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How Do Poorly Written Books Get Endorsed?

Author Mary Demuth recently asked the question Why Do Poorly Written Books Sell? That question seems to come up often in writers circles, which makes me wonder whether it matters more to readers or writers. Not that readers don’t care; writers just have more invested. For the aspiring author, nothing is worse than laboring to perfect their craft only to discover published authors who, seemingly, disregard the rules. And publishers who still publish them.

That was the feeling I had recently after having spent twelve bucks on a book that I discarded 50 pages in. In my case, however, I knew exactly why this poorly written book sold. Or, more specifically, why I bought it. But I’ll get to that in a second.

Frankly, it’s refreshing to hear an established author like Mary asking that question. Sometimes, I get the impression that there’s a code of silence among authors. Not that anyone is into naming names, but inferring that there ARE poorly written books immediately indicts the accuser of potential snobbery. “Oh, so YOUR books aren’t poorly written!” Which is part of the problem calling out literary mediocrity — it can make you look all high and mighty. For this reason, if you’re a published author, it’s probably better just to plead the fifth.

Anyway, it was interesting perusing Mary’s thoughts and the comments of her readers. Some mentioned how good stories trump poor story-telling. Others mentioned how good marketing can overcome average writing. And still others addressed cultural decline and waning literary appreciation. And, as is par for the course in these debates, subjectivity was introduced as a possibility (i.e., poor writing is entirely subjective).

As usual, there was not a consensus as to why poorly written books sell. Is it one thing? Is it a combination of things? Who knows? Which is probably why I liked Mary’s resolution so much:

As a word artist, I take my craft seriously. I know not all writers see themselves that way. That’s okay.

But for me, I must write a better book than the book I’ve written before. As a Christ follower, I choose to grow, to learn excellence, to perfect the craft as a form of worship. Of course that includes storytelling. But it also involves crafting the words, creating the kind of sentences and stories that woo my readers in. I’m passionate about this, as its my livelihood.

Does it bother me that poorly written books sell? On one small level, yes. But it doesn’t deter me from pressing into working harder. I owe that to the One who gifted me, and I owe it to my reader.

I must admit, after I gave up reading the aforementioned book, my initial feeling was Why bother? I mean, if so-and-so can get a mediocre book published, why am I spending so much time and energy trying to nail this thing? Maybe I should just rush something out and concentrate, instead, on marketing or schmoozing 101. Why continue trying to write better when “average” seems to suffice?

Mary’s conclusion hits home:  I owe it to the One who gifted me, and I owe it to my reader. In other words, something other than publication has to drive me to write.

Which brings me to why I bought a poorly written book. Yes, the premise sounded interesting, Yes, it’s in the genre I write, and No, I didn’t read a sample chapter. But more importantly, the primary reason I bought this poorly-written book was because it had been enthusiastically endorsed by a well-known author.

Call me a knucklehead, a sucker. Either way, let me add another possible answer to the question, Why do poorly written books sell? Because they are endorsed by an established author. So maybe the next question should be, How do poorly written books get endorsed?

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{ 7 comments… add one }
  • Nicole January 8, 2010, 3:57 PM

    First of all, "the rules" deserve to be broken some of the time. Otherwise we have the equivalent to robot books.
    Secondly, many readers just love stories. Period. They excelled in history or math or summer vacations. Writing itself is a mystery to them–how to evaluate it, why to evaluate it, etc. They either like the stories or they don't.
    Writers or wannabe writers are the major critics. And they all have guilty pleasures in novels. Some who endorse books don't even read them I've been told, but I don't know if that's true. And is there any accounting for taste? If what I consider a good writer endorses a book, it depends on what they say about it for me to be "impressed" or inclined to get the book. I've seen some of my favorite authors endorse books I've read that leave me scratching my head at their praise for the book.
    You do have to factor in subjectivity in evaluation. It's a simple fact of reading or writing.
    But I do agree with Mary's (and your) evaluation. It's just that some readers won't even notice.

    • Mike Duran January 9, 2010, 4:00 PM

      Nicole, I kinda wince every time I hear the "good writing is subjective" argument, not because it isn't true, but because it is used far too often to justify poor writing. I side more with the position that consumers have been dumbed down; we are less literate and less discriminating, driven by personal preferences rather than aesthetics. Once we relinquish the ability to pronounce something as "poor writing," then anything goes. There'll be no need for editors. classic literature, critique groups, or writing clinics. If we can't agree that some books are poorly written, then we concede that no books are, objectively speaking, good.

  • Jay January 9, 2010, 12:32 AM

    Agreed with Nicole last sentence, and (by modus ponens) you and Mary. Most people aren't aware how some books are atrociously written, so long as there's a story there.

    The first chapter of The da Vinci Code contain errors that real writers would get thrashed for, but there a big story's there, so no one cares.

    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archiv

  • Gayle January 9, 2010, 1:27 PM

    I've got suckered into buying a poorly written book many times because an author I like has endorsed it. Anymore if I haven't actually read something by that author, I won't buy their book until I read a samlpe chapter.

  • Nicole January 9, 2010, 5:42 PM

    I understand your point, Mike, but I kinda wince when literary elitists elect themselves to determine what is and isn't good writing. I agree that there's a dumbing down in all major subjects, particularly English-related, and it's a shame. Thank you, government education. However, publishers today admittedly wouldn't publish a good percentage of the classics, and how many of the writers of classics never realized any recognition for their efforts?
    I'm certainly not relinquishing the right to label "poor writing" what it is. I'm just not ready to appoint the self-appointed judges of what good writing constitutes.

    • Bonnie Lynn August 27, 2011, 7:59 PM

      Speaking of bad writing, I wasted $10 on “Hold Tight.” I fell for all the hype about Coben’s books and his awards. I suffered through the first 100 pages.

      Just tell me — what is the appeal?

  • ariel June 9, 2011, 9:30 PM

    I agree with you. It can be annoying that there are such popular books that are so poorly written as if the writer did not care about the words he placed on a page or the characters created. It saddens me that writing has become such an amature artform. I myself try my hardest to make sure my stories each have a unique qriting style, memorable characters and of course a meaning to the story. It not that im claiming to be better then anyone just that i spend so much time trying to make the story a good one. For every book is alive in some way; you wouldn’t want to create a dull world or half fleshed characters anymore then a bland sentence or a slaughtered chapter. I know there will always be bad books i just wish that they wouldn’t be so popular so that the good books may share some of the spotlight.

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