Bad Writing Doesn’t Matter Anymore

It used to be the refrain about self-publishing that to do it right you needed to hire a professional book-cover designer and a professional editor. While there is no doubt that self-publishers should do this, it doesn’t really seem to be the case that this entirely matters anymore. Plainly, we’re entering a new phase where people approach writing differently. People will forgive problems for a cheap read.

Roxanne Gay has a post on HTML Giant which repeats the age-old mantra about gatekeepers:

Quality is certainly very subjective but even with that, given the self-published work I’ve read (admittedly not an adequate sample to really draw broader conclusions) there’s a reason most of those self-published books were not picked up by publishers great or small. There was no misunderstood genius in these novels. These books fell through the proverbial cracks for a reason. As an editor it was painfully easy to identify the weaknesses in plot, characterization, tone, dialogue, pacing and all the other elements that comprise a good book. Some of these books were adequately written but boring. Some of these books were plain terrible and filled with sloppy writing, making the very strong case for the value of a competent copyeditor and the value of a gatekeeper to say, “no,” this book should not be published, at least not in its current state. These were not books that could be published by anyone but the writer themselves.

So gatekeepers are good because they separate the wheat from the chaff, etc. etc. There is a major point missing from this argument: readers don’t care. Bad, “unpublishable” books are finding an audience. I cannot claim to have read many of the books on the Kindle self-published bestseller list, but without a doubt there are many books that some people would find totally inept, but are finding an audience with many honest 5-star reviews.

Recently I mentioned the novel Diary of a Mad Fat Girl – a book, I have to be clear, I haven’t read. A book that right now is #77 in the Kindle store. It has 27 5-star reviews, but also one star reviews like this one:

This is quite possibly the worst book I have ever tried to read. I downloaded it for a what I thought would be a light and fluffy read for my train ride but what I began to read was so horrible and so horribly written that I could not get past the first few pages. I did not have a lot of expectations for 99 cents but this was not worth the change.

True, you can find 1 star reviews for anything – but actually that’s kind of the point. No matter how bad or good a book is, there will be both admirers and detractors. Here’s a 5-star review (emphasis added):

If you like to laugh, read this book.
If you like to save money and laugh, read this book.
If you like sassiness and silliness, read this book.
If you are from the South and you understand that “because they needed it” should be grounds for a trial acquittal, read this book.
If you read books for accuracy and proper grammatical usage, you might wanna just walk on by.

I don’t want to single out Mad Fat Girl as a “bad” book – because I haven’t read it, but this presents a new dynamic for the publishing industry: namely, the slush pile can be profitable. On many self-released books with a Kindle ranking of 10,000 or lower, you’ll see comments like, “badly in need of an editor.” Yet you’ll also see 30 5-star reviews that don’t mention editing whatsoever. This book that was potentially rejected by an agent/publisher is selling hundreds of copies a day, despite its weaknesses.

At the risk of sounding like a snob: non-sophisticated readers will not care if writing is non-sophisticated, and there are a lot more non-sophisticated readers than sophisticated ones. That’s millions of potential readers.  Publishers might like to believe that they have the finger on the pulse of what sells – or what should sell – but when mediocre writing is becoming a bestseller, this pretty much renders the slush pile meaningless.

If mainstream publishing is really hurting for money, it would make sense for them to get into the ebook-only/print on demand business. Devote some resources towards basic editorial and cover design, some press, and see which books take hold. Right now, word of mouth is more powerful than reviews – a lot of people find books just browsing the Kindle store, rather than reading press about a book, and there is a lot of profit to be made on slush pile books that appeal to a huge number of people. It’s possible that eventually people feel burned by bad, cheap books and stop buying them – but, again, the majority of the reviews on many fast-selling self-published books are positive.


We are living in an age where it doesn’t matter if you’re bad – you can still find an audience. Rebecca Black is the latest example. Meghan Daum writes:

What she apparently didn’t realize is that attention and fame these days are as much about hate as about love. To do anything in a public arena is to invite an insta-response that will echo just as loudly with harsh critics as with fans. It means having as many “dislikes” as “likes,” as many people making fun of you as embracing you and, when it comes to the Internet, as many scathing, borderline abusive comments as supportive ones (and often many more). It means understanding — or learning the hard way — that being extremely popular is now basically the same thing as being extremely unpopular. Whereas it used to be that the forum for anonymous public opinion was the high school bathroom wall, now the whole world is essentially a bathroom wall.

This is a different dynamic than a bad book becoming successful because “Friday” became successful specifically because of its awfulness, but this leaps out at me: “To do anything in a public arena is to invite an insta-response that will echo just as loudly with harsh critics as with fans. It means having as many ‘dislikes’ as ‘likes’…” In other words, people will love bad stuff, hate good stuff, and everything in between. Certainly, there are self-published books that are abysmally terrible and unreadable, but don’t deny the possibility of virtually anything finding an audience. And if that’s the case, there’s really no reason for a gatekeeper.

  • Great storytelling beats great writing any day of the week. I used to think this was sad, but I don’t now. It’s just true.

