Sunday, May 13, 2007

Where Have All the Good Books Gone?

We hear readers lament continually, “Why can’t we find a decent book to read?” Quite honestly, we have to agree with this somewhat. If it weren’t for my clients, I would have very little in the way of reading material to choose from. Right now I am reading a book, on the suggestion of an editor, by a world-famous, popular author who writes sort-of thrillers (okay, I’m guessing here, because I can’t really tell what it is supposed to be). This writer does everything that every how-to-write book, editor, and agent says not to do, and yet this person earns scads of money off readers for producing what I consider, after reading this book, complete garbage. I am sure that everyone who reads this can name at least three or four books by famous writers that were disappointments, to put it kindly.

So, why can’t good books get published?

Well, actually, we do believe that good books get published. We also believe that many of them come from our clients, but that is blatant bias, as it should be if you are an agent. Seriously, there are good books out there, but not as many as there should be or could be. I have to be candid here and tell you that there have been days when, after chatting with an editor and seeing what he/she has turned down and accepted, I thought to myself, “I can’t find books bad enough to suit you!”

It is personal preference? Publishing house preference? Reader preference? Marketing preference? There are published writers who shouldn’t be writing, and there are unpublished writers who should be published. This is a given in the industry and has been historically true as well. But why might this be so?

For some very interesting information as to why literary agents are sometimes unsuccessful in getting good books published (and we are assuming that we know how to pick good books), check out this article from the New York Times and you might get a clearer understanding.

Happy Reading!


Scott Jensen said...

Years ago, I interviewed for the marketing position at a small publishing house. What was written in that article doesn't surprise me. Just the opposite. When I interviewed for the marketer job, no one at the group interview knew anything about marketing. In fact, most of them were proud of this fact and said so. So there I was interviewing for a position that the people that were to do the hiring didn't know what it entailed, didn't know what questions to ask me, and had a low opinion of marketers. I didn't get the job. The one that did was an English major. The publishing house has since gone out of business. Needless to say, I wasn't surprised.

Melissa said...

Quite honestly, I have to say that when I read this article I was surprised, and even a bit offended. There are so many books out there that I want to read; the only problem is choosing which one comes next. Maybe if you're shopping at the grocery store you might come across this problem! Then I thought to myself: really, come on, you've thought this way before.

When I think back to my transitional plight from ya to adult books, I have to agree with your article. As a child I love fantasy. Zilphia Keatley Snyder's books made me a convert forever. When I got older, writers like Phillip Pullman and Orson Scott Card kept me fascinated for hours. And now that I'm an adult? Zip.

The Pern books are good for a book or two, but then you start exploring and you come up against wall after wall... Mercedes Lackey? No thanks! I no longer attempt to read adult fantasy, and stick with just regular fiction... but like you, it makes me wonder:

Where have all the good books gone?
And why are all of my favorites out of print?

Red Pen Pal said...

Thanks to Melissa for naming some of her favorite writers - have been searching around on the Internet, looking up their websites - had some things I wanted to say about Mercedes Lackey (another author previously unknown to me), but, well, I guess I have to post another of my "pre-posts" here!

Currently I am reading: "Twenty Years at Hull House," Jane Addams, great book, so literary, so many anecdotes and vignettes! Just finished Lady Murasaka's "Tale of Genji" (first book - tortuous translation, although I'm glad I read it, reminds me of "Memoirs of a Geisha"), H.D. (Hilda Doolittle, poet), and then "American Notes" by Charles Dickens.

Hmmm...not any living authors there...well, what can I say for myself! (At the moment, not much more!)


Red Pen Pal

Rob said...

I completely agree. I read mostly thriller/suspense fiction, and the quality of these works has significantly declined over the past decade and a half. The way of writing has changed also in thriller works. In modern times suspense novels have much, much higher stakes than they did in the 80's. I just don't feel the same feeling of noir and intrigue when I read suspense works written in the last five years.

Red Pen Pal said...

