Why It Doesn’t Matter Whether or Not Your Book is Good


[Today’s post should come with a warning: I’m not sure I’ve got my point across clearly. It’s a very hard thing to explain. But hopefully you’ll get what I mean, and take it in the spirit with which it was intended. Or else you’ll think I’m saying something I’m not, and freak out. Either way, it’s probably best to have coffee first. This one’s a long ‘un.]

In the last month or so I’ve done two self-publishing workshop thingys, one at Faber Academy in London and one for Inkwell Writers in Dublin, both of which required the building of a pink PowerPoint presentation that boiled—or at least, attempted to boil—everything I know about self-publishing down into two handy sessions, one for the caffeine-induced enthusiasm of the morning and one for the post-lunch slump of the afternoon. Doing this, I realized that (i) PowerPoint presentations take far more time to make than you could ever imagine and (ii) some of my views on self-publishing have significantly changed over the last year, including some views I harped on and on about in Self-Printed.

So between now and the sparkly new second edition of Self-Printed, coming sometime this summertime-ish (I refuse to be any more specific than that!), I’ll be blogging about these new ideas, starting today with this controversially headlined post about why I don’t think it matters whether or not the book you plan to self-publish is good.

(Yes, I did just say that. But please, kindly read the rest of this post before you start leaving ranty comments in the box below. Thanks.)

Once upon a time, I told would-be self-publishers that their books had to be good. Absolutely, positively and with no exceptions whatsoever. I didn’t want anyone self-publishing crap, or even just mediocre stuff.

Because first of all, what was the point? There was none. Just because you could didn’t mean that you should. (As Dr. Malcom tells Hammond in the Jurassic Park Visitors’ Center dining room, incidentally.) The point of books is not just that they were written. Besides, self-publishing is a business, with you as the entrepreneur and the book as your first product. Wouldn’t you make sure if instead of a book you were selling, say, lightbulbs, that those lightbulbs worked before you put them on the shelves? Wouldn’t you make sure that they were good? Of course you would, unless you were a chucking-money-down-the-toilet enthusiast with a black belt in shamelessness.

Maybe you weren’t interested in money, and instead you were in the midst of setting up a delightful picnic of rainbows and cupcakes on Unicorn Meadow, to which you’d invited all of your favorite writerly dreams. Dreams are lovely, and anyone who knows me knows that I’m a big believer in having them—but also that I’d never charge anyone €2.99 (or any amount) for the privilege of seeing mine come true, and not much else. That kind of thing is called vanity publishing for a reason.

And most important of all, you self-publishing crap might cost me sales. Do you know how hard it is to get someone to read a self-published book? We may have lost some perspective what with us being self-publishers ourselves, and being surrounded by blog posts, articles, tweets, etc. about self-published books doing well, but the answer is it’s extremely hard and, when it comes to the vast majority of constant readers in the world right now, practically impossible. I don’t have to explain to you why and, if I do, then you must be only half-way through your lunch back in Unicorn Meadow. But let’s say that one of us manages to break through, and get someone who never, ever, ever wanted to read a self-published book to read a self-published book, maybe even accidentally. If it’s a good book produced by a professional self-publisher that’s been through the standards of book production (editing, cover design, etc.), then our new convert might buy another one. Maybe mine. But what if it’s a terrible book that reads like a Google Translate malfunctioning, looks like a HTML sneeze and has a quote from the author’s mother on the cover in Comic Sans? Now this self-publishing toe-dipper has just confirmed what they thought about self-published books all along, and you can guarantee that they won’t be buying any more. Maybe the book they would’ve bought next would’ve been mine. If that HTML sneeze was yours, you’ve cost me a sale. You have indulged in some irresponsible self-publishing, and you’ve messed it up for more people than just yourself.

So for all these reasons, I told you that your book had to be good. Otherwise, there was no point in even researching things like promotion, because once your early readers left nothing but one-star reviews, your title would be dead in the Kindle water. To find out whether or not your book was good, I recommended either trying to get it traditionally published (for feedback; full manuscript requests would generally confirm that there was at least something there) or paying a manuscript assessment service to tell you both the good and bad news. Whatever you did, you had to do something. You had to make sure that your book was good.

We have go ba-ack… and find out what the whispers were about. And why those particular numbers were the important ones. And how you can time travel using water and sunlight. And why Walt was important. And what’s the deal with Christian Shepard. And why women couldn’t give birth on the island. And—

But this argument had holes bigger than the plot of Lost. (Still bitter about that? Two years later? Me?) It was easy to find exceptions to the rule.

