You’re Only as Good as Your Worst Book

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

You may have noticed that there are now far more books available to readers than ever before in history. The rise of digital publishing has led to a tenfold increase in the number of books published each year, from about 300,000 to more than 3 million.

In this crowded field, discoverability is the biggest challenge for an author. You must grapple with the question of how your readers will find you.

Therefore, keeping readers once you’ve snagged them is essential. You want readers to finish your book and immediately want more. You don’t want to have to keep wooing them over and over. You want to win them and make permanent fans of them.

stinkyOnce you lose those fans—disappoint them with a book that’s not up to your usual standard—they may be gone forever.

I recently read Sue Monk Kidd’s latest novel, The Invention of Wings, and it was the best novel I’ve read in ages. Loved it! But I wasn’t able to convince my book group to choose it as one of our monthly reads. Why not? Sue Monk Kidd is the amazing author of The Secret Life of Bees… why wouldn’t they want to read this new novel? Well, because Kidd also wrote The Mermaid Chair, which several members of the group disliked so intensely, they acted like they had PTSD. They wouldn’t consider another Kidd novel.

That’s how it works with readers! Time is too short and books are too plentiful. Why waste time on something that might disappoint?

It’s now more important than ever to put forth your best work, each and every time you publish.

We’re all familiar with the new order of things in publishing. Why go the laborious “traditional” route when anyone can self-publish? After all… it’s so eeeeeasy.

Yes, it’s easier these days to publish. But guess what? It’s not any easier to write a great book.

If you’ve published traditionally, and you decide to put some self-published books out there, do yourself a favor and make sure everything about that book is the very best it can be. The writing. The editing. The layout. The cover design.

No matter if you’re a self, traditional, or hybrid published author—don’t cut corners. Don’t phone it in. Try to make every new book your best. Better than the last.

If you don’t, you could undermine your brand. You could weaken your value as an author in the eyes of readers out there. As Mike Shatzkin said (here), “Each instance of an inferior branded product hitting the marketplace will weaken the value of the brand.”

Of course I acknowledge that no matter how hard you try, not every book will meet readers’ expectations. I have no doubt that Sue Monk Kidd was trying to write her best book when she penned The Mermaid Chair.

(And just so I’m clear, your worth is not based on how others react to your book. The title of this post isn’t true in real life. It’s only true in market terms.)

All I’m asking is that you never stop trying to put out your very best work. Don’t get on the “write as many books as you can, as fast as you can” bandwagon. Make every aspect of every book the very best it can be. Then, no matter what happens, at least you’ll know you gave it your all.

And that’s all anyone can ask of you.

Does this advice seem harsh to you? Or does it sound like common sense? Do you feel it puts too much pressure on you?

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55 Comments

  • Doesn’t seem harsh at all. It follows the old advice that it takes about seven iterations of “attaboy!” to overcome one “moron!”

    I think that besides the quality of writing, the focus and mood of the book have to be examined.

    An author can produce a brilliant work that instantly alienates his audience.

    We all write for a target audience, and we may one day tire of producing the same sort of thing for the same sort of people. Instead of a happily-ever-after romance, we might want to write a dark, brooding novel on the doom of mankind.

    Sound farfetched? Someone already did it. Nevil Shute was known for sweet romances and somewhat spiritual tales, and then…disillusioned by the growth of nuclear arsenals in the late 1950s, he wrote “On The Beach” (made into a forgettable movie with Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner).

    Hate to spoil the surprise, but by the final page, everyone in the world is dead.

    Shute was fortunately (and unbenknownst to him) close to the end of his writing career when “On The Beach” came out. It’s a compelling read, but when you’re done you want, almost desperately, to forget the imagery he planted. And if it was the first Nevil Shute book you’d read, you’d probably never want to pick up another. I wouldn’t, and I’m pretty hard to faze with dismal imagery.

    (This is expressly NOT a ‘stick to your genre’ example; the narrative elements and characters were within the purview of what he’d done before, including a winsome romance. That made it worse, if anything; reading it was like having a familiar friend turn on you.)

    As it happened,”On The Beach” didn’t do too much damage to his finances or self-esteem as a writer. He was dead within a couple of years; his last book, the charming and sweet “Trustee From the Toolroom”, was published posthumously.

    We’ve got to remember that we provide something to our readers. We give them a world and a context that helps them define their emotional and spiritual lives.

    To pull a ‘bait and switch’, playing on the familiarity of our names to slip in a different ‘lesson’, is a kind of betrayal. It’s shifting the focus from our audience to our ego.

