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?
Why do lousy books sell well?
It seems a mystery,
but if a notion I would tell,
The world’s been spinning madly
just like it’s always done,
and it book that’s written badly
can offer up some fun
as escape into a place
where outcomes are known,
a warm and cozy kind of place
to shut off the phone
and revel in an awkward tale
while all around us seems to fail.
Well, two typos. Not bad for writing too early.
‘and it book that’s written badly’ should clearly be ‘a book’, and ‘a warm and cozy kind of place’ was intended as ‘a warm and cozy kind of grace’
Ah, well. Better poofreeding next thyme.
LOL about thyme. 🙂
This is (only slightly) encouraging to me. I am a writer who stumbles across the pages every morning. I carefully mine words, extract them, probably with more pressure than I need. I have to be careful not to get stuck in my inadequacies, in the deepening pit of “not enough”. In a way, your post makes me feel good, gives me permission to relax a bit.
I am a mom of six kids. Over the years, I have seen my children snub their noses at the wholesome foods I buy. How often have I tossed out the rotting contents of the bottom drawer in the fridge while on the phone with the pizza place down the road.
While fast food tastes good, while it even provides us with an opportunity to sit together, it will eventually make us sick.
I love the meals here … Don’t give up creating wholesome nourishment, finding “cooks” who look carefully at beautiful ingredients. I look forward to heaven, to a banquet table prepared by the WORD Made Flesh … I don’t think Dominos will be on the menu 🙂
You’re a terrific writer, Heidi!
I agree with Mary, Heidi. You have both gift and discipline in your words.
As for food, well…
I live on pizza and on beer,
and sometimes KFC,
and I really do not fear
what they will do to me,
for it’s surely long been said,
the enemy gets a vote,
and all too soon I may be dead,
as cancer’s got me by the throat,
and so away the Brussels sprouts,
the broccoli and kale;
with spinach I am on the outs
(they serve a lot in gaol),
and so I with glee propose
my final meal from Domino’s.
Beer and pancreatic cancer obviously don’t mix, but with metastasized tumours in the throat, ice-cold light beer is the only thing that soothes enough to let me eat, which I guess shows there’s a silver lining to everything.
Robin W. Pearson
I’d just read the 2 Samuel passage and loved its application here, Mary! And such is my prayer, to hear “Well done and well written,” for I, too, see my work as my ministry.
Heidi, I’m a mom-writer of seven, and sometimes I have to outwit my peeps by sprinkling veggies where they’d least expect it. Does that work in fiction?
Robin, first of all your picture makes me smile. And, yes, I, too, sprinkled veggies into things surreptitiously. 🙂
So glad you addressed this topic, Mary! Let’s take kale as an example. FULL of great nutrients. Good for me. Would you have found kale in my refrigerator a few years ago? No. Wasn’t even sure it was really a food. I did not respond to the trend, but rather to the evidence that kale had a lot to offer. And over time, I discovered that kale in soup or kale in a salad mix of other less strongly-flavored greens was a good balance. And I liked it. My tastes changed because I tried it. Iceberg lettuce has its place (It once was my go-to lettuce simply because of price). But I rarely choose iceberg these days in favor of more nutritious and delicious darker greens, including the baby kale I was snacking on yesterday.
Great analogy, Cynthia. I had a similar story with kale. The key is to write great words that also taste good. 🙂
Mary of the Mixed Metaphor
And here’s an interesting angle. “Poorly written” does have many faces–the opinion of the reader, the tastes of the audience in general, the power of the story itself versus its execution. I received a bottle of excellent olive oil for Christmas. I thought I knew and appreciated olive oil before. But this is “the good stuff.” And it rather spoiled me for the Kroger brand I’d been purchasing. Oh, I still keep the Kroger version around for other uses. But when flavor is important (as a “finishing” oil or vinaigrette or for dipping), I will reach for the good stuff. And the good isn’t because it was expensive. It’s the history of those olive trees, the care of the caretaker (writer), the not-cutting-any-corners process. One of the questions you brought to light, Mary is why some hard-working, excellent-at-their-craft authors’ work is ignored when writers who don’t have a good grasp of storytelling or word-sculpting or point of view hit bestseller lists. One of the mysteries and in some ways heartaches of artisans. So we press on.
What I’ve found (because I’ll admit, I’ve written both) is that they are completely different markets altogether. We’re talking apples and oranges. The people who buy and read excellent stories want a sublime experience whereby they think about that character for a long time and almost meditate on each twist. Then there’s another type of story, written for a different reader who has been wholly underserved until the advent of the digital market, the reader who just wants a few hours of escape. Thinking that much about a beautiful turn of phrase doesn’t do what he or she wants reading to do. It’s more like television, but still reading. They immerse themselves in a world for a few hours, but that’s all they want. Slight connection to characters that free them from this world for a while, not a permanent connection.
Pulp is not bad, it just is. And to cancel it would cancel out a huge swath of readers that we’ve only recently brought back to the fold. While I don’t personally read a lot of pulp, I am glad it’s there for the readers who want it. I’m also so thankful for the technically beautiful books that leave me reading slowly just to savor each word.
I think the real issue comes when you have someone who writes neither and can’t sell in either market. You have to be okay with what your voice produces. If that’s pulp, embrace it. If that’s decadent prose, celebrate.
Really great addition to the discussion, Kari. Thank you!
