When Bad Books Get Published

book of the dead

There are two realities: The one we insist upon and the one that actually is.

For writers, the insisted reality is that nothing less than perfection will get us a sniff at publication. Agents, publishers, editors, other writers, and bloggers don’t mind telling us everything we’re doing wrong in our quest, either.  Taken in toto, their advice demands that our stories have intriguing, likeable, and flawed (but not too flawed) characters who interact via engaging, authentic dialog and whose arcs roll out in perfect synchronization with an expertly paced, surprising (but not too surprising) plot, within which we have woven the perfect balance of descriptive details and crisp verbs while employing a narrative style that utilizes all five senses, avoids adverbs like bubonic plague, layers in foreshadowing that is not too obvious yet not too obscure, and speaks to the human condition in an original, innovative, and commercially viable way.

The actual reality is that most books fail to meet these demands yet are published all the time. Go to any bookstore, and within 5 minutes you should be able to find at least one novel that is a derivative, bland, and cliché-ridden exercise in tedium, the sole purpose of which seems to be: I dare you to finish this. Within a half hour, you can probably find a dozen more like it.

book of the dead2I say this because I am currently reading a debut novel that is, at its very best, mechanically competent on a sentence level. I’m reading it because it’s set during the early Italian Renaissance, a period that intrigues me, and because someone lent it to me.

None of the characters offers anything close to a personality or motivation, tedious exposition stands in place of a plot, and tension is nonexistent. I’ve invented the following dialog exchange for your amusement, yet I feel it captures the character interplay quite accurately:

“It’s not fair that you are sending me to the monastery. You know that all I long to do is paint and to become a great artists like my father!” said Luigi with a wince.

“You know what is not fair?” replied Super Mario. “It is not fair that you stole that apple from the street vendor, forcing me to give 3 florins to the jailer to secure your release! It is not fair that your mother died of consumption those five years ago and left you in my care, for, prior to that, I had no worries in the world. Oh, what else can I do with you, Luigi? It’s a monk’s life for you, I’m afraid.”

This followed by a three pages of exposition detailing the hitching of the cart, the ride into town, the condition of the roads, the oppressive atmosphere at the monastery, and so on.

To end up in a bookstore, this manuscript had to interest an agent then be pitched and sold to a publisher, edited, printed, and distributed, despite the writing being objectively poor.

As would-be professional novelists (presuming no best-selling authors currently read this blog), we show good form by not whining in public about our struggles to find success, not trashing our contemporaries by name, and taking our lumps from experts with humility. But you know as well as I do that lots of awful books get published and sometimes—admit it—you think, “Geez. I would have written that so much better.”

Which leads me to this question: When you browse a novel that forces you to stifle your gag reflex over its dreadfulness, do you end up feeling bitter or motivated?

monty python book

59 responses to “When Bad Books Get Published

  • Eric Tonningsen

    I could go several ways with this, Eric. I’ll go with this tack: As in many (most?) professions, we deal with guardians of the vault/gatekeepers. We, within our respective professions, have enabled them to dictate and anoint from on high. And we grumble about them, how they process, and the manners in which they make decisions.

    I’ve observed and heard many a writer, be they hacks, a would-be professional novelists, or ones successfully published – complain about how manuscripts are vetted and shredded. It seems a frustrating world in which to spend copious time and energy, with so many demons behind the gate.

    I’ve read the gamut of published works. Some that have (to your question) made me bitter and others that have propelled me elsewhere. Many of you are good if not very good writers. Why then the angst about getting published by some brand name house? I have read what I believe to be wonderful stories by authors who have self-published. I’ve read crap by big name authors who essentially, crank out the same maudlin plots/characters because some editor at a major publisher happens to like them or their writing or both.

    Would you please help this verbose, naive reader understand why (the proverbial) you simply don’t work with a small publisher or self-publish? If it’s good ‘stuff’ it’s going to find its way into people’s hands and hearts (or Kindle’s, if they must).

    • Eric Tonningsen

      P.S. Neither bitter nor motivated. I simply move on because there is much more worthy of my eyes, mind and desire to inspire.

    • ericjbaker

      Hi Eric, and thank you for continuing to leave thoughtful comments on my blog. I appreciate you and the other people who stop by more than I can say.

