Why Do Bad Books Get Published?

8616927440_915409ebee_oIt’s a question that all aspiring writers ask themselves at one point or another: Why are there so many bad novels on book store shelves?

While we can’t expect every novel to be literary gold (some books are just for fun), there sure are a lot of bad novels out there!

Sometimes all of these poorly written books can give writers the impression that their clearly superior novel should have no trouble getting published, yet when these writers query, they are met with rejection. It’s easy to feel like there is a double standard. Why do mediocre (or worse!) books get published when my great one keeps getting rejected?

The truth is that most of the bad novels out there did not come from the query slush pile in the first place.

So Where Do All These Bad Books Come From?

Celebrities

Whether they’re an actor, a TV personality, or a leader in their field, famous people are often able to get books published regardless of the quality. This is because the publishers are selling the name on the cover more than they are selling the book itself, and readers are inherently interested in what celebrities have to say.

Bestselling Authors

Like celebrities, there comes a point when authors are selling their name more than they’re selling their book. Publishers know that with a huge base of loyal fans, putting out a book that is not super spectacular will have very little impact on sales. Many readers will also look more favorably upon books by their favorite authors simply because they have positive expectations.

It’s also worth noting that many bestselling authors no longer write their books themselves and use ghostwriters (who might not have the same writing chops) so that the author can churn out more books.

Foreign Translations

This is an often overlooked reason a book may not follow conventional (English language) writing “rules.” A novel that is extremely successful in a foreign language may be translated to English so that publishers can expand their market. There are a variety of potential issues in the translation process that can lead to a lower than average quality to the writing, such as a poor translator, different writing standards from the country of origin, and no way to clearly or easily translate words or phrases into English.

Industry Insiders

It’s not uncommon to read the bio in the back of a debut novel and find that the author used to be an agent, work at a publishing house, or write for a newspaper or magazine. People who are inside the publishing industry have the ability to use their connections to get ahead, even if the book isn’t quite as high quality as readers are used to. This is not to say that these books are always bad, but it certainly happens.

Media Tie-Ins

Media tie-ins have become quite popular. These are books that are novelizations of movies or TV shows. They may be based on the films/episodes or they may simply be set in the same universe or feature the same characters. These novels are often assigned to writers for low wages and may not have had enough time spent on them.

Self-Published Novels

It’s not always clear when a novel has been self-published, and though there are some amazing self-published books, there is an endless supply of self-published novels that were not properly edited. Today, authors can sometimes get these books into local libraries or bookstores and readers can buy them without ever realizing they were self-published.

Sequels

As with famous authors, sequels often rest on the laurels of a previous book. Publishers bank on readers needing to know what happens next in the story and may be more lenient when it comes to tightening up the story and polishing the writing if they anticipate readers will buy the novel regardless of a lower quality.

Other Reasons Bad Novels Get Published

Sometimes bad novels are plucked from the slush pile and given the privilege of publication. There are a few reasons this might happen:

The Acquisition Editor Likes It

Acquisition editors are (typically) the people who sift through the slush pile and decide which books are considered for publication and which are not. These people are just that – people. Their tastes play a huge part in what they choose, and sometimes a book resonates with an editor due to personal experience or preferences. Sometimes these books don’t resonate the same way with the average reader and fall flat.

A “Catchy” or Unique Concept

As much as we like to think of writing as an art form (and it is), publishing is a business. A mediocre book that has a great concept may be easy to sell on its premise alone. Once readers have purchased the book, a profit has been made. If the novel only gets a two or three star review online, that’s not such a big deal. Readers will still pick up the book in the store, get excited by the concept alone, and purchase it.

A Concept that is Timely

Current events can sometimes prompt a novel to be published before it’s had the chance to go through proper polishing because the publisher is hoping to capitalize on public interest in a certain topic, concept, or person. In order to not miss this window of public interest, the book might be shoved onto shelves too soon.

Can you think of any other reasons bad novels get published? Leave a comment!

Want to give your novel the best chance at making it out of the slush pile? Check out my editing packages, query critiques, mentoring, and (new!) novel critique services.

9 thoughts on “Why Do Bad Books Get Published?

  1. Aura Evey Eadon says:

    I like the list of reasons you provide. Some are fairly obvious human traits (is a book going viral becoming “fashion” and gaining acceptance because of reasons like social networks another reason?) and others are just simply business decisions. The publishing industry needs to make money otherwise it stops existing and with it the books in the form we know. An authors’ name selling books for example is important at making money, but of course it doesn’t make it fair for a well written and well edited book.

    Additionally, I think the concept of a “bad book” is too generic and broad. What exactly is a bad book? How is badness defined exactly and in which areas? Obviously not what your article wanted to present in the first place but I think the “badness” rules can be viewed in three broad rule-breaking categories: (a) Breaking the commonly accepted rules about how a book needs to be written and presented, (b) being badly written in terms of editing, plot, and characterisation, and (c) breaking the personal tastes of one or more reviewers (either business decision people or simple readers).

