Thursday, December 28, 2006

How Bad Books Get Into Print

Three chapters into the novel you bought yesterday you find that you just can’t go on reading it. The characters are wooden, the writing is stilted, and the dialogue is unbelievable. Viewpoints shift and the action leaps through time and space without benefit of transitions.

You know you can write better than this in your sleep. How did this mess get into print? you wonder. Did someone sleep with an editor, or what?

Actually, some books are published because the author slept with an editor (or a publisher). But that's not the only reason bad books see print. Sometimes a badly written novel slips into print because an editor has a vacant spot on her list and a writer friend or relative who needs work. And it has happened that a bestselling author falters (or doesn’t care any more) and turns out a poor novel that gets into print because of the author’s reputation. And although I don't know of any instances, I'm sure that bribery has gotten a few books into print.

Some questionable novels are “contract breakers,” poorly-written tomes intended to barely fulfill the terms of a publishing contract. The hope is that the publisher will reject the manuscript and release the author from her contract. An author may do this after signing a multiple-book contract with a publisher who proves to be less than proficient in the marketplace. A contract breaker may also be used to get around a common book contract provision that gives the author’s current publisher first refusal rights on his next book.
If the author is lucky, the publisher will drop the book. But the publisher might take the book anyway, in which case another bad book is born.

Why put such a book on the market? This may be done out of spite, or because the publisher figures the author’s name will sell the book.

A tight publishing schedule can also propel a contract breaker onto bookstore shelves. If the title is already scheduled for publication and there’s nothing available to replace it, the publisher has no choice but to put it out there.

All of which may seem illogical, but the nature of book publishing is such that most publishers would rather put out a bad book than miss a publishing date. Once a book is scheduled and announced, money is spent and irreversible processes are set in motion. At the very least, a publisher faces embarrassment by not releasing an announced book. But there are worse consequences to not fulfilling the expectations of distributors, wholesalers, and retailers, including but not limited to reduced orders on future titles.

Time-sensitive titles (such as movie tie-ins or books linked to news events) can also fall victim to publishing schedules. These books are often written on nearly impossible deadlines, and the quality reflects it. But agreements with studios or other entities require that the book be published by a certain date, and marketing often takes precedent over quality.

Many books are scheduled for publication before the author completes the manuscript, and it sometimes happens that what the author turns in is not what the editor expected. Still, the book is scheduled to go into production, and there’s no time to make changes. And so the disappointing manuscript becomes a disappointing book.

Then there are late manuscripts. For whatever reason, a novel isn’t ready when it’s due. So the editor puts out a call and grabs the first complete manuscript she can locate that fulfills the genre requirements of the missing work. The replacement may be of minimal quality, but the publishing slot is filled.

Finally, as you may suspect, some bad books are the result of poor judgment on the part of an editor or publisher. One or the other may be so enamored of an author's writing style that they are blind to its poor plot. Or maybe wishful thinking fools them into thinking that a really well-written book has substance that it lacks.

Obviously, just making it into print doesn’t mean a work is “good.” Remember that the next time a bad book makes you wonder if your own work is on the wrong track.
Copyright © 2006, Michael A. Banks

1 comment:

Robert S. Morner said...

Might this also mean, then, that a bad book is not necessarily indicative of a bad writer? For instance, a great writer is under a bad contract. So they churn out a piece of junk to try to get it rejected. It finds its way into bookstores anyway. A reader picks up that book on a whim, and says, "Blech! This writer stinks!" I know I've done this, so it's interesting to think that a book might not represent a writer's abilities.

(Although it might! If you're a good writer and you're trying to write a book bad enough to get rejected by the publisher, doesn't that require a certain amount of talent and knowledge of the craft of writing? After all, if you know what makes a book "good," you probably also know what makes a book "bad." Maybe we need some kind of "bad book award" for just this kind of writing! It could be a whole new art form!)