    Do this, and we’ve earned the cold shoulder.

    • Joe Snoe says:

      Andrew – I am far,far from this stage but already when I think of possible novels, most are the mystery, suspense, adventure camp, but a few are in the what happens to a small town or family when an event occurs. The feel, even the writing style may differ. I hate the thought that a writer is pigeonholed into one genre and writing style. Are you saying “them’s the breaks?”

      • To some degree, I think, yeah, them’s the breaks. When you develop an audience, they expect to get a certain feeling, a certain response when reading your books – be it hope or horror. When you give them a smorgasbord, especially early on, they won’t have the opportunity to identify with you and your work. You’ll be something of a literary chimera.

        Susan Howatch, who wrote the wonderful “Starbridge” series, did manage something of a change from her earlier books, but she retained enough of the feel to bring her audience with her. She’d been known for heavy, Gothic romance/family drama stories, and while “Starbridge” retained the basic structure of complicated plot and about a zillion interrelated characters, its tone was lighter. You could still see the Gothicism, but there was an element of the transcendent which animated a freer spirit (I believe that Mrs. Howatch underwent a religious revelation around this time). This attracted a LOT of new readers. The old ones loved her complex characterization and plotting; the new ones found hope in a fresh and uplifting message which had been largely absent from her previous work.

        Richard Bach, on the other hand,went through several distinctly different phases, and wound up far from his original core audience. His first books were about aviation, and were richly descriptive narratives.

        Then came Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which went off in a different direction. It still had flying roots, but it concentrated on the metaphysical. His core audience largely followed him, but he picked up a much wider readership. This was followed by “Illusions” and “The Bridge Across Forever”, which largely kept his old and new followers with him.

        And then he chose a different path that rather defies description. It included psychological stream of consciousness and anthropomorphic ferrets. At this point, I got off the bus; I think a lot of others did as well.

        Point being, these were established authors whose new directions were (at least at first, in Mr. Bach’s case) crafted to be inclusive of the existing audience, and to attract a wider readership at the same time. And they were still consistent with brand identity; even when Mr. Back went off the rails, as it were…you could see that he was the author, even if you didn’t care for talking ferrets.

        I guess that’s what iot really comes down to – your brand. After the integrity of your stories and voice, it’s the most important thing you have, and should be treasured.

    • Rachelle Gardner Rachelle Gardner says:

      Love your discussion here, Andrew. And having read both Howatch and Bach, I really agree with your examples!

      Another one: John Grisham can sell anything, that’s a given. But his legal thrillers sell at least 10x what his non-legal books do. People read Grisham not just because they want Grisham. They want a Grisham legal thriller.

      • The “Grisham Legal Thriller” – perfect!

        In the CBA world, a comparison might be drawn with the “Beverley Lewis Amish Story”.

        I’m sure she could do a great job on a series set in Southeast Asia in the late 70, dealing with the efforts of Lutheran missionaries to save the Hmong from Communist persecution and bring them to the US – but her core readership would metaphorically scratch their heads in puzzlement, and where would she find a new group of readers for the new series?

        A concerted effort to reach out to Hmong fans through social media could alienate her Amish story followers, making them feel a bit abandoned…and they wouldn’t watch as closely for her next release, thinking that she’d walked away from the Amish.

        Writers today have a tremendous opportunity for outreach, but it does carry an implicit responsibility for consistency of vision.

        (And the migration of much of the Hmong population is a tale that really needs to be told, if anyone wants to try!)

      • Joe Snoe says:

        Thanks Andrew and Rachelle. I’m still fretting about getting my first novel published. What will happen 6 or 7 books down the line should not bother me; but being told I cannot write that time traveler space scientist novel or my small town literary novel (if I ever get around to them) goes against my grain. I understand it. I believe it. I just don’t like it.

        What you say is true about articles and books in academic fields, too. I’ve played Renaissance man in my career there skipping around subject matters. I get noticed but not ‘hailed’ – no one knows where I belong, including me at times.

      • Joe, don’t despair. You can always write your off-genre work under a pseudonym.

        William Butterworth (whom you may recognize as W.E.B. Griffin) wrote under 13 different pseudonyms through his career, in several genres.

        It’s probably harder to start that practice from scratch today, since readers want personal contact, but I could see a way where you might manage at least a couple by keeping their support on separate social media platforms, without allowing crossover, at least at first.