Take for example The Bad Writing, Big Selling Club. Dan Brown is probably the name that pops up the most frequently. He isn’t a particularly good writer—and is, in fact, renowned for not being a very good writer at all—but yet he’s sold millions and millions of books. Thus the Bad Book Self-Publisher concludes that although their book isn’t very good, it is definitely better than Dan Brown’s, so it’s gonna sell. Or that it’s at least as good as it, so it has a chance. Or that Dan Brown is proof that it doesn’t matter what sort of crap is between the covers, people buy books no matter what. So, bad books sell.

Last October I relocated to Nice, France, for six weeks. I have thus far managed to resist the lure of a Kindle (ironic, I know) and had a 20kg luggage limit, so I relied on the tiny English language section of the local FNAC for reading material while I was there. Pickings were slim, to say the least. One week I picked up The Swarm by Frank Schatzing, translated into English from the German, partly because it sounded really interesting and partly because it was approximately the size of a brick and seemed as if it’d last me a while.

It was to good writing what the coffee you get served on airplanes is to Nespresso. There was so much badly handled exposition that “badly handedly exposition” would’ve made a good subtitle for the book. Nothing actually happened for at least fifty pages, and the science wasn’t so much interwoven as it was dumped in a steaming heap in the middle of each page. The characters had about as much depth as a puddle on the bathroom floor after someone’s had a shower, and for most of the book the reader had absolutely no clue what was going on. (And before you protest, these problems were all unrelated to the translation.) But I read it. I kept reading it. It was inexplicably riveting. And after a while, I even found myself enjoying it. Why? Because even though it wasn’t Shakespeare—or even Brown, or even correct English, half the time—it had something that kept me reading and ultimately gave me an enjoyable reading experience. So it did it matter that the book wasn’t, strictly speaking, good? No, because the book had something else, something that kept me turning the pages.

(And for the record, I loved The Da Vinci Code. I don’t make a habit of not liking things just because lots of people do, or because it’s “cool” to knock it.)

Coffee, and this was in Nice. Relevant, no?

So that was one plot hole in my Good Books theory—and then there was the reverse of that: the Great Writing, Not Selling Club. Every year we’re shocked to see how little some snooty-literary-award-nominated books have sold by the time the shortlists are revealed. I think it was 2011’s Booker that had some sales in the 800s. Yes, only eight hundred copies sold of a book experts agreed was one of the best books published by an Irish or British writer that year. (Of course they all did alright afterwards, but that’s not the point.) Recently I sat in on a talk by an editor at a major publisher of top quality literary fiction who said that the majority of her authors never earn out their (already small) advances, and that if it wasn’t for literary prize money, they’d have to shut up shop. So, good books don’t necessarily sell.

My point, 1,500 words later, is that whether or not your book is good is not what’s most important. What your book needs to have is appeal. Without appeal, your book won’t sell no matter how “good” it is. And with enough appeal, your book will sell even if you aren’t a great or even very good writer. Appeal is a terribly difficult thing to define, or at least it’s a terribly difficult thing for me to explain to you in words that make any sense. But in its most basic sense, if your book has appeal is has something that makes people want to read it. This may be useful information, an intriguing plot idea, or an author who already has a very large following for their writing elsewhere. It might just be a good product description or a snappy blurb. Or it might be something you can’t quite put your finger on, or quantify at all. But it’s the appeal that bridges the gap between someone finding out about your book, and that same someone buying it.

And before you self-publish, you have to make sure that you have it.

A well-written book does not equal appeal. It’s just not enough. That’s the bad news. The good news is that you don’t have to be the next Jonathan Franzen (thank fudge for that—I’d hate to hate Twitter) or Zadie Smith to win a readership and make a living as a writer.

Take Twilight, for example. Prior to reading it, I had zero interest in vampires. (Even now, my interest only extends as far as Eric Northman.) I never read YA, except for Harry Potter which arguably was in a genre all of its own. I only relented after hearing so much about the series, and by the time I got around to reading it all four books were already out. And I absolutely loved it. While I was reading it, it took over my life. Edward was suddenly occupying far too many of my thoughts for a fictional character. (Just as well he wasn’t technically a teenage boy.)  Then I lent it to my best friend, and it took over her life too. We both read all four books within a week just because we couldn’t stop; it was like the literary equivalent of crack cocaine. But why was it? It wasn’t particularly well-written, and it also, when you think about it, promotes the idea of giving everything up—college, your family, your life—for a guy, and doing it at the age of 18. Our previous shared read had been Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of the Hills, and we are certainly not the kind of girls up for giving up anything for anyone, least of all boys.

