Why Bad Books Get Published (or, Nobody knows anything)

So you decide to buy a book from a major publisher, one you’ve seen everywhere. There’s adverts, 3-for-2 promotions, a publicity blitz, it’s the Next Big Thing everyone’s talking about. And you pick it up. And it’s crap. Badly written, clunky rubbish, for which you just paid the best part of fifteen quid.

Why would they publish this book? Why would they do all this marketing for it? Why can I name half a dozen amazing self-published authors who can’t get a look-in, while the Big Six bring out dirges like this? Why???

Well, there are many reasons, and you can probably guess most of them (bandwagon-jumping; contract fulfilment; the simple fact that someone honestly thought it was good), but here’s a slightly less well-known phenomenon: The Boss Book.

Fifteen years or so ago, I worked at an independent general publisher. The founder/owner was highly educated, a very bright man. It was (and still is) a very successful firm. But every couple of months, this happened.

[Boss crashes into room, clutching sheaf of paper or self-published horror with garish cover. Heads rise and turn, like alarmed meerkats]

Boss: I’ve found this. It’s fantastic! Remarkable! We need to get it out now. Lisa, I want it scheduled for March –

Editorial Director Lisa: Excuse me? I’ve never even seen this. Can we please bring it to the editorial meeting so we can discuss –

Boss: I’ve already bought it. Contract signed. Three-book deal.

Editorial Director Lisa [goes purple]

Boss: Set up interviews. I want The Times. I want The Telegraph. I want The Daily Mail.

Publicity Colin: I want gin. Has anyone actually heard of this author? Is there anything worth publicizing about this? Why do you do this to me?

Boss: Bring me a marketing plan tomorrow.

[Boss leaves. Percussive thudding of heads on desks]

Two things about the Boss Books.

First: they were all bad. Whimsical nonsense, medically unsound alternative health books, tedious historicals. There was one fantasy novel so abysmal that I don’t think anyone made it to the end, and I include the editor and proofreader in that. Maybe the typesetter. Possibly even the author. For all I know, the last 100 pages were left blank. I don’t imagine anyone ever looked.

Second: Of every ten Boss Books, seven sank without trace. Two would sell 1500 copies. And one would go nuts. It would take off like a rocket, outsell the next four books on the list put together, and more than pay for the nine duds, because there was something about it that the market really wanted, which the boss saw and the rest of us didn’t. More fool us.

For every ten bricks the boss threw at us, one was made of gold. I’m sorry if you bought one of the other nine.

You may be thinking, ‘But that doesn’t happen now. Books have to go through gatekeepers and editorial meetings and all that publisher-value-added stuff, right? Publishers are much more professional now, right?’

Well, there is another Next Big Thing coming out shortly. Huge promo spend. It will be everywhere.

It’s rotten. Dull, clumpily written, unengaging. I struggled to finish the first chapter. I don’t know anyone who’s made it more than half way through. Nobody likes it. Its editor doesn’t like it. It’s bad.

This was a Boss Book – championed by an Incredibly Important Person. And yes, it went to an editorial meeting, but the IIP will have presented it as, ‘This is wonderful, I will not rest till we have published it, I absolutely insist we do this, it will be huge’, and I am quite sure that a lot of people sat there looking at their nails and thinking, ‘I can’t be the only one to say something. Nobody else is saying anything. Did they all like it?’

And maybe it will come out to a slew of 3*, 2*, 1* on Amazon, and the rest of the books on the contract will be shoved out in cheap editions, and the publisher will write off the advance and curse the IIP under their collective breath.

Or maybe it’s a gold brick. Maybe the hugely experienced IIP spotted something that a big chunk of the market will love, and it will be wildly popular and the publisher will make a fortune, while frustrated readers throw it across the room and unpublished authors seethe at the injustice of it all, and superb published authors fantasise about having ten per cent of that marketing spend, one per cent of its sales. Maybe the IIP is the only one marching in step. Maybe nobody knows anything.

All I know is, it’s a bad book.

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Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] my boss is a total star, who has been very supportive and discreet, except for sending some of my more unflattering blogs about publishing round the office with comments like, ‘Honestly, you’d think the person who […]

  2. […] The second and more likely option, with which I’ve actually had some experience, is the “Boss Book” theory. KJ Charles talks about it here. […]

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