Saturday, 14 March 2009


Why do people crochet pink toilet-roll covers? Why do manufacturers produce orange psychadelic wallpaper? Why does anyone bother to grow broad beans? Or make mint-flavoured white chocolate? Or offer holidays on cruise ships with karaoke every evening?

Because there's no accounting for folks and some people actually like that stuff.

Same with books. Publishers produce what they think people will buy and generally-speaking they're right. (Apart from the dolt who paid a fortune for unappealing UK footballer Wayne Rooney's FIVE VOLUME autobiography when the guy was only about 17. Must have been very big print. And probably a load of pictures to help him along, but still ...)

You'll have noticed that the biggest best-sellers can often arguably be categorised as utter drivel. And you may rightly surmise that a lot of people like reading drivel, otherwise they wouldn't have bought it.

And don't go all politically-correct and hit me with, "Who're you to say it's drivel?" Drivel is in the eye of the beholder and in this case the beholder is me. If the reader of Katie Price's autobiog wants to say that Madame Bovary / The Blind Assassin / Atonement / Life of Pi /The Moth Diaries / Silas Marner / The Little White Horse are rubbish, fine. They're wrong, but what do they know? And it's not the point: the point is to answer the question, "Why is crap published?"

It's published because it sells. Blame the readers. Publishers have to make money and all readers are different and are entitled to enjoy and choose whatever rubbish they want and like or dislike it for whatever reason they want.

A much more important question is "Why does great stuff NOT get published?" In other words, why has the genuinely beautiful and wonderful work which I am sure many of you produce not been snapped up?

I've gone a long way to answering aspects of that in other posts, but it boils down to one or more of these reasons:
  • although it's genuinely beautiful in many ways and you are a talented writer, you have not yet crafted a book which is good enough to be in the "great book" category but it is way too great to be read by readers of the crap category
  • it doesn't have an adequate "hook" - a snappy "high-concept" tag that will make sales and marketing people drool. (See Acquisitions meetings.)
  • it's otherwise goodish but falls down in eg voice or structure and the editor isn't sure that you'll be able to improve it enough
  • you haven't written the right book at the right time or sent it to the right publisher at the right time ...
  • ... and in the right way - the submission must be right, especially the covering letter
  • an agent / editor admires it but hasn't fallen in love with it - see the Behler Blog here - possibly because it's neither brilliant nor drivel, but middly
  • for one reason or another, it's simply not sellable in enough quantities, although your mother absolutely loves it (which, as you should know by now, means nothing - unless your mother happens to be accidentally right)
For rubbish to sell, it has to be seriously good rubbish. Your average kind-of-OK book just won't cut the mustard, especially if it's a book which looks as though it could actually be quite good with a bit of work done on it.

Unfortunately, seriously good drivel is what many large publishing houses now need to survive. See - you're just all too good and surely I'm doing you a great disservice in writing a blog designed to make you better. I should be teaching you how to write really bad stuff. Trouble is, I've never quite worked out how to do that myself. I like to think.

Because, of course, rubbish is other people's success.


Tara Maya said...

Speaking only for myself, when I ask, "Why do they publish that crap?" the rest of the sentence secretly ends, "when they won't publish mine which is every bit as bad?" ;)

Nicola Morgan said...

Ah, well you are obviously not bad enough so take heart! Seriously, i do think that thinking you're not good enough is a very good starting point and has a better prognosis than thinking you're too brilliant to improve. Good luck!

behlerblog said...

Speaking only for myself, when I ask, "Why do they publish that crap?"
I find myself asking the same thing, Tara...right before I reach around and pat my back while whispering to the beagle, "Good thing we don't publish crap, eh? Now go mix us some choccie martinis."

Good post, as usual, Nicola. You give a great perspective to a tough subject, which usually ends up with me running for my life.

Nicola Morgan said...

Thanks, Lynn. Can't imagine you running away from anything though!

Jane Smith said...

Lynn only ever runs far enough to pick up her flame-thrower, Nicola. Trust me, I know her.

Nicola: thank you for this, it's a brilliant post and makes me feel a lot happier about my lack of success in getting my novels published. I now realise I am too GOOD to be published, not too bad, and it's all thanks to you. So next time someone accuses me of being insufferably smug (as they did recently on the bookseller blog, ha) I shall tell them it's all your fault.

Paul Lamb said...

How is it that I've lived so long without knowing about your blog before this??? I am tickled that I found this site, and I'll be back daily.