(As if. So, like, anyway…)

But we loved it. I’m guessing it was for the same reason that women the world over fell for the books: because they instantly transported us back to the heady days of being a teenage girl, and being a teenage girl in lurve. Life-altering, appetite-quenching, drowning in hormones love—except without the awkwardness, rejection, spots, etc. Thankfully. And that’s its appeal. It had nothing to do with vampires, and everything to do with the good bits of being a teenage girl. (It didn’t hurt, of course, that the adorable and devoted Edward Cullen was thrown in for good measure.) The way Meyer writes had very little to do with it outside of her ability to invoke memories of adolescence love; afterwards I picked up her only non-Twilight book, The Host, but only made it a third of the way through before I abandoned it. That one didn’t hold any appeal at all for me.

You might argue that if a book is written well, people will want to read it. Well, ask a literary fiction editor where their Rolls Royce and diamond shoes are for more information on that.

As I said this whole appeal thing is hard to make any clear points about (clearly!) but if I’m just confusing you, think of it this way. If you read blogs and/or are on Twitter, you are bombarded every single day with news about books. Books about to be published, books just published, books that have been out for months and books that have been out for years. Traditionally published books, self-published books, cult favorites and mega-sellers. Books, books, books. But do you run out and buy them all? Hardly. But every now and then I bet you Google the name of one of them to find out more, and a few clicks later you’re buying a copy with your credit card.

So what makes the difference? Why don’t you buy all the books? (Aside from the fact that we’re not millionaires.) Why don’t I buy all the books Oprah’s Book Club newsletter tells me about once a week? They must all be good, because Oprah says so, but it’s not just because I can’t afford it. It’s because whatever I glean from the blurb, the cover design and the information I have about the author, some of the books end up appealing to me and some of them don’t.

So what does all this mean? It means you may have a perfectly well-written book that isn’t selling, and that might be because despite your talent, no one wants to read the kind of book you’ve written. It would also explain why books that aren’t as good as yours are selling more, and why books that are brilliantly written aren’t selling at all. Your book doesn’t have widespread appeal, or at least doesn’t have any that’s on show. If it’s not on show, you have to find it. If you don’t know if it has any, find out. Pitch it to some readers and gauge their reactions. (Readers. NOT your mother, or even your friends.)  If it doesn’t, move on.

(This is all linked to something I’ve discovered about self-publishing—that, by default, nobody gives a rodent’s arse about your book—which I’ll be blogging about at a later date.)

Now of course, the aim of the game should be to self-publish a book that is both good and has appeal. That is the ideal. But I’m here to tell you that if you’ve only managed the good book part, your work is not yet done.


Does all that make sense? Or do I need to move to a stronger strength of coffee?

50 thoughts on “Why It Doesn’t Matter Whether or Not Your Book is Good

  1. maryjoburke says:

    this is an appealing post, seriously inspiring and with a great flow to it. I so agree with you, often the markets seem driven by what is fashionable, and for all writers that’s good because at the end of the day it’s what the end user wants, so never give up on the dream of being published, traditionally or the self- publish route. i’m happy to have stumbled on your blog today, thank you 🙂

  2. Joanne Michael says:

    You’re right, Da Vinci andTwilight may not be the best written (I do feel some literary novels are overwritten) books out there but they are good entertainment. So yes, don’t ever underestimate the power of entertainment.

    Okay time for tea, hope that doesn’t disappoint!

  3. Christine Murray says:

    I completely agree with the idea that a good book is not the same as a good read. Add into the equation the fact that all views are subjective, and it becomes difficult to work out whether your book is ‘good enough’.

    I’m not sure what the criteria a prospective self-publisher should use to decide whether or not to publish. Being prepared for the very real possibility of public failure may be the main one.

  4. cameronlawton says:

    Come here and let me hug you …. that has just made me a very happy old Otter. Ripping yarns still have their place in the world. Some readers aren’t in the game for wading through deathless prose and want a “story”, just that, a good tale like they got told in their childhood;

    It made perfect sense. You don’t need extra coffee, although I got through about half a gallon while reading it. Thank you. xxx

    PS – never discount the magic of being in Nice – it has an effect!

  5. E.J. Newman says:

    It makes perfect sense, and you are still my hero. Perhaps ever so slightly more so after reading this.