    • Mark

      It would be nice to have both. Why settle for less?

      • Pratchett and Gaiman are stellar examples of great storytellers *and* great writers. And they’re eclipsed, no pun intended, by a talentless hack who thinks she has the chops to overturn all the conventions of a long-established genre.

        Sad, indeed.

    • Johnny Dough

      Unless a person lives in an oral culture where storytelling is based on a set of inherited traditons, good writing and good storytelling are inseperable. The rudiments of good writing, word-choice, an ear for dialogue, a talent for a vivid metaphor, an eye for the right descriptive detail, and sometimes a gift for mimicry and sarcasm, are also the rudiments of good storytelling.

      • Michael

        I have to disagree… The elements of good STORYTELLING is the same as for good joke telling – a sense of timing (or pacing when written), and the ability to make the reader want to know what happens next.

        Everything ELSE you list is good writing

  • Reality TV fits somewhere into this in the larger scope, where some people (and shows) become popular for being complete trainwrecks of human beings.

  • Bad writing has been hitting bestseller lists for a while even in big publishing. “Eragon” (and it’s sequel, “Eldest”) and “Da Vinci Code” are example of books that have been on the bestsellers list and (in my opinion and my friends’ opinions) are horrendously written. Not to mention that even though I haven’t read them in whole, I’ve read enough excerpts from “Twilight” and it’s sequels to know that those are horribly written as well. To continue pushing the stigma of “It’s self-published so it must be bad” is ridiculous when you have handfuls of poorly written books put out by big publishers, proving what you said – readers don’t care.

    • As an editor, I totally agree about the “DaVinci Code”–it’s the only book I can ever remember throwing in the trash after reading, because I felt so strongly that sharing it further would be wrong. But I enjoyed “Eragon” and the sequels. I wouldn’t describe them as brilliant writing, but they met my criteria for “a good story, well told.” Sorta well told. And Pete, I realize grammar critiques are a slippery slope, but you are misusing its/it’s.

  • >>>I don’t want to single out Mad Fat Girl as a “bad” book – because I haven’t read it

    You state that twice. Why didn’t you at least download the frikkin Sample?

    Don’t go hating on Rebecca Black. Let’s see *you* try to sing those Ed Wood Jr lyrics! And she got a hell of a music video for the rumored $2K. How is it she knew enough to pay for pros but so-called writers don’t?

    • Jim

      Mike, keep in mind that she didn’t pay. Her parents did. Plus, she didn’t have to write the song or ANYTHING. If I, as a writer, were to follow Rebecca Black’s example, I’d be paying for someone to write my book as well. She’s not an artist or musician or anything even close. She’s just a girl whose parents wanted to shut her up and they got lucky. VERY lucky. If you look into it, you’ll find several videos by the same company and they haven’t done anything … “Friday” was just so dumb, and dumb in a catchy (though that’s not really the right word) way, that it went viral and the rest is history. But she has no staying power.

      And anyone can sing those lyrics when they’re using auto-tune. As a test, Opie and Anthony had one of their assistants come into the studio and sing Kesha’s Tik-Tok using auto-tune … and she actually sounded BETTER.

  • Interesting post! I can’t imagine not striving for both (good writing and an entertaining story), but I’ve definitely noticed a lot of the bestselling e-pubbed authors are just…prolific. And they got in early before the market was as saturated as it is today (and it’s becoming more so).

  • Margot Harrison

    I am a “gatekeeper” of sorts. I write for a local paper, and I receive piles and piles of self-published books from people in the community. Used to be, newspaper editors could say, “We don’t review self-published books.” Not anymore, because you don’t want to eliminate the possibility of reviewing something good. I have yet to work up an adequate response to the majority whose books are not so great.

    I recently started browsing the Kindle store and looking at samples, and I too was surprised how poorly edited and, in my view, bad some of the bestsellers were. But I also get glossily produced books from big publishers, outfitted with glowing blurbs, that are really, really bad. Sometimes barely even edited, or so it seems to me. It’s all too clear that some novels sell on the strength of a breathtakingly exciting first chapter alone. Whether the rest of the book lives up to that chapter, or even makes sense, isn’t important, since the reader has already bought it.

    So if people are making money with their bad books on Kindle, more power to them and the readers who enjoy their work.

    My only fear is that the kind of fiction I like — textured, written with a feel for the language, with fleshed-out characters and surprising, challenging plot twists — will disappear. But that hasn’t happened yet. Sweet Valley High didn’t kill good YA fiction. Reality TV didn’t (entirely) kill good TV dramas.

    When I was working at a bookstore in the ’90s, I saw women buying boatloads of generic romance novels. I always wondered where all that disposable reading went. (Having read a few of those books, I doubt even their fans consider them worth saving.) If the romance and generic spy-thriller addicts can get their fix cheaply and electronically, that’s better for us all (except the traditional publishers).