Novelist Mercedes Lackey...and Poets Who Aren't Alive Anymore

I located an excerpt from one of Mercedes Lackey's novels. An excerpt so desperately in need of revision, tightening, paring...from a 368-page book! Oh geez! An excerpt from the excerpt:

"Katya loved shoes. Dainty, embroidered silk slippers. Thigh-high leather boots. Strange wooden things that were like walking with tiny tables strapped to one's feet. Dancing shoes, red-heeled shoes," etc. (it goes on).

Katya is the youngest daughter of a Sea King, okay? And here we get a list of shoes ("she loved them all") that seems like it was taken verbatim from a Google search and unceremoniously dumped into a novel chapter. Taking place under water! Oh geez! So I too will lament the unknown whereabouts of "all the good books."

And "I'd never thought I'd see the day" when the word "analogue" was used so clunkily in a novel, as well as "quotation marks," as follows:

"Nevertheless there was a path, winding through a "forest," though the forest was kelp, the "birds" were fish, and even the "hawks" had an analogue in the form of sharks and other predators."

At least as I writer I can be thankful...I didn't produce: "even the "hawks" had an analogue."

Rather than continuing on with the above BashFest, I will suggest to anyone who's interested, a comparison of the full excerpt from Mercedes Lackey's "Fortune's Fool," alongside Clarence's description of drowning in Shakespeare's "Richard III," and also Elizabeth Bishop's poem "The Riverman." For your reading convenience, I have listed the three links (cut'n'paste):


I think Elizabeth Bishop is an excellent role model for novelists (being a poet writing a novel myself, I would think that, wouldn't I?). Just the strength of the voice, the rhythms, the clarity and concision...and besides, Elizabeth Bishop actually sold one of her poems "to Hollywood" for $80,000, way back when – "The Man Moth." Can't argue with that!

Bishop: "Look, it stands to reason/that everything we need/can be obtained from the river./It drains the jungles; it draws/from trees and plants and rocks/from half around the world,/it draws from the very heart/of the earth the remedy/for each of the diseases—/one just has to know how to find it." Put that in a character's mouth in an "underwater novel." Fantastic!

And and learn my children!

Red Pen Pal, in defense of poets only with us in spirit P.S. How was the Book Expo? I caught some of it on TV.

Audrey said...

I can't tell you how many times I've read a book and thought "how the heck did that even get published?". Now, I'm on the other end of the shoe and querying agents.

My problem is that my book is super short. This I know but I did it deliberately. My book is about depression, the societal stigma associated with it, how to deal with it (from someone who's actually gone through it for years, not someone with a medical degree or a nutritional point of view).

It's raw, it's powerful and it's only 35K words. I know putting this into my query will automatically shut me down to most agents.

The reason I kept it so short was that (having been there already) the very last thing someone who is dealing with depression is going to do is sit down with a 300-pg whopper of a book. It's hard enough for some to get out of bed, let alone read a book. It needed to be powerful, uncensored, inspirational but to the point. I needed it to punch the reader in the gut, spur them into action so that perhaps they might peak out from under the cover of blackness.

Of the top 10 depression books out there, eight were written by medical professionals who have never gone through it. Of the other two, one looked only at spousal relationships and the last one was by a celebrity. The market gap is there and with 18 million Americans a year suffering from depression, the audience is certainly there.

How do I explain the above in a simple one-page query?

Any advice would be appreciated!

P.S. Robert - I tried emailing you the query but the email bounced right back to me at undeliverable.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...


I'm going to assume your book is non-fiction, so possibly, if that's the case, word length might be more category and/or publisher dependent.

Your other comment: Of the top 10 depression books out there, eight were written by medical professionals who have never gone through it. Of the other two, one looked only at spousal relationships and the last one was by a celebrity. is what I’d really like to address. In publishing, there is sometimes a reason why books from certain writers are what you find on bookstore shelves. In this case, the reason why you didn’t find books written by someone who had suffered depression like yourself is that ordinary people, those without celebrity or credentials, have a very difficult time convincing publishers to invest publishing dollars in books that will possibly be relegated to back bookstore shelves where no one will seek them out. Before a publisher will risk their dollars, there must be some assurance that there will be a return on investment and when a person has no platform or celebrity, the odds are that this will not happen. That in no way lessens the value of a writer’s experience, it is just that a book with an author’s name on it that people will recognize is, according to the mega-bookstores, easier to sell, so that’s what they want on their shelves. Consequently, that’s what publishers then seek out.