    Something in a similar vein that I was thinking about writing on my blog is the fact that writers who write a lot don’t read in the same way as they used to (and like the majority of the reading public) so when appeal isn’t factored into an evaluation of why a book was successful, writers can find it even harder to understand why badly written books sell well. India, I agree with you on the “good read” thing.

  6. Joanne Phillips says:

    I think you made your point really well, and it’s an important point – one I’ve been thinking about in a way for a while and you’ve just put it into words for me, so thanks 🙂

    I’ve had readers on my blog (I like the term ‘beta-readers’ for some reason) giving feedback on my novel for a while now, and I’m going to use their comments to really pick out the appealing bits of my book and then use this to write a fab blurb – because second to the cover, it’s the blurb that will give the reader what they need to decide on ‘appealability’.

    And I agree with E.J. that writers don’t get as much time to read. So much to do, so little time…

    • E.J. Newman says:

      Oooh, I wasn’t clear enough there – I didn’t mean we have less time to read (whilst there is a lot less time, I make reading a priority in leisure time as it’s so important) I more meant that we don’t read in the same way – i.e. I constantly analyse structure, voice, language etc in a way that people who only read for pleasure and don’t write books simply don’t. I don’t see a painting in the same way as a painter I suspect, for very much the same reasons.

  7. Rachel Fisher says:

    Thanks for this. It is accurate IMHO even if people don’t want to hear it. I think you should add the importance of appeal to a specific market. I recently had a woman tell me she didn’t like my book for reasons that were tough that no one else had totally said and I was so bummed bc most people find it appealing. That being said The Host is a good example of genre and appeal. I lurved (to coin a word) The Host and I know a lot of others who did as well bc it is going to be made into a trilogy of movies and many friends are excited…but that doesn’t negate the legitimacy of your reaction or any others who didn’t like The Host ( and I do know others). That fickle purchasing nature that varies so from person to person is why even publishing houses struggle to pick winners. Writing is entertainment just like music and movies and predicting what will sell is tough…

  8. Prudence MacLeod says:

    Catherine, this post is such a breath of fresh air for in it you have vindicated my own observations. As someone who views herself as a storyteller more than a “writer”, I can vouch for the appeal factor. For many years I collected rejection letters before I began to self publish. I get a lot of five star ratings, and a fair share of one star ratings as well, which just goes to prove your point.
    Now to go subscribe to your blog.

  9. barbarabrooke says:

    My dear Catherine, you definitely have “appeal.” I read the entire post and enjoyed it!

  10. johnbrassey says:

    Excellent post.

    You are absolutely right. I have read about seven SP novels recently. Some are good books and doing okay, one is bad (error strewn) and doing incredibly well. The one that is beautifully written is going nowhere.

    Strangely, both I and my wife read the “bad” book quickly. Commenting all the while how bad it was we somehow had to keep on turning the pages.

  11. Eden says:

    Thank you! While I’m still going to stay away from reading Twilight or The Da Vinci Code, I do get what you mean about having appeal. (When you live in my family and Lord of the Rings is considered a piece of hackwork, it’s enough to know that books are enjoyable just because they can be enjoyed, not because they are meant for “greater things”.

    Sometimes we just want to sit with our tea, some yummy biscuits and just escape into another version of reality. We just want to “have fun”. And you said it perfectly.

  12. foxtailstudio says:

    Yep, totally agree. I wrote a rant in 2010 about the Three Worst* Books I’d Ever Read, in response to a debate about genre vs literary fiction that was published in the Guardian. Am posting a link here, hope that’s OK but if not feel free to edit it out: http://www.foxtailstudio.net/2010/07/the-three-worst-books-i-ever-read/

    You might also find this book interesting: “The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist,” by Thomas McCormack. One of his comments is, “All the editor can do is control the damage and live with the awful devilishness of the God of Gifts – the fiendish diety who so often makes the hack a genius at spurs and accident, and the fine, persuasive portrait artist a story idiot.” Ouch!

  13. quickfamesystem says:

    Oh boy do I agree with you, and my business is getting people on TV as expert guests, and I can tell you, hardly anyone of the “big boys” ever reads the book the guest is discussing.

  14. Mike Pope says:

    I think (?) your point boils down to one thing: people love a good story, and the one thing that a book (or movie) has to have is a plot that hooks people. That’s certainly the appeal of Dan Brown’s books, and for a different audience, of the Twilight series, their various literary merits notwithstanding. That said, I think it’s actually quite hard to come up with a story that’s interesting and cohesive and that can draw people along for the length of a book.