  • Very interesting indeed. I’ve always thought the same thing about the music industry. Some of the songs you hear on the radio are ear splitting horrendous garbage. Yet those stars are making millions. No matter how bad or good you are, you can still have fans. The same is true in writing. There are some TERRIBLE books out there that are hits. I guess the moral of the story is to just write what you love and maybe others will love it too. It’s apparently a total crap shoot as to what makes it big and what doesn’t.

  • Linda Reed Gardner

    How interesting is this…and what a perceptive observation. I noticed a long time ago that there were some books & movies I wanted to enjoy over and over, even though there were glaring problems, because I loved the story, often a new approach to the same old plot, and my interest in the author or screenwriter’s vision overcame a number of problems along the way.
    One would think the idea that big money can be made on flawed products would have the Big Seven hyperventilating to be part of this tidal wave. it can only be a matter of time until they jump in, and what about Patterson and Roberts also deciding to sell their stuff for 99 cents? They are still the ones who can most afford to do that.

  • A while back, a friend sent me a book that she just knew I’d love. It was almost unbelievably awful: clunky writing just bristling with superfluous adverbs, stilted language, dopey, tear-jerker plot. But my friend (well-educated and generally a discriminating reader) loved it.

    Why couldn’t all this have happened before I’d poured all my heart and soul into making my writing as compelling and perfect as possible?

    • The debate about the quality of books has been going on as long as books have been published. Gatekeepers and publishing houses came into being in part because there was a need for them. There were tons of penny dreadfuls producing crap in 19th century England, as well as somewhat higher quality magazines putting out serialized fiction. But, with the exception of Charles Dickens, most of those writers have fallen by the wayside. So, Mary, for what it’s worth, my feeling is that bad writing tends not to survive its time. It simply doesn’t leave a lasting impression.

  • I write decent books. They are not the new literature of our times. But they’re decent and worth 99 cents as ebooks.

    Thing is nobody should buy a book that they haven’t browsed the first few pages. It’s easy to do. Sample ebooks, Search Inside paperbacks, read the first pages at the bookstore.

    Sheesh, how hard is it to keep your eyes from bleeding from bad writing.

    If you buy a book sight unseen, you have nobody to blame but yourself. I see the 1-star and trash-talk reviews as a sign that the reader is not doing his/her due diligence. It’s free to preview and takes only a few minutes.

    We may have sloppy writers, but there’s growing evidence of sloppy readers too.

  • It’s all about story. It’s ALWAYS been all about the story. That’s what gatekeepers forgot and readers are rediscovering.

  • The gatekeepers are readers. If they buy tons of a ‘bad’ book then I guess they’re stupid. I’ve seen great books get buried and horrible books succeed, but I give the authors of both all the credit in the world for writing them.

  • I agree with many of the previous comments that most readers might not seem able to distinguish between good and bad writing, or even know that the difference exists. On the other hand, why is that surprising? Celebrity always trumps talent. And who becomes the celebrity, and what the herd goes for, as Sybil Nelson says, is “a total crap shoot.” I agree with Lovely, and many others, though, that the route to the heart of the readers is story. No matter how well I think I might write, I want more than anything to tell a story. Maybe I’m foolish to think a story well told, meeting Mark’s wishes as well as my own, might carry more weight into the future than the laughable oddities of the moment. I think we often egotistically imagine that because something happens during our lifetime it’s far more important than our descendants will be persuaded it was.

  • This was an EXCELLENT blog. It didn’t go too far either way, and it made a good point. I just finished reading an editor’s slam of bad indies, but I think she totally missed the point that you gave here: bad writers, singers, etc. can still find an audience.
    My point to her was, yes, they may be bad, but when indies(of any sort) want to hold onto a dream, they’re going to. Readers who really care about quality will leave 1 star reviews to warn away those of us who care, and those who don’t care will give those dreamers what they want… someone to validate their dream.
    I really can’t see anything wrong with that.

  • I have to wonder how many of those 5-star Amazon reviews come from shills, but yes, the point is taken.

    It raises an interesting philosophical question, actually: Who gets to decide whether a book is written “good” or “bad”? I would argue that, since writing is communicative in nature, reaching your audience is doing your job regardless of whether or not it meets traditional standards of quality.

    Maybe like, you know, the punk rock approach to literature, or something.

  • Me

    “At the risk of sounding like a snob: non-sophisticated readers will not care if writing is non-sophisticated, and there are a lot more non-sophisticated readers than sophisticated ones.”

    Exactly! And this works in the favor of several traditionally published bestsellers, too. (Twilight, anyone?) I like to think that I am a sophisticated reader, but I can enjoy the unsophisticated work as well as the fry cook at Wendy’s if it’s priced right and has characters I can invest in.

    Great post!

    • Jill

      “Non-sophisticated”? Ahem. I think the sophisticated writer meant unsophisticated.
      It’s sort of akin to Tony Soprano saying irregardless.

  • Interesting post but I have to disagree. I’m especially troubled that you implicitly use “non-sophisticated” and “badly written” interchangeably. Like an earlier comment said, why can’t we have popular fiction which is well-written? Why do we have to abandon any sense of artistic standards?

