Best Seller Does Not Equal Good Writing

This is another fact that should be obvious, but is often missed.

Back when I was a shiny-faced neo, working hard on that first novel and learning my craft, I read just about everything but what was on the best seller list. Why is that? None of the books there were of interest to me. Most were mainstream fiction, which I generally find to be dull, if not lagging behind genre fiction.

At some point a helpful non-writer friend, wholly enthused by the greatest book she'd ever read, loaned me her copy and called every few days to see if I'd cracked it yet. I finally read it and was shocked, absolutely stunned, at how gawdawful it was. The flat characters, amateurish writing, and utter stupidity of the protag put me off. The first line alone would have gotten the writer a place in the Bulwer-Lytton contest.

For a time I thought it was just me. After all, it was a debut novel, maybe the writer got better in the next book or I wasn't getting the inside joke, so I borrowed that from the library. It was even worse. When she got down to writing a nookie scene I figured her to be a virgin who'd done research by watching a porn film. It was passionless tab-A into slot-B for about 30 pages. It seemed like 30 pages. I am not sure, I fell asleep in the middle of it. That was a first. I skipped the other nookie scenes.

Yet my friend thought this was the berries of literature. I felt badly for her, for having such a limited reading life. In turn, I offered her one of my favorite books (which had a lovely and loving nookie scene that still makes me sigh) and found she couldn't stand it.

No accounting for different tastes. They're all right by the way. A good book is the book you like and you can't make others love it if it ain't their thing.

But the core point is that awful book was on the NYTimes Bestseller list for months on end, along with its sequels when they came out. I used to gag seeing them displayed in the bookstores. People bought it, not because it was well-written, but because they were curious.

Took awhile for me to wrap my head around that one. This happened in the late 80s and it is still going on NOW.

A number of gag-worthy titles have won their writers the coveted "New York Times Best-Seller" phrase that will be stamped on the cover of every book they produce for the rest of their lives. These books, I won't name them, you'll know them, though, have been panned by critics, mocked on countless blogs, and used copies flood resale shops to the point where you can build walls with them by careful stacking.

Those books sold well, and in the case of one writer--who can't write a grocery list so far as I'm concerned--got a hefty advance to write a book about how to write books. Oh, the sad irony.

Life ain't fair. It's all about the sales, not the quality of writing.

But not in every case.

There are PLENTY of NYT bestsellers that are totally worth your time and are good for multiple readings. Those writers know what they're doing, deliver a solid product, and are rightfully proud of their work. THOSE are the ones you read to learn how to better your craft. They're not hard to find. Soon as they hit that list, trust that your library will have copies.

One of my writer besties--who happens to have that NYT Bestseller thing on her book covers now--reads the books on that list. Whether she likes them or not, she reads them to keep up with what's selling and the kind of writing that's popular at the moment. Many times I've heard her rip into an acclaimed book, disemboweling it with great glee. I'll offer up some titles as well, and we have a fine old time. Then she'll tell me about writers who should be on that list but are not. Ah, good times!

So check out those books, see what appeals to you and privately snark about the ones that do not, and always remember that quality writing does not equal great sales and vise versa,

Please don't make the mistake of thinking, "All I have to do is write to this level and make a million sales?" No, please don't do that. Write the best book you can.

There was a neo in one of my old writing groups who LOVED her bestselling writer down to the DNA level, so she used those books as inspiration. We tried to get her to read other, better written books, but no, nothing could top her writing hero. She crudely channeled the writer's works and after 15 years or so has yet to finish anything, much less make a sale.

I feel bad for her, she has the fire in the belly to write and loves writing, but is unwilling to check out other books to see how they can improve her craft. It's either too much of a challenge or she's afraid to put in a little extra work.

You be smarter than that.

Read books that you think you won't like, they may surprise you.

Read books you know you won't like--they'll either surprise you or you learn what not to do!

Above all, read books OUTSIDE YOUR GENRE so you don't suffer from literary incest. That's when your book sounds like all the others in the genre. You can tell when a writer is an insatiable reader of all things, there's always going to be some amazing cross pollination going on with the words.

Whether the books are bestsellers should be a side issue. Read. Just READ. Figure out for yourself why one book works for you and another in the same genre does not. Don't trust what others say. This is your personal writing journey. Get Rolling!

And as always, BE AWESOME.


Copyright 2016, P.N. Elrod