There was a lot of hoopla on writer Twitter last week when Stephenie Meyer announced that she would be finally releasing Midnight Sun—Twilight only from Edward’s point of view. Twelve years ago, halfway through writing it, someone leaked it, and heartbroken, Stephanie didn’t finish it letting the half-done manuscript sit on her website.
The vitriol on Writer Twitter started immediately. I even saw someone make a parody of the cover of Midnight Sun which features a pomegranate. In the parody, the designer used a peeled banana. It didn’t take me long to get sick of the scathing remarks.
Coincidence, or maybe not, I saw on Instagram that E L James is starting to write the last 50 Shades book from Christian’s point of view.
And a few days ago, someone on Twitter posted a poll: Who is the worst best-selling author among Ken Follett, Nicholas Sparks, and Dan Brown. It was an unnecessary and meaningless post. I told her so, and we got into a little catfight until ultimately she told me to grow up. I found that funny because I wasn’t the one tearing down best-selling authors in public.
But all this
mud opinion slinging, all these disparaging remarks, begs a question: whose fault is a bad book?
It’s easy to pin in it on the author. Readers take passages from a book to make fun of it, they make gagging noises when reading the Look Inside of a book on Amazon, they live tweet their reactions to books hoping to start a mob of dislike. (Public Twitter shaming is big in YA, especially if the topic of racism/race is involved.)
Is it always the author’s fault when a bad book is published?
In the indie world, it sure is. Whether indies don’t hire an editor because they can’t afford it, or don’t think they need one, or they hire one then ignore everything that editor says because it’s “their book and they can do what they want,” when an indie self-publishes, everything from cover to cover is their responsibility.
Some say it’s not really fair. Finding resources, resources that are affordable and trustworthy, is hard. I totally get that and it’s why I’ve stopped reviewing indie books. Sometimes no matter how hard an author tries, their book isn’t going to be good enough. When it comes to Stephenie Meyer or E L James, their best obviously wasn’t good enough for some people, either.
Though, when an author gets picked up by an agent, when that agent sells work to a publishing house who employs several editors, when does the responsibility shift from author to publishing house? Is there no differentiation? When you publish a book, your name is on it. It belongs to you. You’re responsible for the outcome, good or bad, and I guess when you’re a reader, you don’t stop to consider that a “bad,” traditionally-published book has been looked at by probably close to five sets of eyes–one belonging to an agent who deemed it sellable in the first place. Twilight was actually found a slush pile by agent assistant at Writers House who passed it along to a senior agent, Jodie Reamer.
If you get picked up by an agent, and she sells it, and an editor edits it, the house publishes it and puts a few thousand dollars at marketing it, are you that remiss in thinking that your book is good or that you’re a decent writer? Agents are gatekeepers after all, and it’s why some writers still query and never self-publish even if they never find an agent. They need the validation. They need to be told their writing is good.
And all these musings beg another question: When an agent, editor, publishing house says an author is a great writer, but the readers say she is not, who is correct? The house who pays the author an advance, or the readers on Twitter who tweets live what a piece of shit it is?
Is it the author’s fault they believe the agent, the editor, and the publishing house? Of course not. Is it the author’s fault the editor skimped on edits and pushed the book out to meet reader demand and take advantage of social media momentum like in the case of 50 Shades of Grey? I don’t think so.
So why all the finger pointing at the author when the book is taken out of their hands?
I mean, do you think E L James’s editor pulled her aside and told her to join a writing critique group? Probably not. Erika didn’t have time anyway, she was too busy rolling in money and watching Jamie Dornan strip on set.
The thing is, as writers, we’re bound to get better. I read The Mister and it was definitely a change from 50 Shades. She got better. Now, we’ll probably never know if she took some creative writing classes or read some craft books, or if that time around her editor took more time with her and The Mister went through more rounds of edits than 50 Shades.
I tell indies on my blog and on Twitter all the time–it’s not your editor’s responsibility to teach you how to write. If you get a 1,000 dollar editing bill from a copy editor, you’d be better off investing in two English/creative writing classes. Which do you think is the better investment? The classes that could help you for your entire career, or the edits from one book?
If you’re an indie and your editor highlights every single sentence because of grammar, punctuation, or it simply doesn’t make sense, you need to take the future of your writing into your own hands. Not every writer is going to have an MFA, but if you don’t understand tension, conflict, stakes, plot, and character arcs, you best figure it out or you’re always going to have problems and your books will never sell.
That’s a big difference between bestselling authors who use too many adverbs and an indie who doesn’t know how to plot–story. Stephenie’s and Erika’s agents knew a good story when they read one, and so did their publishing houses, and most importantly, so did their readers.
Maybe it’s not fair of me to blame an indie for their weaknesses and not a traditionally published author. In the case of a “bad” book, though, it’s not an author’s fault if their agent and editor tell them that their book is good. Those people are supposed to be in the know–and they didn’t end up wrong–numbers of copies sold proves that.
As Grace Metalious said of her runaway bestseller Peyton Place, “If I’m a lousy writer, a hell of a lot of people have lousy taste.” A sentiment I’m sure E L James shares, and a sentiment that brings the literary versus commercial fiction argument full circle.
If books like Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey are so offensive because of sparkling vampires, horny main characters, and typos so abundant that even the free version of Grammarly would meet its match, why do so many people read them? In one of my tweets to the writer with the poll, I told her she can read who she likes. No one is forcing her to read Nicholas Sparks.
There are a lot of ways a book can be “bad.” The story can be well-written but more boring than hell. The author may not know her grammar and punctuation, or subject-verb agreement, or maybe she has a crutch word issue like the girl from Tik Tok pointed out making fun of Stephenie’s use of the word “chuckled.” (An editing failure, in my opinion.)
We all aspire to write “good” well-written novels and we chafe when we do so (or we think we have) and we’re not recognized. That’s luck and what’s hitting the market at any particular time, and you’e not proving anything to anyone showing off sour grapes because an author you deemed “not worthy” has found that luck and niche in the market.
What can you do besides wasting time with useless polls?
Work on your craft. Read books that won’t offend your high-society taste. Query your heart out or learn marketing because, honey, that’s the only way your book will see the light of day.
So, who’s fault is a bad book? I suppose after such a long blog post hashing out the question, we can determine there are no bad books written, only bad matches between book and reader. The only difference is some readers are more vocal about their unhappiness and some aren’t.
I wish Writer Twitter weren’t so vocal about it. It’s not like a lot of those writers have anything to brag about. Sometimes I find the reader who complains the loudest is only making themselves feel better because their books fall into the same camp they’re trashing online.
I wish Stephenie all the success in the world with Midnight Sun. And I hope Erika’s critics never stop her from writing.
There are books out there for everyone. Read what you like and leave the rest of us alone.
Resources I used for this blog post:
The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers
Unbuttoning America: A Biography of “Peyton Place” by Ardis Cameron
If you want to read about another traditionally published book that missed its mark with “bad” writing, I wrote about Jasmine Guillory and her book, The Wedding Date, and you can find it here.