    On another note, the reason publishers try to identify good works is because they aren’t used to piloting fiction that is simply horrid. Not just Twilight bad. The authors who don’t care about spelling, grammar, etc., are much worse than Dan Brown (which is an accomplishment in itself, I think). Even if they do sell, publishers don’t know why they do. They know why Twilight sells. But they don’t know why the horribly written (even by Meyer’s standards) vampire novel without a decent cover, editor, and plot, sells.

  • I lied this post but … I’ve been self-publishing for a decade. I’ve never even asked a gatekeeper for permission. No agent. None of that. Why? Cause I want it out there. I’ve sold close to 30,000 books. My standard is this: I want my books to be as good or better than anything you can find in the bookstore. I hire professional book designers, editors and copy editors. Frank Sinatra: Do it my way. There are authors like me who strive to bring the highest standards to their self-published works. I teach other authors how to do the same. I say, now is the best time to live your writer’s dream! Why wait for an industry that is struggling to come find you?

    • Jill

      Good for you, you do the leg work. You are an example of how self-publishing can work.
      I have a friend who will not take writing classes, will not take critical advice and basically, will not learn the craft. But she self-publishes these god awful pieces of crap, insists that her friends buy her books, attend her book launch parties and post favorable reviews on Amazon.

  • Henry, I think many people seem mystified by this because they thought ebooks would somehow “be different”, that they’d be the salvation of indies when indie still meant writing great alternative literary fiction. I can’t say enough times that “this is different” when applied to a business is about the worst argument going. Within a few short years indie now refers solely to ownerhip of the means of production – those of us who write top notch uncommercial fiction have as small an audience on Kindle as we ever had in paperback.

    What we don’t seem to get is this – the readers aren’t aware of all those perfect books you could have written but didn’t in order to just get the book out there – they’re just aware of the book you *did* get out there – and if that will do, then that will do.

    Anyway, having written both types, and at the end of a month of my genre thriller being on Kindle I wrote a comparison that makes for interesting reading


    I’d love to write you a piece on why indie doesn’t mean what it did if you’d have me back

  • Matt Syverson

    I looked at Amanda Hocking’s author page out of curiousity. There was a thread titled, “Please get an editor”, or something to that extent. The posts read, “I can’t get past the errors, typos, and dropped sentences, etc.”. Amanda herself said that she was also disappointed, even after using up to three editors. Obviously, her audience isn’t astute enought to recognize or care about these problems, as long as there are some sparkly vampires around.

  • Matt Syverson

    I would like to remind those posting here- taste varies wildly, even within the individual. I like the Beatles, but also like the Go-Go’s. I like Jethro Tull, as well as Rick Springfield. I like Steinbeck and Hunter Thompson. I don’t know what the common thread is, but I think it’s probably conviction. I love Caddyshack and Clockwork Orange and hold neither above the other. And I think every great artist has an innate ability to self-edit, as necessary.

    • JPango

      True that taste varies. But still, both the Go-Gos and Rick Springfield had records that were produced by a professional, so everyone on the record is in tune, instruments recorded properly, no noticeable bad edits, songs were mastered to sound dynamic. Same with Caddyshack–it’s sillier than Clockwork Orange, but it was still shot by accredited cameramen who knew how to frame shots, recorded by pro soundmen, and edited coherently.

      The analogy with self-published ebooks would be more like comparing Clockwork Orange to an digital video film with no budget, shot and cut by amateurs. Would anyone really prefer the latter, even if “the story” was good?

      • Matt Syverson

        Great response. You fleshed out what I was thinking. I think that a good writer (undiscovered) has to be capable of editing their own work, because nobody else has such a vested interest in their project. Thanks!

  • I’m a keen sampler of self-published work at Amazon’s Kindle store, and I think there is actually a discernible difference between the quality of the top-sellers and the quality of the rest in each category. None of it’s great, but there are varying degrees of mediocre.

    I think “bad stuff selling well” is mostly a manifestation of current online pricing, especially comparative pricing. If Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels (solid genre performers quite popular with so-called unsophisticated readers) are selling on Kindle for around $9 each, and there are a stack of self-published thrillers with 5-star shill reviews going for 90c, people will obviously be tempted to try the cheaper stuff. The thought of getting a book for 90c is very compelling, and it’s enticed me to download a lot of bad books simply out of curiosity. When all online books are 90c – and I think one day they will be – we’ll see the good stuff outsell the bad by 10,000 to 1, as it should.

    People are not complete idiots. Even unsophisticated readers can tell good writing from bad, especially in their chosen genre, even if they can’t articulate precisely what the differences are. Of course, with access to HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS of potential customers, I’m sure even the worst book ever uploaded in the history of the internet could sell a few hundred copies. If it’s somehow topical or scandalous or suddenly trends on Twitter, it might even sell 100,000 copies in a week if it’s going for under a buck. If that’s somebody’s definition of success good luck to them, but I don’t think smart writers will be firing their editors any time soon.

