Every once in a while, quietly, an author wonders why some other book, some book that is not nearly as good as their book, is doing so much better than their book is doing. Why do readers pore over the pages of that book, the author wonders. Why are there so many fans on facebook, why do readers line up thousands-strong for book signings or – envy of envies – movies?
This is normal, this desire to measure ourselves against our peers. Humans do this constantly. It may not always be healthy, but it’s certainly normal. Healthy, well-rounded adults experience these feelings from time to time. And it may really trouble them. All normal, all within the bounds of healthy behavior.
What is not normal or productive is when these musings spill out into the public sphere as fully-formed thoughts, as musings we have turned back on everyone else. Readers only like crap these days. Or: Everyone’s looking for an easy read. Or: No one gets my book. Or: Publishers aren’t willing to take a risk. You want more? I have more. I’ve heard a lot. Heck, I’ve thought some of it.
And you know where this leads? It leads to one of the single most unproductive discussions that any set of artists has ever had about the state of art in the world, namely: why are such awful works getting all the attention?
On the face of it, it makes sense. Author A has only one work, and that work is riddled with typos and poor characterization, and Author A is now a millionaire and you are working at Starbucks even though you have a book that is properly-formatted, (almost entirely) typo-free, with a stunning plot and characterization, just the right amount of quirk. All in all, your work is a masterpiece. You think it makes sense to ask if perhaps you should turn out typo-ridden crap so that you can at least have a shot at proving that money can’t buy happiness.
Here’s where I must ask you, and ask you honestly, three questions:
- Where, exactly, does this bitter wondering get you?
- Can you think of any better, surer way to get success as an author than to keep producing really good books?
- Why do we entertain the notion that readers don’t have a grasp on what makes a good book?
On point the first, I will say only this: spending time wondering why a “bad” book is doing better than yours is about as productive as spending your workout time not working out, but instead wondering how Jim seems to subsist on french fries and still maintain his svelte figure. That is to say, it is not as productive at all. Go write a good book. Or write a book of typo-riddled crap. Pick one, be honest with yourself about your goals, and shoot for the moon.
On the second point, throw everything you want at me about clever marketing and million-dollar advertising budgets, I have yet to see a single more effective and successful path to success than continuing to show up with good books for people to read. Provide me statistics that contradict this and I will (a) believe you; and (b) be really goddamned impressed.
Lastly, there is this thought, which is (again) very natural to have within the confines of one’s skull, which is that no one “gets” your work. Someone called your book “a good read” and you wanted it to tear them open emotionally. This has happened to me. And I love you all, and I feel your pain, but please listen to me when I say this: your readers are not wrong. Think, think, of the books you have loved and raved about to your family and friends, only to have them say, “eh.” Think of all the books they have told you will turn your world inside out, only for you to think, “eh.” Think of it! You will get readers who have read your genre inside and out, you will get readers who have never cracked open a book of its type before. Every single one of them will see the book a little bit differently, and they. Are. Not. Wrong.* Your book was not finished the moment you wrote it – it is finished when someone reads it and thinks about it, and I am sorry to say that at least some people will hate it. This is unavoidable. It is also natural and even healthy to feel crushed when someone reads your work and doesn’t like it (although I recommend finding some way not to be crushed, because that gets exhausting). What is wrong is to take this (very natural) thought and, instead of dismissing it, actually say out loud that your readers don’t know what they’re talking about.
What I’m getting around to is this: make your books the best they can be. No book can please everyone, but every book has the potential to be its best self. It’s really useless to sit around wondering why other authors have so many more sales than you do, when you could be editing your manuscript or writing a new one. Solicit feedback. Take feedback. Edit ruthlessly and often. Listen to your readers and write better books in the future. Write because the stories are all bottled up inside you and you can’t stand another minute with them not on paper. Write because you love to write, and edit because you want your readers to have just as moving an experience as you did, and the truth is that the words don’t always come out right the first time.
Also, it’s no fun being cynical all the time. I was a teenager once, I’ve tried that.
* Please note that there is a way for readers to be wrong, which is to review the wrong book, a la, “this book is about the life and death of the Mongolian water beetle” when it is in fact a cozy murder mystery. This sort of wrong is extremely rare. Also, please note that, “this book is crap” does not constitute slander. An example of slander is, “this author punts baby hamsters in her spare time and is an illegal arms dealer.”