Pub Rants

Millions Of Readers Are Not Wrong

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STATUS: Today was mostly about getting ready to be out of town for Book Expo next week. It’s out in LA so basically my whole BEA week is about meetings with Hollywood people.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? MUSTANG SALLY by Wilson Pickett

This is such an interesting discussion that I want to point out one other facet. Writers need to be wary of the trap of believing that popular books don’t contain good writing.

What is and isn’t good writing is opinion, opinion, opinion. It’s highly subjective.

Hardcore fantasy fans can nod sagely about the average (in their opinion) writing of ERAGON (or Terry Goodkind’s WIZARDS FIRST RULE) and lament that if readers could only just read their work, which truly has a complex story line and good writing, they’d see the error of their ways.

Stephenie Meyer critics can critique Bella’s character or their perception of the plotting until the cows come home.

I could personally go on and on about how I don’t get why readers love the novels of Nicholas Sparks. It doesn’t mean anything folks.

Because I will tell you this right here and now. Millions of readers are not wrong. They aren’t—despite the fact that it might not agree with your personal opinion about any of the above books.

If you are smug in the excuse that the writing is average or the storyline didn’t work for you then you are missing the point. There is something about these novels that are capturing millions of readers (and the dollars in their wallets). Ultimately I refuse to believe that a million people are so “uncultured”, “stupid,” “non-discerning,” or “insert your phrase here” that they don’t get it. That’s condescending and underestimating the reading audience.

They do get it because millions of readers are not wrong.

Now you can disagree with their general opinion about a certain book. Heck, that’s your prerogative but don’t fall into the trap of underestimating the reading public. They don’t think like writers. They think like readers and they vote on what they like with the dollars they spend on what they buy.

Da Vinci Code. More than 7 million people bought that book. Did they care about the various expressed opinions of the writing quality in the Da Vinci code? No. Now maybe 100,000 people bought the book because everyone else couldn’t stop talking about it so they needed to find out what the fuss was about, but that doesn’t account for the other 6 million + copies that were sold and it certainly doesn’t explain the huge surge in sales of Dan Brown’s previous novels.

You can critique and create all kinds of reasons for why popular books shouldn’t be as popular as they are. It can be a fun pastime (I admit I indulge in it myself) and all power to you, but if you fall into the trap of that being all you are focusing on, then you are missing an opportunity to learn about why millions of people bought and loved certain books and how that might translate into something you can use in your work-in-progress.

64 Responses

  1. Kiersten said:

    This is a great post, Kristin. I think you can’t underestimate the fact that most people read to be entertained, plain and simple. They don’t care how you say what you say, as long as it is fun and sweeps them up in the story. Meyer is a great example of this–she tuned in perfectly to what a teenage girl would find breathtakingly (or heart-stoppingly, to use Bella’s other favorite physical malady) romantic.

  2. Lorelei Armstrong said:

    I’ll wade in and disagree. Just because a lot of people like a book does not make the writing good or make it a good book. Plenty of folks have bought and love execrable books over the years. A book might have a catchy idea and a chapter organization reminiscent of Danielle Steele (Da Vinci Code) and it sells even with weak writing. The truth is that most folks don’t read enough to know or care what good writing looks like.

    It makes perfect sense for an agent to want to find the next Dan Brown. I understand your point about figuring out what he’s doing. But if I woke up writing the way he writes, I’d be down at the ER for a CAT scan ASAP.

  3. Gabrielle said:

    But–but– Gossip Girl??

    Still, you have a point. If people are reading and buying, *something* must be right. And when you hit numbers like 2+ million, it’s not just a brilliant marketing campaign. It’s (usually) a darn good book.

    I still can’t accept Gossip Girl, though.

  4. Elissa M said:

    If it were possible to figure out exactly why some books resonate with millions of readers while others don’t earn back the advance, everyone would be writing blockbusters. Even so, it’s unfair and short-sighted to sneer at “poorly written” million sellers. I completely agree that readers are not wrong. But of course, I’m not on the Nobel or Pulitzer committees, either. 😉

    Some writers act like somehow a wildly successful series (like Harry Potter) hurts their chances of publication. Well, if you’re writing a novel about a boy in wizard school, yes, you probably will have an insurmountable hurdle, but millions of kids who may otherwise never have been interested in reading much, are now big readers entirely because of Harry Potter. And these kids grow into adults who read. How is that in any way a bad thing?

    Eragon is not going to win any prizes for literary skill (and I personally couldn’t get very far through it) but so what? Other people enjoyed it, and they want to read more. No author writes as fast as people read, so fans of one book often try other books and authors.

    I don’t have the skill to write for kids, but I love it when a YA or middle reader hits it big. Every time a child picks up a book instead of a game controller, we should all cheer. The same can be said every time a busy adult picks up a book instead of the remote.

