There’s no such thing as a bad book

By Joe Moore

Ever heard a writer ask, “I don’t understand why my manuscript is being rejected while so many bad books are published?” Or, “I keep reading books that are nowhere near as good as mine. Yet they wind up getting published while mine don’t. I don’t get it!”

Sound familiar? Here’s my spin on the answer to this never-ending source of frustration: there’s no such thing as a bad book. The reason I feel that way is I believe that all books are considered good or even great by someone.

No publisher will intentionally release a “bad” book. Doing so would be a doomed business plan, especially in today’s shifting publishing landscape. Their goal is to find the best written manuscript, give it the most professional editing possible, promote it within budget limitations, and work closely with the author to raise the awareness of the book in the marketplace.

Here’s the problem: No publisher has a plan that is immune to failure. Not all books appeal to enough readers to make back the original investment. The dumpster is full of great books that did not make it into the hands of enough readers. And we have all come across books that we didn’t like or thought were “bad”. (To be honest, I couldn’t make it through the first 50 pages of a huge bestselling novel that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Does that mean it was a “bad” book?)

Not liking a book is individual preference. Someone else may love it, which is usually the case. If a book is truly written poorly–spelling errors, typos, incorrect punctuation, etc.–that’s the failure of the line editor. If it contains erroneous information or blatant factual mistakes, that’s the failure of the copy editor. And if it’s built on weak or sloppy writing (massive plot holes, 2-dimensional characters, stilted dialog, pacing issues, redundancy, cliché, etc.), that’s the fault of the acquisition editor. In all cases, the book should not have been published.

I have never met an author who said, “Today I’m going to write a mediocre book.” I’ve never dealt with an agent who was seeking writers with minimal talent. There are no publishers out there willing to risk their money on a sure-fire loser. All books are considered great by someone. That’s why they were written, represented and published. Did enough readers agree? Better yet, did enough readers even get the chance to agree? And if they didn’t, where does the fault lie? Marketing? Distribution? Promotion? Bad luck?

But even if we write a great book, there’s no guarantee that it will ever be published, much less sell enough copies to earn back the advance (most books fall short of that task). Don’t get me wrong, we all have to write the best book we can. But there are more great books that fail than succeed.

How about you, Zoners? Ever read what was positioned as the next Great American Novel only to put it down unfinished? Ever read a book that you considered awful but it went on to set new sales records?


29 thoughts on “There’s no such thing as a bad book

  1. Great post, Joe.


    Not American, but British. Five stars an Amazon. The author – “the premier spy novelist of his time. Perhaps of all time.” – TIME.

    But I couldn’t make it through. I just now pulled the book from my shelf. The book marker is still on page 52. The dense British colloquialisms, jargon, places, history all did me in. I didn’t understand what was happening, what was being said. It was too much work to read. I finally set it down and picked up another book.

    So, probably one of the greatest books I ever attempted. But because of my illiteracy of all things British, I failed. That said, having picked it up and looking through those first 50 pages, maybe I’ll try again.

    Thanks, Joe.

    • I never tried to read TTSS, but the movie was glacial speed. I remember falling asleep about five minutes in and waking up during the credits. Thanks, Steve.

  2. The Goldfinch–a decent 300-page book dragged out to 800+ interminable pages. Tiresome, repetitive, and not worth the final payoff. The editor must have been out to lunch, a looooong lunch. But what do I know? Pulitzer judges thought differently.

  3. Funny you should mention this…
    I am struggling with Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” right now. I love anything about British history, esp the Tudors, and everyone raves about this. But geez, the first 50 pages are really turgid and the shifting POV has me flipping back to the cast of characters (5 pages) and the family trees (2 pages) and I still can’t figure out who’s talking. It doesnt help that back in those days everyone was named Tom.

    During a breakfast with an editor in NYC when I was up there for Edgars, I complained about the book and she said she felt the same way but that if I stuck with it, I’d like it. O-kay…but life is short, you know?

    This book won every award short of the Pulitzer and was on every best list. Maybe I need to eat more spinach. I’m going to keep going. I made it through Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” but that was like running a marathon — I did it just to see if I could survive. Will report in later to let you know if I made it to Wolf Hall finish line.

    • Kris, I tend to avoid any book that I need a cast of character’s list to read. I like popcorn novels–that’s what I read and what I write.

  4. I found COPTOWN a difficult read for a number of reasons. I started it partly because it’s set in Atlanta (whar I hangs me hat), but found the author’s geography a bit confusing, landmark references completely wrong, and “messaging” (women cops “breaking into” the ranks, racial division within the ranks), got in the way of the story (told, not shown)~ I didn’t get much more than 45-50 pages in before realizing it wasn’t moving fast enough for me… And it won an Edgar, too…
    Had the same experience with the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy as Steve did with SOLDIER… (though I enjoyed the HOBBIT ~ go figure).

    • Hey there G:
      Actually, Coptown was nominated for Edgar but lost to Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes. And I had the same problem with Rings…I tried but my brain’s just not built that way.

