Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Why Did That Book Get Published?

‘If he/she can get published so can I’. This is an assertion I regularly hear aspiring authors say. The brasher ones put it more bluntly. ‘That book (often some international best-seller) is a pile of crap. My book is a million times better than that.’

I think anyone who has ever found themselves thinking like this would be well advised to dedicate some time to reading books that they really don’t like and considering the question, ‘Why did this get published?’ And I mean really considering the question, not simply resorting to some easy formula like, ‘It’s because the general public is stupid,’ or 'he/she obviously knew someone in publishing.'

Reading books that you think are really clever, really well written or really profound, is an important thing to do. It feeds your soul. But reading books that thoroughly irritate you, that seem ponderous, or trashy or impossible to believe in, is also important. It takes you out of your comfort zone, it makes you think hard about the audience for books (i.e. other people). It teaches you lessons you won’t learn in any other way.

I’m not saying it’s easy. Once, following my own advice, when I was obliged to travel from London to Newcastle and back by train in one day, I took a copy of Kane and Abel by Jeffrey Archer and nothing else. I was determined to get to grips with it. But I failed. In the end I found that I preferred to stare out of the rain-streaked window for seven hours rather than lose myself in Jeffrey Archer’s prose.

Nevertheless I still think that reading books that you would never have published yourself if you had been in charge of the publishing house is an extremely useful exercise. Because the truth is that there is always a reason why a book gets published and it is not, no matter how much you might want to believe it, because the author is sleeping with, related to, lives next door to, or went to school with the editor. Or that people are stupid. It's because the author is doing something right. You just haven't spotted it yet.


Sue Hyams said...

Hmm. Interesting and I hold my hand up as guilty! I find I'm far less tolerant than I used to be and will give up on books if they annoy me. It is good advice though. Maybe I should reach for the (nameless) book that has done so well that I hated hated hated, and read it differently this time - ignoring the bits that make me want to throw it across the room and instead look for what works and why.

Keren David said...

I'm amazed at the huge number of people I come across in publishing who haven't read Twilight. Seems to me that if a book sells so many copies and triggers so many lookalikes and read-alikes then it's just homework to read and try and work out where the attraction lies.

Derek said...

It's true what you say, Brian and too many of us - myself included - waste precious time pondering what the magic formula might be. There are so many factors for the work itself, along with timing and context. In terms of books discarded, The Celestine Prophecy was recommended to me and I read it in the bath. When it hit the water, I considered that a mercy killing. It is hugely successful so I don't think my rejection will in any way undermine the author's career!

Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting post. It causes one to wonder, "If I read this horrible, awful, published book, and I figure out what it is that enticed publishers, would I still even want to publish traditionally?"

A valuable exercise indeed. Thank you for this. (No sarcasm.)

Brian Keaney said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. Sue, we're all guilty. I just finished The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and spent the next three days fulminating against it. Keren, you're absolutely right: it's homework, pure and simple. Derek, I think there is a magic formula. I just think it changes every few minutes. Kristen/RJ I think maybe you wouldn't want to publish traditionally but the feeling would wear off soon enough.