    I don’t actually care why some books sell millions of copies, I’m just glad they do. It proves that people still buy and read books, despite all the naysayers claiming “no one reads anymore.”

  5. Eileen said:

    Great post. The term “good book” is so very subjective. I didn’t care for the DV Code. However, I went through it chapter by chapter looking at how he did it. Hats off to Brown for both the puzzle aspects and the pacing.

    It could be that I’m more sensitive since my own book came out- but I never say a book wasn’t good. I say it wasn’t for me. Now that I’m in a glass house I figure I shouldn’t be throwing stones around.

  6. Anonymous said:

    Da Vinci Code

    Reality TV

    Same audience perhaps?

    Ever seen the movie, “Idiocracy?” There’s a lot of truth buried amid the slapstick humor. Sad, sad truth.

  7. Susan Helene Gottfried said:

    Lorelei said it best:
    The truth is that most folks don’t read enough to know or care what good writing looks like.

    Buzz can power something that’s really bad to the top (think of our fascination with blonde chicks who self-destruct). And while we’re helping it get there, we keep saying, “I know this is bad. But I can’t stop myself.”

    Why can’t that happen with books, too?

  8. Barbara Martin said:

    After reading a Time article on Stephenie Meyer I went to her website to take a look, and found a draft excerpt of a chapter that had been removed from the first book. Her writing is easy to read and she gets the message across without extra words getting in the way. She leads the reader on nicely to find out the next tidbit, and so on. This, I believe, is what agents and publishers are looking for in a manuscript they can promote.

    Sometimes, simple is best. It cuts to the chase.

  9. Caryn said:

    Thank you for saying this. I’ve found myself having to defend my enjoyment of the Harry Potter or Twilight books to people who seem to dislike them mainly because they are popular. This is not to say that all people dislike them for that reason, but it is pretty common to hate what everyone else loves, whether it’s out of a desire to be different or to seem more discerning.

    If we all had the same taste in writing, then literature would be pretty boring, and we would never stretch our comfort levels with what we read because no one would write anything different from the norm. I like to experiment with my reading, even if I end up disliking what I’ve read. Even then, there’s something to be learned.

  10. karen wester newton said:

    “Good” is too subjective a word to apply in this case. What’s good to one person can be tripe to another. “Marketable” is a quality that can be measured, but even the market will vary with time.

    What it boils down to was, did YOU like a book or not. If you did, then for you the book was good. If not, pass that book on to someone else. They might like it.

  11. Marion Gropen said:

    Oh, I am so glad you said this, Kristen! And so much better than I ever have. (I’m going to keep this bookmarked so I can point folks to it.)

    As for Eragon, part of the reason folks talk about it is Chris Paolini himself. For that matter, did you know he and his parents self-published it? It was a modest success even before Knopf bought the rights and added their money, influence, and some fine-tuning.

  12. Caroline said:

    Excellent article, it was a perspective I’d never thought about before and it humbled me a little. Of course, the value of a book is all placed in what people want out of it. If you want stellar, flawless writing, “good” books will have that; if you just want entertainment, maybe bad writing isn’t such a black mark. And if a writer is more interested in preserving their “art” than making it marketable, then maybe that writer doesn’t have to care (and if that’s the case, they probably shouldn’t bother with an editor or even publishing at all.) But if you want to sell, learn from those that do.

    I didn’t like Eragon and I’m not interested in reading Stephanie Meyer, but those books weren’t aimed at me anyway, so it doesn’t bother me. They’re not my cup of tea. Now if I picked up a book that proclaimed to offer everything I like in a book, and it failed me miserably, that would be a bad book. To me, anyway, although not necessarily anyone else.

    If you don’t like it, maybe the author didn’t mean for you to like it.

  13. Bree said:

    Bravo. I, personally, would rather read an entertaining book by a storyteller who isn’t a great writer than a convoluted book by someone who thinks how you string the words together is more important than what they say when you’re done.

    There is a market for that sort of writing, sure. And writers shouldn’t feel bad if they chose to pursue it. But, as the same token, it is extremely arrogant for a writer to assume they get to decide what criteria makes a book worthwhile. They value the words. Maybe someone else values the story. Those are equally valid values, in my opinion.

  14. Anonymous said:

    I think one thing we are forgetting about is that writers don’t necessarily choose the type of books they write, at least in the beginning, or their style but some how (the muse perhaps, their native gifts) they/we write the books we feel compelled to write. And often it is also the type of books we read as well.

  15. Emily said:

    I’m seeing two conflicting themes here. On one hand, you’re saying that quality is subjective. On the other hand, you’re saying that writers should study bestselling books and study what made them successful. In other words, writers should find formulas for success in their pages. So, if it’s all so subjective, if good writing is really just “opinion, opinion, opinion,” why should we study some other work (and maybe even a work we don’t like) to learn the rules that don’t exist?