      I see nothing wrong with self-publishing or going with small publishers (although I have read piles of legal horror stories regarding the latter, so I am wary). In fact, I am not in a position to be critical of any writer’s choices, since I stand beside them in the trenches.

      That said, I think just about every would-be novelist out there is lying when he says self-publishing is as gratifying as having Random House ship your book all over the world in 20 languages. I still have a naive dream tucked away in my withered husk of making a living as a novelist, and that’s only going to happen with a big publisher. No one needs to tell me it is a pipe dream. I am aware of that and all the reasons why. But my other choice is self-pubbing and throwing my title out there with 5 million other books that range from brilliant to abominable, with no way of letting people know where I fall on the continuum.

      But that’s not actually what this post is about. This post is meant to be subversively inspirational. Because I know just about everyone who reads my blog and writes has had that moment of “shitty novel outrage” in a bookstore or the library. I’m saying, it’s wise to act humble, but you don’t have to suck it up without relent. People in the writing world just love to remind you that you’re not good enough. Once in while you get to flip the bird at them.

      My other reason for this post is my continuing quest to promote the scientific method. For real! In science, you make observations, build a hypothesis, perform controlled tests, and then confirm or nullify your hypothesis. It becomes a theory or it becomes nothing. You can’t make the claim that water boils at 57 degrees, because every test you ever conduct will show that it boils at 212 degrees. All the time, every time.

      However, in the commercial arts, experts regularly make authoritative statements of “fact,” despite the contrary evidence staring them in the face. If you are going to tell me, for example, that I have to use outlines if I want to write a novel that gets published, show me evidence, not anecdotes, because I can demonstrate that many bestsellers were written sans outlines. If you are going to say that my story must have Quality X to get published, prove to me that no stories without Quality X ever get published. In general, expert advice that lacks scientific rigor can misguide you as often as it can help you.

  • sjoycarlson

    Haha usually a bit bitter because I know the astronomically low odds of being traditionally published. Thanks for posting this!

  • Michele

    If the book was traditionally published, I feel bitter and cheated knowing that editors and proofreaders were supposed to do their jobs and didn’t. If self-published, I consider that the author may have had limited to no resources to pay a professional editor (though, in my opinion, this is the absolutely last place authors should not skimp–cut cable or ride your bike for a year to pay for an editor), may be a great storyteller but not so good at self-evaluation, and, the biggest one, if this is a first novel, then that is what it is: a first novel. It will not be perfect. It will feel a bit green (unless the author is pure genius when it comes to writing, editing and proofreading). I have been horribly disappointed by my favorite authors the last few years, all professionally published, all successful, established writers with huge fan bases. They are either so full of themselves that they do not feel they must meet their readers’ expectations and honor their characters’ histories (series), or they go on and on and on believing that every word that drips from their fingertips is sacred. I feel betrayed when a veteran author fails to keep up the standards established early on in his or her career. Either way, it looks like professional publishing houses are asleep on the job or no one is actually in those offices. Robo-editors? AI has actually been invented and implemented but is a complete failure in publishing?

    • ericjbaker

      As long as the sales figures remain high, I guess those magic fingertips can keep on pumping out mediocrity.

      I’m not going to judge a self-published book in the same light as I do traditionally published books, simply because the they aren’t obliged to win the attention of professionals and get past any of the hurdles (outside of technical glitches). That doesn’t mean they can’t be great, just that they aren’t expected to be and it’s perfectly ok if someone is doing it just for fun. The broad quality range is expected and understandable. Of course, I’m not going to read it if it’s not professionally written (and edited, as you pointed out), but I have no reason to be frustrated by a bad kindle upload. I can just ignore it.

  • Jill Weatherholt

    I feel bitter when I realize I wasted money on a traditionally published novel that is poorly written and edited. I don’t stress about the fact that they got published.
    In the future, unless I know the author through blogging, I have no plans to purchase self-published books. Putting a book out there just to say, “I have a published book” is bad business. Some writers are in too big of a rush.

