One man’s ‘good’ is another man’s ‘bad’.

Insecurity seems to come with being writer, or at least with being a writer whose work I am likely to enjoy. I had a dose of it the other day from a very good friend, who really is what I consider a ‘good’ writer. ‘If I was any good my sales should reflect it.’ ‘I should have managed a breakout novel by now.’

Um. No.

Let’s start by making sure we’re all talking about the same value of ‘good’ – which is a tough one, in itself.

What IS ‘Good’? What is ‘Best’?

The possible answers seem to be: 1) It’s good because I’m the authority here, and I told you it is good, you uneducated boor. 2) It depends what you’re measuring (and how) 3)It depends on the individual opinion.

Heh. As anyone who knows me, I don’t take easily to authority. Respect has to be earned – and maintained. I honestly can’t think of single person or group (and there are more of them than there are ticks around a buffalo’s butt-hole, and they’re as appealing and useful) who has told me what I should consider ‘good’ or ‘best’ whose opinion was worth a second of my time – except to tell me whose books to avoid.  Your mileage may of course vary.

A good starting point is to assess the ‘authority’ – often appealed to by those who have little else.  Not unsurprisingly a good many are authorities only in their own eyes, self-selected, elected and purely reliant on their own bombast. Is that what you want to rely on?

Then of course there are the ‘academic authority’. Uh huh. Now admittedly I come from an academic background where freshmen knew everything by the end of first year, and it was only by the end of Post-Doc that the abysmal depth of your ignorance and lack of expertise was fully clear to you. But perhaps we can say they might, possibly, know what their fellow academics consider ‘good’. Is this who you want to have decide for you? I suggest you look at the books academia considers ‘good’ and see how that stacks up to your own tastes. I know it doesn’t shape too well with me, most of the time. Your mileage may vary.

However you can statistically test their measures of ‘good’. As there is no real reason why (if you do the selection on a home language basis) the ‘good’ or ‘best’ won’t be more or less proportional to whatever proportion of home language reading population is, you can test against that.  So: if the ‘authority’ has most of its ‘good’ or ‘best’ choice come from any one section of population – it’s a heap of crap. And this holds true whether that section is 7th day Adventists, or Atheists, or a specific social or political section, or their skin color or sex or orientation.  If 75% are male or female. If the heterosexual percentage is unrealistically high – or the other orientations are, or the politics of the authors are all from one faction – it’s their bias, not an assessment of quality.  When you start looking at what modern books academia considers worthy of study and therefore ‘good’ – they fail this test every time.

So – on every one I have ever looked at – do the self-declared ‘authorities’.

They reflect their own biases and tastes, and sometimes offer a few rationalizations for that. But unless they pass the statistical test: they are no more worthy of taking as ‘guides’ of goodness than any one else is.

So: (2) what are we actually measuring, and how? What is ‘good’? Does it mean popular? Does it mean enduring? Let’s leave the academic definitions of ‘good’ along with other relative measures like valuable and educational where they belong, until they can show they don’t just reflect their own biases. Let’s talk about things we can measure, or try to. ‘Popular’ could be a reflection of votes, or sales. Or even ranking. If sales tally closely to votes then surely that’s not a bad measure of ‘popular – and that at least means a lot of people thought it good…

Or does it? Well, it should. But of course that rests on a couple of assumptions, which are clearly wrong. a) That all books have an equal go at selling well.  b) That ‘sales’ actually mean sales.

On (a) which is one of the biggest problems writers face – someone like John Scalzi (whose self-promotion skills are truly good) who has the largest traditional publisher investing hugely in promotion, prizes, marketing, and in actual physical distribution, and also has ‘authority’ figures onboard, (because to all appearances, their biases match) claims his books are good – far better than Fred Neverheardofhim, who has no self-promotion skills (which are no reflection on how good a story you can tell), no marketing, and very limited distribution – because Scalzi has more sales.

Really? That’s no measure of ‘good’. If you were going to compare the two, apples-with-apples, as to how much readers enjoy them, you’d have to correct for the other factors. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever worked out what that correction for book-sales is – which is strange, because it leaves acquisition editors to do this on guess, and their tastes – which, it appears, are a poor reflection of the tastes of the general reading public.

It would take money, time and research to do this properly and accurately. A good starting point for brick and mortar anyway would be to deal with the issue of laydown and sell-through (laydown – how widely available the book is, and sell-through – what percentage are not returned for credit.) The lower the laydown the less an author CAN sell, and the higher the sell-through the more popular the author was when it was available. So if John Bigname sells 55 000 books and Fred Neverheardofhim 850 books – but John had 100 000 laydown and Fred 1000… is Fred’s writing actually less ‘good’ than John’s? That’s without adding the effect of publicity or the re-order policy that each of them is likely to have (John will get re-order on sale, Fred, re-order on demand, hence his sell-through is much higher)

Publicity and marketing needs availability – but online shopping has helped that.  Still, to consider someone’s writing less good because their publicity and marketing is worse – possibly by orders of magnitude, given the way publishing works, makes no sense either.