  16. Chris said:

    I haven’t posted before but have been reading for some time. I feel you may be missing a crucial factor in your assertion that “millions of readers can’t be wrong.” To me, it is very much like the blockbuster syndrome that currently threatens Hollywood.

    Millions of people may go to see a movie that they felt was “alright” and they do so not expecting to be wowed but because that’s what was available. Both on their TV adverts, their internet splash pages and the like, this is what was advertised. at the Googleplexes these were the films that were playing.

    There is a major component to any hit that is all too often ignored: they are ubiquitous, they are backed by the majority of dollars in their industry and they become self-fulfilling prophecies.

    The landscape isn’t even, once a novelist breaks out the retailers see it on Booksense, they order more of the next book and they cut the prices and advertise it prominently. I feel that all too often the quality lies in the advertising rather than than the prose, just as with film.

    People will settle for the mean, they will take up what is in front of them rather than having to sift through hundreds of sample pages to get to a book that they really love, one they have to discover on their own.

    It isn’t wrong, it simply is the way people operate. With a limited amount of free time to enjoy, how much of that time do they want to spend looking for the thing to enjoy rather than enjoying the thing?

    I won’t speak for you, certainly, but it seems to me that agents do a fair amount of this as well. The author they sold before is the safer bet than the manuscript fresh in that they like but which might be a more difficult sale. Everyone passes the buck back to the end user, the reader, but it isn’t he or she that is alone making the bestseller lists. The companies behind the advertising, the merchandising, the discounts, the making of those very lists are all constructing the economic model which they pretend is naturally evolved. it isn’t. Money begets money, you put in the revenue and tour dates and plugs and reviews toward a certain select number of titles and one can hardly be surprised that that is what people buy.

  17. Natalie Hatch said:

    I think the market is fickle, one minute one writer is doing well then it changes as the next best thing comes along.. who knows. I wouldn’t mind being an average writer if I sold 2million+…..

  18. Rebecca Burgess said:

    Chris, wonderful point.

    One thing I know for sure…the truly great books written today will be the classics from our generation 80 years from now. Popular rarely lasts unless it is popular because it contains a universal truth that transcends the power of only being a blockbuster. I don’t think anyone should be bitter about poorly written big books–they have always existed in some form or another. Love em, hate em…they’re not going anywhere. I’ve even been known to enjoy reading a few, but while I’m reading I’m also aware of what I’m reading–pure entertainment. I mean I enjoyed the rapid page turning of The Da Vinci Code as much as the next person, but come on, did that book change your life? There is room in this world for all sorts of books: Good, Bad, and (more often) Eehh. But it’s the really great ones that will still be selling 80 years from now. Great books don’t necessarily make a huge splash at first, but they have staying power.

  19. karenbalaska said:

    It is true that if you only consider popularity, all of a sudden Britney Spears is a great musician and peeing-Calvin stickers are fine art. Then again, quality and popularity are not always mutually exclusive. There are plenty of fine books out there that have somehow become bestsellers.

    We can argue what constitutes quality until the cows jump over the moon, come home, or are tipped over. What I’ve been pondering lately is how to maintain my own standards of quality while allowing (rather than trying to push) the reader into the story. No, I don’t want to write Nicholas Sparks novels, but that doesn’t mean I need to be purposefully obtuse in my writing. We as writers must work to achieve whatever quality means to us, but this doesn’t necessarily mean having to sacrifice marketability. The converse is also true; writing for a mass market doesn’t have to mean writing garbage.

  20. cla said:

    i can actually relate to this, and i get what was said totally. personally, and i sometimes feel that i am alone in this, i don’t like harry potter. it just doesn’t do it for me, i don’t think it’s that great.

    BUT i can totally appreciate that other people love it. having read the books i can see the appeal, and just because i didn’t liek it doesn’t mean that someone else won’t.

    and besides, regardless of what i think about the actual writing, anything that gets so many kids to read can only be a good thing.

  21. cla said:

    i think Susan Helene Gottfried might have a point, hype is a big player in sales.

    the da vinci code had been out for a long time before it really hit off, and that was after a mass medi storm over it and the ‘blasphamy’ it contained.

    i strongly suspect that it might have slipped past more or less un noticed, rather like dan browns other books (how many can you name?) had it not been for the hype.

    that said, on the whole, popular books are popular for a reason. i don’t think that should matter or affect how much someone enjoys them. i know people who won’t read ANYTHING on the bestseller lists because they don’t consider them to be good enough.

    i think that’s stupid. taste is personal, and no one should have to defend what they read.

  22. blisschick said:

    Some fiction is a snickers bar and some is a full meal. Period. And we all like a snickers once in a while — admit it; the problem comes when that’s all you ever eat. Obesity can be of the mind as well as of the body. And remember, there are excellent authors who also sell — Joanne Harris and Barbara Kingsolver to name two already taught in college literature courses. Above all, it is TIME that separates the good from the bad — and it IS okay to attempt to make a distinction. What I think is not okay is to sit around trying to write what is not within you simply to sell something. And if you are playing this guessing game and not writing from your gut, I would guess you won’t end up selling anyway.