    • ericjbaker

      On your latter point, I agree, and that may be why I haven’t dabbled with self-pubbing yet (I actually planned on doing a short-story collection that way but axed it recently). On one hand, I like the freedom of not having to fit in anyone’s box, but I welcome the challenge. Getting traditionally published is hard, and I want to overcome that obstacle someday, just for the gratification of it.

      • Jill Weatherholt

        Eric, I have no doubt you will overcome that obstacle. Like yourself, I welcome the challenge.
        My breaking point with self-published was when the MC couldn’t wait to eat her “desert”. Yes, that is something that the editor should have caught, but really…I ate enough sand as a kid, it’s not dessert.

        • ericjbaker

          Hahaha! I don’t have a Kindle or Nook, so I’ve largely missed out on self-published books, but I’ve perused samples online and seen some dreadful sequences of words. Typos, mangled syntax, appalling dialog, you name it.

          You’re invited on my party boat when I write that best seller. I tried to lure a friend on board by promising her Justin Timberlake would be there. She said she’s scared of boats. I said, “Even imaginary ones?”

    • 1WriteWay

      Hey, Jill, perhaps you could make an exception for someone like Kevin Brennan. I’ve read both of his novels (first one was traditionally published and second was self-published), and both are excellent. At the very least, they are devoid of the typos that seem to plague most self-published books 🙂 But I really do recommend both. That said, I’m finding too many independently published books (not self-published, but through small “indie” publishers) that also are riddled with typos. MS spell-check is not substitute for close proofreading. I’m surprised (and dismayed) that anyone still tries to get away with that.

      • ericjbaker

        Which speaks to my concern about self-publishing in that it’s hard for a high-level writer like Kevin to differentiate himself from some teenager who decides to upload her Justin Bieber fan fiction.

        It goes beyond simple typos for me. A traditionally published novel, ostensibly, should not suffer from incoherent plotting and poor mechanics. You get no such promises from self-published books. Not bashing self-publishing, as the odds are overwhelming that I will have to go that route. I’m only saying the quality bar is at least 3 standard deviations from the mean on either side.

  • Arkenaten

    I used to have the WTF reaction.
    But not any more. Take it with a pinch of salt and move right alone … nothing to see here but a suicidal unpublished writer… next!
    Every hiccup is part of the learning process – as corny as that sounds – and having a book published is no guarantee it will sell either.
    A relation of my neighbour had a coffee-table book published by a well known big publishing house. Macmillan or Penguin, I think?
    Apparently it was beautiful, glossy pics and the whole nine yards. Took ages to produce etc, etc. And …. yeah, it sold almost zip.
    As to why crap books get published?
    Sheesh, who knows?
    The agent/publisher must have seen something.
    One man’s meat and all that … right?

    When you throw darts you aren’t always going to hit treble twenty – if you’re me then you will finds holes in the plaster!
    But the more you practice the more you will improve your chances.

    • ericjbaker

      Well said. Back in 2010 when I was querying my second manuscript, I found a book (on the cut-out shelf) at Barnes and Noble repped by an agent that had rejected me a few days earlier. The book was flat out wretched. Cringe-inducingly bad, in fact. I was quite WTF at that moment, but I have since become much wiser and philosophical about things. I wasn’t blogging then and had no clue how many people were bombarding agents on a daily basis. Now I just hammer away and hope I manage to dirt into gold one of these years.

      • Arkenaten

        This is the beauty of self-publishing, of course. And while it still carries a bit of stigma – probably with ‘old farts’ – I doubt the current, technologically savvy ( not moi) book-buying public give this a second thought – as we generally would not question the quality of the material inside a printed book.
        I have been solicited twice in the past month by epub company, Partridge, who are South Africa’s branch of Penguin online . “Preserving Africa’s rich literary heritage” ( barf!) They turned down my first
        book, Almost Dead in Suburbia, and now they want my books on their epub site? AND they want to know how much I am prepared to spend on marketing my book and offer a monetary range for me to fork out up to several thousand dollars! How nice of them.
        F*** ’em! If that’s the case, I’ll do it myself.
        Marketing is the key.
        Talent and skill as a writer are a big part of this – practice , practice, practice….and practice. Although turds float, cream also rises to the top as it always has.

