the writing itself is meaningless compared to—wait for it--the story. Followed closely by: Know your readership, and what they desire… not just in their books, but in their lives.)
6. It’s amazing how often people conflate “I don’t like it” with “It’s bad.” There are works which definitely aren’t my cup of tea but which, if I’m being honest, may be very well crafted in the conventional sense: evocative prose, well-drawn characters, believable dialog, tightly plotted, and having an ending which resonates. And conversely, there may be works which, in the middle of reading or watching, I fully realize have predictable plots or inconsistent characters or overwrought dialog behind all the shiny action/adventure/romance. But which I also really enjoy. (Sort of like being a kid and realizing, intellectually, that Steely Dan were much more musically skilled than, say, Humble Pie. But, on an emotional level, liking Humble Pie way more.)
So when we observe something getting more attention or acclaim than we think justified, we might want to temper our initial impulse to simply proclaim the grapes way too tart. Maybe we should take it as a challenge to determine why this particular work is getting more kudos than something we deem of superior quality.
Life is a school. Let’s go to class.
I heard a podcast the other day aimed at musicians, and the host made the point that the musicians he knew who were successful were almost always professional in their demeanor, and the ones full of “high school drama” were almost universally not where they wanted to be, career-wise. And he posited that these people had these respective personality traits long before they’d either made it or hadn’t made it.
In other words, success didn’t make them act professional; acting professional aided them in their success.
I’m a big believer that this paradigm applies to every line of work, including writing.
Once upon a time, it was pretty easy for a writer to appear professional to the general public (even if they weren’t always that way IRL) because their exposure was so much more limited. There were fewer authors, and their interaction with the public was through more filtered means: interviews, press releases, and maybe the occasional book signing or radio/TV appearance. (And for some of these events—for bigger authors—there was a certain amount of hand-holding by their publisher’s publicity dept.)
Now—with the internet in general and social media specifically—it’s so easy for a writer to show their ass in public. Below are some things I’ve seen recently. To put it mildly, none of these will make potential readers want to run out and buy your book.
Dissing the (perceived) competition. Yes, at one time or another we’ll all see a book become wildly popular and maybe wonder why. Maybe even think our work is better. (Which is a whole other post in itself.) Beyond the fact that perhaps we’re missing something with our analysis, even if it were true, publicly complaining about it makes you look, well… unprofessional. Insecure. Petty. Sour grape-ish. Etc. (I once witnessed a local writer/reviewer talking to a best-selling author about the author’s popular book series. His very first words to the author were, “Oh yeah, you write such-and-such, don’t you? Personally I don’t get it, but…” Ever since, I discount everything the guy says in print. Deeply.) I occasionally post on social media about books I’ve recently read, but I only talk about books I think are exceptional. I recently told a writer’s group I thought it was bad form for an author to publicly criticize another author’s work. Someone asked why and I basically said, “That’d be like the owner of a restaurant also being the food critic for the local paper. There’s an obvious conflict. Plus it makes you seem like less of a writer because the general perception is that writers write, and they leave the critiquing to others.”
Responding to a negative review. You’d think we wouldn’t have to mention this in 2018, but you still see it all the time. (Hint: it NEVER goes well for the writer. Never. Ever. Ever.) Just… don’t. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion of your work, and you’re not going to change anyone’s mind with your witty repartee. Other than to make them think you’re not just a bad writer, but a miserable person in general. (Yeah, that’ll help your career.) Repeat after me: Do not engage. Do not engage. Do not…
Bad-mouthing publishers in general. Has an effect similar to #1, above. I’ve seen a lot of this on book tour, and it’s typically done by people who would glom on to a trad publishing contract in a New York nanosecond if one came their way. Usually followed by wildly inaccurate tales of how publishers will screw you blind and steal your firstborn and—worst of all—entirely change your manuscript and then publish it without your permission. Again, this doesn’t do much to raise your perceived posture as someone people should pay to read.
Complaining about the publisher who passed on you. Hey, I get it. I’ve been passed on. So have you. And so has virtually every author you see on the shelves of your local book store. And sometimes it might not seem fair. (In all actuality, it usually comes down to a business decision: some version of, “Will the perceived sales of this manuscript—in today’s market—exceed the perceived outlay?” This is really just an educated guess on their part, and not infrequently they guess wrong. But it’s their money, so they get to make that decision. And artistically, the editor should really love the work they acquire. And that’s their decision. We don’t get a vote.) But to come out and complain, “Publisher XYZ passed on my brilliant manuscript but they published that piece of crap?” not only makes you look small-time and petty, it also indicates you don’t really understand how publishing works. Neither of which increases your stock.
Crapping on the publisher who actually published you. Yup. Saw this once again a couple weeks back, and so did those of you who follow the industry on social media. Hard to believe, but even some published authors seem to forget that behind those large, corporate, Big-5-type companies are people. Real people. Who work hard and have feelings and are trying to do their best in a fickle business, and who take it personally when you crap on their efforts. Which could reasonably be seen as crapping on them. Yes, sometimes an author might not agree with their publisher’s actions regarding the handling of their work. And yes, sometimes the best move is to make your feelings known. Politely. And privately. (It’s just Business 101—praise in public, criticize in private, right?) Sort of like authors who’ve publicly responded to bad reviews, authors who’ve publicly bashed their publisher (or agent or editor or art director or publicist or…) usually end up wishing they hadn’t. (The obvious exception here is when your publisher does something so egregious—regarding an issue so important to you—that you’d rather not work with them anymore. But if you intend to continue working with them, you owe them the common courtesy of acting professional.)
That’s a lot of “thou shalt nots.” How about a “shall”? Sure, sometimes things seem unfair, or something in the publishing world really pisses us off. What to do? This business is tough enough on its own, so for starters maybe don’t make things any harder than they already are. The professional response is to get back in the ring.
Just as the best revenge is trying to live as well as possible, sometimes the best response is simply trying to write as well as possible.
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.