  • This thread is, frankly, terrifying. Are you, as writers, really content to read a story in which “there” and “their” are interchangeable? In which “it’s” and “its” mean the same thing? In which subject and object not only disagree, but have been forced into a cage match? I’m not talking about typos, I’m talking about consistent patterns of ignorance of accepted use of the English language.

    You are the keepers of language, and you’re rationalizing incompetence and shoddy workmanship – giving them a pass with vague rationalizations regarding “the story” being king. “Bad writing” only ceases to be brain-shreddingly irksome when you accept it, excuse it, justify it, allow it to propagate.

    Yeah, story IS king – but the story is meaningless if you tell it so badly nobody knows what the hell you’re talking about, or if the reader is so distracted by your telling it badly that it falls apart.

    I enjoy a fast-food burger and fries as much as the next guy. But we’re not talking about properly prepared meals here; we’re talking about ordering the bacon double and getting handed a cat turd-and-onions at the drive-through.

    What’s worse, there’s a strong implication here that some of you are okay with the idea of some perceived audience influencing your writing. What’s more important, your story, or “optimal positioning for your narrative with regard to emerging memes within the trendscape?” [Vomits bile]

    If story is king, quit talking about Amanda Hocking and write yours. Write it well, put your heart into it and for the love of Pete, start sleeping with an editor who will look at your stuff whenever s/he is basking in the afterglow of your stupendous lovemaking.

    • Matt Syverson

      Awesome post. My question is- why can’t a writer be capable enough to edit their own work?. I think calling yourself a writer means being competent enough to do so. I doubt classic writers like Shakespeare or Chaucer or Homer had someone correcting their typos!

    • Melissa

      Damn, Henry. Can I bow to you and throw roses? This is one of the most astute editorials I’ve read on the Amazon “super-sellers” phenomenon to date. Thank you for approaching this topic so honestly — because very few dare.

    • I don’t talk about Amanda Hocking, but I admire what she has done. Every person who puts a book out there on their own does not deserve the cat-turd insult.

      I’ve been a Kindler for 14 months. It changed my reading habits and increased my book consumption threefold. I still read my favorite authors such as Pat Conroy, Greg Iles, John Grisham, and others, but I now throw in a newbie or a selfie or a Louisiana author or a Kansas/Missouri author (where I’m from, where I live/work) into every second or third reading slot. It has been an enjoyable broadening of my reading experience. Some have not rung my chime and got tossed before completion, but they were inexpensive enough to be worth the chance I took.

      I have an e-book in the Kindle Store: http://tinyurl.com/bythelight . I worked with an editor who made me take out all of the cat turds. I could call you a crackpot for all of your gloom and doom and hyperbole and stereotyping, but you are entitled to an opinion and the opportunity to express it. Though maybe, just maybe, you’ve lumped a whold bunch of folks into a category in which they don’t belong.

      • Whoa there Dick, I didn’t call Ms. Hocking’s writing cat turds. Having never read the young lady’s work, I wouldn’t presume to speak to its quality. I wasn’t calling out anyone in particular.

        My point was, as a committed writer and reader, I expect a certain baseline when I open a book, any book, and the idea of excusing shoddy workmanship as a sign of the times, or something we should “get used to” as self-publishing explodes, gets my dainties in a twist. To me, that’s unacceptable, no matter how good the story is.

        With regard to Ms. Hocking, I was making a different point entirely, about being tempted to write a certain way, or about a certain subject, because it’s popular. That’s another slippery slope, and every bit as detrimental to the self-publishing environment as churning out poorly crafted material.

        I apologize if I was unclear.

        • There are a lot of writers who up until now have either had to pony up to produce their own physical books or find a way through agent gatekeepers and gatekeepers at publishing houses. Oh, I guess they could also post their work at websites. Many of them deserve to be read. All of them deserve to be paid whatever the public is willing to pay for their work. E-books have changed the game. Now it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg for a writer to get their work in front of public eyes and get paid for it.

          The market will take care of itself. At 99 cents or $2.99, there is obviously a large number of folks willing to take a chance on buying from these writers. I have enjoyed far more than I have discarded. Part of the problem is that most of the publishing houses are being arrogant, manipulative, very much like dinosaurs. They are leaving the low end of the market to the people they refuse to let in.

          It is obvious that the market has chosen a path other than one assuring every book you encounter will meet your standard. You can generally tell if a work comes from an indie. It appears that you should make your purchases in a higher price range to avoid the riffraff without having to think. Buyer beware seems to be a pertinent watchword. The current self-publishing environment seems to be somewhat like the Wild West. Perhaps you should shed your dainties and try going commando until things settle down.

          As for that slippery slope, some people want to make money from their writing while others want to write to their principles. There are thousands of variations in between. One company makes Fritos for the hordes who like them while another company sells free-range chickens on the basis of principle. Who are we to say any of them are wrong?

          Hey, I get your message. Really, I do. For instance, I’m not a big fan of reality shows. I simply change the channel, unless my wife is watching Dancing with the Stars. There are gatekeepers everywhere.