  23. Ric said:

    I find it odd some agents have the same bias as many readers. Put in your query letter that your work is comparable to Harry Potter and you’ll get a pass. Mention Nick Sparks and it’s the kiss of death.
    Even though he sells plenty, there is a perceived “pulp” to anything remotely similar.

  24. Anonymous said:

    I SOOOO agree with Chris – 8:35 p.m. and his self-fulfilling prophecy comment.

    Marketing accounts for so much in this industry. I’ve seen publishers throw huge amounts of marketing money onto one book and suddenly… wow… it’s the big breakout book of the season, as if that’s some big surprise.

    Because the writing was stellar? The subject matter unique? No, not really. But because it was marketed.

    It’s about salesmanship, not good writing, sorry.

    A gem of a book can eventually find an audience, but it absolutely takes the marketing department deciding to “make this book the lead book” for many “best sellers” to be a best seller out of the gate (when the author is unknown).

  25. Anonymous said:

    Something about this initial post troubled me and after reading the comments, Emily’s post (post 8:05) has put my thoughts into words better than I could.

    And a thought of my own… studying and then trying to write a “bestseller” is a hack way to be a writer. Paint by numbers books — written in some formulaic idea of what a bestseller ought to look like (based on what another author’s bestseller contained) are what slush piles are made of.

  26. Chro said:

    I think most unpublished writers criticize ‘badly written’ bestsellers because they are so frustrated by their own inability to get published. They are told hundreds or rules and guidelines about characters, PoV, showing vs. telling, not using useless words, and so on and so forth. Then they see some schmuck who broke all these rules (sometimes in their debut novel) and sold millions of copies. They wonder why THAT author wasn’t forced to follow these guidelines. They start to think that publishing is mostly about luck and who you know. After all, they are constantly told it’s “all about the writing”, and yet there seem to be examples where ‘the writing’ was not what led to successs.

  27. Joseph L. Selby said:

    Not only do I disagree with your comment, I find it somewhat insulting. The suggestion that there is no craft involved in writing is a misnomer I usually hear from non-writers. The notion that popularity denotes quality is equally fallacious.

  28. Anonymous said:

    If you watch movies from the 40s, 50s, 60s and have seen any based on popular books at the time, some of them are lousy! Wish I could think of an example, but many of these ‘popular’ books didn’t age well. That, to me, is the same thing as some bestsellers right now…they are flash in the pans that people go nuts for and then they disappear into oblivion.

    Anyway, I think millions of readers *can* be wrong. What was not mentioned was the fact that some people are buying these books and are disappointed with them…but that is not reflected in sales, because they *bought* it already. I have known many people who complained about The DaVinci Code not living up to their expectations…me included…and guess what? I will never buy or read another Dan Brown book.

    The Twilight series is written for teens. Therefore, don’t expect the quality or plotting to be on an adult level. Plus, Ms. Meyer was really a marketing genius with that series. She was one author who built a fan base basically on MySpace alone. That is where the buzz came from and how the whole thing really snowballed into something huge.

    Each bestseller has its own route to the top of the lists…you can’t really analyze just one or two books to figure it out. Some are badly written, some are wonderfully written. A lot of times it makes no sense.

  29. Yoda47 said:

    I’d agree.
    I’ll use Eragon as an example. Yes, you can criticize the writing, and the plot is the same one that 90% of the fantasy novels use.

    When I read, I read to be entertained, and sucked into the story, to identify with and care about the characters, and Eragon does that for me.

    What people tend to focus on is that Panoli isn’t a good writer… well, it’s his fist book. What I see when I read Eragon is that he has a lot of raw talent, and with practice will become a master storyteller. He might never reach Dicken’s mastery of the language: but then, in my opinion, Dickens was boring as all get out…

    We could argue all day about this (for example, how incredibly average in every way Harry Potter is…) but the point that Kristen is trying to make is that for all the “mistakes” such authors have made, they’ve done something right, or no one would buy their books. Most readers don’t know why they like a book (I’m writing my first novel, and it’s hard to get feedback other than ‘I like it’, or ‘it was ok’) it’s our job as writers to look at such books and try to quantify exactly what made so many people buy it.

  30. Jay Montville said:

    I think that a popular book is one that does an exceptional job of connecting with a large number of readers. Usually, it seems to me, that’s because of some sort of emotional connection it makes to the reader aside from the quality of the writing.

    Take the Big Three mentioned in the thread:
    1. Twilight – what’s more “romantic” to a teenage girl than an incredibly rich, and attractive (but sexually non-threatening) guy? Not that Meyers set out with this plan in mind, of course, but Edward is a very attractive hero for those girls who became her primary audience. (And for grown women, for that matter–Edward is an archetypical romance hero, period.)