Kristen Joy Wilks
There are so many pieces to good writing. I’ve found that a book that is poorly executed in one element excels in another. The readers who make that book fly off the shelves clearly are intrigued by that element that the author is excellent at crafting. Someone gave me a copy of Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. While the sentence by sentence craft was beautiful and the novel had a polished, literary feel, I had to slog through reading it. I didn’t find the characters sympathetic and the high level of competence in the author’s craft in one area was not enough to make the book compelling for me. I wanted more in the areas that she was not skilled at. Clearly, other readers place high value on the areas in which this author is amazing. Why do some readers love The Count of Monte Cristo when there is that whole middle section where they just sit on the island and do drugs instead of moving the story forward? Why did Twilight sell so well when the relationship was so concerning? Well, the author had fabulous pacing, a strong sense of what is mysterious and fun, and fanned that rebellious streak in us all that makes us want to drive too fast on a windy road. Her readers appreciated skills in the areas at which she excelled. There have been times that I read a book that I loved, all while chuckling at the mistakes. I enjoyed the story because I was wanting the parts at which the author was skilled and was willing to overlook the parts where they needed to grow. Some of my favorite books have obvious flaws while some best sellers have left me unimpressed. I guess that is why there are so many books, right? Readers put higher weight on different elements of story craft.
Kristen Joy Wilks
There are literary novels that I have enjoyed. To Kill A Mockingbird is so amazing. A Gentleman in Moscow was compelling to me even though the plot was barely visible and I enjoyed Life of Pi, The Night Circus, and Treasure Island very much. The author of Life of Pi was simply more skilled at creating a likable character than the author of The Nightingale who was more skilled at creating that sweeping epic overwhelming feeling of a war destroying your world … a feeling which I did not enjoy.
I’m currently reading A Gentleman In Moscow, and I agree with your assessment. It’s a joy to read, though not plot driven.
This is such a great addition to the discussion. You’re right. There are so many aspects to writing that we need to remember. This helps me remember beauty is in the eye of the beholder! 🙂
Just two thoughts
1, How do you define a poorly written story? Many people would answer this differently.
2. People want a great story, to get emotionally involved. If you can do that, the reader will forgive a lot of things.
Jay, I so agree that story trumps everything. 🙂
I love this conversation … It has made me think so much about my writing … the point, the validity of the few words I get to hammer out each day. “Will they really make a difference in the world for God?” “Is He pleased?”
I remember having those questions the other morning while turning the pages of the Bible. My reading plan had me in 2 Kings. I was about to skip to something more palatable in the New Testament, when I was moved (probably by my OCD to put a check mark on my list) to keep reading.
Right there, in the boring line-up of good and bad kings, I saw it.
I found two question which made me smile. When I answer these quandaries of an evil king, who used them to mock the people of God, I smile.
2 Kings 18:20 says,
“Do you think that mere words are strategy and power for war? In whom do you now trust that you have rebelled against me?”
Maybe, above structure and even above story, we should remember that words based in truth have power beyond our wildest imaginations.
What a beautiful verse! Thanks for sharing. Our words, infused by truth, have potential to change the world, bestseller status or not.
Wendy L Macdonald
Dear Mary, like the rest of your post these words of yours are powerful: “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.”
This is something I could see my agent saying and living by too. Another reason I love Books & Such.
I want to write this way. The beautiful way.
Thank you & blessings ~ Wendy Mac
I see it as part of my worship, to offer up something I’ve labored over. 🙂
I’m not very comfortable about this “poorly written books” business. Randy Ingermansson pans Tom Clancy’s books, yet people love them. Are they poorly written? Not in my mind. I find them engaging, the plots great, and the writing good. That’s a matter of taste, not writing quality. I happen to think the first couple of Harry Potter books are poorly written, especially as regards to speaker tags, but obviously I’m wrong since somewhere around 10 million people (maybe many more) disagree with me. It’s a matter of taste, not quality, IMnsHO.
In other words, literary beauty is in the eye of the beholder. 🙂
What is the purpose of a book? To show the beauty of our words? To demonstrate perfection in grammar? To provide a moment of enjoyment? To change a life by a little nudge toward God? I hope there’s room for all.
I’m currently reading a Nathaniel Hawthorne book. It’s terrible by today’s standards, but was probably a literary masterpiece in its day. I’m not enjoying it. I’m reading it and re-reading “The Deerslayer” to try to get some authentic dialog for a time-travel character from that era. Mark Twain hated James Fenimore Cooper’s writing and wrote harshly of it over a 30 year period. Steinbeck I loved, but Faulkner I hated.
“Poorly written” is in itself more of a profile of the reader than the writer. I have read books that I thought were wayyyy too detailed while others might have relished in its complicated presentation. I recently finished a book by an Irish author. The story was well written and even exciting to read…….and then it ended in a THUD, I think the critic is in the mind of the beholder.
I’ve learned a lot through this discussion. Thanks for adding to the discussion, Kit. So sorry that book had a thud.
Glad to see you don’t know either.
Large advertising budgets and skillful marketing experts spending them. There’s no mystery here.
But being bought isn’t the same as being read and cherished enough to reread.
Money and marketing skill can probably take any book to best seller for short time, but the books that continue to sell for many years keep selling because new readers who love them keep finding them and telling others.
Really good point. It’s the “classics” that tend to keep selling.
Carol R Nicolet Loewen
I wonder how many poor writers have strong platforms and sell on the basis of personality.
I’ve also heard of authors buying many of their own books to increase sales numbers.
I want my book to be a quality product that gives information, enjoyment and hope to my reader.