Thanks for the insightful (and inciteful?) posts.

Nicola Morgan said...

Yes, Jane, I suspect that you are way too good. Smug? They're jealous, is all.

Paul - glad you called by, and I do like the idea of being inciteful as well as insightful!

DanielB said...

We've all had the experience of reading a book and thinking "how the hell did that *crap* get published?"

With some books I am prepared to cut some slack and admit it might just be "it's not you, it's me" - that there is something about the book which is genuinely good and I am just not in tune with it no matter how much everyone raves about it. We all have one of these. ("Norwegian Wood" is mine.)

With others, as a writer you really do have a sense of moral outrage about the thing having been published, because you like to think you have some idea not just of what makes for a "good read" but also of what editors and agents like and are looking for. I bet every writer has had the experience I've had - reading a novel and wanting to go through with a pencil, marking the aspects which your agent or editor would have objected to and marked up as serious deal-breakers. Maybe even things you have tried yourself in a book and been criticised for. That really rankles!

A certain well-known, bestselling, illogical chick-lit/time-travel novel drove me up the wall - I only read it because it was lying around the house but I still mark it down as the worst novel I have ever read from cover to cover. It was just full of so many things that were so, so *wrong*; things which my agent would have put deeply-scored red lines through, which would have been deemed to "not work".

Solvang Sherrie said...

I just finished reading an ARC and wondering why it was being published. There were parts that were really good and other parts that just seemed pointless or unbelievable. So does that mean that you just need to find someone who likes your work, regardless of what anybody else thinks?

Nicola Morgan said...

Daniel - reasoned as ever. I'm afraid that because of my point about all readers liking different things and too many of them liking crap (and not knowing how crappy it is) it's something we have to bite our tongues about. Very painful but it's not going to go away.

Solvang S - thing is, you could find a publisher with poor editorial judgement (eg a tiny publisher who hasn't paid for or got editorial percipience and red-pen skills) who would publish a not-very-good book, but the thing is you'd then soon find out painfully that your book wasn't good enough because you'd get rubbish or no reviews. And that's not what you want. You want someone who can either a) recognise quality and know what to do with it and b) give editorial help to make your book even better than you did on your own. So your "regardless of what anyone else thinks" idea will come back and bite you!

behlerblog said...

Jane said:
makes me feel a lot happier about my lack of success in getting my novels published. I now realise I am too GOOD to be published,

I'll second the last part; your writing IS good. It's downright wonderful, so I hope your agent finds a lovely home for it when you're done.

I think another good example are movies. With all the Teen-I'm-Soo-Oversexed-And-Laking-A-Brain movies, it grinds my teeth down to the nub when some of our books that have been optioned can't find the funding for the project because the money is on those pathetic brain drains. No bragging, but we have such great books that leave readers thinking for days afterward. Pah!

Bev J said...

Great post as usual. Still checking daily for the post on 'Questions about picture books'!!

'Popular low art verses high art'. Something I learnt and which stuck when I studied an Art Foundation Course (A102) on the Open University many years ago.

Quality was not the issue. If something was popular, and made money, it was 'successful'. It didn't matter how good something was, if the masses liked it (and were prepared to pay for it)it got published/produced. And the same philosophy holds true today I'm affraid, hence all the 'trash' reality TV and mags.

But I'm hopeful that one day the trend will be reversed :) (I live in hope!!)

Bev J

Jo Franklin said...

I wonder - of all the crap books that are published and bought - how many are actually read?
I'm thinking particularly of all the Non-ebrity auto biographies that are not written by the non-ebrities themselves.
Do you think they are read and re-read as truly great books are?

Nicola Morgan said...

Bev J - thanks for the reminder! If I am not waylaid this morning, your wish will come true ...

Jo F - I honestly don't think it's worth our bothering to wonder about. But if you did investigate, I think you might be surprised at how much such books are enjoyed. I spend a lot of time in high schools and a lot of rubbish is thoroughly loved, believe me!

Jane Smith said...

I thought I'd subscribed to commments here, and am cross not to have been part of the whole conversation. I'm especially cross to have missed Mrs Price's comments, and am even now grinning from ear to ear because of them.

(And I'm with Dan Blythe, by the way, about the time-travel thing: apart from that one gimmick of time-travel it had nothing for me but angsty self-importance. Some plot would have been nice. But then perhaps I ask too much.)