          Just to show you how open-minded I am, I just one-clicked Ghostwriter at the Kindle Store. I don’t think you are from Louisiana, Kansas, or Missouri, but I’m willing to take a chance on you at $2.99. You know what cinched it for me? Dainties, bad golf, and cats vetted on an individual basis.

          • Melissa

            Just heading over to Smashwords to purchase Ghostwriter, myself. Anyone who can string together a sentence like:

            “Write it well, put your heart into it and for the love of Pete, start sleeping with an editor who will look at your stuff whenever s/he is basking in the afterglow of your stupendous lovemaking.”

            … is a solid “yes, I’ll buy,” regardless of genre.

            • It could be the opening line of a story about a writer. It could be an entry in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. I’m an entrant for the first time this year. The winner in 2000 was the guy who invented the Pet Rock. I wish I had done that.

              • Sorry, was distracted by the day gig. Thanks Melissa and Dick, will certainly return the favor.

  • I couldn’t agree with you more, Ravis. I’m also following your advice in your last paragraph. But for me, I’m afraid, sleeping with an editor isn’t an option.

  • Becka

    To quote Margaret Atwood “The quality of literary output has always been questionable, people forget that.” (Source is http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-6iMBf6Ddjk minute 27.)

    Penny Dreadfuls, Pulp, Dime Novels, Badger Books…

    There has always been, and will always be, a market for lurid, sometimes dubiously edited fiction. In the case of Badger Books we know they were not even copyedited, Because – well – Lionel Fanthorpe.

    I quote from this page http://www.peltorro.com/intro.htm

    “The exact number of books is not known due to the fact that some of the pseudonyms were being used by other writers working for Badger at the same time. It is estimated to be 180+ books. Of these books, eighty nine are known to have been written in a three year period. That works out to be one 158 page book every twelve days.”

    “He dictated his masterworks into a reel to reel tape recorder, oftentimes under the cover of a blanket to enhance his concentration. He would then ship those tapes off to a pool of typists for transcription. This created many unique problems. People who die in one chapter reappear a chapter or two later because it was forgotten that they were dead. Odd phrases turn up in the middle of paragraphs due to a misunderstanding by the transcriptionist. With a little work, you can usually puzzle out what was actually said on the tape vs. what the transcriptionist heard.”

    (I do suggest reading the rest of the page. It’s both enlightening and funny).

    And the books sold.

    The phenomenon of a customer base for this sort of stuff is hardly new.

    There will always be an appetite for this kind of stuff, and where there is an appetite there will be people to fill it.

  • We are definitely living in interesting times. Poorly written books are bestsellers. TINKERS, an amazing indie book by Paul Harding, wins a Pulitzer Prize. THE SILENCE OF MEDAIR, a self-published novel selling on Amazon Kindle for only $2.99 has been short-listed for the Aurealis Awards. It’s an amazing time for both writers and readers, and the traditional gatekeepers aren’t always publishing the best of the best.

  • We’ve seen enough packaged writing. The published writers may not be any better than self-published because the difference can be their editor, as in the recent to-do over Jane Austin and her editor. We want to see it with all it’s warts and pimples. Then we know it is original. One of the most famous books of all time is Ulysses by James Joyce. The New Yorker published a now-famous cartoon of two people having dinner together, and the caption reads, “The two people who have actually read Ulysses.” People read science fiction for goodness sakes, and most of it is horribly written but still interesting, sometimes profound in its concepts. We’re interested in each other: what people like us have to say, what we think about, what we fantasize about. I really appreciate authors like Laura Hillenbrand and Unbroken is a wonderful book, but I also loved the writing of some of the unpublished authors in at the Rocky Mountain Writers Guild where I was a member for many years. Packaging can be great, but unpacked junk writing can sparkle in ways a publishing house could never understand. Now we can decide for ourselves. What’s the world coming to? Just getting better and better.

    • David, I agree with you in wanting readers to see what an individual fantasizes/writes, and not what some committee of literary agents, publishing house editors, and marketing experts decide that person should write. But doesn’t that take us back to the beginning? Why can’t unpackaged writing, with its individuality and sparkle intact, be just as non-junk as what the committees end up with? We independent authors, if we work hard and long enough, can have it all. That’s what I hope the world is coming to.

  • Great Post.

    What few seem to have noticed is the bureaucratic age is dying.

    The younger generations communicate by texting, tweeting, and on FaceBook. Shorthand “phonix” is their written language. They treat misspellings and unauthorized abbreviations as a rewarding puzzle. They calmly skip unintelligible. They have discretionary income, they ignore needless rules, they read.

    They are the future.

    They will choose when to be sophisticated, such as when writing computer code. They know computers are fast, stupid, and follow set rules. The young are seldom bothered by relaxed writing from humans.

    Complain, remonstrate, get uptight, fall on the ground and writhe while screaming — it won’t help. Grammar and spelling had a good run, but it’s over. We can still respect Daniel Webster. Follow your editing rules if you write for those over thirty; but for twenty and under? fughetaboutit

    Just tell the story.

    • Matt Syverson

      In other words, “The Little, Brown Handbook” has been laid to rest. Fuggedaboudit!