        • ericjbaker

          I don’t feel like I am very effective at the marketing aspect. I prefer the old relationship: I produce content, you (publisher, record company, etc) advertise it.

          Funny, but I have no qualms about self-publishing my music.

        • Arkenaten

          Yes, this is exactly how I felt. Sadly it doesn’t work like this apparently and it’s left me somewhat disillusioned.
          Jump ship and forge out on my own or stick with it and see what turns up?
          I think of all the musicians that have been Royally screwed over royalties and eventually established their own labels. The Stones and Zeppelin come to mind.
          It must be like this for a great many authors.
          I wish I had the answer, Eric, I truly do.

        • ericjbaker

          The best thing I can do is write something people want to read and see what happens.

        • Arkenaten

          Something we all aspire to.
          But who would have thought anyone would have wanted to read Harry Potter, or Discworld or ”Mummy porn”
          or stupid tales of someone called Percy?

          Takes all sorts…

  • livelytwist

    I don’t finish the book; I stop reading! 100% of the time, such a book was given to me not bought by me. I know I write decently enough, and I only ever want to put out my best effort so I don’t cringe later. If anything, such books show me what not to do. But seriously Eric, was the book that bad?

    I read the first paragraph, where you describe what is expected of writers, and smiled. My, my . . . 😀

    • ericjbaker

      It’s quite impossible to be all the things we are told to be every day. Not even the world’s most successful novelists meet all those requirements. You basically just have to write something that people don’t want to put down, regardless of how you go about it.

      I usually put bad books down too, but, to this writer’s credit, the details are painstakingly researched, so it’s interesting on that level. I just wish the author had a clue how to write dialog and motivated characters. It’s all tell and no show.

  • jhmae

    Definitely bitter. But, then I remind myself that books get published for more reasons than a good story. Often this is the last consideration, behind how much money can this make, can I make a fortune selling this book, and will this book make enough money to help me buy that third house I’ve had my eye on.

    And then, I get bitter again. Because there’s no way in hell I’m going to write something just because it’ll make money. Someone said in a reply to a comment I made on a blog post that he learned a long time ago that following your passion will get you nowhere. You have to write what people want. Twilight, 50 Shades, this crap you’re reading. People are smarter than that, though, I think.

    • ericjbaker

      I’d say you have to have passion in the first place, but you must be willing to compromise a bit as well. Publishers aren’t going to spend money manufacturing your product if they don’t think it will sell, so I’m on board with the idea of commercial viability. On the other hand, I’m not going to start writing in a genre that does not interest me for the sake of a few bucks.

      • Arkenaten

        Yeah, but how about a million bucks?

        • haydendlinder

          Did you ever see the “Actors Studio” when he asked Paul Newman, “Would you sleep with Robert Redford for 1 Million Dollars?”
          Paul replied, “I’d sleep with a GORILLA for a Million Dollars!”

        • ericjbaker

          In a magical world where someone wants to throw seven figures at me to wrote a romance or a western… Is that the same magical world where I get paid 10 millions to step into the ring with Mike Tyson and take a dive 10 seconds into the first round?

        • Arkenaten

          If someone was prepared to offer such an advance it was either, they thought you couldn’t do it and wanted to see you fail or they thought you could even if it was not the genre you wrote in.

        • ericjbaker

          The former would be quite the masochistic publishing house!

  • nrhatch

    Now that writers have the ability to self-publish and self-market, I don’t worry much about the gate-keepers at traditional publishing houses. For that reason, I don’t feel bitter when I stumble across a “bad book” . . . I just set it aside and stop wasting my time wading through the muck and mire.

    But I don’t feel motivated to write/publish/market a novel either. There are plenty of books out there, I don’t need to add mine to the mix.

    • ericjbaker

      I was saying to Jill above that the overcoming the hurdle is a motivation. My cynical side (there he goes again!) thinks that traditional publishing all a scam and that you have to be in some secret club that I don’t know about. That pushes me to keep going and prove myself wrong.

      I hope you’re saving a space on your bookshelf for me just in case. If I fail, you might find sudden inspiration and fill that spot with your own title.

  • Roy McCarthy

    Ah, a new adverb to use! I’ll just change ‘with a wince’ to ‘wincingly’ though.