    2. Harry Potter – the put-upon hero who is actually the son of “royalty”. It’s a classic “family romance” in the Freudian sense, and that, combined with Rowling’s talent for world-building, helps the books resonate with kids.

    3. The Da Vinci Code – this is a book full of little mysteries resolved one after the other. A question is raised in one chapter and solved in the next, but you’re still hooked because, oh noes!, another question. It’s virtually impossible to put down even if you’re put off by the writing on the first page (as I was). Still WHAT HAPPENS is a great motivator.

    Don’t get me wrong–quality writing is fantastic and one of my primary goals as a writer, but these stories make emotional connections to readers despite their perceived writing, plotting, and characterization flaws. I hope that, in addition to good writing, my stories make that connection as well.

  31. Deb said:

    Chris’s comment–yes. And for any book that is a major seller, how many people bought the book and didn’t like it? Those figures are sales, just like those who bought it and loved it.

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bought a book and wallbanged it at 30 pages. No matter how high the hype, I have to like it or I won’t finish it.

    The sales figures don’t know I wallbanged it, however…to that publisher, that sale is a success.

    That author’s next book, however–no way.

  32. Anonymous said:

    As I read through the comments I think a lot of people are really taking Kristin’s post way too literally.

    Is she saying we should study big sellers and then paint by number? No. Is she saying that bestsellers are always brilliantly crafted? No.

    She’s saying that there was SOMETHING about that bestseller that has made it a bestseller–that made people peer-pressure their friends into reading it.

    I also should point out that, yes, some books get a big marketing push, but that is far from a random decision. Publishing companies don’t have a “Wheel of Co-op” that they spin to see which of their titles is going to get an endcap at Barnes and Noble. Somebody (likely several somebodies) decides that, and again, I think what Kristin is saying is that instead of dismissing a book as a success just because it had a good marketing push, maybe we should try to understand WHY the house got behind it so firmly.

    It’s not about creating a full-fledged recipe or pattern based on successful books and then adjusting your writing to fit within that mold. It’s about reading with an open mind and realizing that SOMETHING about that book has resonated with people and that shouldn’t be dismissed simply because we didn’t like it.

    Personally, what I got out of The Da Vinci Code was that people like puzzles. The main thing I took away from the Twilight series is to never underestimate the power of a love triangle.

    Not rocket science, for sure, but important lessons regardless.

  33. Maggie Stiefvater said:

    Kristin, I have to say that I love this post and it’s exactly what I did when I learning to write — I read the books that did well. If I loved a book that DIDN’T do well, I wanted to know why that might have happened too.

    But this notion that big books get made because of marketing and publishers and media choose who will be popular . . . well, not just any book will get huge because of big publicity. Publishers choose to throw money behind projects that they think will have widely commercial appeal. Imagine throwing a huge media blitz behind the movie You’ve Got Mail. Now picture that same pile of money shoved behind a very experimental/ literary movie like The Fountain. The latter is just not going to take off and have the widespread commercial appeal that the first does.

    Same with books, folks. Learning what is commercial is not writing to a formula and it’s not about being a hack. There are reasons these books are popular besides media hype.

    Wow. Now my rant’s as long as Kristin’s.

  34. Vivi Anna said:

    Dan Brown capitalized on a great hook. I loved the Da Vinci Code for the pure entertainment value of it. I personally perfer is earlier book Angels and Demons. It’s better written and more entertaining than DVC.

    We had a similiar conversation at my chapter meeting last night about DVC. In my opinion people knock the book because of the very fact they can’t discern why the book was so popular. Why a badly written book could become a worldwide bestselling book for months and months and months. For some people it just doesn’t make sense…

    I personally think DVC is a good book. In the essence it did what I wanted it to do. Told me a story with fast pacing and flair. I don’t read for grammar, or sentence structure, or for the character arc or the eloquently put together prose. I read for entertainment. The same reason I go to a movie or watch a TV show.

  35. Wakai Writer said:

    After reading through these comments, I’d like to respond to a couple of the ideas put forth here.

    First, about the theory that marketing money=success: That’s not always true—there are examples of publishing companies throwing money behind books that did miserably. I can’t name any, because the books did miserably, but I have heard publishers in editorial meetings talking about “making sure it’s not another xxx”. Also, the books that get money get it because the publishers liked it. They generally, in their list, have a bunch of good books—books they think will sell, have an audience, and are written well enough. They select the most likely to succeed of those books. So by the time a book gets selected for a big marketing push, it’s been through two intensive screening processes—first to get picked up at all, then again to get picked as a lead title. Having gone through all that and come out on top, of course it’s likely to succeed once it gets a marketing push.