      • Sidney Ross says:

        Write nothing. Owe nothing. Write something. Indebted for life. Draw circles. -sidney

    • Sidney Ross says:

      If’n

      If’n I write.
      Not the one, when or if.
      But by sin, my if my when.
      -sidney
      (writer/author)Oh My God,He’s Black

  • Rachelle, first, in my opinion you write some of the most thought-provoking material relating to writing and publishing.

    I certainly agree with your advice:

    Don’t get on the “write as many books as you can, as fast as you can” bandwagon.

    Even so, I have found that this advice from one of my favorite authors has served me well over the years:

    “It’s better to do a sub-par job on the right project than an excellent job on the wrong project.”
    — Robert J. Ringer

    Then there is this great quote from the author of one of my favorite books ever:

    When I read something saying I’ve not done
    anything as good as “Catch-22″, I’m tempted to reply, “Who has?”
    — Joseph Heller (Author of “Catch 22″)

    Incidentally, one of my self-published books that I put together quickly and haphazardly sold over 10,000 copies. On the other hand, I have at least three much better creative works that have sold far fewer copies.

    I don’t think that my so-called “brand” has been weakened by my creative works that have not sold well. My two best-selling books still provide me with a great income many years after they were first published. One of the books (first self-published in 2004) had its best year in 2013 and appears to be well on its way to its best year ever in 2014 (with over 15,800 copies sold so far this year).

    Having said this, several years after I first started writing it, I am still working on a book called “Life’s Secret Handbook (Reminders for Adventurous Souls Who Want to Make a Big Difference in This World”. Perhaps I want to make it my best creative work ever.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    The Prosperity Guy
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 200,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working”
    (Over 275,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

    • Rachelle Gardner Rachelle Gardner says:

      Ernie, your contributions here are always valuable and illuminating, thank you!

    • Kell Brigan says:

      Note to self: always look at the bottom of a blog comment first, to determine whether or not it’s an advertisement in disguise.

  • It’s quality PLUS production. So every writer needs to find their own sweet spot between Proust and Erle Stanley Gardner.

  • I think it’s great advice, Rachelle. And it’s what I come back to every time I feel the urge to write something for the market, or in a hurried way to meet a perceived demand. I can’t represent something that I don’t feel good about putting out into the world. I have to be able to talk about and stand behind what I write. So quality does win out with me.

    But I do wonder that I might not have so much choice, if I sign a contract and promise a book by a certain date!

    • Rachelle Gardner Rachelle Gardner says:

      Angela, writing under deadline can certainly present challenges. You’re right to be aware and concerned. You want to make sure your deadlines still allow you to do your best work.

  • This simply makes sense. As a reader, I don’t want an author to waste my time. I only have a limited amount of time to spend reading and if I need a break, often I will pick up an old favorite. You want me to risk reading a new book? Then fulfill your promise to me of a great ride. Then I’ll be back.

  • Jim Lupis says:

    This is great advice, Rachelle. Writing can sometimes be an isolated position, and I know I need someone to push me to be better. Especially for self-pubbers.

    When I published traditionally, my editor constantly gave me feedback, such as, “this needs to be stronger”, or “You need to be more precise.”

    With my self-published book I was basically on my own, and I fell into the trap that you are describing.

    It won’t happen again. Whether I go traditional, or self-publish, I will put forth my best effort. Thank you for the push.

    • Rachelle Gardner Rachelle Gardner says:

      Jim, thanks for being here! I’m glad my post gave you the little push you needed. I find I need the same kinds of reminders, to do my best work every day.

  • Alexis says:

    Makes perfect sense!

    Thanks for sharing these words of wisdom! :)

  • Sue Harrison says:

    Again, such wise advice. Thank you, Rachelle!

  • Rachelle, I–like many other authors, especially debut ones–was over-anxious to send in my first novel, but you cautioned me to take my time and get it right. That same advice can be repeated for every book submitted by every author, whether the first or the twenty-first. It’s true–we’re only as good as our worst book, and once a reader is lost it’s hard (perhaps impossible) to get them back. Thanks for sharing.

  • I love your common sense advice, Rachelle. I keep trying to improve my craft as I move through my career. One thing I notice as a reader is that sometimes if an author produces a popular brand the books begin sounding the same. The books aren’t lacking in quality, just so similar at times you wonder if you’re reading the same story over again. How do you avoid that will continue to improve what you offer readers?

    • Great question, Cheryl.

    • Rachelle Gardner Rachelle Gardner says:

      Cheryl, every writer is different. For some, they have a “formula” that works and that their readers love. For others, each book is unique while remaining true to some elements of branding that their readers come to expect. You have to find your own balance.