    Reading certain books gave me the confidence to have a go myself, on the grounds that I could do as least as well.

    • ericjbaker

      I almost put “wincingly” in my example, but, to be fair, this writer has not used painful adverbs. Just lots and lots and lots of exposition.

      I too am at the point in which I find bad books motivating rather than depressing.

  • Janna G. Noelle

    I know a few people who are pursuing degrees in Library Science and was surprised (and thrilled) to learn that the there five laws that govern the underlying philosophy of the field. Law #2 is “Every book its reader.”

    It’s with that in mind that I don’t get bitter when I read a “bad” traditionally published book. Because there is no universal definition of “bad” (or, for that matter, “good”); a quick glance at the Amazon reviews of any popular book will attest to that. Star rankings that run the entire gamut.

    We’re all unique; we all have different interests, experiences, levels of education, and needs from the books we choose to read. As well, as writers, a lot of the magic has been forever spoiled for us. We can never unsee behind the curtain.

    I don’t get bitter when I read a book I don’t like because I know that publishers put out anything they think they can build an audience for, or – more typically – that for which an audience already exists. They want to move units. Which doesn’t always equate with the most flawlessly executed novel.

    When I encounter a book I don’t like, I just accept that that particular book wasn’t the right one for me and continue my search for one that is (Library Science Law #1: Every reader his or her book). That, and redouble my efforts to make my own writing as good as I possibly can (even though some people will likely consider it “bad” anyway).

    • ericjbaker

      What strikes me about this particular novel (which is not so horrible that I’ve stopped reading), is how routinely it violates the ubiquitous “show don’t tell” mantra.

      I’ve never ever encountered a writing or publishing professional who said telling is an acceptable narrative approach. Parts of this novel read like biographical material in a textbook. I can’t imagine sending something so dry and lifeless to an agent and getting a positive response. I’ve probably said it before but I had a story rejected once for a single line of exposition. The editor said my story “fell apart” when that line appeared. Meanwhile, probably 50 percent of this book is describing events that happened without actually placing the reader at the event.

      Of course, that’s apples to oranges, since so many other variables are at play, and my story wasn’t any good anyway (though I would rather hear “this story sucks” by way of an explanation than to have it rejected due to one bad line).

      Certainly no book will appeal to everyone, and you are quite right that one person’s Bach is another’s fingernails on chalkboard.

  • Janna G. Noelle

    Telling certainly has its place, typically in small (small) doses to move the scene along quickly to the next instance of showing. But, I agree with you – it’s not generally an acceptable narrative approach unless its being employed to some experimental end.

    And it can work: The Silmarillion by JRR Tolkien, is awash with telling and almost no dialogue. It is the Bible of Middle Earth, and a lot of the time reads in that “so-and-so begat so-and-so” tone of the real Bible. Yet it’s one of my all-time favourite novels. Go figure.

    But now I’m intrigued by this single line of exposition of yours. This is the first I’ve heard of this. That must have been some statement to make an entire story fall apart. I’m thinking of how Helen of Troy had the face that launched a thousand ships; this was the line of exposition that sunk a prospective publishing contract. It’s all very Seinfeld-esque.

    • ericjbaker

      For sure. Telling glues together all the showing. Sometimes a detail of back story is necessary, but the event hardly warrants the set-up and execution of a flashback sequence. My story I posted here recently had a fair bit of telling, which is one of the things that concerned me about it, yet I think it moved along at a healthy clip all the same.

      I’m trying to remember exactly what bugged the editor. As I recall, the story involved a guy who keeps dying in a plane crash over and over again. Each time it takes off, he forgets what is coming, calmly having a chat with a lovely medical student in the next seat. The plane starts to break apart, and then must endure the terror each time as if it’s the first. Only in his moment of death does he have a moment of lucidity… the plane crashes because he blew it up, and he used the medical student as a dupe to smuggle his bomb on board. As he lies in the flaming wreckage, the medical student… her skin burned away, carrying a scalpel, explains to him that he is must die once for each person he killed and that they’ve only just gotten started. She she slits his throat and everything goes black, and then he’s boarding the plane once again, oblivious. The editor believed it fell apart, in his words, when the medical student told him he blew up the plane and had to die once for each of his victims. I didn’t really think it was any different from your average Twilight Zone explanation, but it was enough to get rejected. I changed it up and submitted it one other place, but I never heard back. Not being in love with it, I decided to let it go.

