I asked this question on Facebook: “Why do poorly written books sell well?” Here’s the feedback I received:
- Some spoke of the importance of story (and I agree.) A poorly written book with a knockout story will sell. We are creatures of story.
- Others mentioned that unschooled folks could write memoirs and they’d read them because they knew them. Also valid. One of my favorite books is a self published book by a now-deceased friend. He lived the message of that book. And he was an excellent storyteller.
- Others lamented the loss of our taste for excellent writing. I lament that too.
- And others spoke of the importance of writing in today’s vernacular. (I’d buy that, but then I read a book like The Book Thief, which is brilliant, and see that teens and adults can abide by good writing.)
- Some mentioned marketing or an important hook (like a celebrity book). True. Much of what entices consumers ties into marketing. But it’s also true that good ol’ grass roots word of mouth truly sells books. So why would folks recommend a poorly written book?
- Others mentioned that poor writing is in the eye of the beholder. That one person’s poor writing is another’s accessibility. True. We’re all different, and we all have unique reading preferences. And not everyone is nit-picky like me.
- Rachel wrote this: “Book selling is a business, good writing is an art. Two entirely different planets. Why do we pay $20 for a copy of picture at our local big box store and there are hand-painted masterpieces in someone’s basement?” That’s an interesting point. But as a writer who tries to make a living, surely there’s some convergence between the two, right?
- Beth wrote, “It appears to me it is more about how God would choose to use a book, than how polished their writing is. God still uses broken vessels today just as he did in Biblical times.” While, as a cracked pot myself, I agree with this, the logic could be taken to another conclusion. I could say, “Well, God uses broken stuff, so I’m just going to slap something together and pray He’ll bless it.” Of course I believe in the sovereignty of God, but I also believe in the Puritan work ethic, the laboring over something as an act of worship of a Creative God. As David said, “’No, but I will certainly buy it from you for a price; for I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing.’ So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver” (2 Samuel 24:24).
As a word artist and now a mentor to writers as a literary agent, I take the writing craft seriously.
But for me, I must write a better book than the book I’ve written before, and I pursue writers who feel the same way. 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 drawn to writers who similarly love the craft and the feel of the words as they roll off the tongue.
Should it bother us that poorly written books sell? On one hand, yes. But it need not deter us from pressing into working harder. We owe excellence to the One who gifted us, and we owe beautiful words and stories to our readers.
We may not sell a million books. But we may want to be able to look ourselves in the mirror and know we’ve intentionally grown in our craft. More than that, we will want to hear, “Well done, good and faithful word servant.”
What about you? Why do some poorly written books sell, in your opinion?