    • Now LOTR is an exception for me. I read it in my freshman year of college and again in my senior year. It was my fantasy period. Lots of Terry Brooks and Piers Anthony.

  5. But even if we write a great book, there’s no guarantee that it will ever be published.

    Unless, of course, we publish it ourselves.

    And yes, I’ve read some highly touted novels that made me want to shout, “The emperor! No clothes!” But I know it’s a matter of individual taste. Some people actually like beets. Go figure.

  6. Thanks for the chuckles today. No one mentioned the “Shades” trilogy. From a style and plot point of view, I couldn’t understand the hype and yet millions loved it.
    I also had a struggle with Proust, always got tangled in his run-on sentences, even though so beautifully expressed. I love a book that keeps me turning the pages with good action or at least tweaks my curiosity enough to want to see what happens next.

    • Julie, I avoided the Shades books and movie. I think I’m the only one on the planet who did. Couldn’t finish THE DAVINCI CODE. Robert Langdon wore me out with his bottomless pit of knowledge. But 40 million readers didn’t see it my way.

      • I agree completely with you. I must be the second to avoid them. I really had no desire to read them, but hen I don’t read erotica. My roommate wanted to see what all the hype was about and she couldn’t get through the first chapter. She thought it was badly written, with many grammatical and other problems. I got so tired of all of the references to it too. Everything was “50 Shades” this or that. I always had problems with Faulkner. I just couldn’t get through anything by him or Hemingway.

        • Rebecca, there’s always going to be something that captures the public’s attention like Shades or Bridges or Twilight. In those rare cases when a book(s) takes off, I think the element of magic or whatever you call it enters into the equation. Oh to have that problem.

  7. I’ll know I’ve died and gone to hell when I finish GRAVITY’S RAINBOW, or anything by Cormac McCarthy. Not a Tolkien fan, either.

    I disagree with you about a publisher’s willingness to publish a bad book. Just as an acquisitions editor might well reject a quality manuscript because he/she believes it will fail in the marketplace, I believe that same editor would acquire a bad manuscript if he/she believes it will make pile of money for the publisher. I could probably think of an example if I thought about it long enough. FIFTY SHADES springs to mind, but it was originally self-published, so it doesn’t really count.

    • Celebrity memoirs come to mind, Catfriend. Great revenue potential over a very short time frame. And rejecting a well-written manuscript because it has little public appeal is a legitimate reason for an acquisitions editor to pass on it. They may love the book from a craft standpoint, but it might not be commercial enough to create revenue. An additional reason for rejection is that the publisher’s catalog is already filled with similar manuscripts. Thanks for your comments.

  8. My book club picks books I can’t finish. They’re usually chosen from older best-seller lists (the library up here can’t get enough copies of new books; inter-library loans don’t let them out of their systems for a year). I couldn’t get through “The Falls” and although I missed the meeting where it was discussed, the consensus was that there should have been negative numbers on the rating scale, and all subsequent books are now given better scores because there’s a new standard of awful. I read 2 Dan Browns: the second only because it was a book club pick. I never tried the Shades, or Twilight, and only managed to get through 2 Harry Potters (although we did watch all the movies on Netflix).

  9. I recently had a difficult time getting into Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. I picked it up, couldn’t get into, put it back down and…never picked it back up again. I confessed all to my book group but I do think sometimes certain books just don’t ‘hit the right notes’ at a particular time. I could pick it up now and love it. I’ve loved all her other books (particularly The Secret History – that was amazing) but this time, I just couldn’t do it. I think it’s immensely frustrating for many writers trying to get published as it really is all about individual preferences of editors and,as you say, no one intentionally publishes a bad book!

    • Thanks for your insight, Clare. As I get older, my patience grows shorter. I’ll give any book 20 pages. At that point, I keep reading or put it down and go take a nap.

  10. There have been several books I have had to put down over the years, for the most part I can’t even remember their titles they were so immemorable. That said, having had to self-publish all of my own after agent / publishers decided not to I will be the first to say the hammer swings both ways. It is all subjective…although I’ve narrated a couple of books for publishers that made me wonder seriously whether they simply published it for their desperate brother-in-law or if they actually prefer drivel.

    That said….guess what happened on the way to the back of my mind this morning: The Leprechauns in my basement (Fillii, Gnilli, Boffin, and Berthold) finally got their own series! Their first book, a novella titled APPETIZERS OF THE GODS, just went live in ebook this afternoon. Only $0.99! Click the title to check it out! Audiobook will be following soon for those who’d like to hear their actual voices.

    Guess now it’s my time to see if anyone like my amazingly sophisticated yet readable literary works are pieces of art or merely pieces of….other stuff.

    • Great to read your post, Basil.

      Congrats on your new book. I just bought it. Looking forward to reading it. I know I’ve never laughed so hard as I have after reading your posts here at TKZ.

      Hope you keep on coming back. Great family picture on Facebook.


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