    Second, about whether popularity=quality. I don’t know that it does, but I’d add the caveat that I’ve never seen quality without popularity. People are talking about how time gives us our classics, weeds the good books out from the bad, etc. If we look back a few hundred years, are there any classics that weren’t popular with the unwashed masses? Shakespeare created the “blockbusters” of his day, but we revere him. Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters wrote what was, at the time, pulp fiction–but try to find an English course on their time period that doesn’t feature them on the reading list. Just another point to consider.

  36. josephwise said:

    I don’t think it’s a matter of ignorance. Even people who know what good writing is can enjoy some of the popular books mentioned here.

    I’ve read and loved much of the literary canon. I get why the classics are classics. I could sink into Dubliners or Heart of Darkness, and happily never return. I enjoy “great” writing above all things.

    But I had a great time reading The Da Vinci Code. And the Harry Potter books offered a wonderfully cozy place to explore for awhile.

    Sure, it’d be nice if Dan Brown had the prose skills of Hemmingway. But wouldn’t it also be nice if Hemmingway had the imagination and sense of pace that made Dan Brown readers swoon?

    No writer should abandon his own standards, but it IS possible to write a technically brilliant page-turner. And to do so, you need to study delicious prose AND the mechanisms that make a page-turner’s pages turn.

  37. Anonymous said:

    Re: Stephenie Meyer built her fan base on MySpace – although true to an extent, one of the FIRST fanbases for her was the Twilight Lexicon. I believe that’s why the book became so insanely popular. Put together an online ‘meeting’ space for teen fans of the book to come hang out and OMG! talk about the hotness!! and Boom. Instant Hype.

  38. Anonymous said:

    Dear Kristin,

    Thanks for taking the time out to write so many thought-provoking posts. I agree. Today there are so many great writers we can learn from. I do admit, that some of the novels I’ve picked up lately I have not finished out of boredom. But then, one comes along that I just cannot put down, and as I read their prose, I try to absorb who they write.

    A famous author recently told me, what is important is good storytelling, not weather or not you followed all the ‘rules’ people have made. Tell a story that touches a persons heart and soul, makes them weep and sigh. If you write from deep within, you won’t go wrong.

    Rita Gerlach

  39. Anonymous said:

    When there are three shelves of a well-known hot book, but I can’t find a single copy of one by a debut author, that to me is hype.

  40. Anonymous said:

    I can’t believe how so many people are missing the point here…it’s not about copying the bestsellers, or finding the winning formula and thus being a hack.

    No, it’s realizing the publishing is a business like any other, and books are products. If you want to make a more popular product, you study other products that have been successful and see if there’s anything you can learn and apply to your own product.

    That’s where the underlying structure, the plot comes into play. All these wildly popular books are well structured, as an example, Eragon. The writer of that book said in an interview that he studied Robert McKee’s story structure and then applied that to his first book, mapping out the entire world and plot based on storytelling concepts in the book.

  41. Nancy Beck said:

    Marion Gropen said:
    As for Eragon, part of the reason folks talk about it is Chris Paolini himself. For that matter, did you know he and his parents self-published it?

    Actually, the Paolinis had their own publishing company (might still have, for all I know). Small, for sure, but they knew people in the pub business…which usually helps. 🙂

    Here’s my take on The daVinci Code, which I read well after all the hype:


  42. WordVixen said:

    When I’m discussing the qualities of various books with my writer friends, we usually divide between “good writing” and “good story telling”.

    Many readers only care about story (just ask my husband who won’t part with his beloved Star Wars novels), and many writers care mostly about the quality of writing. But by focusing on only one and not the other, you’re limiting your audience.

    I actually enjoyed Eragon. The story was pretty good, the pacing was pretty good, and guessing at authors or books he got specific ideas from was a game. The writing itself wasn’t bad. In fact, I’ll bet that a lot more writers would have appreciated it if he’d simply deleted every “then” in the book. In Eldest, you could see the improvement with age and practice. I’m quite looking forward to book three.

  43. Ian Randall Wilson said:

    I’ll take Kristin’s point that popular fiction might have something to tell us about reaching a mass audience and leave it at that because here, as on so many other of the blogs that talk about the business of books, the argument of which is better — literary or popular — can’t be resolved.

  44. Kristin said:

    Wow! Since when did publishing center around a few elite books for a very small market? As far as I know, publishing is a business that needs to make a profit, which means sell books which appeal to a large number of readers. The more literary books tend to be funded on the profits of more commercial fare.

    As for Oprah, I don’t remember her once promoting a romance novel. I think the closest were some of her earlier choices….

    A book is a product, just like anything else. The market drives which products are more likely to sell. Period. Not Kristin Nelson or any other agent. From what I gather, the agents get the scoop from the editors….what they are looking for, what kinds of books they want to see….and the agents try to find books to fit that request.

  45. Liesl Shurtliff said:

    This brings to my mind an acting professor from my college years, who criticized several popular movie stars, whom he thought were horrible actors. Then with a smirk he added, “But then again, they’re millionaires, people love them, and at the end of the day I am just a college professor.”

