In my last article about the power and ego of newspaper critics, I talked a little bit about a brutal review of a “bad” book. I don’t actually know the book is bad; I haven’t read it. But I have read bad books in my day.
I wanted to do a piece on bad books and how they get published — but I don’t work in the publishing industry, and I actually have a very superficial understanding of how publishers select books for publication or the pipeline process those books undergo.
When you research a question like this (and by “research” I mean “google”) there is one predominating answer: that “bad” is subjective, and that whether or not they’re good isn’t as relevant as whether or not they sell. You see this over and over, but it’s not just something of an insult to agents, editors, and readers, as bookendslitagency points out here.
This kind of comment makes me mad, and it tires me out. It implies that editors and agents, those of us in the business, have no taste and don’t know what makes good writing or a good book, and it implies that readers have no taste, because if we’re catering to them, obviously someone likes these so-called bad books.
It’s also essentially irrelevant to the discussion I want to have here, which isn’t about books I don’t like or one-off stinkers from acclaimed authors. It’s about objectively badly-written books. Say, first novels you can’t believe an agent bought, or the dreariest nonfiction books in existence — books that have material problems that could have and should have been fixed.
I’ll be honest: lacking any other experience, I had a theory that blackmail was somehow involved, or possibly sexual favors. I mean, I come from the theatre; we all know what the casting couch is. And while writers are not by and large the Beautiful People, we are frequently painfully earnest, which has a sort of charm, I suppose.
I’m sure there is some of that, though probably not as much as I’m envisioning. What it seems to come down to are two options — one a little more likely than the other.
One of the theories is the “pitch” theory, which I picked up from Bret Hartinger’s ruminations on the subject. He suggests that most books and movies are based on a “pitch”, and the ability to sell the pitch is perhaps often greater than the individual’s ability to execute it. While the concept of a pitch is pretty visible even to people outside the film industry, I know that for first-time writers, generally you can’t get away with it in publishing. If a publisher knows that you as an author are capable of following through on an idea, that’s one thing, but if you tell a publisher “I’ve had this great idea for a novel — but I’ve never been professionally published” you become the sad butt of a running industry joke. This might be slightly less common in nonfiction, but I know that when I was submitting manuscripts to editors and agents (oh, the bright-eyed days of my youth) they wanted an outline and/or ten sample pages with the guarantee that if they wanted they could see the entire finished text. So while this theory may be accurate, it also tends towards the “already published author” side of things, where we’re not going.
The second and more likely option, with which I’ve actually had some experience, is the “Boss Book” theory. KJ Charles talks about it here.
[Boss crashes into room, clutching sheaf of paper or self-published horror with garish cover. Heads rise and turn, like alarmed meerkats] Boss: I’ve found this. It’s fantastic! Remarkable! We need to get it out now. Lisa, I want it scheduled for March –
Editorial Director Lisa: Excuse me? I’ve never even seen this. Can we please bring it to the editorial meeting so we can discuss –
Boss: I’ve already bought it. Contract signed. Three-book deal.
I have an editor friend who occasionally emails me bemoaning the prose they have to read and attempt to make respectable. They sometimes get pushback from their authors, too — authors take note, “My friends think it’s fine!” is not a valid defense of your manuscript. When I asked why this book ever made it this far, my editor friend said, “Her [relative] was the acquisitions manager.”
But that’s not where the story ends, because as it turns out, the market actually supports all these terrible books. Charles goes on to say:
First: they were all bad. Whimsical nonsense, medically unsound alternative health books, tedious historicals. There was one fantasy novel so abysmal that I don’t think anyone made it to the end, and I include the editor and proofreader in that. Maybe the typesetter. Possibly even the author. For all I know, the last 100 pages were left blank. I don’t imagine anyone ever looked.
Second: Of every ten Boss Books, seven sank without trace. Two would sell 1500 copies. And one would go nuts. It would take off like a rocket, outsell the next four books on the list put together, and more than pay for the nine duds, because there was something about it that the market really wanted, which the boss saw and the rest of us didn’t. More fool us.
When you pick up a dreadful book by someone who’s not famous enough to get away with it, there’s a pretty good likelihood that you are collateral damage of a Boss Book.
On the bright side, some author had fun getting published, made a little money, and still contributed to the success of another book. Even if that other book was also awful — at least it was a wanted awful book.