  • Richard Leonard

    If it’s bad I’ll usually plough on through it because I don’t want to waste my money. Only on rare occasions have i actually abandoned a book. On other occasions still I’ve stopped because I found another book I’d rather read with the intention of going back to it later – which I never seem to do.
    So many books, so little time… Averages tell me I’ve only got another 40-odd years left!

  • 1WriteWay

    How do I feel about traditionally published bad novels? Bitter. Just bitter. Yes, it makes me feel that the odds of my ever getting published just got smaller, but it also makes me feel frustrated that there is a good writer out there (and I can think of a few) who is not being published because publishers are too busy publishing crap. That good writer doesn’t have to be me.

    • ericjbaker

      At the same time, I don’t want to overemphasize the bad. Traditional publishers are typically pretty good at finding the stuff that sells. Hunger Games and so on. I can’t blame them for wanting to move units. It’s a business. But move good-quality units.

      • 1WriteWay

        It’s one reason why I focus on an author rather than a genre. When I find authors I like, I just keep buying and reading their books, regardless of their genre. I rarely try a “new” author unless I have that 20% off coupon from B&N, my 10% off membership is up to date, and the book is already on sale 😉

  • haydendlinder

    Fir me it depends. If it’s a nobody, I get to the halfway mark and just close it.
    But if it’s a big named author, I am pretty disgusted. especially if I am a fan of their work. That always sucks. As for publishing, I honestly think the brick and mortar publishers will very soon be a thing of the past. At least in the sense that they are held in such high regard.
    They have worked so hard for decades to be exclusive that many good authors have no choice but to go and self publish. And the argument that you get more bad out of self publishing is erroneous as exampled by your post.:) You get plenty of bad with traditional publishing so why not just self pub?
    Give in Eric…. You feel the darkness calling to you….. Amazonnnnnnnnn…..

    • ericjbaker

      Yeah, but we shouldn’t say that just because some traditionally published books are bad that means most of them are or that the quality range is as great as in self publishing. On the high end of the quality scale, you will find many traditionally published books and a few self-published books. The worst traditionally published books, however, fall at the same graph point as the most average self-published books. There are simply way too many first-draft vanity projects and teen fan fic novels out there to say teh quality is anything the same. Again, I’m not saying self-publication is bad. It’s great, but it is hard to stand out from the pack, and you do have to pay for the cover art yourself, and you do have to hire an editor (or at least you should), etc. Sometimes a second professional opinion is pretty important to stop you from embarrassing yourself.

      Anyway, thanks for the thoughts and insights. This is one of those unresolvable topics of debate, similar to “Who would win in a fight, Rodan or Mothra?” There’s no right answer.

  • L. Marie

    In the past, I felt enraged, having been rejected before. Then I’ve gone the self-doubting route, thinking, “If this could be published, I must be the worst writer in the world if they took this and rejected my book.” Neither attitude made me feel better about my craft. So nowadays, I usually feel motivated to work on my craft and to write the kind of book I want to read.

    I never feel obligated to finish a book I don’t like. Life is too short!

  • Yolanda M.

    I try hard not to think this way but a (large) part of me believes that if you hope to go the traditional publishing route you have to know someone who knows someone. It doesn’t help that I know authors who have ‘made it’ because of that exact reason. Good writers who were made ‘great’ by editors. That said I too have had an MS rejected by every reputable agent in North America and I consider it a blessing. It has made me work harder at my craft. Great post Eric 🙂

    • ericjbaker

      Sorry if I’ve discussed this before with you, but I’m on my third manuscript now, the first two having been queried extensively and rejected as extensively. The funny thing is, the better my writing gets, the less rejection bothers me. I was pretty disappointed my first one went nowhere, but much less so the second time around. I used to think you had to have “secret” connections to get an agent, but in time I came to realize my manuscripts simply weren’t good enough. Third time’s the charm? Statistically? No. It’s probably not good enough this time, either. But nowadays I’m ok with it.

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