Skip to main content

Do bad books get good sales and if so, does that justify poor writing?

After a full-on weekend with our nephew, I could barely keep my eyes open yesterday so when it came to reading time, I feared it may only be a matter of minutes before I would be slumped in the armchair while the book slowly slid to the floor.

I had finished Triflers Need Not Apply and was due to start a new book. I decided to try a book I picked up at our village fete and whose cover was littered with high praise from credible sources.

Within the first few pages I had decided two things; firstly, the book is badly written and secondly, today’s book publishing is in some ways, akin to the mainstream movie industry – only guaranteed financial returns need apply.

Bad books, good sales

Bad books

Having read a lot of excellent books since returning to the UK, what immediately struck me with this one*, was the mass of back story that appeared in the first 500 words. Jericho Writers are currently inviting authors to submit their first 500 words for critique, and their weekly newsletter gives some invaluable advice about the good and bad of what they’re seeing so far. One of the things in the bad column is the author’s propensity to set out the entire novel’s back story in the opening chapter.

Stephen King has what seems to me, to be solid gold advice about writing back story in novels. The main gist of his advice is that the reader shouldn’t really be aware they’re reading back story and that good writing will show, rather than tell, everything we need to know about a character. He emphasises the need to cut the excess fat and only share those details that are requisite to keeping the story moving forward.

In the book I started, the author spends the entire first chapter telling me that our heroine is down on her luck and is having a very bad day. That information could have been put across in a few paragraphs and taken us to the start of the action a lot quicker. I was still reading Chapter One and already hanging onto engagement by the skin of my teeth.

Once the action had begun, it was littered with what felt to me to be clumsy and unconvincing dialogue – the sort of cliched smart-arse banter you hear in bad movies. Credibility had left the building before I’d even got to page 15.

Good Sales

After a while, I closed the book and looked back at the cover, expecting it to be self-published. Instead, I was taken aback by the unmistakeable Penguin logo. Here was a book which I considered to be amateur at best and yet, it has been published by one of the Big Five.

As an aspiring author, I might have found renewed hope that a publishing contract with one of the major publishing houses may not be the pipedream it appears to be. Instead, I felt shockwaves of disappointment surge through me.

Everything I thought I had learned about how to write a novel that stands a chance of being published was turned on its head in that instance. Here is a mediocre-at-best book which has been published by Penguin. I can only assume it’s because they saw it being a big hit with the target audience and, it seems, they were correct.

Looking at reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, the book has over 12,000 ratings, the vast majority of which are either 5 or 4 stars, and its ranking on Amazon as I type is hovering around 20,000 in the bestsellers list. Given that it was published 18 months ago, I can only assume it has consistently brought good returns.

Do good sales justify bad books?

In the world of moviemakers, the past couple of decades has seen an exponential rise in the release of Marvel movies (some 32 in all), endless sequels, and crowd-pleasers such as Avatar and Barbie; in short, movies that scream sure-fire-bet to financial backers.

At the other end of the spectrum, Indy filmmakers and streaming giants such as Netflix, HBO and Amazon are making thought-provoking, inspiring and enthralling movies. In between, there appears to be a dearth.

Speaking in very broad terms, my fear is that the book publishing industry may be going the same way – publishing mediocre or bad books that make good sales at one end of the spectrum, and literary prize-winners at the other. For everyone else, self-publishing and digital-only publishing appear to offer the best chance of reaching an audience.

And just by way of a footnote, I have to add that I haven’t stopped reading the ‘bad’ book, it’s a bit like watching a Disney movie – it’s easy, I’m not required to think, and it allows my brain to completely unwind… as long as it doesn’t annoy me too much.

* I haven’t named the book or its author as this is simply my opinion, expressed in a space I use to air my views about what makes good writing and about the book publishing scene from an aspiring author’s point of view. In a wider forum, who am I to publicly criticise a published successful author? Incidentally, the image (above) is purely for illustrative purposes and the books you can see are all excellent.


I’d love to keep you updated with my latest news and reviews

I don’t spam! Read my privacy policy for more info.

Leave a Reply