  • This advice isn’t harsh at all. It’s wise, given the atmosphere in the book world these days. Putting forth the best book I can put forth should be my goal. Even if it takes awhile. It makes perfect sense.

    It doesn’t put too much pressure on a writer. Not if he or she wants to be published and have readers looking forward to the next book. It’s good to strive to do the best work you can, and then make it better.

    Great post today, Rachelle.

  • Sarah Thomas says:

    Which is why good reviews both thrill me and scare the you-know-what out of me!

  • Shauna says:

    It also seems like writers need to have two or three rough drafts in the queue. If one has the good fortune of writing an excellent book, and readers are chomping at the bit for more, it seems like the time between books would be better spent refining and improving an established story/idea rather than scratching up a new one. Do many new authors have several books drafts completed before approaching an agent?

    • Rachelle Gardner Rachelle Gardner says:

      Shauna, many authors have several books completed before GETTING an agent, but not necessarily before first approaching one. :-)

      Personally I prefer a writer has written several books before I agree to represent them, regardless of how good the books are. I just want to know they can actually complete a whole book. When you’ve never done it, you don’t know how hard it is!

  • “Don’t phone it in.” I’m sure we’ve all read books where exactly that probably happened! Not harsh at all, Rachelle, but great advice. Thank you!

    • Phoning it in sometimes happens with in the ‘majors’, as well.

      There’s a “dual autobiography” of the American astronaut David Scott and the Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, “Two Sides of the Moon”.

      It’s a high-profile production, with a forward by Neil Armstrong and an introduction by Tom Hanks (after he made “Apollo 13″ and produced the HBO miniseries “From The Earth To The Moon”, Hanks’ input was almost a necessity.)

      It has the potential to be a fascinating book, but Leonov’s contribution was ineptly ghosted, and it creates some real problems in reading it.

      For instance, the death of a cosmonaut in a training accident is ascribed to two different dates, about two weeks apart…within the same paragraph.

      Almost as bad is Leonov’s claim to have met Ernest Hemingway in Cuba in 1965. Great…except that Hemingway left Cuba in 1960, and killed himself a year or so later.

      Scott’s portion isn’t quite so careless, but has some jarring inaccuracies in technical jargon.

      It doesn’t completely invalidate the book, but I’d be leery of reading anything else by the same team, or by the individuals involved.

      The defects reflect badly on Hanks and Armstrong; a forward and an introduction are de facto endorsements of the contents, and depend on the trustworthiness of the individuals involved. It probably doesn’t matter outside the community of space program aficionados, but no core readership should be slighted.

      I can understand that it would be hard to say, “No, this isn’t well-done, I can’t endorse it”, but there’s still a salutary lesson there for we who may be asked to write reviews, particularly for books written by people we know well, and respect.

  • Kell Brigan says:

    No one’s ever explained *how* someone who self-publishes (which I actually think is a contradiction in terms) can ensure the quality of their work. Every editorial relationship they enter into, by definition, suffers from an intrinsic conflict of interest. When you hire someone to edit your books, you (or they) have no way of knowing to what degree they’re telling you what you want to hear in order to keep the gig or avoid a fight. No one can judge their own work, and when there is no one available whose motivation is anything other than to produce the best book possible, how can any selfie book be trusted? Again, yet again, again, again, again, the main point is that self-publishing is by definition abusive to READERS. A self-publisher can put all their effort into creating the best self-published book possible, but it still will never be a real book. Publishing, like reading, has to involve at least two people who do not share the same motivation. Anything else is just another diary.

    • One thing you can do, and must do when writing historical fiction, is to be as accurate in the facts as possible. Michael Shaara was successful in his Civil War books because his research was painstaking; his stories had the ring of truth.

      It also means being up on the state of current research. The Battle of Midway, in 1942, was assumed to be thoroughly ‘known’ for years, especially after the publication of Walter Lord’s “Incredible Victory” in the late 1960s.

      However, appearances were misleading. Lord based much of his telling of the Japanese side of the battle on Mitsuo Fuchida’s “Midway – The Battle That Doomed Japan”, which was considered even then to be flawed – but only by the Japanese! They knew better, but the language barrier prevented a free and timely sharing of research.

      The publication of Parshall and Tully’s “Shattered Sword” in 2005 extensively utilized Japanese-language source material, and cast a wholly different light on both the specifics and the significance of Midway.

      It’s a hard road, and can be awfully persnickety, but without top-notch research, especially in a self-published historical, an otherwise great story can be fatally undercut, and can give an author a reputation of carelessness.

      That’s a label that’s hard to lose.

