That seems to be the question everyone thinks they have the answer to. The truth, however, is that there is no one “correct” definition. A good book truly is in the eye of the beholder. Just as there is no one correct way to write (the process of writing), there is no one correct definition for what a good book happens to be. Most of us understand that. Unfortunately, there are those (representing multiple sides of the spectrum) who believe they have the one true answer. The trouble with this is it leaves readers out of the equation and that is something we, as writers, cannot do.
Let me start by saying this is not going to turn into a debate about the Hugos. As far as I’m concerned, that is a moot point. Even though the Hugos are supposed to be a fan award, it has been made clear by some that they don’t want the every day fan included. They are trying their best to exclude anyone whose work — and maybe whose vote — doesn’t meet some arbitrary criteria of “good”. The fact there was even a proposal before the business meeting to allow the Hugo Committee to add nominees to the list if they felt there weren’t enough quality nominations proves that. Such an act smacks of telling fans they aren’t good enough or sophisticated enough to know what a good book is. My only question to the Hugo Committee and those who have continued to try to keep voters away from the process is why they don’t just amend the rules and make the Hugo a juried award? That way they can do whatever they want with the award without having to deal with the unwashed masses of readers who still foolishly think their opinion might matter.
Okay, I had to go there. Sorry. But that is all I’m going to say about the Hugos.
So what does make a good book? As I said in the first paragraph, there is no absolutely correct answer. Some readers want character driven stories. Others want plot driven. Some want literary works while others want pulp. Some want lots of sex and others want no sex, no matter what the genre. Once, all these diverse likes and dislikes meant all an author could do was trust his agent and publisher to accurately predict what the reading public would buy.
But now, with indie going strong (despite what a certain person who has received a government grant to write a book and has yet to do so), we aren’t as limited as we once were. We can write what we believe is a good book and leave it to the public to let us know if they liked it or not. What a lot of us are finding is that the books we couldn’t get past the front door of an agency now sell quite well as an indie publication. We can write the stories we want to and, as long as we pay attention to our reviews and what our fans say on social media and via email, we can build a career. Yes, there are benefits to traditional publishing but those benefits are lessening with the passage of time.
So, what is a good book?
It is a book that readers want to read. As a writer, it means knowing your target audience and hitting the cues they want. It means hooking the reader quickly and keeping them interested. It means giving them a story they want to talk about to their friends and family. It means entertaining and if you happen to educate a little along the way, more power to you.
What it doesn’t mean is preaching to your audience to the point they lose interest in the story. A skilled storyteller is a craftsman who can intertwine story and character and lesson all in one without beating the reader over the head with the message. I don’t know about you, but I will think about the message a lot more if it is subtle than I will if it is in my face.
I’ve done a great deal of reading the last few weeks. Between being ill and having to deal with repairmen, etc., around the house, I’ve not had the quiet I needed to write. So I read. I read traditionally published books and indie books. What I discovered was I enjoyed more indie books than I did the traditionally published books. Why? I could feel the passion of the indie writers in their work, a passion I did not feel in the traditionally published books. It was as if the indie authors liked what they were writing where the traditionally published authors — and these were best sellers in multiple genres — were just going through the motions. The best sellers had found a formula that worked to make them best sellers and they weren’t about to step away from the formula while the indies weren’t afraid to take chances and try new things.
Something else that struck me as I read was the lie we see so often that indie published books have more errors and need more editing than traditionally published books. I went back last night and looked at several examples of both just to make sure my memory wasn’t playing tricks on me. The proofreading errors between the two sets was just about even. So no, indie books did not seem to need more proofing than traditionally published books.
Something that did strike me was something I had noticed much earlier. More traditionally published books had many more formatting errors than the indie published books did. Weird paragraph breaks. No paragraph indents. Blank screens. Lack of spacing between the chapter title and the first line of text. I saw many more of those sorts of errors with traditionally published e-books than I did with indie books. Why? My only guess is that the trads don’t use the proper programs to convert to digital and then they don’t do quality checks.
And, while formatting isn’t exactly what most of us think about when we think about what makes up a good book, for an e-book reader, it is something writers and publishers should always keep in mind. If the e-book doesn’t look like a printed book, we register it. If we see an e-book where a publisher or author hasn’t taken time to make sure it “looks” right, we wonder why. That is especially true in the case of traditionally published e-books that cost as much, if not more, than their print equivalents.
So, what makes a good book in my opinion? One that keeps my attention. Fiction needs to entertain me and make me want to flip the page. I like learning something when I read but I don’t want to be preached to. Be subtle when you weave the message in. Make your characters believable. Don’t break your characters or change their personalities without having a darned good reason for it and be sure to foreshadow it. Don’t throw something in just because you think you have to — no matter what that something is. If you think it needs to be there, make sure the plot or character development require it.
There are times I want to read something that is literary. I want to see a world painted with words. There are other times I want to fly to the furthest reaches of the universe. Thrill me. Scare me. Give me warm fuzzies. Fiction for me, like it is for most readers, entertainment. Never forget that. As I said early on, remember your target audience and remember what they expect from the genre. Push the boundaries, yes, but not to the point you break them without explanation.
So, what makes a good book for you?