    In short, I completely agree with this post. “Great writing” is very subjective, and the literary elite can balk at Meyer, Paolini, and the like, but at the end of the day, people like her stories and no amount of criticism is going to take away the fame and cash they’ve accrued in writing them.

    No book ever loved by the masses escaped the natural fate of haughty criticism. There is always and “elitist” group that wants to believe they read and think higher than the masses. I’ve even added my own criticism to several of the popular books right now, but I also had the guts and humility to say, despite the many literary weaknesses and flaws, I still loved the stories. Heck, my sister’s chocolate cake looks like a cow patty, but it still tastes good and I’m not ashamed to eat it!

  46. Julia said:

    It depends what you want to write. Harold Bell Wright outsold Fitzgerald and Hemingway; Marie Corelli outsold George Eliot; E. Phillips Oppenheim outsold James Joyce.

    Who reads Wright, Corelli, or Oppenheim today?

    On the other hand, Shakespeare was considered a crass panderer by some of his contemporaries. Many people opined that Shakespeare was just a hack compared to Ben Jonson, for instance.

    And yet, the world isn’t full of Jonson Festivals.

    I think the message is this: Write what you want to write. Read what you want to read. If something doesn’t work for you, pass it by.

    Only time and eternity can judge.

  47. Joelle said:

    This post has had me thinking for a few days. I posted my thoughts on my website today, if you’re interested (or anyone else is), using Meg Cabot as an example.


  48. AR said:

    Ms. Nelson is correct that if millions of people like it, it’s good. Question is, good what?

    There’s good entertainment…Harry Potter

    There’s good art…Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

    Then there’s a good story, and that transcends both art and entertainment, time and culture.

    There’s good writing, good plotting, good characterization… blah blah blah. How many of us get it all right in the same book? To make money you only need a combination that captures an audience.

    Then, of course, there’s just plain old-fashioned vulgar sensationalism. “Christian Church founded on greedy power-loving Emperor; Jesus Christ actually married!” In today’s milieu, there’s no way that book wasn’t going to sell – which makes Mr. Brown both brilliant AND unprincipled. It’s hard for a died-in-the-wool conservative such as myself to imagine a sensationalism that could be described as ‘good’ but we’ll say that some people are better than others at making a sensation.

    It’s all about what you have that others may want. People don’t pay money for no reason.

  49. Anonymous said:

    Well, I’m certainly not going to argue that a reader must be an idiot for liking something that I think is dreck (e.g. Stephenie Meyers). Hey, I actually gave Twilight to my best friend for her birthday, even though I hated it, because I figured it was more to her tastes. And my best friend is not an idiot — although she also liked the movie Glitter with Mariah Carey, so perhaps her taste really is questionable. 😉

    However, I am personally not a big fan of the argument “millions of readers can’t be wrong” because that is another way of saying, “the majority is always right.” The majority is not always right; in fact, it’s not even right most of the time.

  50. Bob said:

    Puzzles, love triangles, unknown powers. Check, check, and got it.

    I’m not a person who likes to see the rules broken. When neighbors don’t clean up after their dogs, when drivers tailgate me, when writers use unnecessarily ungrammatical and unbalanced sentences, it upsets me. Some people can let all that go by without a second thought.

    So, even though I often read a book or watch a movie for its entertainment value, if it’s presented shoddily, I’m not entertained.

    Different strokes, crap shoot, who knows? The only way to be sure not to hit it big (or medium or small) is to never write the book.

  51. bettie said:

    I think the popular fiction of an era speaks to that era’s needs and fears, and no matter what the quality of the writing, it is important because of that. The stories we tell ourselves say a lot about what is going on in society, they help us acknowledge issues which we may not be able to deal with openly. Mickey Spillane’s misogynistic Mike Hammer novels were immensely popular in the 50s, an age repressive gender roles and repressed sexuality; an age that gave rise to the women’s liberation movement. Anne Rice’s vampire novels, with their issues of sex and death, became consistent bestsellers in the days when AIDS was an automatic death sentence. I may not always like the novels on the bestseller list, but I will never argue with their right to be there. The way I see it, if millions of people buy the same book, that book is probably telling them something they want or need to hear.

  52. JDuncan said:

    So many things have to go right for a book to be a best seller. Yeah, sometimes it’s marketing, or the name, or the topic, or whatever, but often a book has to hit the right note on so many different levels in order to make it. And obviously, not every note needs to be struck in order to achieve success. A bit of luck goes a long way too. As a writer, you can just write your best, and do what you can to increase your chances that all of those little things start to fall in place. So much of it is out of our hands though.

