I don’t often disagree with Chuck Wendig, but I feel strongly about his recent post FOLLOW-UP ON SELF-PUBLISHING: READERS ARE NOT GOOD GATEKEEPERS.
To be fair, I do agree with his basic thesis, writing for pay is business, and if you’re in business it’s important to do your best work if you want to stay in business. In an ideal world, no one would ever publish a book that is known to be bad.
This is why it isn’t an ideal world: writers don’t get to decide if their books are good or bad. Nor do publishers, editors, reviewers, or literature professors. In the end there is only one meaningful standard by which books can be judged–do people want to read them?
There are things that writers can do to stack the odds in our favor. Writing is a craft, and there are skills that can be learned and practiced. Editors, the good ones, anyway, can help polish and package a book to make it more attractive. Cover artists and book designers likewise.
In the end, though, no one knows in advance if a book will appeal to a significant segment of the population or not. NO ONE.
If there was a formula that could be applied to determine the “goodness” of a book then bookstores wouldn’t insist on guaranteed returns. The amount of waste in the publishing industry is unbelievable. Check out the dumpster behind any chain bookstore and you’ll find it full of paperback originals with their covers torn off. (Not that I recommend that as a way of getting free books or anything–that would be wrong.) Cruise the dumpbins at your local dollar store for hardbacks and read the cover copy. It’s educational, in a sic transit gloria mundi sort of way.
The point is that it doesn’t matter how much of your heart and soul you pour into a book, it doesn’t matter how many editors parse your prose with a fine toothed comb, it doesn’t matter is you’ve got a Michael Whelan cover, it doesn’t matter if you get glowing reviews in The New York Times Review Of Books.
What matters is if people want to read it. Period.
Now, all the bells and whistles will boost initial sales, it’s true. There is an element of self-fulfilling prophecy at work here. However, sooner or later you’ve got to have some steak to go with all that sizzle.
So while I do agree with Chuck Wendig that we, as authors, should make every effort to make our books as good as we can make them, we can’t simply publish books that we know are good.
We publish them to find out if they are good or not. Just like big publishers do.