      • I feel that we that like to read history owe a debt of gratitude to people like you. Making the truth show up in history books is very important, because if we remember our history, we will not make the mistakes of the past.

  • . . . I found this out the hard way.
    You’re Only as Good as Your Worst Tweet!

  • I would add one word to your statement, at least in terms of today’s market and traditional publishers: You’re only as good as your last book’s sales.

  • Keli Gwyn says:

    Sage advice, Rachelle. That’s why I continue to study craft and push myself to make each story better than the last. If a writer in today’s market thinks, “I’ve arrived,” stops striving to improve and produces a sub-par book, readers won’t be as forgiving as they once were.

  • My first novel was traditionally published last year and I wrote it in five months. I’m working on my second and have spent much more time trying to make it worlds above the first, because I know readers will expect it.

    Your article offers great advice. It’s never about quantity, it’s always about quality especially in this competitive market.

    Thanks!

  • Have been reading “The Invention of Wings” today…beautiful writing. I haven’t wanted to put it down!

  • Rachel:
    Great advise, I had cases where a writer that I liked a lot produced what I considered and inferior product. I stop reading his books. I don’t want to invest time in reading something that is not good.
    Many times I go to the library and pick five or six books that I think will be good, and find only one that is passable, the rest is junk.

    A writer needs to polish, spit shine his book, make sure it engages the readers so they can have a good experience reading it. When they become involved in the story, get mad at the author, or cannot stop reading, then you have written a good book that will keep your readers wanting more.
    It is very difficult, I think the main requirement is the passion to create something beautiful, interesting and engaging.

  • The last few days I’ve devoted myself more intently to the task of finishing the first draft of my second novel.

    Looking at fiction from a writer’s viewpoint once again, has sharpened my awareness of how many new novels are out there. Three million books published a year instead of 300,000? It makes you wonder, as always, why should I add to the mass? Can my book change a life, make a difference?

    But if you have to write, you have to write. And if you’re writing for the Lord, it’s common sense that you should do your very best.

    RuthAnn Ridley

  • Andrea D says:

    It doesn’t sound harsh at all; it sounds realistic.

    Of course it puts on some pressure, but it’s pressure that should be there. Is there ever a time when we should put out something we know to be less than our best if there is any realistic way we can do better?

    It rings true, also, because I’ve seen it in my own reading. I have favorite authors whom I keep reading despite the occasional sub-par book because I know they generally do better. If that particular book was the first I happened across, though, I would never give them a second read.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post.

  • Mark Conte says:

    Then I am only as bad a writer as my best book. In today’s juvenile culture where Amazon has made the self published book, (750,000 in 2013) and put Bill Doe from Two Egg, Florida alongside F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Earnest Hemmingway and Edwin O’Connor, how can you expect greatness?

  • I think that Amazon and other web sites should be used to find novels by authors that you like. Also for the great writers. I agree that greatness in the books is being diluted, but this is only one of the problems that the information revolution has caused.
    I personally like to read the great writers, classic and modern.
    I am still developing my voice as a writer, it takes a lot of work.

  • Susan says:

    Was Shakespeare only as good as his worst poem or play? Don’t think so.

  • You can’t use Shakespeare as a model, he is not a single person, there is a credible theory that says that when the compendium of his works was made, he was given credit for the work of other people. After all, he was the historian for the Dynasty in control of England at that time.

  • Susan says:

    “They finally found out who wrote the Shakespeare plays. It was another guy by the same name.”
    -Woody Allen
    ;)

  • Sara Ella says:

    Hi Rachelle! This makes perfect sense to me. I’m not yet published but I am an avid reader. I find that if an author disappoints me, I’m unlikely to give them another chance. Sad, but true.

    I really enjoyed Lauren Kate’s “Fallen”. But my pleasant experience didn’t last because I didn’t feel the rest of that series lived up to the expectations created by the first book. Same with the Divergent series. Book 1 was great but I couldn’t even get through book 2 I was so bored.

    I think sometimes authors get really successful, then think they have the freedom to stop trying so hard. Every book should be like the first one. The same effort should go into everything you do. Success isn’t an excuse to be lazy. You’ll lose fans that way:)

    Thanks for this insight. I’m going to keep this in mind when I start working on my second novel.

  • Anna Labno says:

    I read The Mermaid Chair and enjoyed it. I read all of her writing because I love images she creates with words. She’s a powerful writer.

  • Anna Labno says:

    What I don’t like are writers who are plot driven and recycle their stories.

  • Anna Labno says:

    What I don’t like writers who are plot driven and recycle their stories.

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