Sales do to some extent reflect word-of-mouth commendations – how many people a gets recommended to on average by each reader. This is particularly relevant to e-books where availability is not limiting. That number could be anything from zero to many. Based on the decline in sales in popular series – for ‘popular’, we know that’s actually usually around 0.9. This means sales normally, for popular, follow a downward trend. If a book manages over 1… it’s e-sales grow (at least until everyone who is likely to read it, has. Recommending to friends who have read the book already does little good) – so given an absence of publicity and promotion (self or otherwise), a book or author whose work sells on an increasing trend is probably outstandingly popular.

But in a ‘my sales are bigger than yours’ sense – ‘better’ (as in more popular) is only really worth mentioning if the better seller is from an equal or worse laydown, and equal or worse publicity or equal or worse re-order status.  It’s not really a tool determining ‘good’ without correcting for all the other factors.

(b) Is particularly true of large publishers or wealthy individuals who buy rankings (and may in fact buy books to cook these) and politicians who use ‘book sales’ to launder campaign money back to themselves. The books are given as ‘gifts’ to donors or supporters – and the ‘author’ (of the ghost-written book) gets a payday.

Enduring sales on the other hand is probably some measure of ‘good’ – but once again that depends on initial penetration. I know some of my books live on the re-read shelf of some fans… and they constantly recommend and would buy copies to replace them if they wore them out or lent them out and didn’t get them back  – but those are few to start with. Books like Dune or LotR have endured well. Other writers… vanish pretty quickly, once the push stops. If you had impressive sales, and 10 years later, no-one knows what you wrote… maybe you won a Yugo, but you probably aren’t ‘good’ in the enduring sense.

So we come at length to 3) ‘Good’ is a question of individual taste. Popular is if lots of people share that taste and encounter the book.  There are damn few of us who can honestly be dispassionate enough to say ‘I don’t like it, but it’s a good book’. There are people who think Kameron Hurley a ‘good author’. There are people who think John Norman a ‘good author’.  I suppose you could say it comes down to numbers, if you’re going to be democratic about it. But I must admit just because even if a lot of people liked one of those, they’re not to my taste. To me a good book is one I enjoy, and can recommend to friends. The best books are ones I return to.

Stop worrying about it. Write the best book you can.

Which is easy advice to give, and hard to follow.

Talking of books, this one of mine comes out tomorrow. The picture is a link.


  1. There are Books that I enjoy reading, there are Books that I didn’t enjoy reading and there are Books that I wonder “why would anybody want to read that thing”. 😈

    Of course, I’m also a firm believer in YMMV regarding reading enjoyment. IE Your Mileage May Vary. I dislike individuals who tell others that “Nobody Should Dislike This Book” and/or “Nobody Should Like This Book”. Even with my third category above, I’m aware that it’s a matter of taste.

    Oh, as the unofficial snippeter of Baen Books, I’ll say that “All The Plagues Of Hell” is a Good Read and I hope everybody enjoys it as well. 😀

  2. Nobody knows why a book sells, or why some take time to find their audience, and others make money off long lists of books instead of any single book. It is all about planting seeds, except the picture on the front is not reliable info.

    But every art is like that. The singer does a lot of work on song choice and presentation, practice and technique. But what comes out of a biological instrument is not entirely under the singer’s control, and the audience has free will and individual concerns. So there is a lot of potential to hit a brick wall, even if one is very good, and even if the audience loves it every other time. But the good news is that there is always a lot of unearned good luck and audience enjoyment, so it evens out.

    I am pretty sure that Agatha Christie did not write “And Then There Were None” with the intention of providing the world with a Bollywood movie like Gunaam (1965) that includes classic Bollywood pop and a great musical number, some of which ended you on my computer without ever knowing the Christie connection. Stuff happens like that, when you plant a seed. When? Why? Not under the writer’s control.

    What can you control?

    Forensic Files had a DA on an episode. The local police had done some really huge amounts of routine asking questions at local businesses, and had eventually found crucial surveillance video and receipts, well off the beaten path. And the DA commented, “It’s amazing, the luck that the hard workers have.”

    If you keep writing, you have a lot more chance for good luck.

      1. For a moment I thought it read “Gundam”, which would have taken it in a very different direction.

        1. All of you committed war crimes in your Gundams, and now you are stuck on a death planet with no escape, murdered one by one. Oh, and forced to wear masks that look like Char’s.

  3. Ah yes, grad school. I had no idea how little I knew until the semester I spent studying for my Comprehensive Exams. The ABDs were correct when they warned, ‘Comps are when you plumb the depths of your ignorance and discover that there is no bottom.” Ignorance was bliss until it had to be remedied in eight weeks.

