Thursday, January 27, 2011

No One's Publishing Good Books Anymore: True and False

Reading thuRsday

Claiming that your book will stand out from the rest because no one publishes good books any more is one of the first things agents mention when asked to list elements of queries that mark you as an amateur.

I don't know about you, but I have a twinge of guilt each time I read a list like that because, try as I might, I can't exorcise the opinion that my book is better than most others.

Now before you rush to get your torches and pitch forks, let me explain the epiphany I had as to why this heretical opinion is both true and false.


As a writer, you have to believe that your book will be better than most other books in its neck of the publishing woods, otherwise you can't justify the effort it takes to write and polish long-form fiction. If you believe that others are producing better books than you ever could, why torture yourself when you could enjoy their offerings?

"Wait," you say, rising up in righteous indignation born from proper writerly humility, "there are masters whose inkwell I'm not worthy to refill."

The problem here is the word, "better," because it implies a single comparative dimension when novels can be good in many different ways. The "better" you have to believe in as a writer is that you have something to add to the conversation in terms of both the story you want to tell and the unique way in which you can tell it.


But, as a writer, you also have to understand that you're writing for an audience--a paying audience--and that their opinions and tastes are all that matters when it's time for money to change hands.

So, how do you know what your audience wants?

Short of conducting your own interviews and surveys, the best thing to do is forget about "good" and "bad" and pay attention to the books that people are actually buying.

Which brings us full circle: the problem with claiming your book will stand out is that you're saying you know better than the market and everyone, including the agent you've queried, involved with it.


What can you do to keep your head from exploding?

Believe in your secret heart that your book will be better as you write. And if you've mastered showing instead of telling, your readers will discover how truly superior your manuscript is for themselves. Remember, it's a secret that just might be true if you never tell it.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

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