    • Allan, you seem to follow the editing rules quite well in your own writing, if your comment is a good example of what you do.

    • I don’t have a problem with folks writing without or under a different convention. If they find an audience, I think that’s great. It mucks up the water a bit and makes it necessary for buyers and reader to be discerning. I’m glad that Amazon, B&N, Apple, Smashwords, and others are providing a place for indies to expose their work to public eyes… really glad since I’m one of them. I’m not against the rule breakers or ignorers in this vain. e.e. cummings has always been a favorite of mine.

      What worries me is that kids still need to learn correct grammar and spelling, and from what I hear from many teachers is that a large number of the kids don’t realize they can’t use u for you in and splatter lol all over their written work. Color me doubtful that future amendments to the U.S. Constitution are going to include texting shorthand.

      We’ve seen a blurring of the line between mainstream and tabloid journalism, from standards to ethics. It is obvious that less care is taken with proofreading on the Internet, even in things posted by big players like the New York Times, CBS, and all the rest. All independent writing, even of the lowest form, should have a seat at the table. But, let’s hope that grammar and spelling continue their run.

      • “knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind” – Plato

        When did you learn to write well? I would wager it was when you decided, not a school administrator, that you wanted to communicate to an audience.

        Ron mentioned I follow rules. That is because the readers of this letter seem to be over twenty. At least their comments convey that impression. I would like them to read my works, so I’ve avoided sloppy writing to the best of my ability. I’m still learning, because I want to know.

        “The desire to know is natural to good men.” – Leonardo da Vinci

        If someone has an aptitude for math and loves science, they will learn the math. If they wish to communicate, or write amendments (or find reason to remove a few), they will learn the required conventions. Learning is empowered by the student, not educators — although teachers can offer important assistance.

        It is a student’s desire to know that impels learning.

        I’m one of those that has given five stars to prose littered with typos and malapropisms. I’ve found if a measure of success encourages talented storytellers, they will seek further knowledge. I but add balance to short sighted single stars.

        “If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.” – Vincent Van Gogh

        As Seth Godin stated recently; one of the wonders of the internet is that it has lowered the costs of failure. It has never been cheaper to try, and if encouraging results are found, to keep trying.

        “Creativity is a type of learning process where the teacher and pupil are located in the same individual.” – Albert Einstein

        • Allan, I enjoyed reading your pertinent quotations, as well as your take, which I share, on the willing student, having been one as far back as I can remember.

  • Hi. Interesting article. Personally I think quality will always be king, however through the Internet writers work is more accessible, and potentially has more chance to find it’s audience. Writers of work that perhaps wouldn’t be considered ‘commercial’ by the big publishers can find their own audience and increase the chance of it being ‘successful’.

    I wrote an article on our blog called The eBook Revolution about some thoughts about the digitisation of literature. You can find the blog through our main page if it’s of interest.

    All the best

    Adam Charles

  • The truth is, “quality” is subjective. That’s why there are so many bestsellers that people find “poorly written,” while at the same time plenty of “well-written” books that nobody has ever heard of. Word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence writing is only one (minor) aspect of fiction writing. Now, granted, there are basic rules of grammar that, if broken, can make the best of stories unreadable. But most fiction is written in a conversational voice. If the writing is clear and gets across the story (even while skirting some of the most basic grammatical rules), everything else is subjective.

    People can hate on The Da Vinci Code and work by James Patterson all they want, but those writers have accomplished a level of storytelling that has earned them their popularity. If it were so easy to write a Patterson novel, everyone would be doing it.

    Again, everything is subjective. I can’t stand Cormac Macarthy, even though everyone claims he’s a genius. Why is it when he defies the tenants of grammar and “good” writing, it’s considered art?

  • There’s also a degree to which “good writing” is subjective. One forum where I’m a member, two of us who write can barely understand (or stand) each other’s writing. But we both know and use appropriate grammar. We both have “sophisticated” fans who consider us fantastic.

    Different folks think differently. That’s why, what one person loves, another won’t understand. I’m a fan of unreliable narrators, myself; a good friend of mine can’t stand them.

    I also read Twilight‘s melodrama as self-depreciating irony, so I actually enjoyed it. I suspect that wasn’t how the author intended it to be read, though.

    Also, I sorta like how there’s no filter on self-pubbed things. The summary and excerpt are more accurate representations of the book as a whole.

  • RF

    This is an interesting and provocative article, but one that also completely misses the point. Yes, some quite poorly-written self-published books are selling in minor quantities (from a few hundred to a few thousand) in Kindle form. Why? Because they’re priced at around a dollar, whereas even the cheapest commercial Kindle titles sell for four times that amount and upwards.

    Commercial publishers simply aren’t interested in selling a few thousand ebooks for a dollar apiece: they want to sell tens of thousands of copies, in both paper and ebook form, for between five and ten dollars apiece. To suggest that they could make a few extra quid by starting up self-publishing ebook sidelines is like advising a Michelin-starred restaurant to open a serving hatch late at night offering kebabs to drunks wandering the streets. Not only it is it not what they’re set up to do, but it would also very quickly cheapen their brand.

