November 15th, 2006


when "good enough" might not be good enough

In the department of "recursion: see recursion"...

Jay Lake posts on how do you know when it's good enough in response to the thread that evolved yesterday on my blog entry which was a response to his entry about quitting writing.

He says:
No one cares about your work more than you do.
The writer is the worst judge of their own work.

This correlates very easily with the issue that was raised about publication being a way to measure whether one has reached a level of writing that is "good enough." Setting aside my instinctive reaction to the phrase "good enough," I realized some variables that can make this a more complicated equation and, perhaps, a flawed approach.

#1 Bad books get published. Everyone seems to say so. And we're not just talking about books that a person subjectively doesn't like or writers who feel they can write better than the books that are out there.

#2 Good books sometimes don't get published. The corollary to #1. It just might be true. One can make all sorts of arguments about it. There is a certain cadre of self-published authors who claim their books are good and that no agent or editor would even read them. That might very well be the case. However, it could also be another subjective measurement shored up by Jay's 2nd rule wherein the writer is the worst judge of their own work. If you want to try out the experience and assess the odds, someone is already doing it for you at POD-dy Mouth. And there have been some pretty good books turned up in the process. There have also been some real hum-dingers.

#3 Some good books aren't publishable because it's not their time. This goes along with #2 but I thought it was a different enough issue to give it a unique paragraph. Besides having a certain level of subjective quality, a book also has to have a corresponding marketability. In other words, someone has to believe it will sell enough copies to get back the publisher's investment. In some cases, it's because the book's topic isn't timely (e.g. people get gun-shy about natural disaster novels after there's been a big one). Or, the best-written book in the world comes across the desk, but the subject of the book is too distasteful. I've heard many an agent say that they will never represent a book about "x" topic.

#4 There are only a finite number of available publication slots per year. Many of these are taken up by option books -- authors who are already on the board, thereby making the available pool for new writers that much smaller. It's less, then, that good books aren't published as only the best of them have a shot at getting published. So, perhaps "good enough" isn't an accurate measure with supply outweighing demand by such a huge factor. There may be a marked division between being a good writer and being a good (and also) published writer.

Have I missed any?

As an aside to #3, I rarely recommend writing to the market. For a number of reasons. Usually by the time one has written such a book, the market has passed one by. The books that are getting published now and establishing a trend were acquired, in most cases, at least a year ago, if not more. So the editors are thinking about what to publish next year. Ditto for agents, who may even be a few months ahead of some of the editors on the curve. Sometimes, a person just happens to have written a book that fits a trend. Synchronicity. This can come out of interaction in the writing community where ideas seem to have an organic growth quality. Or it can come out of social and economic environments that move creative people in generally the same direction.

However. I digress.

The bottom line is that every agent and editor want good books. Always. They want to sell and publish books. It's what they do. But, it requires both instinct and skill. In the end, it may be more of an art than a science. Which makes it damnably hard to measure to scale.