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.’
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.