  15. Carolyn Hayes Uber says:

    Hi Catherine, I’m a new reader of yours (and in the pub biz myself, not self-publishing but traditional or legacy, whatever those terms are supposed to mean these days). I just read your Mousetrappings tale and got quite a lot of giggles out of it. Love your style. But to the point, I applaud your gumption to tell it like it is regarding the mantra, first you have to write a good book (and if you believe the fairy tales, that’s all you’ve got to do). For a slightly different take, that backs up what you’re saying, take a look at this post from a while back by Sue Campbell (a book designer extraordinaire, whose best trait is that she’s my sis). Sue often has spot on observations about the book biz herself and this post agrees with yours with a few differences: http://www.suecampbellgraphicdesign.com/?p=1296 SELLING A MILLION BOOKS ON AMAZON. Next I’m queuing up your Self-Printing title to see what terrible things you’ve had to say about us publishers (just kidding–I need to keep up with it all!). Carolyn

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      I say nothing bad about publishers: that’s my whole point! You guys are the experts and we should be learning from, not calling you “gatekeepers”, etc. Hope you like it! 🙂

  16. Ada says:

    Thanks for writing this post. The reasoning behind this post is the reason I decided to stop dithering and start writing. I have always been an avid reader but the older I got, the more depressed I got whenever I read an exceeding good book. It would always be a voice in my head going ‘you can never write as well as that. Who’d read your books?’ And it is a a result of these thoughts that I discarded several brilliant storylines that I came up witth over the years.

    Then I read Harry Potter and was in awe of her story. All the criticism she got about not being a good writer went over the heads of her fans because her story had such an outstanding ‘appeal’ as you say. To her fans Tmyself included) her books weren’t just good, they were spectacular. But the turning point for me, the books that made me say to myself, ‘Stop your whining, sit down and start writing a story’, was the Twilight series.

    While reading these books I was sometimes appalled by the clunky writing, the phrasing I disgreed with, that I would often stop short. But I ALWAYS carried on after a few seconds. Why? Because the story to me new, and totally riveting. I just HAD to know what happened to them all! So I bought all the books and had read them within the week. And I have just fallen for the story all over again with the release of Breaking Dawn Part 1 (the movie soundtrack helped mask the bad acting a lot! Lol!)

    But after reading the books, I put them on my shelf and started thinking seriously of writing fiction. Any time I get discouraged (either after reading somebody else’s work, or hearing someone doing so well after their work was published), I look at my shelf (physically or in my mind if I’m not near it) and say to myself, ‘Do as Stephanie did. JUST TELL THE DAMN STORY’. And that keeps me going. So in that way I am very grateful to her. For bringing us Twilight and showing me it’s the story that matters.

    On the flip side, there are several works of literary fiction that I struggled to get through and ended up abandoning. Too convoluted for me to care for the point they were trying to get to. So I definitely appreciate this post ( hensce the over-long comment! Sorry!). Keep doing what you are doing.


  17. Matthew says:

    So, if I’ve read correctly, you’re saying that authors shouldn’t worry about quality and instead worry about mass appeal in order to make the most amount of money? Sounds totally acceptable at face value, but there’s something disconcerting below the surface.

    If the primary goal of an author is to sell the maximum amount of copies, then surely this is the best advice. That is to say that authors should become marketing experts in order to understand what mass appeal is in order to bend their work around what they think the market wants.

    The most disturbing aspect of this line of thinking is that the author is positioned as producer of commodity rather than artist or producer of art. Creating art should be about something more than gross accumulation of wealth, n’est ce pas?

    Perhaps the reason why many people stay away from self-published works is because they are clearly motivated by sheer capitalism. Personally, I stay away from self-published works because the writing is never more than amateurish.

    Perhaps a stronger argument in this blogpost would have dispensed with the Lost and Jurassic Park references and focused more on logic and coherence.

      • Matthew says:

        Apologies if you took my comments as insulting. They weren’t meant to, but tone doesn’t come across in text, as many studies have shown.

        It’s not that I disagree with your specific point; it’s that I take issue with the pure capitalistic discourse that amateur authors enter into. I hope you’ll clarify your points regarding the commodification of the product over any attempts at self-improvement.

        • Matthew says:

          I might add that there are more complex things at work within literature than simply “technical proficiency” and “mass appeal”. By technical proficiency, we can take it to mean effective clear prose, well drawn characters, efficient plotting, etc. By mass appeal, we can take it to mean that which appeals to the maximum amount of readers.