  4. I have to admit to liking stories where the protagonists (or protagonist if there’s only one) have a mission, usually for the betterment of most people, not just those in power, and they run with it, while telling those variously in power trying to either control them, or stop them, to stuff it; and they have, or acquire, the ability to actually ignore or counter the efforts of those in power while they do so.

    Book sales seem to have become more complicated with the various indie other publication routes. Do people who come across a book that’s re-readable on their first read via Kindle Unlimited re-download later via KU, or do they buy the electronic version, or do they purchase a dead tree version (pb or hc?)

    For me, Tolkien’s LOTR+Hobbit+Silm. are hardcovers. Ditto the Bible. Ditto Moorcock’s Elric series, Weber’s Honor series (although not the entire Honorverse), Dune, the Amberverse, various Heinlein stories. Paperbacks are for re-readable, but not necessarily something I want to bequeath to my heirs. I’m still not happy with storage of electronic book purchases due to the versioning and formatting issues and that any reading program can be instantly obsolete by a company going belly up.

  5. “What is ‘Best’?”

    Um, to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, hear the lamentation of their women, and post the video on YouTube?

  6. Reread Dog and Dragon the other day, and I think it was what I needed for some problems I was having.

  7. Speaking as a reviewer, I’ll just say that it’s quite a challenge just to figure out what “good” means to you personally–never mind what it means in a universal sense. When I finish reading a story, I always know whether I liked it enough to recommend it (or hated it enough to recommend against it), but it took me a while to work out how to articulate my reasons.

    Listening to feedback from readers (and looking at what other reviewers have to say) I realized that different people value different things in a story. For me, writing quality is a sine qua non. A badly written story gets 1 star (out of 5) no matter what other qualities it might have. But for some readers, if the story has a really cool idea, then they’ll overlook bad writing. To recommend a story, I want either strong characters or a compelling plot, and to give one five stars, I want both. But some readers value a cool setting more than either of those. Other readers will automatically recommend anything that makes them cry. (If it makes me cry tears of joy, I feel that way too, but it usually takes a clever plot and strong characters to get that effect.)

    Stories that get lots of praise from different reviewers tend to be very strong across the board. Lots of work went into those stories.

    To get high scores from reviewers, you do have to put a lot of work into a story. If you want to maximize your revenue, though, that’s probably way past the point of diminishing returns. If you want awards, you’ve got to polish and polish and polish. If you want the most money, you need to stop polishing as soon as possible and start the next story.

    1. On Goodreads, the low scores are usually more detailed reviews than the high scores, and if you’re having trouble articulating what bothered you about a story, that can help clarify.

      For me, the best writing follows through on expectations. I read a book this year that was promising a “pull from behind” success, but instead ended with a “rocks fall, everybody dies” scenario. It didn’t fulfill the style it was promising, so I didn’t even care that the protagonists survived. I’d rather have had them win. Real pity, because that writer was doing a good job until she set up a situation she couldn’t get out of.

  8. I think there’s “want to win an award” and then there’s “good enough.”

    My shelves are filled with “good enough,” they’re the books I read when I wanted a story, and they were sufficient to fill the need. I read it, I was happy reading it, good enough.

    Best ever? I don’t even think like that, to tell the truth. There is no best ever, that’s a moving target. It isn’t really a competition. So the guys who are writing to win an award, they’re probably not on my shelves.

    “Bad”, that one is easier to quantify. If I was too bored to finish, or I found something disgusting and stopped reading because EW!, then that’s bad. If I read and got really angry and/or depressed, that’s also bad.

    Strong negative emotions, I’m not a fan. That makes a whole realm of morose, post-apocalyptic, mean-people-doing-mean-things literature “bad” as far as I’m concerned.

    That’s why I use the big awards and Authoritative Recommendations from Big Important People as a do-not-read warning. “Quality” isn’t a thing I look for. Am I going to be happy and interested, that’s what I’m after.

  9. Good is basically undefinable in the current environment.What ‘we’ perceive as good may well be perceived as bad by others. Perfection is a noble, if unreachable, and maybe unreadable goal, and as we used to say, “It’s time to shoot the engineers and get on with testing.” In the book world, when it meets YOUR good enough criteria, it’s time to publish and damn the critics. Looking forward to reading it!

  10. I recall Florence King responding to a critic “You don’t know how to write a review. I do.” And then proceeding to critique his effort as only a Southern woman can. I don’t think she ever used the phrase “bless his heart”, but it was very strongly implied.

    Unfortunately, “the internet is forever” doesn’t seem to apply to good things.

  11. The word “good” has many meanings. For example, if a man were to shoot his grandmother at a range of five hundred yards, I should call him a good shot, but not necessarily a good man.

    ― G. K. Chesterton

  12. Hard work produces stories and books.

    But frankly, people are just as likely to produce something classic at breakneck speed and with little editing as with care and years. Maybe slightly more likely. It isn’t fair, but that’s the magic part.

    Of course, it probably does take hard work and study to become the kind of person who has unfair luck.

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