So this is probably the reason why, when you did your search, you only found books written by medical professionals, of which there were eight and one written by a celebrity. In regard to the other one, there could have been any number of reasons it was published—the author could have had a platform you weren’t familiar with; it could have been from a niche publisher; or it could have been self- or POD-published.

The bottom line is that platform of some sort is always important, especially with a subject like depression, which affects millions of people, many of whom may decide to write about the experience.

The issue of your returned e-mail could have been caused by any of a number of problems, but since our email addresses have been recently changed, I’m going to assume that might be the cause. Please visit our Web site at for updated addresses, if you haven’t already. If you have, you might post the address you used here so I can have it checked out by our IT department.

Audrey said...

Thanks so much for your reply. The address I used is robertbrown [at symbol]

(obviously inputting @ where it should be).

Yes, I should have mentioned it was non-fiction. Sorry! :)

I certainly see your point on the credentials. Would it make any difference that I have a graduate degree in sociology & psychology? I'm just not an MD.

I do believe the propensity for huge marketability is there - one of those top 10 is to do with eating your way out of depression (i.e. depression is simply caused by a lack of nutrients)!!!!! Seriously. Such a lack of options for the average consumer is staggering.

I also noticed the lack of inspirational/motivational books. That is to say a lot of those books had to do with cold, calculated theories such as 'Seven secrets to...' etc. Mine is to do with looking at the reality of depression, an insider's point of view and learning that there is a way of helping yourself. It's a very positive, take charge of your life book.

I was on IT for 8 years doing web design. I've got the internet marketing covered. It's right there, the market is right there for the taking but I just need to find a way for someone to take that gamble on me.

Very appreciative of your advice,

Red Pen Pal said...

Just a quick note about Audrey's 35K book about depression:

I think this is definitely short enough to try printing up a trial run of say 50 books, and then booking some speaking engagements, to see if anyone wants to buy your book after you give your presentation. I.e., create your own platform (on albeit a very small scale) to see what kind of response you get. And even: Is what you have to say engaging enough for people to want to hear you speak, much less buy a book?

Also, I just wonder if maybe you want to target the loved ones of depressed people, rather than depressed people themselves? DO depressed people buy books? DO depressed people want to read about depression? I don't know...I think an insider look might be more valuable to someone on the outside, looking in...

I'm thinking also of the books: Listening to Prozac; accounts like Sylvia Plath's Bell Jar and Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen; and even books like Sark's whole female-empowerment series and The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron...I think there are a lot of books about recovering from depression that are "disguised" - that is, how to cope with X, rather than explicitly coping with depression.

I think there's also a gender component there - I think just in the last couple of years "men's depression" is something mental health professionals are addressing more consciously - I'm sure there are a lot of other "demographic markers" that would end up segmenting the audience for books about depression. Where does your 35K book fit in?

Red Pen Pal

Audrey said...

Hi Red,

I have to say that I cover a gambit of topics. Positive self-medication, negative self-medication, personal relationships, relationships with your health professionals. All interspersed with personal experiences. I begin by looking at why we hide depression, the shame in society associated with it, the uncertainty, the feared.

My goal is to provide a staggeringly real look inside the mind of someone who has been there, tell a success story of the ordinary person who has pushed through to the other side and also bring to light that it's not something to be ashamed of.

Now that I said all that, 35K sounds like nothing. I just didn't mince words. I got to the point, made it very raw and completely uncensored (with regards to my own personal experiences, some of which I am not proud of).

My target is the people with depression, the family/friends who need to understand it and catch a real glimpse into that world, as well as challenging people to not be ashamed of something so personal about them.

steve said...

Your a gatekeeper.

I am doing a happy dance. Yea! I published myself today and actually sold one copy! No, it was not Mom. Mom will buy at least two I hope!

I really want a good editor but ya gotta get an agent kid!

Rejection - dosen't the word look ugly.

Ah life.