          The more complex things at work include marketing, as is implied by this post, but also an inherent knowledge of how storytelling works, something impossible to define but easy to point to. Regardless of Brown’s inability to use proper syntax, his understanding of basic plotting is virtually unmatched by the endless army of clones marching in his wake. Similarly, Rowling’s juggling of characters is beyond reproach, and rivals even Dickens in effectiveness. Both of these effects, in either Rowling or Brown, are fairly subtle, and the average reader wouldn’t even be aware of how well both authors manage to accomplish their respective tricks.

          Supposed “literary” fiction, while not selling countless copies as Brown’s or Rowling’s fiction, manages to last a bit longer than potboilers or pulp fiction. Compare, if you will, pulp fiction of the 20s, ie Black Mask magazine graduates such as Hammett or Chandler. Both of which are regarded as experts in their field. They are only two out of thousands of authors who sold well in their time, but have since fallen out of memory. Both Chandler and Hammett are famous for their efficiency, stylistic innovation, and complexity (not just plot, but thematic). Again, this is more than mass appeal and more than technical proficiency. It’s a fundamental understanding of storytelling that many (even famous) authors are missing.

          Instead of focusing on technical expertise (literary fiction) or mass appeal (airport fiction), perhaps amateurs should be looking to the basic building blocks of fiction and how to work with them. Whenever I read something written by a nonprofessional, I’m often amazed at how they violate basic rules of storytelling without irony, ie coherence or Chekhov’s gun.

          Ultimately, in the long run, it does matter whether or not the fiction is good, and that doesn’t preclude technical proficiency or mass appeal – as if they were mutually exclusive, which they are most assuredly not. In the short run, if the author is merely interested in gross accumulation of wealth and/or fame, then mass appeal is the best bet.

          For me, any work that seems to aggressively market to the mass appeal turns me off. I can smell the desperation from the cover (ie any clone of Brown or Rowling).

        • catherineryanhoward says:

          My point in this post is very simple, although I may have had difficulty expressing it. It’s this: not every “good” (good meaning technically proficient) book is going to sell, and by sell I mean appeal to readers outside of your social group. This is (one of) the reasons why many authors, be they traditionally published or self-published, find their writing talent praised but their works largely unread. It’s because being a good writer is not enough. If you want a large or significant readership to give your work a chance, then you must appeal to them. You must create something that makes them think, “I must read that. It sounds really interesting.” As another writer pointed out to me, this almost always boils down to storytelling, i.e. the ability to tell a great story.

          What insults me (aside from your self-published work=always amateurish comment when you are clearly on the blog of a self-publisher) is your continued reference to amateur versus professional authors. A professional is someone who gets paid to do what they do. But you evidently don’t want writers to make money from their work…? So I’m confused. Personally, I want to make a living from my writing because writing is what I love to do, and I’d rather not spend eight hours of every weekday doing something else. I’m not writing *for* money; the money I earn from some of my writing enables me to write more.

          Finally Matthew, you are free to disagree with me. Of course you are. But this is my blog. I pay for it, and I spend a great deal of my time writing posts, etc. for which I receive no compensation. You might want to keep this in mind when, out of nowhere, you show up on my blog and in your first ever comment, insult this blogger and what she does—for a living, I might add, as I am a full-time writer. Discussion is encouraged, but so is respect.

          • Matthew says:

            I suppose if I’ve given the impression that I think authors shouldn’t make a living off writing, then I should clarify slightly. There needs to be middle ground between art for art’s sake and art for monetary gain. That’s not to say that good art come spring forth from commercial art (both Hammett and Chandler are examples of this) but that in general, art for purely commercial reasons tends to be qualitatively inferior.

            Again, I don’t mean to insult. Making a living from being an author is a grand and worthwhile pursuit. What probably isn’t a worthwhile pursuit is the dogmatic adherence to “accumulate wealth while compromising one’s self,” whether the method of accumulation is through writing or teaching or other parts of the humanities.

            “You must appeal to them” is paradigmatic of the issue that I’m having with this particular advice. Compromising one’s artistic integrity for purely economic reasons is the lesson I’m taking from this post. “You must appeal to them” is an enjoinder to change something about your art in order to achieve economic success.

            Let’s be crass for a moment. “Good storytelling” + “mass appeal” isn’t the only road to success, but it is the road to success for those who are only interested in purely economic success as opposed to a combination of economic and ARTISTIC success.