  • I somehow became disconnected from this conversation a few days ago, but I wish to thank Adam, Rob, Misti, and RF for giving us their thoughts in the meantime. I think they all make some valuable points without finding any need to screech.

  • manny

    It truly seems that quality has taken a back seat to what is popular at the moment and the success of a book doesn’t depend on the quality of the book but in its faddish appeal. I have read books that are popular that I consider crap and books that are highfalutin literature that are crap. Meanwhile there ARE many self published books that are really good, excellent or great that don’t see the light of day and never will. It all depends on the marketing of a book and if you are well known and/or have a book that a publishing company wants to push you are golden even though the work is worthless. On the other hand you may have a really great work that nobody will know about(and yes there are great works that never see the light of day) because it is extremely expensive for an unknown, poor, struggling author to advertise his/her book. It’s a pity since many books will never be known and appreciated as they should while unadulterated garbage will be extolled to the heavens. Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi as the Romans used to say and so it is. Luck rules the world.

    • Darline

      Luck only rules the world to those who have never accomplished anything. There is so much crap out there, but there is as much quality as ever, you just have to put more effort into sorting through the crap to find the good stuff. For centuries people have used luck and “ignorant masses” to explain why they are failures. It will never mesh.

  • Mario

    Bad has been raised (or lowered) to a new level. I only found this out when I published my first novel last year. I began to read titles by authors from my publisher. I went into deep depression. Was I as bad as them?? Was it not an accomplishment that I finally got published? Can anyone get published today? I used to think bad writing meant John Gresham, Robert James Waller, Dan Brown, and, heck, even James Joyce. But all those writers could weave a compelling story. They knew how to write a grammatical sentence, or at least an interesting one. Their books were painstakingly edited. Today, well, all that is out the window. Fiction receiving 5-star amazon reviews has no character development, no sense of setting, no internal dialog, almost no narrative, no plot, no climax, none of the traditional “three acts,” events that occur in the novel have nothing to do with anything…. saying they are amateur is too kind. We’ve gone beyond not being able to tell the difference between good and bad—bad has now become good, and good has become bad. Okay, now that have screamed the sky is falling, let me try to understand it all…. Perhaps quality hasn’t lessened. Perhaps there’s just so much more crap out there we have to dig through the pile before we can find the good stuff; readers are the same as the writers. With automatic downloads, people who wouldn’t traditionally read are now avid readers. It’s like saying you’re culturally sensitive because you eat at ethnic restaurants.

  • This self-published articled needs an EDITOR.

    A quote from your article: On many self-released books with a Kindle ranking of 10,000 or lower, you’ll SEEM comments like, “badly in need of an editor.”

    I’m not slamming you (because I will probably have a typo in this very comment), but you see how easy it is have a typo, ect.? And I’m sure you edited this…but there it is. And look at the sentence it’s in where you’re blasting others for the same thing you did: errors in self-published work.

    P.S And people are ignoring it for a free read & saying they love it!

  • I have read a lot of traditionally published books with major typographic errors in them. Of course some have more than others. I recently found one in a Stephen King short story and a book I bought at Borders was riddled with them. The kindle version of a traditional press book reviewed by Publisher’s Weekly was missing a whole chunk of the text!

    A lot of indie books are poorly edited. I have read some that proved that some people really need a harsh friend to read their work, but one of the best books I’ve read this year was an indie.

    As far as quality of content (punctuation and typos aside), how many people HATE Twilight? That’s traditionally published. We’re not all going to agree on what we consider quality and a lot of getting published by a big name has to do with luck and who happens to open the mail on a particular day.

    I think the perception that Indie’s are not as good will start to go away. People are sick of digital copies of books by traditional publishers costing MORE than the book & shipping on the paperback. I’m willing to try a new author for $.99-2.99, but I’m not willing to risk an hour’s wage for an overpriced eBook. ePublishing is changing the market. The traditional publishers just don’t get it.

  • Amy, you are so right. I would only replace the first sentence of your last paragraph with this one: I think the perception that independent authors aren’t as good as traditionally published authors is ready for its grave. (And I’m not wasting any tears at this funeral.)

  • I was surprised to read a piece where the author denounced books she admitted she hadn’t read. I decided I would read Diary of a Mad Fat Girl, which– not having read it — she discussed at some some length.

    When I couldn’t find it on my Kindle, I googled it. It is temporarily unavailable because it has been picked up by Penguin Group. It will be republished in February 2012.

  • PG

    Amanda Hocking is a terrible writer and she sells a lot, so you’re right. Count me out – I’d rather read quality writing and pay more than some crap that I can do a better job writing.

  • Manatee

    I have read a few pages of self-published books. Most of them have been god-awful. It is clear that the authors have no experience as writers. How does a writer improve her work? By writing constantly and possibly working as a professional writer(journalist,etc). Most self published authors cannot produce coherent prose because they have not spent years practicing,perfecting their craft. Most self-published novelists have never written anything at all before and it shows.