    Popularity of course is its own weird animal. Fickle and demanding, one can never know at any given time what will make it happy. One thing that hasn’t been mentioned much here regarding what makes folks like one particular book to such a crazy extent is that a lot of people like to be fans of something. Being a fan of something or someone is great for its own sake in many ways. Folks get a lot of psychological benefits from fandom. I’m sure publishers put a lot of thought and work into trying to tap into this when they can, but like anything that’s on an emotional level, it’s very hard to define and get a solid grasp of.

    Anyway, lots of good thoughts from folks here. It’s fun to try and dissect something like this, even if it is a concept that is nearly impossible to pull apart into individual components.


  53. Bob said:

    You say millions of people can’t be wrong… I say millions of people are freakin’ idiots. You do have a point, though. If you want to SELL, you have to cater to these freakin’ idiots. Millions of readers don’t necessarily know what’s good literature, but if you want them to buy your stuff, you have to give them what they want. If they want mediocre recycled drek, give em’ mediocre recycled drek.

  54. Steph said:

    You know, I just like to say thank you for posting this. I can’t count on how many I have seen people argue that those popular books are bad and how they can write a better book. I keep saying that those authors are good, maybe not grammar or writing style wise, but they have captured the hearts of millions and entertained many. They are doing something right and we should not ignore it.

    I just don’t understand why so many people choose to say that those books are very popular because of marketing and hype. If any company found a marketing that is so good that it brings in millions of people just to one product (or book) they I would think that we would have a lot more stuff in our houses.

    Also, I find it ironic that so many unpublished writers shoot down, flame, mock, or whatever word you choose, the mass public. Who do they think they are selling their books to? If I ever heard an author saying that the public is stupid, then I would never buy her book. To me, that shows that she is bitter about not selling as many books are Harry Potter.

  55. Robert Burton Robinson said:

    I write to entertain, not to create the next Great American Novel. I have my own style of writing. Some people like it, some don’t. But if I try to change my style to somehow make it more ‘literate,’ it won’t be me anymore.

    When I sit down with someone to tell them about something interesting or exciting that happened, I like to make it as entertaining as possible. Otherwise, they’ll be daydreaming before I finish. I take the same approach when I write a novel. I want to hold the reader’s interest by making the story fun, scary, etc.

    If I draw the reader into my story and make them want to keep turning pages to the end, and if they are satisfied when they finish, then I have succeeded.

    I am making a market-driven change to my writing, however. My first four novels are suspense books—kind of a cozy suspense. The problem is, there is no cozy suspense sub-genre. So, the book I am currently writing is a cozy mystery.

    And by the way, I enjoyed The DaVinci Code, as well as other Dan Brown books I’ve read. And Dean Koontz and John Grisham and Michael Crichton and…

    Robert Burton Robinson

  56. Jon Clinch said:

    Uh, no.

    Some books are just lousy, no matter how many copies they sell.

    Here’s an analogy: Pornography is bad for you and bad for the culture and just plain bad, regardless of how much money pornographers make. No?

    And—sad to say—50 million Elvis fans can, in fact, be dead wrong.

    — J

  57. AR said:

    Apparently they were having simmilar conversations in the 1600’s. I just found the below in Anatomy of Melancholy, where Burton complains that though he is already into his fourth edition and the populace can’t snatch up his book quickly enough, he still seems to have more detractors than laudators. I had to laugh at myself about my well-considered opinion above, for the truth is I could not turn out anything half as good as Harry Potter, and I re-read the entire series every fall.

    “The reader’s fancy makes the fate of books” – Horace.

    that which one admires, another rejects…He respects matter; thou art wholly for words, he loves a loose and free style, thou art all for neat composition, strong lines, hyperboles, allegories; he desires a fine frontispiece… to draw on the reader’s attention, which thou rejectest; that which one admires, another explodes as most absurd and ridiculous. If it be not pointblank to his humour, his method, his conceit…thou art a sorry fellow of scant reading, an idiot, an ass, not worth reading, or a plagiarist, a trifler, a trivant, thou art an idle fellow; or else ’tis a thing of mere industry, a collection without wit or invention, a very toy. People deem things easy that are already done, nor do they consider the rough places after the road is made; so men are valued, their labors villified, as things of nought, by fellows of no worth themselves, who could not have done as much…

    Some value books by their authors, as people judge of men by their clothes, as Austin observes, not regarding what, but who writes; the fame of the author sells the book.

    … ’tis not as I wilt, or as thou wilt, but when we have both done, that of Pliny the younger to Trajan will prove true: Every man’s witty labor takes (succeeds) not, except the matter, subject, occasion, and some commending favourite (favorable accident?) happen to it.”

    Hmm…maybe they were talking about this far longer ago than the 1600’s!

  58. Anonymous said:

    Chro, I disagree with you as to why writers dissect books they don’t like. I like to do it because of these reasons: I can figure out what is bothering me about the book (sometimes it’s nothing more than a general irritation, so I have to consider for a while what it is that’s irritating me), hone my critical thinking skills, and make myself aware of errors to ensure that I don’t commit the same crimes in my own writing.