            In an ideal world, all authors would hope to write “great” literature that simultaneously appeals to the greatest amount of readers. Unfortunately we live in a particularly crowded market where authors must have gimmicks in order to sell their products, as opposed to say something meaningful with their art.

            There’s nothing MORALLY wrong with wanting to be successful. There’s just something off-putting when the motives are so clearly on the surface.

            The current zeitgeist favours anti-intellectualism (as evidenced by the sheer celebration of non-celebrities such as the Fifty Shades of Grey author). Thus, we reward the most middle brow of all things. To be middle brow is to have the maximum amount of appeal.

            If I might return to the issue of logic for a moment, I might add that your argument is circular. To be successful you must have appeal – what appeals is successful. I suppose that the issue is something you’ve actually admitted, that you are unable to perfectly articulate this.

            As per you owning and paying for you blog, you say you are not compensated, but this is disingenuous. The blog itself serves to advertise your products, which I admittedly have not read.

            • catherineryanhoward says:

              The mistake you’re making here is in thinking that I’m talking about mass appeal, or sitting down to write a book based on what you think people might want to read. I’m not. I’m talking about convincing people to care about it after it’s written. Two books I self-published fell at the final hurdle with editors for not fitting into any particular genre, and for therefore not having a proven market. They were oddities. But I’ve managed to make a success of them by finding their point of appeal and highlighting it. That is what this post is about.

  18. Melissa Garrett says:

    I’m sorry, but I couldn’t disagree with you more. This seems like you’re basically saying that books fall into two categories: the literary, or ‘well-written’, and the ‘popular’, or not-so-well written. And that means that it doesn’t matter if your book is good or not because either kind has as good (or bad) a chance of selling.

    But the thing is, there’s a third category, and that is those that manage to be both well-written AND appealing. The books that aren’t good but have ‘something’ may or may not sell; the books that aren’t mainstream but beautifully accomplished may or may not sell. But those that are BOTH are absolutely gauranteed to sell. If you look at the enduring works that are popular decade after decade, more often than not it’s because they have this double quality – things like The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Vampire Chronicles, The Wind in the Willows, anything by Stephen King or Charles Dickens or Joanne Harris.

    As a writer myself, I kind of think that’s the point; half of being a good writer is knowing the technical aspects, the language, the poetry, and the other half is knowing what people will want to read. Our job, as writers, should be to produce a balance of the two. And if we do, then what we’ll have is something truly special, and twice as much chance of a success than if we write for only one camp or the other. So yes, it DOES matter if your book is good – if, that is, you take ‘good’ to mean a perfect balance of the two.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Your point is my point I think, as in you need to aim for that third category: good AND appealing. I was highlighting Twilight etc to demonstrate what appeal is, but the point of this post is to say that even if you’ve written a “good book” and you’re a talented writer, it doesn’t mean that your book will sell (which, if you want to do what you love as much as possible, you need your work to do) because it may not appeal. The ideal is a technically great book that, when we read the blurb or hear what it’s about, makes us think “I MUST read that!” As I said at the very end of the post, if you only have one of those things, you’re only half way there.

      • Melissa Garrett says:

        Ah, I see, I took it that you were using ‘good’ to label literary writers – I tend to think of ‘good’ as this third kind!

        I think the other thing that will (or should) make a difference is the distinction between ‘bad’ – as in, not particularly expert – and ‘bad’ as in lazy. I can read a book whose story I enjoy but whose technical aspects are wonky if I feel they’ve genuinely done their best, but if it’s bad because they are either writing purely for money or simply don’t care enough about the story to give it the care it deserves, then that’s an automatic turnoff. In a way it matters far more, to me, if the author has respect for their own work than whether it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’. But I suspect that’s a given and I won’t get any arguments there!

        • catherineryanhoward says:

          I think that’s a good point. Sometimes bad is just lazy, and it’s obvious the “writer” is just painting by numbers, so to speak, in the hope that they get lucky. I think these tend to be the same people who rubbish mega-selling authors and label their books with things like “for fans of Dan Brown—but this is way better!” ;-D

  19. KC Herbel says:

    I suppose you could call this X-factor, “book charisma”. I’ve know a few people who weren’t much to look at. One or two who weren’t even that inteligent. But for some reason they grabbed people’s attention. They had charisma. A few actors also come to mind. Adolf Hitler (sorry about that) is a prime example.

  20. Meg Overman says:

    Excellent point. As I said about 50 Shades of Grey recently, “I didn’t say it was a good book. I said I couldn’t stop reading it.” I actually moaned about the bad writing for days before I finally shut up and accepted that regardless of how many times she uses the same word in the same paragraph, or how many cringe-worthy utterances there are, I was still a slave to the “next page” button on my Kindle.