    Category (a) depends on the era. The Jules Verne books are considered classics and yet they are unbelievably chatty, patronising, even racist and sexist in certain cases, with thin plots and weak characters (I grew up with those books and yet I can’t read them now). I am sure that ten years from now the books from twenty years ago will probably be viewed in a similar manner.

    Category (b) is again related slightly to (a) but in some respects it’s the one containing the most objective criteria (if objectiveness is even possible when it comes to such things). Wrong words, spelling, grammar are probably fairly objective, with plot and characterisation balancing in between and in cases shifting towards the subjective side of things. And of course when that happens we reach the category (c) where what I find unbelievably good, inspiring, amazing, and whatnot, you may label as drivel and vice versa.

    At the end of the day each book offers (or sells if you prefer) something to their reader and the goodness or badness is perhaps whether the book gives the reader what they need/want from it or not. I feel that looking for objectivity in a highly subjective matter that drives business and money decisions is perhaps like chasing the end of a rainbow. Maybe all we can do as writers is do the best we can with the resources available and have faith that perhaps our stories will touch some readers in a favourable way.

  2. A. A. Woods says:

    You make some very good points. While it’s not exactly comforting, it’s good to understand that a lot of the “bad novels” out there are at least there for a reason.

    Another bullet point I would add is that some novels target a huge audience that can relate to the story. For example, in stories like Twilight, 50 Shades, and other romance novels there is a clear target audience (women or teenage girls) who can relate to the main characters and project themselves into the stories. Because it strikes such a wide market, and because the stories are simple and straightforward, this ability to relate is seen as gold. They aren’t necessarily great literary fiction, or even uniquely creative, but these light fantasies are easily and widely marketable.

    I wrote a post about this idea and 50 Shades of Grey here: http://aawoodswrites.blogspot.com/2015/02/why-50-shades-of-grey-is-selling-and.html

    Thanks Ellen for another great article!

  3. Daniel O'Gore Addams says:

    Thanks again for sharing you insights. I have been writing for almost three decades. It took ten years or so to realize I could “write” as I was only doing it as a means to an end. I was a special effects makeup artist and I wanted to create a vehicle for my work to serve as a portfolio piece. It wasn’t until twenty years in that I ever thought anyone else could possibly be interested in my writing and only in the last several years did I consider really doing something about it. I am self taught in all I have done. Makeup, armour, fire eatting, sculptor, painter, gunsmith, tattooing, to name a few. I must admit that I even actively avoid instruction most of the time, because I so often find my own way to be unique and sometimes work better than the traditional way, as least for me. I have read several books on writing, publishing, etc. and then one day I came across one of your videos on YouTube. Your advise is more clear, honest, smart and truly helpful than most of what I have seen. I really like doing everything myself, especialy as an artist, because I like to know that a work is of that artist, not another writer, coach, producer, autotune machine, editor, director, etc. But you, for the first time had me see that your job as an editor is to help me make my work the best it can be, and I hope to have you do just that as soon as I am ready and able. Thanks so much for what you do.
    Daniel

  4. Jon says:

    Does style beat content? I have read contest winners and published works that frankly have no pay off at the end. Your waiting for the story to say something and it just ends, boring. Yet, it got published. The words are flowery and well written, but the story stinks. I have made a point of showing these short stories to readers in my group or friends and they agree. I have even put some across to my readers as mine. They sheepishly tell me they hated it. Then I tell them thank you, I didn’t write it, but it got published. It is frustrating. I’ll write crap if that’s what sells, but damn what’s going on out there? I haven’t read a GOOD short story in awhile.

  5. Sam Ramirez Friedman says:

    Great article, and a lot of truth. I’d add ‘popular’ for all the fan-fic that makes it way into the publishing mainstream. It’s a lot easier to be popular writing Star Wars fan-fic than creating your own universe, and unfortunately there’s been a trend to reward simply having a Big Number of reads.

  6. sprayingmint says:

    I am a book reviewer, who reviews advanced copies. I have a rule that says NO SELF PUBLISHING REQUESTS. I used to be relaxed until I realize self published books except for one hidden gem had a reason they were unpublished.

    Go see the arrogant writers of Wattpad if you need to see people argue for the use of cliches, why the industry doesn’t understand them and argue about the story that counts while knowingly use bad grammar and expecting people to actually pay for their crap

    ! A lot of jaded unpublished writers are some of the most “life is unfair” people I know. Releasing books that are well below industry standard. As much as I hare Twilight, at least she had an editor.

  7. Jon Eno says:

    I have a couple ‘Readers’ I use to review my stories. They give me great feedback. One month I copied, winning stories from some contest and let them read these thinking I wrote them. The reactions on their faces told me a lot. They were honest and told me this was the first time I didn’t like your work. Then I told them the truth.
    I do worry about being too close to my own work to know if it is good or not. But, a lot of the stuff getting published stinks.

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