    I think what it boils down to is that APPEAL is what makes your story worth reading. Good writing makes it a delight to read. Both are important, but where only one is present…appeal likely comes out on top. (And I -don’t- mean so an author can make a hot living. I mean so I don’t yawn and walk away from a book.)

  21. T.K. Marnell. says:

    Goodness, I’m late to the party. I’m going through your “most popular” self-publishing posts now, and I just wanted to say that I wish had seen this one a year ago before I published my first novel. Of course, I wouldn’t have believed you–I’m sure every unpublished writer is 100% certain that her work is brilliant and all 7 billion people on the planet will agree. But after going at this for a while (not so successfully, unfortunately), I’m now forced to acknowledge that the unicorns won’t just gallop to my picnic because I set out decent cupcakes. If only I could find that magical recipe for “appeal” to sprinkle on top.

  22. Tammy J Rizzo says:

    Reblogged this on Tammy J Rizzo and commented:
    For all of us who wonder how in the world E. L. James got the sales she did for her 50 Shades books, here’s the answer, straight from Catherine, Caffeinated.

  23. Gisela Hausmann says:

    Hi Catherine,

    Indeed I think that all of us who self publish, do that so we can share our thoughts with readers. Otherwise, we might as well write a diary.

    I agree with everything you, Catherine, write but I think one point, which you briefly touched needs to be stressed more. While obviously you and others commenting here read indie authors’ books, the majority of indie authors appears so selfish and so focused on their book alone that they help to down the cause. (reading messages with certain hashtags on twitter for ½ hrs will make that very obvious)
    These authors only blast messages about their own book, call themselves experts in self-publishing and marketing, and that’s it. Do they really know how it works? I doubt it otherwise they’d be sitting and writing novel instead of blasting twitter messages. Networking between authors? Very little- from my point of view.

    But there is an additional problem, which I discovered only yesterday. Obviously certain “marketing gurus” have moved on from [unpaid] email marketing to marketing via a cheap [but nonetheless paid] Kindle books. For details please see my book review of “How to Write Great Blog Posts that Engage Readers” at Amazon. Undoubtedly, even more will follow, which will turn individual indie authors’ book from the proverbial needle in the haystack into the tip of a needle in the haystack.

    Absolutely the only way how I see indie authors prevailing is by sticking together, which includes also reading each others’ work and helping to promote it via reviews and other means.

    In the good old days there were only books published by more or less known publishers and very occasionally a “rebel” author’s self-published novel.
    These days, it is big publishers’, small publishers’, indie publishers’ books AND all kinds of publications, which aren’t even books but marketing brochures.

    Looking forward to hearing this interesting groups’ response. Thank you

  24. normapadro says:

    I like your post very much. I was told the same thing too. I learned that not all readers are the same. Many like my writings. I didn’t think they would. When I began to write I thought I’m going to do this for a hobby and just leave it as it is. I wasn’t sure what reaction I was going to get. The truth is that people read what they want to read. The truth is that no one knows what type of story is in a book unless you read it. A cover won’t tell the whole story. The story is in the book. I have never thought that all best selling books are the best out there. I have always thought selling a lot of books should be about the story. I don’t care about selling if it’s not going to have a story inside. I want to share a story and this is what I will do in my books. If they sell then I’m very grateful.

  25. Andrew Michael Schwarz says:

    I hate how right this is. Now I’m going to go throw up because I feel sick that I may not have written anything with appeal ever. I call it the zeitgeist. But I think appeal is a better, more apt term. Really, I am scared that I have been writing no-appeal books for 5 years. Oh God. But i won’t know until I put them all up on Amazon, which might take longer than a week.

    How do you capture this etheral quality? And does this mean, we should go to the “one draft” solution of churning out manuscripts and to hell with the endless polishing, editing and rewrites, because after all, who cares? This “appeal theory” really does explain it all though. It explains Twilight and Hunger Games. But really, I am afraid right now. I spent alot of my life on all those books I wrote.

  26. Russ Viola says:

    Good, if somewhat long, read. It all makes sense, and I agree with your points. I’m wondering though, I’ve always read that writers should not ‘chase trends’. Traditional publishing is just too slow to capitalize on a trend quickly enough, but in self publishing IF you can write a quality piece quickly enough that is trending subject matter I assume you’d have that ‘appeal’.

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